No abolition without consultation

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Trafford in Greater Manchester is poised to become a test-bed for the Labour party's new "let-the-parents-decide" education policy.

The logistics of next week's local election, as well as the Government's unpopularity, look set to ensure that Labour will win an overall majority for only the second time in the metropolitan borough council's history. Trafford is currently a hung council with Labour running education.

Such a victory could also have a significant impact on the national debate on education in the run up to a general election, with the council's Labour group keen to scrap the borough's selective schools and go comprehensive.

David Acton, the Labour chair of education, stresses that any move to abolish Trafford's five grammar schools would be based on the party's national policy of consulting parents through local ballots.

"We are not moving towards a non-selective system until there is a Labour government. Gillian Shephard would undoubtedly reject it if we proposed it now," he says.

"There will be consultation before moving to a non-selective system and that consultation will involve parents. But we have not yet specified what the process will be. We would want to work that out between us as a local authority and nationally," Mr Acton says.

He says abolishing selection would remove anomalies such as one that sees Stretford grammar school with 300 vacancies while nearby high schools are full and children are having to be bussed elsewhere.

In the election the Conservatives are defending 16 seats, compared to Labour's four and the Liberal Democrats' one. And because these were seats won in the post-general election euphoria of 1992 there are predictions the Tories could lose up to 10. Currently, Labour and Conservative have 19 each with the five-member Liberal Democrat group holding the balance.

Mr Acton believes the extra money Labour is putting into primary schools will be a vote-winner. Just over half of primary children are taught in classes of more than 30 and many buildings had been allowed to deteriorate.

John Hyde, head of St Hugh of Lincoln RC primary and secretary of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, said the extra money for the primary sector was "a small, first step in the right direction". Last year Trafford's primary head claimed the borough's schools were very badly off compared to those in other authorities. Mr Hyde believes the overwhelming response of parents made primary funding an election issue last year. And it will be again next week.

Eddie Smallridge, head of Lostock High School, and a recent chair of the Secondary Heads Association in Trafford, said he believed the debate in the local media on the grammar schools failed to reflect the true picture.

"While there are a fair number of people who would support keeping the status quo there are also many who think the opposite," he said. "But the former tend to be more vociferous. I would suggest that the major education issue this election will be selective education."

He was in favour of comprehensive education, but he thought the grammar schools would seek grant- maintained status rather than become comprehensives (Altrincham grammar school for boys has already opted out).

At Sale grammar head Jennifer Connelly believes selective education is an issue best left to the politicians. "Whatever happens we will continue to do our best for the youngsters here whether we are a grammar school or comprehensive."

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