Selection is the winner, Mr Bond

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Clare Dean finds the bright young things of the Oxford Union up against the rapier wit of new Labour

"Your hostility to the whole question of comprehensive education is superseded only by your ignorance of all matters educational."

The put-down sprang quickly from the lips of Peter Kilfoyle, Labour's shadow schools minister, and momentarily stopped the bright young Oxford thing in his tracks. He shifted in his seat and played with his yellow and green bow tie before breaking into uncomfortable giggles.

Only minutes before he had been guffawing about the apparent mess Labour had got itself in through well-publicised choices of schools. Grant-maintained school and grammar school seemed to fit awkwardly in the "excellence for all" argument.

"Ask Tony Blair and Harriet Harman why the local comprehensive was not good enough for their children," he shouted.

But Mr Kilfoyle, father of two Oxford graduates, the first of 14 children in his family to go to university and no doubt now used to defending his party leader and fellow shadow cabinet member, was having nothing to do with it.

"Read my lips," he said to the suited and bow-tied benches. "No more selection. I am not against excellence, quite the reverse, but what I want is excellence for everyone.

"A system that selects a few rejects the many."

It was a very different debate from the one that had taken place just two days earlier.

Then, OJ Simpson had stood there in Donna Karan jacket and Armani tie, protesting his innocence and declaring his love of God, his mother, children and dead wife.

"This house would extend the principle of selective education" - the motion that was last week sandwiched between debates on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, and Sir Colin Cowdrey, the former England captain, on the future of the English game - did not quite have the same impact.

Maybe it was not helped by the emergency motion just an hour earlier: "This house believes nobody does it better than Connery."

Somehow even Peter Smith, the raffish general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, did not cut the same dash as Pierce Brosnan.

For elegant as the union leader was in black tie, neither he nor Harry Greenway, the Conservative MP for Ealing and a member of the parliamentary parachuting team, had quite the same aplomb.

And the thousands of students who turned out for the OJ media circus were replaced by just a few hundred prepared to listen to the arguments for and against extending selective education.

In the oak-panelled Oxford Union debating chamber, there were often some uncomfortable moments with claims of privilege left unanswered as the motion led to passionate, and at times heated, debate.

It drew recollections of friendships shattered by best pals separated by the grammar and secondary modern divide, and of parents forcing their children onwards and upwards. And it prompted accusations that the comprehensive system had failed bright pupils, who had been hampered by classmates who could not even add 12 and 13 together.

The outcome of the debate was obvious from the start, given the packing of the benches behind the proposers - Iain Corby, Balliol College, Margaret Dewar, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, Harry Greenway and Sir Rhodes Boyson, former education minister and Brent North MP.

But the passion of the opponents - Gillian Cull (Oriel College), Martin Roberts (Merton College), head of Oxford's Cherwell School, Peter Smith and Peter Kilfoyle - should really have won the day.

The two women speakers had nothing in common apart from the colour of their outfits - both purple.

Mr Kilfoyle stood out not only for his ready asides and cutting remarks but also his lack of a black tie - the garb favoured by the other male "front-benchers".

Mr Smith, meanwhile, was quick to slap down the student who addressed him as "Comrade sir", replying: "There are few people who call me comrade and I am obviously being more serious than you are."

But at the end of the day the ayes had it, and former comprehensive pupil Iain Corby was the one celebrating.

An ironic victory if ever there was one.

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