They have been under threat for more than 50 years but the big political parties have learnt to leave well alone. William Stewart reports
meddle with England's 164 remaining grammar schools at your peril. They are like an unexploded Second World War bomb, a remnant of a bygone era likely to blow up in your face if disturbed.
Labour politicians were well aware of this when they took power 10 years ago, but the Cameron Conservative leadership has spent the past five weeks learning this lesson the hard way.
Grammar schools may represent less than 5 per cent of all English secondaries but they have become emblematic of fiercely held educational beliefs on both sides of the political divide. Yet why do they still exist in a country that began to introduce comprehensive schools more than 50 years ago? The simple answer is that, despite increasing centralisation, England in many respects remains a locally controlled education system.
Anthony Crosland, the Labour education secretary in 1965-67 under Harold Wilson, famously pledged to "destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland". But it wasn't as simple as that.
Until then, comprehensive schools had been introduced piecemeal in areas where individual councils, particularly rural ones, decided they were the way forward.
Secondary education was not under direct control of the then ministry of education, so this change was only phrased as a request. Just as today's Labour administration has used the Building Schools for the Future programme to put pressure on local councils to build academies, its 1960s counterparts used the need for new schools created by the post-war baby boom to do the same for comprehensives.
A later Labour government increased the pressure in 1976 by requiring all councils to submit school reorganisation plans. But it was impossible for central government to ensure that all councils toed the line. Some, such as Kent, Buckinghamshire and Trafford, resisted and the 11-plus remains to this day. In some authorities, grammar schools fought their own battles and became selective islands in a sea of comprehensives.
Since then, growing disillusion with standards in comprehensives has only strengthened the determination of grammar school supporters to preserve selection.
David Blunkett delighted anti-grammar school campaigners in 1995 when he pledged "no selection" under a Labour government. But they soon discovered that the ballot system he introduced to allow them to close grammars gave them no practical chance of doing so. Earlier this year, The TES reported ministers had still not considered a report on whether the ballots should be reviewed, more than a year after it was completed. Traditionally, Conservatives have adopted pro-grammar school rhetoric. But it was actually under Tory governments that they first began to disappear. Margaret Thatcher is understood to have overseen the closure of more grammar schools in 1970-74 than any other education secretary before or since.
David Cameron has argued that councils have failed to open more grammars because: "Ultimately, it is not what parents want."
It was the middle classes' opposition to selection that led to its doom. As their numbers increased post-war, they increasingly found they could not get into grammar schools. That tends to be forgotten by the generation that did make it.
David Willetts, the shadow education secretary, is one of their number. But he risked all last month by challenging that golden memory and arguing that if grammar schools ever were a ladder of social mobility, it had long since been kicked away.
David Jesson, of York University's economics department, says the Government's national pupil database indicates more than 13 per cent of grammar pupils come from fee-paying preparatory schools. In one local authority the proportion was 33 per cent. The statistics demonstrate that parents "buy" grammar places, further "entrenching" social advantage, Professor Jesson says.
Mr Cameron appears to have been pushed by Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney-general, into saying that new grammar schools may be possible in already selective areas. The Tory leader was perhaps reluctant to lose another member of his team to the grammar debate following the resignation of Graham Brady, his Europe spokesman.
Stephen Nokes, the headteacher of John Hampden grammar at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, which takes many of its pupils from Beaconsfield, Mr Grieve's constituency, does not anticipate any need for new grammar schools for at least five years.
The county council seems to agree. Although 1,000 new homes a year until 2026 are planned in Buckinghamshire, the council admits existing schools may be able to soak up some of the growth. A falling birth rate should also help. So, despite more than a month of intense debate, the status quo is likely to remain.
Mr Nokes said: "It is a tired old debate that has hit the news because David Cameron and David Willetts have handled it badly. It is disappointing.
"For both the main political parties, the current grammar schools are a non-issue and will be allowed to remain. I don't feel threatened."
ACADEMIC SELECTION IN WESTERN EUROPE
All of the European Union's first 15 member states once operated selective state secondary systems, says Professor Andy Green, of London University's Institute of Education.
In the 1950s and 1960s, France, Ireland and England and Wales introduced comprehensive schools, following Scandinavia. Then Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece followed suit in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today the Benelux countries are partially selective; while Germany, Austria and German-speaking cantons in Switzerland retain the most selective systems. Based on primary records, pupils at 11 or 12 will be allocated a place in a gymnasium - like a grammar school - or a realschule, offering academic education with a scientific focus, or a hauptschule, the German equivalent of a secondary modern.
Good apprenticeships and opportunities for hauptschule pupils to transfer to more academic courses post-16 have made the system less controversial than England's. However, hauptschules have declined in popularity (in some cities, they are dominated by immigrants). Some areas, such as Berlin, have adopted a mainly comprehensive system.