Friends fall out as battle is joined;Grammar schools

1st October 1999 at 01:00
A city has split into warring camps as the first grammar school faces abolition under the Labour Government's new rules.

VISITORS TO Ripon, North Yorkshire, are invited to "rest awhile amidst its charms" as they cross the city boundary. Yet the apparent tranquillity of its magnificent medieval cathedral, lawns and winding streets belies a community in turmoil.

Indeed the opportunity to end 450 years of grammar-school education in the city, afforded by this Government through parental ballot, appears to have pitched the city's parents into bitter feuding. This is the first set-piece battle to claim a grammar school for the comprehensive cause under the Labour Government's regulations, and the gloves are off.

The grammar-school lobby, the Ripon Schools Partnership, says the city is being used as a soft target by the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education (CASE), the national organisation which promotes comprehensive schooling.

Ripon members of CASE are allowing the city's children to be "pawns" in a "politically-motivated" campaign, it says. In turn, the RSP is accused of drawing on wealthy backers and a Manchester public relations firm to send out emotionally-charged material in an attempt to prevent parents from petitioning for a ballot.

Neighbours who once lived in relative harmony are now at each other's throats. Alan Skidmore, Ripon's mayor, says the legislation has caused bitter divisions.

Judith Wallace, whose son failed the 11-plus and now attends Ripon College, the secondary modern, is fighting against selection for creating "second-class citizens". She says: "If we don't get this vote we will have to leave because this has now split friends and neighbours."

Roy Hattersley, the ebullient Labour peer, provoked outrage at a packed and extremely lively meeting to launch the campaign to end selection late last week.

He accused grammar-school supporters of scare tactics "because they are afraid they will lose a parents' ballot". He further accused them of defending, not good education for all, but their own "positional good".

No doubt in the coming weeks, the 3,500 parents eligible to vote on Ripon grammar's fate because they have children in primary feeder schools will be subject to intense door-to-door lobbying.

At this stage neither side is prepared to predict whether enough support for a ballot can be raised or how the vote will go.

Baxter Hulme, the Manchester PR firm working for Ripon Schools Partnership, says one option is to make a video and send it into every home.

Ripon's two secondary schools, the grammar and the secondary modern, face each other across the Clotherholme Road and for years, home time has been staggered - some claim - to avoid fights at the school gate.

Last year 98 per cent of the grammar school's children gained five GCSE passes compared to 8 per cent of children at Ripon College. With the appointment of Paul Lowery, a new energetic head who has gained technology college status for the secondary modern, the gap has closed. This year 20 per cent of Ripon College's GCSE candidiates gained five passes compared to 100 per cent at the grammar.

A high percentage of parents whose children fail the 11-plus examination bus their children to comprehensives in Har, Boroughbridge or Thirsk.

Parents against selection point readily to Knaresborough comprehensive, which accommodates all of the town's children and where 75 per cent of pupils gained five GCSE passes last year.

However, the grammar-school lobby believes its case is strengthened by rapid improvements at the secondary modern.

Alan Jones, head of the grammar, said: "I would question the relevance of the ballot exercise to the two Ripon secondary schools when we are working so hard to offer a first-class education."

Although the two heads feel they are constrained by the code of practice from saying much, it is known that Mr Lowery also supports the status quo.

John Warren, a spokesman for Ripon Schools Partnership, has two children at the grammar school and one in a local junior. He said: "Why get rid of two good schools when we don't know what the alternative will be like?"

Analysis, 22

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