It works. So why change it?

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Selection is used to boost standards - and not only in grammars, argues Roger Hale

ROY HATTERSLEY clearly wants to get rid of the country's remaining 166 grammar schools, but recognises that this will prove very difficult to do.

The draft regulations setting out how this could be done are, indeed, enormously complex. It would have been straightforward for a Labour government to have made the task for would-be abolitionists much easier. It seems clear, though, that the Government does not want to get rid of grammar schools.

Why should this be? The official response will be that it is standards not structures that matter now, and that in many parts of the country the costly reorganisation necessary after a successful (but acrimonious and divisive) campaign would be a huge distraction from the task of raising standards which is common to us all.

It will also be said that grammar schools are an irrelevance: fewer than 200 schools out of 4,500. I am not nearly so sure about this, however. There are many signs to the contrary. The old doctrinaire opposition to selection has been abandoned by some prominent New Labour supporters. Some have embraced it at a personal level. Far more are prepared to think pragmatically and experiment with previously unpalatable possibilities if they can be made to work.

Indeed, the Government is now just as keen as its Conservative predecessor to adopt diversity in the state education system to achieve excellence. Education action zones are the most high-profile example of this, but the Specialist Schools Initiative is another important one.

Such schools are allowed to select many of their students by aptitude and continue to get extra funding to support their work. There are now twice as many of these schools as there are grammars, and a lot more are on the way.

Grammar schools are not really so different from these schools, specialising as they do in working with the most academically able - just as other types of specialist school focus on technology, languages or the arts.

In the pursuit of higher standards, furthermore, many government supporters are tacitly prepared to accept the case for grammar schools. The Office for Standards in Education suggests they out-perform other types of school in just about every category of measurement, not just in their academic results.

But the results are significant too; demonstrating as they do that the best grades are to be found disproportionately among students attending less than 4 per cent of the country's schools. The tendency for students in grammar schools to gain better results than their peers in other types of school would do, despite the same level of prior attainment is noted in the Department for Education and Environment's own statistics (see Statistical Bulletin 197).

This is probably why selective schools are so popular with parents in the few areas where they still survive. Their local popularity and high profile is yet another reason why the Government will not be keen to see them disappear. Most grammar schools will be confident to let their future be decided by local parents. What a pity that local wishes will not be allowed to foster any new selective experiments.

So, if the Government is not keen to take on grammar schools and has deliberately made it difficult to get rid of them, what is motivating the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education?

I am afraid that it seems to be stuck in a time warp: keen now to complete the establishment of a rigid orthodoxy which it failed to achieve more than 25 years ago. They are wedded to an out-moded dogma. In most areas, they will not be responding to local concerns. Instead, they will interfere to orchestrate "local" campaigns in an artificial way from their own drawing rooms.

But it is not the new regulations which will present CASE with its biggest problem: its vision of a dull uniformity has already been dispatched into the dustbin of history by a Labour government prepared to accept almost anything if it works. As grammar schools do work, they will be around for many decades to come.

Roger Hale is headteacher of Caistor Grammar School, Lincoln, and committee member of the National Grammar School Association. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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