Blair's fudge on 11-plus

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Margaret Tulloch is spokeswoman for the Campaign for State Education Margaret Tulloch dares New Labour to take on the forces of conservatism by declaring its interest in ending selection.

SOME parents in Ripon have now the opportunity to end the 11-plus which divides Ripon children. Ripon Campaign for State Education has negotiated the by-zantine grammar school ballot regulations and triggered a ballot. Now the campaigners have to persuade parents to vote for changing the admission policies of their local grammar school to admit children of all abilities. CASE hopes more campaigns will be set up and will do all it can to support them.

Anyone who has tried to campaign on any issue knows how difficult it is putting one's head above the parapet. Defending the status quo is always easier. Ripon CASE faces a well-funded pro-selection lobby able to engage a PR company and send videos to every parent. It seems there are no rules on how much money can be spent on preserving selection Supporters of selection often claim that the rules are stacked against them.

This is greeted with a hollow laugh by pro-comprehensive campaigners. We try to resist thinking that no one in government thought a petition would succeed, but it's difficult.

To start the process 10 people write to the Electoral Reform Ballot Services to trigger it to collect parental lists from local schools.

Once lists are collected campaigners are told how many signatures which would needed to trigger a ballot. Despite registering in September last year, Kent campaigners were told their threshold figure only a couple of weeks ago. It seems if schools keep the ERBS waiting for the lists the process could be brought to a halt.

Feeder school balloting regulations, which cover half of the grammar schools, show amazing inconsistencies and unfairnesses. The Government believes in ommunity involvement, but the regulations mean being local counts for little.

In Ripon parents with children in some local primary schools will not be eligible because the schools are too small to reach the trigger of five or more pupils having gone to the grammar schools and or because they are infant schools. But local prep school parents are eligible.

In Barnet the effect of the regulations means that two-thirds of local primary parents, who would be able to send their children to their local grammar schools if they were comprehensive, aren't eligible whereas parents in prep schools miles away are. However, were there to be a ballot the split between private and state school parents will not be known. So paents who pay to send their children to prep schools to coach them for the 11-plus may swing the vote - but we will never know.

Some of the inconsistencies are just plain bonkers. A parent in a feeder school ballot area whose children are sent to a nursery unit attached to a primary school will be eligible to vote, but if the children are sent to a separate nursery school they will not be. A parent whose child attends a feeder school of a grammar school is eligible to vote in a feeder school ballot, even if they have no intention of sending their child to the grammar school in question and live many miles away, whereas in an area ballot only the parents living outside the areas whose children actually go to school in the area are eligible.

The Government justifies these weird arrangements on the basis that "parents at feeder schools have the strongest interest because their children might be expected to become pupils at grammar schools". Does the Government not know that selection affects those rejected as well? It is amazing to get letters from a Labour government which claims that "tradition" must play a part in all of this.

Government regulations seem to be designed to prevent a reasoned debate about selection. Education professionals, local authorities and teachers in the local schools, feel inhibited by the regulations from speaking out about the importance of ending selection.

Primary school heads who might well want to see an end to the divisiveness of selection distorting the work of primary schools, may feel that they do not want to say too much for fear that their parents will think their school will not try hard enough to get their child through the 11-plus.

A Government with a stance opposed to selection but wanting parents to decide, might have required ballots of parents to be held. LEAs could have been asked to bring forward proposals. Local education professionals could have been encouraged to give parents their views. The Government might have said that it wished parents to end selection.

But now, worst of all, it seems that despite the fact that some parents now have a ballot form in their hands education ministers still remain silent.

This Government rightly wants to bring about inclusion and high standards for all children but obviously selection is one issue upon which they do not want to take on the forces of conservatism. The Government's policy when it comes to selection is - if local people don't seem to mind then it is not an issue for us - hardly an educationally sound approach nor a principled one.

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