Where's the parental ballot for specialists?

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
Most parents, teachers and children in Trafford will warmly endorse Tony Blair's description of the "old grammarsecondary modern system" as "rigid and unfair", with one caveat - here it's not the "old" system because the 11-plus never went away.

However, they wonder why a Prime Minister who claims to believe that and to have the courage to tackle educational problems, produces a Green Paper which does nothing to end a system which breaks up friendship groups and severely damages the self-esteem of the majority of ten-year-olds and depresses standards.

Of course, we have the theoretical possibility of a parents' ballot on the issue, which can be triggered only by the signatures of 20 per cent of parents, a threshold which is four times that required for a ballot on an elected mayor (if the Government wants something, the trigger is 5 per cent; if it doesn't, it's 20 per cent).

We tried it last year and found it to be a huge, complex and expensive task, made much more difficult by many hurdles enshrined in the regulations. Unless ordinary parents are able to raise the large sum of money to pay for such campaigns, the matter is taken completely out of the democratic process.

But the Green Paper, and the spin surrounding it, confirms the real reasons for those regulations, namely that the Government is set on moving in the opposite direction. Under the euphemism of an "overhaul", it has launched a full-blown attack on comprehensive education.

Even Margaret Thatcher didn't try that. Alastair Campbell's educationally meaningless talk of the "bog-standard" comprehensive (no talk of bog-standard grammars) is not only insulting to many excellent schools but also reveals an ignorance of the evidence.

Over the past 30 years, the comprehensive system has delivered a massive increase in both the number of students gaining qualifications at 16 and the proportion going on to further and higher education. It would have been nice to see the Green Paper recognise this, or the research by Professor David Jesson, which shows that not only do comprehensives do better than selective systems for the majority of children but do not lower the achievements of the most able.

None of thisis to deny that schools of all types can be good or not so good and that there is a constant need to raise standards and achievement in those schools which are not getting the best out of their students. But how do you do it?

The Green Paper is remarkable for the lack of supporting evidence for its proposed policy direction. And just as Mr Campbell is a master of language which is high on negative connotations and low on educational meaning, the Green Paper is characterised by the opposite - warm words with equally imprecise meaning. Who is going to say that they don't believe in "education with character" or that a school shouldn't have its own "distinctive ethos"?

What the Government means is half the schools becoming specialist. The Green Paper is silent on the key issue of the selection procedures for these schools. It does nothing to reassure us that this is not about recreating a divisive bipartite system. What about the 50 per cent of children who are left in the non-specialist schools? And what if there is no specialist school of the type you would like near your home? With seven types of specialism among only half the schools, for many pupils this will be a statistical inevitability even in urban areas. In rural areas, the concept is absurd.

There is another more sinister danger. The parent of a child who attends her nearest secondary modern, which is now a specialist sports school, recently told me of her child's feeling of isolation because she is not sporty and does not join in the cheerleading-style "distinctive ethos" centred round the sports teams.

This has led to adverse comments in her school reports about her not using the sports facilities much. A double-whammy - "fail" the 11-plus and then "fail" because you prefer the library to the hockey pitch.

Finally, since the Government is so keen on parental ballots as the only way to change the status of our schools, why is there no proposal for these major changes to be dependent on a parental ballot? I suggest a 20 per cent trigger and the same ballot regulations as apply to our attempts to get rid of the 11-plus.

Malcolm Clarke is chair of Wythenshawe and Sale East Constituency Labour Party

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