Sorry, Mr Gove, we can't hear you at the back

1st October 2010 at 01:00
- you need to speak up on admissions

What will get Tory pulses racing at next week's party conference in Birmingham (see page 6)? With the exceptions of Ann Widdecombe's debut tonight on Strictly Come Dancing and Theresa May's Manolo Blahniks, it could well be Michael Gove's speech on education. Will he floor delegates with his proposal to draft the army into schools, "Kindergartens need commandos", wow them with his commitment to a traditional curriculum "Less Wayne, more Virgil", or bring them to the brink of ecstasy with a pledge to restore discipline in the classroom "Yes, we cane"?

Doubtless Mr Gove will avoid all of those gross caricatures and concentrate on something more sober and substantial. But will he be brave enough to tackle an issue that needs to be addressed urgently: school admissions? It would be understandable if he didn't. After all, that is what his colleague David Willetts did three years ago and he was demoted for his pains. Mr Willetts had the brass neck to tell the Conservative Party what it didn't want to hear: that selecting pupils by academic ability at the age of 11 "entrenches advantage, it does not spread it". For Tories weaned on the myth that "a grammar school in every town" gave the bright but deserving poor a leg up, this was heresy, and all the more outrageous for being true.

Mr Gove shares Mr Willetts's misgivings over selection, but has so far managed to avoid picking an argument with Tory traditionalists. However, as his supply-side revolution gathers pace, spawning ever more free schools and academies, continued silence over admissions becomes less and less tenable. As Mr Willetts recogonised, "you can have diversity of supply provided that the new suppliers can't choose who they serve". If schools are allowed to select, they pick those children who are easiest to teach and neglect those whose difficulties impede their ambitions. But who is to stop them? As the Tories progressively weaken the powers of local authorities to intervene in education, policing admissions becomes more problematic; the opportunities to select more frequent.

What is a secretary of state to do? No admissions code is perfect. Selection by location encourages the middle classes to buy properties near good schools and avoid those with downwardly mobile neighbours. Banding by ability seems fairer, but can be bureaucratic and open to abuse as schools fill quotas with the compliant disadvantaged rather than the hard cases. And lotteries, while outwardly fair, can seem unjust to the parent who is deprived of any choice whatsoever.

There are no easy options. But by far the worst outcome would be a de facto slide into covert selection by schools that felt they had little to lose by breaking feeble admissions codes and an awful lot to gain. That would entrench social disadvantage - the opposite intention of Mr Gove's reforms. He needs to explain to us - and soon - exactly how we will avoid that fate.

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