Dream on, Mr Major...

28th June 1996 at 01:00

grammar schools * Funding Agency will consider grammar option for any new school Jn schools can appeal to Education Secretary where local authority blocks plans to go wholly selective

Dream on, John Major. That was the message from all sides of the debate on studying the detail of a White Paper that had been widely trailed as introducing a grammar stream to all comprehensives or allowing a grammar school in every town.

Notwithstanding the legislative timetable which mitigates against its introduction, commentators from all sectors said that a) the Prime Minister's contention that grammar schools are a vote-winner is wrong and b) if he wants to end comprehensive hegemony, this is not the White Paper to do it.

Margaret Dewar, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, said: "This will not increase grammar school provision. Some schools may think about introducing a grammar school stream, but merely increasing selection by 20 per cent or even 50 per cent is not enough."

The White Paper says that GM and council schools wishing to become grammar schools must publish their proposals to be approved by the Secretary of State. Council schools will be able to appeal to the Education and Employment Secretary if their authority blocks the governing body's proposals. The Funding Agency for Schools will be able to open new GM grammar schools.

It will allow GM schools to introduce up to 50 per cent selection by ability or aptitude in one or more subject without the need to publish statutory proposals, and allow council schools to select up to 20 per cent, but only with the permission of their LEA. Schools will decide their methods of selection.

Margaret Smart, director of the Catholic Education Service, does not believe the proposals in the White Paper will bring about change in her sector. She said: "They are enabling and not prescriptive proposals, and frankly I don't think there is a groundswell for greater selection. All but a handful of our 2,400 schools are comprehensive, and as the majority have good results with above average GCSEs and favourable inspection reports, I cannot see any incentive for change."

The GM sector, seen as the standard-bearer for the Government's new reforms, is also lukewarm. Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, said: "I don't think people will be queuing up in droves, but a few may be interested in the South."

Her predecessor, Cecil Knight, said: "People talk about grammar schools as if they were in some golden era but the level of underachievement, particularly in the lower streams, was appalling in the 1960s . . . I think some schools will go for it [selection] so that it will give a genuine balanced comprehensive intake."

Even the FAS, according to some reports, is less than enthusiastic about its new role in promoting grammar schools. Less than 3 per cent of GM schools have chosen to select a proportion by academic ability (92 are already fully selective) since 1989, and the vast majority of changes are for selection for aptitude in drama, music or technology. In the same period only five LEA schools have become fully selective.

Langley Park GM school, Bromley, will select 15 per cent by academic ability from September 1997, and prospective pupils will sit the school's exam. Headteacher Roger Sheffield said: "In the light of the White Paper I am sure my governing body will now seriously consider whether they want to select up to 50 per cent. But nobody wants to go back to the old tripartite system. We aim to serve the very bright as well as the others."

Colin Birnie, head of Queen Elizabeth school, Penrith, which was controversially permitted to become fully selective (selecting by interview), regards Mr Major's idea with cynicism: "It is a very simplistic view of educational problems. The real political issue is under-resourcing in all state schools."

If the grammar school in every town is to remain a pipe-dream of the Prime Minister's, nestled in his cosy world of flat pints and cycling spinsters, then it appears Mr Shephard and her department have had their way. In presentation terms they have portrayed selection as the clear blue water between the parties. In reality, this is a mirage and if anything there is a growing consensus between Labour and the Tories for a diverse education system.

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