Ballots to decide the future of grammars are a sham, says Francis Beckett. So why doesn't the Government just come clean and admit it now backs selection?
THE BALLOT which ensured the continuance of selective education in Ripon was as rigged as the ballot that made Frank Dobson the Labour party's candidate for London mayor.
In fact the rigging methods used bore startling similarities to those employed against Ken Livingstone. The eligible electorate was manipulated in order to give the result the Government wanted, which was to retain selection; and it has been similarly adjusted in the other areas where there is still selection.
It's much more serious than rigging the mayoral ballot. That was a Labour party matter, and it's up to party members to deal with leaders who treat them with that sort of contempt. But when New Labour rigs selection ballots, they bring their Tammany-Hall methods into the government of the country.
In the mayoral ballot, MPs were given votes worth 1,000 of those of ordinary members, and told they had to cast their votes in public. They were also reportedly told that their careers, and in some cases their much-needed office space, depended on casting them for Dobson. It was clear that union members would vote for Ken Livingstone, so their vote was taken away from them. Enormous block votes were cast for Dobson without consulting members.
When it came to selective school ballots, the Government could easily have devised a simple system for getting parents to vote. But that risked the possibility that selection might be overturned, with consequent condemnation by the Daily Mail - a risk that no New Labour minister who values his career can take.
So in areas where grammar schools take fewer than a quarter of the children, like Ripon, Blunkett has decreed "feeder school" ballots. In order to get a vote, you have to be a parent of a child at one of the primaries that regularly sends children to the grammar school. Being a parent at a school which has regularly sent pupils to the secondary modern will not do.
Thus the parents of five state-funded primary schools in Ripon, - most of whom would have voted against selection - were deprived of a vote. And parents of pupils in private fee-charging schools were given votes, even though one of those schools was 10 miles away from Ripon. Most of these parents voted in favour of selection.
In these circumstances, it was a major triumph for Ripon's anti-selection campaigners even to get the 20 per cent of eligible signatures requiredto trigger the ballot in the first place. It is an achievement which may be beyond those in Barnet.
Parents of children in several primary schools in the centre of Barnet are not eligible to sign the petition. But there are private fee-charging schools miles away whose parents are eligible: three in Hertfordshire, seven in Harrow, four in Haringey, 11 in Enfield, nine in Brent and three in Camden, all of whose parents have a say in how Barnet's education is run, a say denied to hundreds of Barnet parents.
In areas where more than 25 per cent of the children go to grammar schools, a different system was required. Most, if not all, state primary schools in such areas would be able to claim that they are "feeder" schools for the grammar schools. So ministers were faced with the challenge of finding another way to deny a vote to some of those who might oppose selection. The system to be used in Trafford shows what they came up with.
Trafford has a larger proportion of children at selective schools than any other area. All parents of children under 16 who live in Trafford are entitled to vote. So are parents of children living outside the area whose children go to state schools in Trafford.
So far, so good. But these parents have been divided into two groups: those automatically registered to vote, and those who must apply for registration.
Parents whose children come into Trafford schools from outside the borough get a vote automatically. These are generally parents who like the selective system and whose children travel in order to attend Trafford's grammars.
But Trafford parents whose children go to schools outside the borough have to register with the ballot company, if they are to have a vote. These are generally parents who dislike selection and whose children travel out of Trafford to avoid it. They must write to the Electoral Reform Ballot Society in London, enclosing a birth certificate, a utilities bill and details of their children. Anti-selection campaigners have no access to the lists of parents who can vote, and there is no legal way they can contact them.
These are just the big scams. There are, just as there were in the case of the ballot for London's mayoral nomination, a host of small bureaucratic obstacles for who might vote the "wrong" way.
The Conservatives were honest. They said they approved of selective education and wanted to keep it. New Labour pretends it is handing choice to local parents, when it has not the smallest intention of doing anything of the kind.