Polls show voters do not back selection

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Just as the Prime Minister announces his intention to reintroduce selection into English education, another opinion poll comes up with evidence of how unpopular such a policy would be. What from Westminster looks like good knockabout policy that embarrasses Labour plays rather differently in the country.

The Conservatives appear to have concluded that the general public supported Harriet Harman in her decision to send her child to a distant grammar school rather than the neighbourhood comprehensive. As a Gallup poll published last week showed, this is true up to a point. The public does believe that politicians should put their children before their party, but that does not mean that they support selection as a policy.

Gallup found that 61 per cent of people felt that Harman was justified in sending her son to a grammar school, although 57 per cent also saw this as hypocritical given Labour's policy. This has cost Labour some support, with 10 per cent of Gallup's sample thinking less of the party as a result.

The really interesting findings, however, came in response to another question. Gallup asked those who said Harman was justified whether that was "because selective schools ought to be encouraged to select their pupils", or because "even though selective schools are not a good idea, they exist. ..and Harman...is entitled to choose the best school...under the existing system". Only 19 per cent thought that selection ought to be encouraged. The overwhelming majority, 77 per cent, thought that selection was not a good idea. Presumably, most of the 27 per cent of the whole sample who thought that Harman was wrong to send her son to a grammar school in the first place were also anti-selection.

These figures are in line with an ICM poll in The Guardian last month which showed support for comprehensives running at 65 per cent as opposed to 27 per cent against. A majority of supporters of all political parties, including 50 per cent of Conservatives, backed comprehensives.

Another ICM poll, for the Daily Mail, was wrongly reported as showing the opposite. The newspaper claimed that the poll showed 70 per cent supported the return of grammar schools, when it showed nothing of the sort. This ICM poll, which used a very small sample of only 506 people, half the usual national sample size, did not even ask whether people supported a selective education system. It asked whether people supported comprehensives, whether they thought schools should decide for themselves whether to be selective or whether local education authorities should make the decision. Those who supported either of the last two options were lumped together by the Mail as backing the return of grammar schools.

In another part of its poll, Gallup asked how people saw the future under the two main parties. Only 36 per cent were concerned that under Labour grammar and grant-maintained schools might be abolished.

If most people had no fear of Labour on this question, they did fear the re-election of the Conservatives for other reasons. When Gallup asked, "Even if taxes were cut, people and their families might have to pay more of the cost of things like health care, pensions and their children's education", 80 per cent said that they were concerned about this while only 16 per cent were not.

Education is an increasingly high-profile subject. It has risen to record levels as an issue that is perceived as a problem. When Gallup asked what was the most urgent problem facing the country, education was listed third, being mentioned by 10 per cent of people. When those in Gallup's sample were asked to name the next most urgent problem, the number giving education as one of the top two reached 26 per cent.

What is deadly for the Government is the combination of Labour being seen as having the best policies on education while education is rising up the electorate's list of problem issues. If the polls are to be believed, John Major's idea of bringing back selection will only make the Conservatives' position worse.

Demitri Coryton is a lecturer in politics at Richmond College

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