Generals have no stomach for fight;Analysis;Briefing

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Politicians hoping to diffuse the war over grammars still have a long way to go, says Jon Slater.

IT SEEMS we have come full circle. Despite ministers' best efforts, selection is set to loom large once more over the world of education.

After a string of government compromises designed to diffuse the issue, parental ballots are now set to put grammar schools firmly back in the public eye.

Contrary to Conservative claims, the Government has no desire to pursue a witch hunt against grammar schools. If anything, the regulations have been designed to make it difficult for ballots to be called.

In ministers' ideal world none of this would be happening. While their instincts remain for comprehensive rather than selective education, attacking the remaining 164 grammar schools smacks too much of old Labour for a Blair led government.

But the ballots designed to mollify their own activists - many of whom still cling to the Seventies' comprehensive consensus - will give their opponents plenty of opportunity to claim that they are intent on closing good schools.

This should be manna from heaven for the Tories ahead of their party conference next week. Selection in schools is one of those issues (like Europe) on which they can create clear blue water between themselves and Labour.

But even as they fight to protect the remaining grammars, they are wrestling with their own selection dilemmas.

Since Margaret Thatcher closed the largest number of grammar schools of any education secretary, they have made a steady journey towards embracing selection, culminating in John Major's ill-fated promise of a grammar school in every town. However, there are now signs they are backing off from a wholesale return to grammar schools. Like Labour, both William Hague and Theresa May, his education spokesperson, preach diversity and parental choice rather than choice for schools.

Despite grassroots pressure, they remain lukewarm on the issue of a return to grammars.

"I don't get the impression that in areas where there are no grammar schools there is a great groundswell of opinion in favour of introducing them," said Ms May.

There will be no promise of a grammar in every town at the Tories' conference next week - instead new policies will emphasise diversity. Although they will consider more grammars, and parents who want selection will be able to push for it, there will be no guarantees. They recognise that while many parents may retain a nostalgia for grammar schools, middle England would be outraged if a large number of their children ended up in secondary moderns.

For Labour a limited amount of selection is seen as offering parents choice without splitting children into successes or failures. And while the Tories are more gung-ho they will not risk parents' wrath.

Labour has backed specialist schools, which are able to select up to 10 per cent of pupils on the basis of aptitude. Since the election, Labour has doubled their number to 402 and intends to double it again by 2003.

Specialist schools are part of Labour's plans to modernise comprehensives - plans which include more flexibility for 14 to 16-year-olds to choose vocational rather than academic education and moves to recognise and support gifted children.

As well as limited selection between schools, a drive towards selection within schools is becoming apparent. The idea is to focus more on individual pupils within comprehensives.

In the long term ministers hope they can show parents that, whatever their child's ability, they can get the education they need at a local comprehensive - thus killing the grammar-school issue. But while the politicians attempt to move the agenda on, many of their supporters refuse to follow. For these people, particularly opponents of selection, the ballots are the chance to have their say - to bypass the politicians who have "betrayed" them.

Campaigners for the abolition of grammar schools have complained loudly that the ballot is designed to frustrate their efforts.

"Possibly 80,000 parents of children from zero to 16 years will have to fill in a complex form in order to request that a ballot be organised. Would there ever be a general election again if first there had to be such a petition?" asked Joyce Esterson, Labour education spokesperson on Kent County Council, which has the largest number of grammar schools in England.

But they press on anyway inspired by their holy grail of an end to selection.

And the doyens of the Right, in favour of the "golden age of grammars," are unlikely to be put off by William Hague's reluctance to join them.

While politicians may want to move on they are likely to be dragged back to grammars for some time to come.

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