Rumours of the death of the comprehensive ideal have, it appears, been greatly exaggerated. Pundits and policy-makers have condemned the comprehensive school for so long now - a failed experiment, a piece of social engineering gone horribly wrong - that it seemed unlikely anyone would ever come to its defence again. But the recent furore over the Government's white paper on education seems to have given these schools a curious new lease of life. No political party is willing to back the major structural alternative to comprehensives - selection.
Sifting children into sheep and goats at the age of 11 is no longer seen as a vote-winner in Middle Britain. On the surface this seems a seismic shift in the educational landscape and one that has taken 30 or so years to achieve. While Labour have always been keen advocates of comprehensive schools, the Tories have, over the past 20 years, allowed for some form of academic selection. They have done so in the belief that grammar schools bespeak excellence and appeal to the middle classes.
New Labour's failure to abolish them completely, offering the elaborate mechanism of a local ballot instead, probably arises out of a similar perception. For grammar schools also appear to offer a way of keeping a certain type of parent in the state sector, an aim of New Labour. In a recent interview Tony Blair made it very clear he was not about to pick a fight with them despite vehement assurances that there was no possibility of selection being included in the white paper.
What has been forgotten in recent years, however, is the role this prized political constituency played in getting rid of the 11-plus. Organisations such as the Campaign for State Education were begun in the Sixties, by middle-class parents. While part of their original brief was, as their name suggests, to promote public rather than private schooling, much of their early campaigning revolved around ending academic selection. It was for an obvious reason: their children might fail the 11-plus as well.
Proportionally, more middle-class children have always gone to grammar schools, which is why the schools were seen as divisive in the first place. Recent research into the social effects of selective education across Europe confirms this. It found that the more selective the system, the more the society was socially segregated. But, of course, the vast majority of children, of whatever class, do not get in to the grammar school, hence the desire to be rid of something that brands a child a failure.
If the Labour rebels have achieved anything they have reawakened the debate on education, and reminded the public what the alternative to the comprehensive actually means. In so doing they have created a new consensus in the middle ground of politics - the desire for a good local school for all, which is surely what all parents want.
But it is the means of creating that "good local school" that all the fuss has been about and is the fight the rebels still have to win. If the 11-plus was the social equivalent of genetic engineering, then the education marketplace, as first conceived by the Tories and maintained by New Labour, is nature red in tooth and claw. It is natural selection through survival of the fittest. Whichever piece of research you care to look at, the result of creating an education market has been a widening gap between the performance of those schools at the top of the tables and those at the bottom. Far from creating greater equality, competition divides those already privileged from the rest.
The new proposals, with trust schools, specialist schools, academies and the "bog-standard" local authority comps, present a fragmented system in which some schools will control their admissions and others will not. As long as schools are judged by examination results, those that can will continue to cherry-pick the pupils who will deliver the goods.
If the argument against overt selection has finally been won, then it equally is important to combat selection by stealth. More than 90 per cent of children attend a state secondary school and more than 80 per cent of these are comprehensive. The arguments over the white paper have, on occasion, seemed somewhat arcane. But it is important to understand the nuances of the proposed legislation, because the devil lies in the detail.
The former education secretary, Estelle Morris, with others, has done a first-rate job of explaining the potential consequences of the proposals. Political power has always lain in the floating voter of Middle Britain. Maybe the rebels' arguments will make more sense to them than Blair's.
The writer is senior lecturer in education at King's College LondonReuse content