As the new century dawns, the future of England's 164 remaining grammar schools hangs in the balance. Some of the schools at the heart of this debate were founded as early as the 16th century, but others were established in the wake of the 1902 Education Act that also set up local education authorities.
The architect of the Act was Robert Morant, the Board of Education's leading civil servant. Morant hoped that the new municipal grammar schools would create opportunities for bright elementary school pupils, some of whom might even subsequently win a university place.
The schools became objects of great civic pride and the symbols of advance, most notably, perhaps, in terms of extending educational opportunities for girls. Close links were formed with the universities and, from 1917, grammar schools prepared their pupils for School Certificate examinations at ages 16 and 18.
Though originally founded as wholly fee-paying schools, government regulations of 1907 required that 25 per cent of LEA grammar school pupils should attend free, subject to passing the 11-plus.
No mass system of secondary education was to develop before the Second World War, but some progressive LEAs responded to the rallying cry of Secondary Education for All, the title of R H Tawney's influential 1922 Labour party pamphlet.
A handful of secondary schools, variously called central schools, junior technical schools and senior schools, were established during the 1920s and 1930s, all of which required parents to pay fees. They were regarded as being a cut above the all-age elementary school, though less prestigious than the grammars.
The 1944 Education Act allowed all children to receive a secondary school education free of charge from age 11, but there was no dramatic upsurge of support for comprehensive schooling. Writing in The TES of February 1, 1947, Eric James, High Master of Manchester Grammar School, expressed the fear that these schools might precipitate "grave social, educational and cultural evils which may well be a national disaster".
Post-war LEA development plans tended towards conservatism, mostly reflecting the new Ministry of Education's belief that secondary education should cater for three types of children. Experts confidently predicted that 11-plus testing would indicate whether pupils were best suited to attend a grammar, technical or secondary modern school. In the event, however, properly equipped technical schools proved too expensive for most LEAs. Hopes that there would be "parity of esteem" between all state secondary schools were dashed as the 11-plus became the national yardstick of success or failure for children in their final year of primary school. Throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s around 75 per cent of 11-year-olds proceeded to their local secondary modern. In contrast to the grammar schools, opportunities to follow public examination courses in the secondary moderns were limited or non-existent.
In the late 1950s several diverse English and Welsh LEAs established "experimental" comprehensive schools, normally in areas of new housing or rural locations. The movement gathered momentum in the following decade, partly driven by growing concerns that the rationale for, and methods of, IQ testing used in 11-plus examinations were flawed. Circular 1065, published in July 1965 by Labour's Secretary of State for Education, Anthony Crosland, sought further to accelerate the comprehensive drive.
According to a biography written by his wife, Crosland aimed to "destroy every . . . grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland". Circular 1065 requested local education authorities to abandon the 11-plus and to close, merge or re-designate their existing selective schools.
Most authorities co-operated, but diversity was the price to be paid for Labour's impatience during the late 1960s. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Secretary of State between 1970 and 1974, tried in vain to halt the tide of reorganisations. Although she acted to "save" more than 90 grammar schools from amalgamation or closure, Mrs Thatcher also presided over more comprehensive school designations than any of her predecessors or successors.
Middle-class parents, apprehensive about comprehensive education, were sometimes able to send their children to selective schools in neighbouring authorities or even within the same LEA. The "creaming" of comprehensive schools meant that some were barely distinguishable from the secondary moderns they had replaced.
The image of the multiracial urban comprehensive school, meanwhile, was damaged by various television documentaries and by publicity surrounding the Black Papers edited by Brian Cox, Anthony Dyson and, latterly, Rhodes Boyson. Contributors to these five pamphlets, published between 1969 and 1977, eyed the comprehensive school with suspicion and, in some cases, hostility.
During the late 1980s and 1990s attention has focused upon educational standards, rather than structures.
"Choice" and "diversity" policies have heightened the sense of competition between secondary schools, yet the basis for comparing school performance is perhaps less assured than at any time in the 20th century.
In recent years grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, denominational, oversubscribed and specialist schools have all been able to pick and choose some of their pupils. State secondary schools have also exercised varying policies towards the exclusion of pupils.
Former prime minister John Major's educational vision for the 21st century included "a grammar school in every town". His successor, Tony Blair, has pledged to "modernise the comprehensive principle".
The opening months of 2000 may be crucial in signalling the direction of secondary education for the next 100 years. Selection by aptitude is, for the moment, here to stay, and we may expect the designation of many more language, technology and performing arts schools.
As for selection by ability, the Government has sidestepped the issue. It will be parents who decide whether grammar schools have a part to play in the new millennium.
Dr David Crook is a lecturer in the history of education at the University of London Institute of Education. He is co-author (with Sally Power and Geoff Whitty) of "The Grammar School Question" (University of London Institute of Education, 1999).