Analysis: Watch my lips: What Blunkett is really promising

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The Independent Online
Q. Did David Blunkett, Labour's Education spokesman, mean "no selection" when he told the 1995 party conference "watch my lips. No selection."?

A. No. He meant no further selection.

Q. Did Mr Blunkett mean there was no threat to grammar schools under Labour when he said this week: "Grammar schools face no threat to their continuance, ethos and quality"?

A. Not really. He meant that there was no threat that they would be closed by a Labour government, but that they would become comprehensive if parents wanted.

Ever since Labour abandoned its policy of encouraging councils to end selection 18 months ago, the party has been trying to have it both ways over grammar schools, which have a nostalgic hold on the public imagination.

During the Wirral by-election campaign, it is clear why. Conservatives have been making selection the main issue in an area where the local grammar schools are popular.

So Labour's spin doctors must be rubbing their hands with glee over reports in yesterday's papers that the party has abandoned its opposition to grammar schools. Mr. Blunkett has secured the headlines simply by repeating an old policy, dating from June 1995.

The party leader, Tony Blair, said then that Labour would not "allow a return to the division of children into successes and failures at eleven". But he promised that there would be no vendetta against the 161 remaining grammar schools.

Councils will have no say in whether selection stays or goes, despite some insisting that they will start proceedings to abolish grammar schools as soon as Labour is elected. Instead, parents will have to petition the Secretary of State for Education for a ballot to be held.

The nature of the ballot will depend upon the area. Where there is only one grammar school, only parents of children in primary schools will get a vote. Where the whole system is selective, all parents would get the vote.The party would consult on what proportion of parents would be needed to trigger a ballot. If it is set high, it could ensure that the grammars remain. The final result would be decided by a simple majority.

Labour would not force the issue. Estelle Morris, Labour's education spokeswoman, said last month: "It could be that we can go the whole of one parliament without any ballots being triggered."