Heads fear hijack of selection debate

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Grammar schools fear that Government plans to give their parents the power of life or death will create a battleground involving political activists and education authorities. Frances Rafferty and Julie Read on the results of a TES survey

Three out of four grammar schools fear the debate over their future will be hijacked by political activists in their area.

And one in three is concerned that their local education authority is set against selection by ability, a TES survey of more than half the 161 grammar schools revealed.

Under impending legislation, schools could lose their grammar status if a majority of parents votes against it.

Martin Haworth, head of Wallington County Grammar for Boys in the London borough of Sutton, who believes his school would survive a ballot, said: "I fear that whatever groups campaign locally they will certainly be supported in their efforts by the Liberal Democrat authority. If grammar schools go it will be a tragedy for working-class children, and instead we will have selection by postcode."

Although the present proposals for petitions and ballotsare still under consultation, heads say local groups are already trying to persuade parents to sign up.

The Campaign for the Advancement of State Education has been the most active. And heads say local branches of the National Union of Teachers, other unions and local Labour and Liberal Democrat activists are joining the anti-grammar campaign.

One head said he feared it would become a repetition of the bitterly-fought ballots over grant- maintained status.

Shan Mullett, head of Folkestone School for Girls, said: "A series of cumulative petitions can be orchestrated over a considerable period of time. This clearly weights the process in favour of larger-scale organised groups and against individual schools."

Just under a quarter of heads had started to prepare material for parents, while others said they were ready to if asked. All were aware of the ballot information code, which says all material must be "explanatory and accurate, and should not mislead or distort".

There will be two types of ballot. Nine local authorities with large numbers of grammars will have borough-wide ballots. In other areas, "stand-alone" grammars and groups of grammars will be elected by parents from feeder schools - defined as those which have sent at least five pupils, in the previous three years, to the school.

Heads in Bromley, Sutton and Kingston are lobbying Department for Education and Employment officials to have the number of pupils reduced to three.

Barry Sindall, head of Colyton grammar in Devon, agreed. "Some 40 per cent of our pupils come from local, small feeders where parents will not have the right to vote because the school has not sent the required number. Yet parents of kids attending bigger schools 18 miles away can vote but will have no interest in us."

Nearly all heads said any timetable that meant that a vote to end grammar status before March would require a school to reorganise by September was unrealistic.

The voting mechanism is also open to abuse, it is feared. John Edwards, head of Harvey Grammar in Kent, said: "We must have procedures in place to verify the signatures, otherwise the vote will obviously be completely unjust. "

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they believed some grammar schools would lose their status, while 23 said they believed parents will recognise their value and would not vote.

Peter Read, chair of the Kent and Medway Grammar School Association, said:

"While grammars will not be abolished in Kent because of the sheer numbers and massive reorganisation it would mean the smaller, more isolated schools may be threatened."

Aline Black, head of Colchester County High for Girls, said grammar schools were popular with parents, and provided "richness and diversity" in education.


* Ballots will be triggered by a petition signed by 20 per cent of those entitled to vote.

* In areas with a concentration of grammars, parents of children in a state school or nursery, parents of children aged 16 or under who go to school outside the area and parents of children at an independent school within the area can vote.

* Where there are small groups or individual grammars, the parents of children at feeder schools - where five or more pupils have gone to a grammar in the past three years, can vote.

* If a boys' grammar is balloted, the girls' equivalent will automatically be balloted.

* Ballots can only take place five years after the last one.

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