Ever since the Prime Minister's speech to grant-maintained school heads last September, his dream of a grammar school in every town has lodged in the political mythology alongside his images of warm beer and a spinster cycling to church in every village.
With the publication of this week's education White Paper, the warm beer still looks the safest bet. Whether because his Education Secretary has fought his Policy Unit to a compromise, or because the Treasury has yet again vetoed extra money (or, more likely, both), few promises are delivered.
What we now have is the most prolonged education manifesto in history. Discreetly entitled Self-Government for Schools, the most politically potent subtext is obviously to do with grammar schools and streams, rather than the transfer of more powers and money from local education authorities to schools (though the 95 per cent delegation is an obvious trump on Labour's proposed 90 per cent). More important in practical terms is the timing. Most of the substantive proposals in the White Paper require primary legislation, or depend on it.
The only new legislation promised for the autumn, however, and therefore the only Bill with the remotest chance of a full passage through Parliament before a general election on the latest possible date in May, relates to new powers for the Office for Standards in Education to inspect LEAs and the extension of the specialist schools to include sports and arts colleges.
Though local authorities regard at least the first of those proposals as threatening, it is not the most serious vote-winner on the agenda. That role is reserved for the promised extension of selection, but Gillian Shephard did not commit herself at Tuesday's launch to a Bill on that before next Spring, and she was even vaguer about when schools might get greater control of their budgets. . . "a long consultation. . . very, very complicated financially. . . sometime next year". Under the next Government? And, since the Funding Agency for Schools cannot propose new grammar schools except where the pupil projections warrant it, Mrs Shephard could only fall back on rising demographic trends for hope. Which adds up to not many more grammar schools this century.
With all those provisos, a White Paper has to be taken seriously. The most fundamental objection to grammar schools and selection has been reiterated often enough in these pages. However badly our national standards compare with those in competitor countries around the world, it is not our ablest children who are the problem. They are up there at the top of the tables at every level. It is our middle and (especially) lower-ability children who lag seriously behind, as the skills audit for the latest Competitiveness White Paper has just confirmed.
It is on this unacceptably long tail of failure that attention and resources must be focused if the Government's own targets are to be met, and all children to get the chances that they deserve, and yet 20, 30 or 50 per cent selection of an elite leads inexorably to rejection of 80, 70 or 50 per cent of the rest, something that most parents know. Rhetoric suggesting that a return to discredited secondary moderns and technical schools could actually produce a more successful education for the majority than real comprehensives remains unconvincing, especially when the grant-maintained and specialist schools that would be doing most of the selecting remain the most favourably funded. It is also worth repeating that a creamed comprehensive becomes a secondary modern.
Mrs Shephard insists that she is not proposing a return to the two-tier system that produced the 11-plus and secondary moderns and that the debate has moved on since those days, and contributors to The TES's own Comprehensive Debate would agree with her on the second point. But has it not occurred to her that what she is now proposing might not be infinitely worse for anxious children and parents?
Instead of just two selective tiers, there could now be a hierarchy of local schools including city technology colleges, GM schools, specialist colleges of various flavours, church schools and the neighbourhood comprehensive, each with their place in the pecking order. Instead of one ll-plus to sit, each school or college would have the power to set its own entrance test to assess ability or aptitude, and a child would have to be hawked around several to be sure of a place. If many LEA comprehensives do decide to select 20 per cent - if only to ensure a genuinely comprehensive intake - a high proportion of children could start their secondary career with a sense of rejection. It all looks like a nightmare for parents rather than a voter's dream of diversity. How can more power for schools to run themselves, without regard to the effect on others, possibly be compatible with parental choice anyway?
The White Paper is so lacking in educational rationale and so conflicting with other policies, that it can only be the product of sullen Cabinet compromise (how does carte blanche to start GM school sixth forms fit it with the equalisation of post-l6 funding, for example?). Mrs Shephard may have fended off the wildest excesses of Central Office, but it will be up to the voters whether John Major gets his grammar schools.