High price of ballot uncertainty

17th March 2000 at 00:00
The vote to keep selection at 11 could cost one grammar school pound;150,000 in lost pupils, reports Nicolas Barnard

ALAN Jones has been doing some sums. The Ripon Grammar School head estimates the 18-month campaign over selection which his supporters have just won has so far cost him almost pound;30,000 - and the final figure could be five times as much.

Not in fighting the campaign - the school had by law to keep out of the contest - but in the pupils lost through uncertainty.

"We normally admit 116 to 120 pupils a year. Last September we only admitted 100. Many parents, because - we must assume - of the uncertainty over the school's future, declined places," he said.

But it has hardly been a Pyrrhic victory: its switchboard was inundated on Monday morning by inquiries for prospectuses.

Last Friday's result has been a blow to anti-selection campaigners.

Privately, the Ripon Campaign for State Education expected to lose - particularly after the neighbouring secondary modern, Ripon College, joined in opposing change. A quarter of the electorate were parents with children at private schools, and the pro-selection campaign included an emotive video sent to every parent.

But the scale of the defeat - 1,493 votes to 747 on a 75 per cent turn out - was a shock.

Education Secretary David Blunkett told a party conference five years ago to "watch my lips" on selection in a parody of former US president George Bush. But he has consistently said it will be up to parents to decide on existing grammar schools. Campaigners wish he had given more of a lead.

"Once the ballot papers were in parents' hands, Mr Blunkett could have said he hoped parents ended selection, but he didn't and that is disappointing," said Margaret Tulloch, of CASE.

Campaigns to trigger ballots are under way in five authorities. In Kent, Trafford and the London borough of Sutton, where selection is authority-wide and all parents can vote, they believe they have won the argument. They see the Ripon result as sad but irrelevant.

Those pushing for feeder school ballots such as Ripon's are less optimistic.

All five will continue collecting signatures despite Tuesday's decision by the House of Lords to scrap ballots. Pushed through by the Tories to capitalise on the apparent confusion over Labour's policy, it will be quickly overturned by the Commons.

Supporters of selection argue CASE failed to recognise the increasing diversity in secondary education.

"What we have in Ripon was a partnership between a grammar school and a technology college," said John Harris, vice-chair of the National Grammar Schools Association. "That is a pattern that people aren't really grasping. You cannot talk about grammar schools in isolation."

Another Voice, page 18

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