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Selective compromise

Sadly, ministers do not seem to have paid any heed to an article in these pages a month ago from that seasoned former education officer Peter Newsam, on the basic arithmetic of choice. More selection can only mean that fewer parents get what they want, was the message that Sir Peter spelled out, along with the reminder that a comprehensive school, by definition, caters for the full ability range, while a secondary modern (whatever it is called) takes the remaining children after any local selective school has creamed off the top l5 to 25 per cent of ablest children.

Most knowledgeable parents will fight to get their children into a school that is truly comprehensive in its ability mix, but resist to the last ditch a place in another that is in effect a secondary modern because of its skimmed state - a fact of life corroborated by Denise Bates on page 22 in her account of the consequent pressures on the appeals system.

So, although the Prime Minister by some Orwellian double-think seems to believe that parental choice equals selection, equals happy voters, the reality is that selection has a multiplier effect on those who are selected against. Not only does, say, 20 per cent selection by ability leave 80 per cent without choice or satisfaction, it also skews the structure of the local eco-system. Although some grant-maintained schools are now moving down this road, with the predicted effects, ministers have been sufficiently aware of parental hostility to an 11-plus return to opt instead for more fudged alternatives, such as the l0 per cent selection by aptitude introduced by John Patten for schools with designated specialisms. Motives and effects here could be pretty mixed: a good PR spin; access to extra funding; a grammar-school proxy. In practice the cumulative effect, as in New York's magnet school experience, has been to create a clear local pecking order, with Reject High School at the bottom.

Into this creeping selection scenario comes a new Government announcement. Instead of only l0 per cent, schools may now select up to l5 per cent of pupils without waiting (in the case of GM schools) for permission from the Secretary of State, and they may be chosen on general ability, rather than aptitude in any particular subject. Interviews can be used to determine the suitability of all children and parents.

Why 15 per cent rather than 10? The change isn't big enough to allow all schools a balanced intake on banding principles, which in any case work on allocation across the ability range and local authority area, rather than selection according to school whim. It is likely to be taken up mostly by grant-maintained schools, as at present, since most local education authorities think along the same lines as Peter Newsam.

And why, set beside other Government policies promoting parental choice, switch the emphasis back to producer choice? Allowing wider use of interviews, otherwise known as social selection, means it's all right for everybody to do what the few have been doing all along in the name of ethos and aspiration. But it not only cuts across the wishes of parents, but also the rights of children. A business may make better products if it controls raw material quality, but that is precisely where the market analogy falls down. The schools are there for the children, not they for the schools.

Perhaps it is now futile to search for a rationale in Government education policies, at a time when they are plainly being led by a prime minister who doesn't understand education. There is, of course, a simple explanation for this week's rum selection proposals and that is that they represent a climbdown. Last year John Major promised grant-maintained heads that he would give them greater control over their own schools, and promised the country many more GM schools in general and a fast track for church schools in particular, cutting out the parent voice.

As with so many education initiatives out of Downing Street, subsequent advice from his Education Secretary and her officials has shown them to be both unwise and unworkable, and it is then left to Gillian Shephard to cobble together and sell an unconvincing compromise. No wonder she shows signs of losing her bounce.

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