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Selective debate

Selection is shaping up strongly as the educational issue most likely to provide the great divide between the two main parties in the forthcoming general election. A more interesting speculation is how far it will continue to open up divisions within the parties.

The Prime Minister's speech this week to the Social Market Foundation said less on the subject than his spin doctors had led impressionable lobby correspondents to believe. But the spin was there because the Tories believe Labour to be vulnerable on the issue since shadow health minister Harriet Harman broke ranks to send her son to a grammar school.

Since that decision David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, has had to struggle even harder than he did after leader Tony Blair chose the grant-maintained option to make positive sense of Labour's commitment to the comprehensive principle. It was indeed at another recent Social Market Foundation event that Mr Blunkett restated his own determination to face up to what had gone wrong in comprehensive schools, and floated ideas for specialisation within such a system, rather than using it as a proxy for selection.

He talked warmly about "Tony and I" in his speech, just as John Major spoke on Wednesday of "Gillian and I" a sure sign that each of them saw the need to emphasise unity in the face of rumours to the contrary. The Education Secretary, Mr Major promised, would soon have more to announce.

So would this simply be Mrs Shephard's response to the consultation on her recent draft circular on admissions, loosening up interpretation of the ground rules on selection by interview or ability, or can we expect confirmation of that whackier leak claiming that the Prime Minister favoured the creation of a new grammar school in every inner-city area, initiated by parents, backed by private finance, and perhaps located in the vacated premises of a failed school?

Reason tells us that the educationally clued-up Mrs Shephard would have seen the flaws in the latter proposition, many of which are spelled out in our News Focus on the Comprehensive Debate (pages 12 and 13). Most notable of these - far from raising standards all round - are the knock-on effects on neighbouring schools of selective creaming, as illustrated in particular by Sir Peter Newsam's inner London figures.

We can only speculate that Mrs Shephard might find it easier to counter a "grammar in every town" proposal by increasing the amount of partial selection proposed in her draft circular. The proposal to increase from 10 to l5 per cent the proportion of pupils selectable without reference to the Education Secretary in itself lacked rationale, except as a compromise on another rash Major promise: his pledge to grant-maintained school heads to set them free on all admissions.

Now Mrs Shephard may up that 15 to 20 or even 25 per cent, a decision again explicable only in terms of internal party wrangling, but perhaps a deal that would postpone the new grammar schools idea until the election manifesto. The message is that John Major wants to use grammar school status to raise standards, but does not want now to consign any child to second-class status (perhaps some of the arguments have got through). So now the answer may be that every school - especially if it is GM - could have its fast stream, because of course the local education authorities have been hostile in their response to the draft circular.

There is a certain appeal in the proposition that every school should have around 20 per cent of brighter children in its intake, since that might transform schools pushed down the local pecking order by independent, GM or grammar schools into something like genuine comprehensives rather than virtual secondary moderns. But then the questions bubble up. How do you choose and monitor the 20 per cent? What about the length of the low achievers' tail. or the need for a broad middle-ability band? Before long you would be reinventing the banding exercise still exercised by a handful of local education authorities (see last week's TES) and much resented by those parents who found their children allocated away from the school of their choice because they were too bright. You might even have to rely on LEAs to do the job for you. And the Labour party has already admitted that banding cannot co-exist with parental choice.

The nub of the matter is that selection and choice are uneasy bedfellows and the Government may not find it easy to wrong-foot Labour with the voters on this issue. Yes, the opinion polls showed sympathy for Harriet Harman, but they also showed a majority against selection. The public is as confused as the politicians.

One other idea that Mr Major should rethink is his assumption that comprehensives equal progressive education equal low standards. He boasts that one in three young people now go on to higher education, compared with one in eight seventeen years ago. But it can't just be the league tables and tests of the last few years that have done the trick. The timing makes it more likely to be the chances that comprehensive schools have brought to many children who would otherwise have been deselected into secondary moderns. We may need to rethink the comprehensive idea in some aspects, and the debate now running in our pages is part of that process. But it would be wrong to equate that process with the death of the comprehensive or to assume that most parents want selection.

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