Blair faces double assault on future of grammar schools

Click to follow

Tony Blair will face a twin assault on the future of the 164 remaining grammar schools as his controversial education reforms go through the Commons.

Labour MPs are planning to table an amendment to legislation aimed at scrapping the 11-plus and ending selective education.

They will also seek talks with the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, over simplifying the rules whereby parents can demand a ballot on ending selection in their own schools.

Labour MPs have been bolstered by a series of events which they believe have pulled the rug from under the pro-grammar school campaigners.

First, there is the new cross-party consensus between the Conservatives and Labour that there should be no new grammar schools, with the Toryleader, David Cameron, saying he would not support moves to increase their number.

David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North and a member of the Commons Education and Skills Committee, said: "That highlights an anomaly. Why continue with selection in any shape or form? It seems to me we are saying it would be wrong to have selection in East Sussex (where there is none) but it's OK to continue with it in Kent."

Mr Chaytor, who has just been appointed to the committee set up to scrutinise the legislation, plans to table an amendment aimed at bringing selection to an end.

Labour MPs argue that even those who oppose abolishing grammar schools now believe that 11 is too young to make such an important decision about a child's future.

In an interview with the satellite TV programmeTeachers TV earlier this week, David Willetts, the Conservative education spokesman, talked about the "brutality" of the 11-plus test - sentencing some of his friends to a secondary-modern education.

Some Labour MPs argue that instead of abolishing grammar schools, they could be run along the lines of sixth-form colleges, offering an academic route to youngsters from the age of 14.

Mr Chaytor is planning to seek talks with Ms Kelly and her deputy, the Schools Minister, Jacqui Smith, over making it easier for parents to demand ballots on ending selection. At present they can trigger a ballot only if20 per cent of those eligible sign a petition.

In areas that are totally selective, that means 20 per cent of all parents. But in areas where there is just one selective school it means 20 per cent of all parents at schools which have sent a pupil to the grammar school in the past few years - with the result that parents of children at state primary schools on its doorstep did not have a vote, while those who had sent their children to private schools did.

"If you had to get the support of 20 per cent of the electorate to trigger a general election, we'd never have one," said one anti-selection campaigner.

At a Commons seminar earlier this month, Ms Smith expressed sympathy with demands to make balloting simpler.

Mr Blair opposes abolishing grammar schools. However, grammar school heads are worried that, since his proposals for "trust" schools only cleared their second reading with Conservative support, he may come under pressure to make more concessions to backbenchers.

MPs will begin the committee stage debate on the Bill on Tuesday. It will last until mid-May, and the legislation may then have to wait until November to get on to the statute book.

n The Conservatives said yesterday that the ambition of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to close the gap between spending on state and private schools was not new. Mr Blair had made a similar commitment at a teachers' conference five years ago. They produced figures showing that since then the gap between the two sectors had widened from £2,000 to £3,000 per pupil.