Apartheid grammar poll hits parents

It is the oldest political trick in the world - claim legitimacy by holding a ballot, but rig the result by organising the vote in a way which guarantees the desired result. The easiest way of serving that disreputable objective is to exclude anyone who might cause trouble. South Africa ran its elections on that principle for 80 years.

Now the Department for Education and Employment hopes to preserve secondary school apartheid by employing the same technique. At least half of the parent polls held under the terms of the Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulation 1998 will be heavily biased in favour of keeping selection.

Last Friday in the House of Lords - and again during the Commons Standing Committee debate last Tuesday - ministers struggled to argue that the procedure was fair. But they were attempting an impossible task. In more than half the ballots parents with the most to lose by selection will not be allowed to vote.

Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, the Medway Towns, Slough, Southend, Torbay and Trafford - can, and no doubt will - poll every affected parent in the local authority area. But 72 per cent of the remaining 166 grammar schools are not within those boundaries. Their future will depend on the vote of parents from what the Government calls "feeder schools" - primaries (state or private) which have sent five pupils to a grammar school in the last three years.

The principle on which comprehensive education is based is that the existence of selection prejudices the prospects of the non-selective schools around them. So primary school parents - whose son or daughter may be shuffled off to a secondary modern - have a direct and legitimate interest in abolishing selection. Yet many will be disenfranchised. That is exactly the point made by the Gloucestershire education authority to the Government during the consultation procedure which followed the regulations' publication. "The existence of selective education has an effect upon, and is of interest to, all parents and schools. It would therefore be more appropriate for ballots to be upon the basis of whole areas even where the grammar schools are taken as groups or stand alone. Anything else disenfranchises many who have a clear and legitimate interest." Of course the Government took no notice.

The regulations are as absurd as they are unfair. A primary school in the shadow of the grammar on the other side of the footpath, may not be a feeder school. So the parents who long to send their children there - ideally under admission arrangements which accommodate all abilities - will be denied a say in the grammar's future. However the parents of the children at a private crammer ten miles away - most of whom may well send their sons and daughters to distant public schools - could be given the right to vote on the type of education other families must accept.

The regulations' sheer administrative inadequacy is underlined by the Church of England's submission to the Government - preceded and strengthened as an argument, by the reassertion that it does not have a policy for or against grammar schools. "In some areas the grammar schools serve very wide regions and select only a tiny minority of highly able pupils from the primary school population. In such cases very few schools will meet the definition of feeder for many schools."

So why then has the Government introduced regulations which are simultaneously unjust and ridiculous? There are two possible explanations. The first is that the DFEE is staffed by nincompoops and that all the ministers in the department are just as stupid. The other is that the Government wants to make getting rid of the remaining grammar schools so difficult that nobody will even try. On balance, I accept the second interpretation. Though David Blunkett is mistaken if he believes that he has ended the argument. He has only just begun.

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