Why the selection vote went our way

17th March 2000 at 00:00
THE fax machine cleared its throat and people fell abruptly silent. Judge Simon Grenfell, chair of the governors, leaned over as the message crackled into view, and said simply: "We've won."

We had more than won. The vote against ending selective entry into Ripon Grammar School, at 1,493, was twice that in favour of moving to comprehensive education. No one had anticipated quite such a decisive outcome.

At first sight, Ripon must have appeared to the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education an ideal battleground to begin the campaign against the country's 164 remaining grammar schools. The 770-pupil Ripon Grammar School, in its red-brick Victorian building, creamed off 30 per cent of the most academically able children in the area.

Opposite stood the former secondary modern, now Ripon College, 472 on roll, in its post-war building. The grammar school invariably was in the top handful of performers in the exam league tables: the college propped up the North Yorkshire league.

There was a history of argument in the city about selection: some 400 children left it daily to go to comprehensive schools in Harrogate or Boroughbridge rather than go to the college.

In North Yorkshire, only Ripon and Ermysted's Grammar and the High School - both in Skipton - retained selection.

On top of that, the rules for a ballot devised by the Government seemed to favour CASE. As a stand-alone grammar school, Ripon's fate would be decided by fewer than 3,000 people, the parents at primary schools which had sent five children to the grammar over the previous three years. Crucially, parents of children at neither of the secondary schools had the vote - potentially around 2,000 disenfranchised. Only 587 signatures were needed to force a ballot on ending selection.

So what went wrong for CASE - so wrong that it added only 160 signatures to its petition total during the five-week campaign? It is easy to say that it underestimated support for the grammar school and the acceptance of selection.

This is certainly true. But the full answer lies in the changing view in the city to the college.

CASE argued that the college could never be anything other than the bottm of the heap while the grammar school lorded it across the road. But while four years ago, the college was losing pupils and seemed frozen in the grammar school headlights, now it was different.

Much of the credit for this goes to Paul Lowery, appointed headteacher four years ago. In those years he has seen pupil numbers rise, has significantly renewed the teaching staff, seeking specialists in technology, and has developed the college's role so that 4,000 people annually attend further education courses. The school has its first university entrants and OFSTED designated it an improving school with a sense of purpose in a pre-Christmas inspection.

Above all, the school has been awarded technology college status from September. With the college establishing a positive identity Paul Lowery joined the grammar school headteacher, Alan Jones, in opposing change.

The two schools formed Ripon Schools Partnership to fight against comprehensive re-organisation, and made three basic campaign decisions. First, it insisted that it was not fighting to "save the grammar" but to maintain two schools of different but equivalent quality. Second, it resolved to keep the debate local.

And third, it argued that a Yes vote would mean a leap into the unknown. This charge was reinforced by North Yorkshire education authority's admission that a vote for change would "not necessarily" mean a single comprehensive school in Ripon. The Government's rules did not require the local authority to spell out what form comprehensive education would take, still less assure it the cash to deliver reorganisation.

Perhaps there was something else at work: a feeling that the argument about comprehensive education versus selection was part of an old, tired debate and that the argument had moved on from structures to improving performance in individual schools. The Government may well have got what it wanted politically, given its attachment to winning the opinions of the Daily Mail. But it conveyed a strong feeling that educationally the caravan had moved on.

The battle of Ripon may be one of the last fights in an old war.

David Curry is Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon

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