11-plus the only minus

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Many eyes are on Trafford. After the rout of last year's local elections, this unusual slice of south Manchester is the Conservatives' last metropolitan foothold outside London. And as their majority is only seven, it may not remain so beyond Thursday.

Much of Trafford is economically deprived, sharing a border with Moss Side of Manchester proper. This is the "Old" Trafford of Europe's first and largest industrial estate, of low-quality housing, Manchester United and Lancashire County Cricket Club.

But with Hale, Sale and Altrincham to the south, Trafford also scoops up some of the most expensive commuter land in Britain: enough to ensure that the borough has been true blue for all but three years since its creation in 1974.

The elections will also bring a renewed, and apparently serious, threat to Trafford's selective education system with its five grammars, ten high schools and one comprehensive.

Labour and the Liberals need win only four seats between them to unseat the Tories. And as both these parties are opposed to the 11-plus, it could be curtains for the grammars. There are some qualifications however. The first is the presence of a Conservative Government determined to protect the status quo. And, of course, any such school could opt out of LEA control.

As things stand, says Brenda Ackroyd, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on education in Trafford, the 11-plus is probably the lesser of two evils.

Then the would-be reformers face the awkward fact that grammar schools are often very popular in the areas they serve. Trafford is no exception: "We have to face up to the fact that an awful lot of people in Trafford value the selective system very highly."

The Liberals appear cool about their own comprehensive policies, and even Labour accepts that change will be a slow business. Education spokesman and deputy leader David Acton talks in terms of a hung council this year, Labour control next year. And only then, with the backing of a Labour administration in Westminster, would it move against the 11-plus.

"I think that people in Trafford slowly but surely have lost confidence with the 11-plus," says Mr Acton. "It's a very complicated procedure, particularly now that more and more parents are appealing against decisions." One thousand cases were referred to the review panel last year.

Jonathan Taylor, Conservative chair of the education committee, claims that Labour would be destroyed in the attempt to abolish the 11-plus. He believes that Trafford has done well with education, pointing to the fact that its schools budget has been protected. The borough has not only met the teachers' pay award in full, in fact it is increasing the number of teachers by 60 or so, and is employing more special needs staff. It has also invested in a large number of new pre-school nurseries, he says.

Labour retorts that Trafford has a poor record on primary education - spending per pupil is among the lowest in the country - and that school buildings are in a shocking state.

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