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Ballots or barricades?;Briefing;Analysis;Grammar School Debate

As parents prepare to exercise new rightsto petition against selection, grammar schools are building their defences.Mike Baker unravels the background to this emotional conflict

Pressure groups are being formed, fighting funds started and slogans and placards dusted down. The grammar-school debate has reopened.

The Government has fulfilled its somewhat limited promise: parents now have the legal right to petition for ballots to eliminate selection. In Ripon in North Yorkshire and in Barnet, north London, parents' groups have already registered with Electoral Reform (Ballot Services) Ltd, which will oversee the ballots.

In many of the 164 remaining grammar schools, defence committees are being formed and parents rallied to the cause. A propaganda war has begun. Kent warned that ending selection in the county could cost pound;150 million, and Trafford estimated it could save pound;250,000 a year by switching to a comprehensive system.

Is it sensible to devote so much energy to just 164 out of more than 4,000 secondary schools in England? The Government clearly thinks so and has left it to parents to initiate change.

In their book Thirty Years On, published in 1996, Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty estimated that only one quarter of secondary schools have a full quota of the most-able pupils. Selection by grammar schools, independent schools, partially-selective schools - and by property price - have combined to ensure that, although around 90 per cent of schools are comprehensive in principle, most of the school system is not.

The debate is so emotionally charged because it reaches beyond educational arguments to social and class issues.

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher probably spoke for many when she wrote in her memoirs that grammar schools provided "the means for people like me to get on equal terms with those who come from well-off backgrounds".

On the other side there is the resentment when children cannot get into their local school because it selects brighter pupils from well outside the area. In Kingston upon Thames, for example, only around one-third of entrants to the two grammar schools come from within the borough.

The debate might have ended long ago if the Labour government had required, rather than simply requested, local councils to reorganise along comprehensive lines in its landmark circular of 1965. Labour only announced its intention to force LEAs to reorganise three years later when its hold on power was already slipping.

In 1970, as Conservative education secretary, Margaret Thatcher immediately withdrew the request for school reorganisation. Yet around a third of the secondary-school population was already being educated in comprehensive schools. The momentum was irresistible. Ms Thatcher approved the end of more grammar schools than any other secretary of state .

Labour's return to power in 1974 renewed hostilities. This was a period of bitterness, division and frustration, and growing doubt over standards and the quality of schools.

This background explains Labour's nervousness over grammar schools. Privately, ministers believe it is not worth letting the genie of division and acrimony out of the bottle when so few schools remain fully selective. They are frightened, too, of giving opponents any chance to portray them as antagonistic to high academic standards. To oppose schools which are getting good results would risk being "off message".

The shift on grammar schools almost exactly reflects the transformation from "old" to "New" Labour. Labour's 1992 manifesto was unequivocal: "We will end selection at 11 where it still exists." As late as the 1995 party conference, David Blunkett could try to reassure the grass roots by saying:

"Watch my lips; no selection either by examination or interview under a Labour government."

As the election approached, the line softened. By February 1997 Mr Blunkett was reassuring the grammar schools that they "face no threat to their continuance or to their ethos or to their quality".

The 1997 manifesto tried to lay the internal arguments to rest. It stated that Labour would "never force the abolition of good schools", saying "any changes in the admissions policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents".

Yet this apparently neutral position hides the fact that the arrangements for petitions and ballots, and the limits on the involvement of LEAs, mean that wide-scale change is very unlikely. To collect the signatures of 20 per cent of eligible parents is likely to prove beyond the organisational capability of volunteer groups.

It will be even more difficult in areas which are designated for "feeder-school ballots" (see graphic). In these cases, the electorate will extend well beyond the LEA boundary while, conversely, many local parents will be excluded.

In Barnet, for example, parents at only 31 of the north London borough's 91 state primary schools will be entitled to vote. The rest have been disenfranchised.

Yet parents at around 15 private schools outside the borough will have a vote. Indeed, parents at state and independent schools in eight authorities have a vote on the future of Barnet's grammar schools. To gather a petition with the 20 per cent of eligible parents required to trigger a ballot will be a logistical nightmare.

Jenny Brown, of the Barnet Parent Federation, says: "It's an impossible task." She says if they ask parents in Westminster, Haringey or Hertfordshire to sign a petition about a school in Barnet they will "look at us like a person from another planet".

Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for State Education, believes it will be easier to organise petitions for "area ballots" but says much depends on the Government clarifying what information local education authorities are allowed to give to campaigners. Without the help of schools and the LEA, "simply reaching parents will be a major stumbling block".

Faced with such difficulties, parents' groups in Ripon and Barnet will not be holding petitions before the autumn. So ballots are very unlikely before 2000.

Without the active involvement of central Government, and with local government forced to sit on the sidelines, it is hard to see how volunteer groups of local parents can get over the high hurdles of the ballot arrangements to achieve much change. That, of course, may be exactly what New Labour is banking on.

Mike Baker is education correspondent of the BBC


There are 164 remaining grammar schools in 36 education authorities.

Petitions: require 20 per cent of eligible parents to trigger ballots.

Feeder school ballots: eligible schools must have sent five or more pupils to the grammar schools in the previous three years.

Area ballots: required where grammar schools take 25 per cent or more of secondary school pupils.

For 74 grammar schools, parents will have to organise "feeder-school ballots".

Barnet, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bromley, Calderdale, Cumbria, Devon, Enfield, Essex, Gloucestershire, Kingston upon Thames, Kirklees, Lancashire,Liverpool, North Yorkshire, Plymouth, Poole, Reading, Redbridge, Stoke-on-Trent, Walsall, Warwickshire,Wiltshire, Wirral, Wolverhampton, The Wrekin.

For 90 grammar schools parents will have to or ganise "area ballots".

Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway Towns, Slough, Southend, Sutton, Torbay and Trafford.

The two Bristol grammar schools are excluded from these figures as selection is due to end there under arrangements separate from the latest legislation.

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