The Government faces defeat over higher education reform and is accused of U-turns on selection. Frances Rafferty reports
A U-turn of gargantuan proportions, or merely a fudge to appease the voters of Middle England?
These were the theories advanced to explain the Government's tactics on selection this week by opposition MPs. They were debating legislation which allows the abolition of grammar schools through parental ballot; allows partial selection where it already exists; and allows specialist schools to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude.
Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said when Labour was in opposition, ministers took a more robust stand against selection.
He quoted Education Secretary David Blunkett who said that selection was "a past agenda and a dead agenda". He also reminded the committee of the Prime Minister's view that selection was the policy of rejection.
He said selection created chaos for admissions and disappointment for many families.
Angela Browning, Conservative education spokesman, said the Government was charting a difficult course as it attempted to apply a policy it philosophically opposed,to appease Middle England.
Graham Brady, Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, put up a robust defence of the selective system in his constituency.
Tory education spokesman Stephen Dorrell had figures to show areas with selective education had 20 per cent better GCSE results. However, Mr Byers, schools standards minister, compared Essex (selective) against the socio-economically similar Solihull (non-selective) and found the respective A-C GCSE results were 44.6per cent and 51.2 per cent.
Ministers agreed that selection can cause the chaos but rather than bringing in a Bill to abolish grammar schools, the Government had decided to leave it to local discretion. Governing bodies will be able to end selection in their school, if unchallenged, and parents will be able to ballot to end grammars.
Education minister Estelle Morris refused to be drawn by Mr Foster who quoted a letter from a Department for Education and Employment official which intimated that adjudicators, who will decide school admissions disputes, will be encouraged by ministers to rule against partially selective schools.
During the debate Beverley Hughes, Labour MP for Stretfrod and Urmston, opposed selection saying that she knew of no reliable tests for aptitude. She was then forced to say, when it was noted the Government will be testing aptitude for specialist schools who will be allowed to select 10 per cent of their roll, she knew a man who did.
Mr Byers cited city technology colleges' selection methods, and after much dictionary riffling, said aptitude was the potential to do something, whereas ability was proof of being able to do something.
But as the committee members left at 11.30pm, some said they were none the wiser. They had looked at a different dictionary.
* Private schools, the last bastions of corporal punishment, are set to lose the right to use the cane.
The Government is to be pressed by amendments to the School Standards and Framework Bill which seek to end corporal punishment in private nurseries and schools. Current legislation prohibits physical punishment of children whose education is paid for by the state.
Don Foster, Liberal Democrat spokesman, will press for a vote in the House of Commons, if it appears ministers will not support his amendments at the committee stage. In opposition, Labour has always voted against corporal punishment. Government sources said a solution sympathetic to Mr Foster's aims may be found.
Dick Davison, joint director of the Independent Schools Information Service, said corporal punishment was discouraged in private schools. "Caning has effectively died out in independent schools, I can think only one of our members that retains the right to use it."
PROPOSED BALLOT ARRANGEMENTS FOR GRAMMAR SCHOOLS
* Governors may end grammar status of their school, provided the proposal is agreed by the local authority's school organisation committee.
* A petition of at least 20 per cent of eligible parents is needed to trigger ballot.
* Ballots will be local authority wide where grammar selection is borough or countywide. This will include areas where cluster of grammars makes part of a local authority effectively selective.
* Parents of children in schools, including private, in the local authority, regardless of whether they live there will get a vote. Parents may also register for a vote if they have children in schools outside the area or have children aged under five not at school.
* Ballots will take place at school level where the area is otherwise comprehensive. Ballots taking place in a boys' school, will automatically trigger a ballot at the neighbouring girls' grammar (and vice versa). Parents of children at the schools and those with children at feeder schools will vote.
* Local authorities and governing bodies will not be allowed to print material that may influence the outcome of a ballot.
* If the vote is against ending selection, no further ballots may take place within five years.
SCHOOL ORGANISATIONS, PAGE 18