By Paul Goodman
On Wednesday evening, Nick Gibb, the Education Minister – who'd been on his feet in the Commons for much of the afternoon and evening dealing with the final stages of the Academies Bill – took steps to bolster the confidence of grammar schools that may be considering applying for academy status.
For such schools will presumably wish to maintain selection, and be suspicious that any change of status would affect its freedom to do so. Graham Brady, who resigned from the front bench over the Party's grammar schools policy, clearly believes that some such schools may wish to become academies – and moved an amendment to protect their position on selection.
The argument, as Gibb, says is "fairly technical", but Hansard readers will grasp it. He referred to the ballot provision in law which ensures that parents approve the dropping by a grammar school of its selection policy, and said –
We are…committed to ensuring that the same rights are afforded to parents, and the same rights and protections are afforded to grammar schools on conversion, as were enjoyed while the school was a maintained school.
In short, his claim was that Brady's amendment was unnecessary. The 1992 Committee Chairman's asked in response by what means the Government would act on Gibb's good intentions. Gibb then promised to write provisions into the funding arrangements for academies which will protect the position of any grammar that becomes one.
The exchanges below are a model study of how a Government backbencher, by tabling an amendment, can put a Minister on the spot, wring guarantees out of him…and then withdraw the amendment.
Mr Brady: I am greatly reassured by the tone of what my hon. Friend has said, but it is not entirely clear whether he is giving me an assurance that the ballot arrangements will be introduced at a later date, or whether he is suggesting that other protections might be introduced.
Mr Gibb: What I am suggesting now-it is as far as I can go at this stage-is that we will include the provisions in the funding agreements of academies. That will provide strong protection-as strong, in effect, as it would be if the measures were on the statute book.
Mr Brady: Is my hon. Friend saying that if a grammar school transferred to academy status, it would not be able to vary its selective admissions under the terms of the funding agreement without the support of a parental ballot?
Mr Gibb: According to my understanding, that is correct. All the protections that currently apply under the ballot procedure would still apply. If for some reason the governing body of a selective academy sought to change its status as a selective school, the funding agreement would require a ballot of parents to be held before that provision took effect.
Mr Brady: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a third time. He has been immensely helpful, and I think that that final reassurance will be of great help to the many excellent grammar schools-including many in the borough of Trafford-that are keen to proceed with seeking academy status. It is certainly sufficient to persuade me not to press amendment 49 to a vote.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that I can be equally successful with other hon. Members.
When Labour first introduced the ballot provisions after 1997, they were seen as a threat to selection. They're now usually viewed – in the light of the Ripon Grammar School ballot – as a form of protection. As so often, the law of unintended consequences applies.