Editorial: Settle for diversity

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Grammar schools have always had a disturbing knack of triggering tribal warfare. "Grammar bugs stinking slugs dirty little humbugs", secondary modern boys used to chant at their grammar school adversaries on the way to school.

"Modern school hams can't pass exams makers of mascots pushers of prams", was the grammar school pupils' more poetic retort. And the respective tribes of parents have been equally vitriolic - because grammar schools symbolise high standards to some, inequality to others.

Grammar school heads, therefore, have every reason to dread the parental ballots that will determine their future. The controversy in some areas is likely to be nasty, brutish, and far from short. All the old arguments are about to be reprised.

Selective schooling is unjustifiable, we will be told, because: it labels 11- year-olds as failures; up to 20 per cent of children are wrongly allocated; clever working-class pupils never win their fair share of grammar school places; the proportion selected has ranged from 12 per cent in one region to 40 per cent in another; the 161 remaining grammar schools turn many of their neighbouring "comprehensives" into de facto secondary moderns. Selective schooling is justifiable because: able children thrive in the company of their peers; grammar schools are centres of excellence and important to Britain's economic wellbeing; they encourage ambitious parents to use the state sector; the eradication of grammar schools would lead to a "levelling down" of standards.

Eric Hammond, the former electricians' leader, may believe that the Government has been cowardly by leaving it to parents to decide the grammar schools' fate; but he is enough of a politician himself to see why David Blunkett prefers to hold the combatants' jackets. Abolishing grammar schools by fiat would win Mr Blair no votes; history shows that Labour governments encounter fierce resistance when they resort to such tactics.

In any case, the Blair Government is clearly ambivalent - wanting both the high standards of the best grammar schools and the social inclusion that comprehensiv es represent. Unable to resolve this perennial dilemma, ministers look for other solutions, expanding the specialist schools sector and experimenting with education action zones. Equality of opportunity may be the ultimate goal, but for the time being we must make do with diversity.

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