Leading Article: Forget selection: diversity is the key to good education

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DISHEARTENINGLY, SCHOOL terms are reopening to the clamour of a row about comprehensives versus grammar schools. It all drags the education debate back by about 20 years - to a time when newspaper education correspondents had a built-in, day in, day out story of the "struggle" to abolish the 11-plus. This autumn, pro-comprehensive campaigners are attempting to trigger local ballots to stop the tiny number of remaining grammar schools (166 in all) from selecting pupils by academic ability. If enough signatures can be gathered, the first ballot is likely to take place in Ripon, North Yorkshire. The fiercest is likely to be in Kent, where there is a county- wide selection system.

The ballot option is a sop that the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, tossed to the left after his pre-election claim that there would be "no more selection by examination or interview". At the same time, he refused to promise to abolish those remaining 166 schools because, even then, he rightly saw it as a distraction from the serious issue of raising school standards.

He made the local ballot process highly complicated, which he probably hoped would make it just fade away. Unfortunately, even within the new model Labour Party, there are still those for whom this remains a touchstone of virtue. Schools can still raise the temperature. If the leading black candidate for mayor of London, Trevor Phillips, is not selected by the party, it will be, at least in part, because he has taken his children out of a failed local comprehensive system.

Is this a sensible way to carry on, a generation after Anthony Crosland, as Labour Education Secretary in the Sixties, undertook his scheme - in his own words - "to destroy every grammar school in England" (while leaving fee-paying schools untouched)? The destruction was compounded by the decision of a later Labour Education Secretary, Shirley Williams, to expel direct- grant schools from the state system in which they had long been examples of excellence (and also kept up the much-worried-over state-school proportions at Oxford and Cambridge).

This time, let's hope, a Labour government may get it right, undistracted by the wild-eyed balloteers in North Yorkshire and Kent. The push for educational homogenisation has failed, especially in the place where it was supposed to bring greatest benefit, the big cities. It didn't change society; it changed only the geography. Those middle-class parents - most notably in London - who didn't seek refuge in the private sector made sure that they were living in a house in the right neighbourhood for a decent school as their children grew older. It was a new form of 11-plus selection. But unlike the first version, which was meritocratic, the new version was class-based.

Moves towards diversity began under Margaret Thatcher's government with, for example, the city technology colleges. The diversification hasn't stopped. Under Blair, Blunkett and Woodhead, it has quietly expanded - a velvet counter-revolution. This is what we need: more diverse schools, not schools that try to lop everyone into the same procrustean shape.

The essential thing - which, paradoxically, already seems to be happening in Ripon, and may well be sent off track by the balloteers - is that all of the alternatives should be attractive and properly funded. One of the big failures in British education since the Second World War is that one core ambition of the watershed 1944 Education Act - to have a proper system of technical schools - was never delivered on. If local education campaigners need an issue, this is the one to seize on: for the academically minded, a good academic education; for the more practical-minded, a good technical education. This would be genuinely fair to all.