Phoebe's friends face select future

9th October 1998 at 01:00
I SPENT part of last weekend at a conference on the future. All the participants were sworn to secrecy - unnecessary in my case, since I understood very little of what was going on. I do, however, recall that a lady futurologist traced the life of an imaginary millennium baby called Phoebe who was educated at a selective school, "comprehensive education having been phased out" during the first decade of the new century.

Perhaps I should have asked to see the evidence on which this gloomy prediction was based. But I was temporarily dispirited. The joy I had felt in hearing David Blunkett, on The World at One, refuse to respond to my criticisms of specialist schools had been dispelled by a letter which Stephen Byers (at the time of writing, junior minister in the Department for Education and Employment) had written to Margaret Tulloch, the admirable secretary of the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education.

Having made yet another fruitless attempt to distinguish between selection by ability and by aptitude, Mr Byers went on to defend the Government's decision to "allow partial selection to continue". Support for the hybrid arrangement which the Tories hoped would erode the comprehensive principle was justified by "the possibility that there may be areas where partial selection by ability is not causing problems and there is no groundswell of opinion from parents and schools against it".

Determining policy on the basis of groundswell is, at least, a novel way to run education. But Mr Byers clearly believes in it with a moral passion. "In these circumstances" (that is to say groundswell not registering on the Byers-scale) "it would be both heavy-handed and unnecessary for us to put an end to (partial selection) simply on dogmatic grounds." Mr Byers then issued a magisterial rebuke: "We want to take dogma out of education."

So here is another question for Mr Blunkett. Does he, like his recently-departed minister, regard opposition to secondary selection as unacceptably dogmatic?

The case for comprehensive education - its ability to provide the best possible secondary education for the largest possible number of students - has an intellectual, not an ideological, basis. How can the desire to provide what is best for a whole locality be dismissed as reprehensible dogma? Yet Labour seems now incapable of making the case against selection.

It is one of the great paradoxes of modern politics that as the Tory party edges away from its passion for grammar schools (it no longer promises to build one in every town), Labour feels a duty to defend selection wherever it still exists.

Fortunately, Mr Byers has shown the way in which concerned citizens can make up for the Government's infirmity of purpose. Within a month or two it will be possible to set in motion the procedures which lead up to parental ballots - the process by which both selective schools and partial selection can be ended. The arithmetic is clearly comprehensive. A vote to retain selection will label 80 per cent of children as failures and it ought not to be difficult to secure a majority of parents against that. All that the campaign for comprehensive education has to do is expose the facts.

That is why the most important speaker at October 24's "Say No to Selection" rally will be Jonathan Shaw, the MP for Chatham and Aylesford. He can describe what happens in selective Kent where several "secondary modern" schools have worse results than those achieved by the unhappy victims of last year's "naming and shaming" policy. Grammar schools depress the level of esteem and education locally. When Mr Shaw points that out - and when the electors of Kent demand something better for their children - I hope he will not be dismissed as dogmatic.

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