Labour's latest love-in with selection, as witness education spokesman David Blunkett's by-election visit to a Wirral grammar school and his revelatory Financial Times interview, wasn't quite as exciting a U-turn as it has been painted. Rather, it was the noisy collision which has been waiting to happen ever since two conflicting commitments were written (or spoken) into party policy at the 1995 October conference.
The main education business of that conference was to approve Blunkett's first position paper Diversity and Excellence, which sought to sideline the grant-maintained issue by offering all schools a choice of three new status options: community, aided or foundation. The verbal fireworks in the debate that took place starred Roy Hattersley, claiming the conscience vote and damning any two-tier "foundation" system as an attack on comprehensive purity, until Blunkett fought back with his show-stopping "Watch my lips" performance: "no selection by exams or interview under Labour".
But while Diversity and Excellence, which was accepted by conference, also declared the party's "implacable opposition to a return to selection by 11-plus," it made no commitment about abolition of existing grammar schools beyond promising local parents the right to challenge academic selection. "Change ... would only follow a clear demonstration of support from parents affected by such decisions."
The assumption was that parents living in the catchment area would be ballotted, but there were no definitions or details as to which parents would be entitled to a vote against grammar school status, or who would trigger such a vote. Nor was there any attempt to reconcile this semi-protected position for selective schools with the paper's other commitment to give back to local education authorities the power to approve admission systems within their areas.
Both statements seemed dangerously vague, but each was left for consultation in government - or so it was hoped. Unsurprisingly, given the impatience of some LEAs to jump the gun and abolish local grammar schools, and the suppressed rage within the party over the BlairHarman choices of GM or grammar schools for their sons, the issue keeps coming back to haunt David Blunkett, however hard he tries to bury it. Though he may see it as a side-issue, the Government claims it as a blue-water issue.
And so to the Wirral, its prized grammar schools, and David Blunkett's interview last Friday in the Financial Times, in which he said that "grammar schools face no threat to their continuance, or to their ethos or to their quality." Though he went a bit further than before with a promise that LEAs would not be able to initiate a parents' ballot, the FT wasn't really right to frighten the faithful with its headline "Labour shelves plans to abolish grammar schools." Did it ever say it would? But the spin doctors were busy all day, without much more light being shed on which parents would have the right to vote, or who would organise them. No wonder schools like Tiffin on the one hand are as edgy as Roy Hattersley on the other.
Really, they had better believe that Blunkett always meant "no more selection". Tony Blair has been clear since he became Labour leader that you don't win votes by messing with schools which satisfy parents, whatever your long-term plans or your opposition to government legislation to extend selection. He promised at his first education press conference in July 1994 that there would be no turning the clock back to 1979. Though his message is usually linked to his own choice of school, it was really one that the Labour party needed to face up to on behalf of many more parents.