Clamour for grammar as Labour looms

Selective schools are suddenly booming, reports Diana Appleyard, thanks to Labour's thumbs down, and Harriet Harman's thumbs up
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The Independent Online
The controversial decision by Labour front-bencher Harriet Harman to send her son to a highly selective grammar school appears to be responsible, at least in part, for an extraordinary increase in the number of applications for the country's remaining selective state schools.

It seems that this year many more parents - of all social classes - are prepared to put their children through the hurdle of 11-plus entry in advance of any incoming Labour government which may threaten the existence of at least some of the remaining grammar schools.

Labour has made clear its total rejection of selection for schools by any means, and has said that once in government the future of the admissions policies of the remaining grammar schools will be left to a ballot of local people.

Grammar school headteachers are saying the so-called "Harman Factor", coupled with government policy of increased selection, has raised the profile of this slice of the state education system and brought many more would-be pupils to their doors.

One school, Pate's Grammar in Cheltenham, says applications this year have doubled. David Barnes, the headteacher, says: "There has been so much publicity around the issue of selection by this government, I think it's simply ceased to become a 'dirty' word and parents are seeing this as a viable form of education for their child."

Margaret Dewar, of the National Grammar Schools Association, says: "Parents who wouldn't have thought of applying to a grammar school before now think, 'Well if it's good enough for her child, it'll be good enough for mine'."

Barnes says: "At this time last year we had 300 applications for our 120 places - this year we've received over 600 applications, and I'm considering ordering new supplies of our examination paper because I think we aren't going to have enough."

In Birmingham, the King Edward Foundation, which runs five grant-maintained grammars in the city, says it's likely to reach a record of 4,000 applications for the 533 places this year - many from parents who would never before have thought of applying.

The head at King Edward the Sixth Grammar School for Girls in Handsworth, Elspeth Insch, says: "Parents all over the country are getting very anxious that their younger children will not be offered the chance of a place in a grammar school.

"They want the same opportunities for them as they had for their brothers and sisters. They are unhappy that the choice they have had in Birmingham, for instance, may be taken away from them."

The school has just held its open day and a record number of parents flocked through the doors. "I think we're attracting a different type of parent," said Ms Insch. "Parents who wouldn't have dreamt of sending their children to a grammar school are now coming to us because of all the increased publicity and the threat by Labour. Some primary schools in Handsworth itself who wouldn't normally encourage children to apply to us are getting in touch, and I have been asked to give presentations in some schools for the first time ever because of parental demand."

There are currently about 100,000 children in the remaining 162 non-fee- paying grammar schools in this country. Most have survived in pockets - in Birmingham, Lancashire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Lincolnshire and Kent. In Birmingham as recently as 1990 the Labour-run city council made an attempt to close them down, withdrawing only after a series of high- profile public meetings at which parents made their views very strongly felt.

Grammar schools select from the academically brightest 3 per cent of children in this country, and nationally there is an average of four applicants for every one place .

Grammar school lobbyists believe the future of the schools would be uncertain under a Labour Party which has promised to allow decisions about the future of the grammar schools to be left to local ballot.

Those in Labour-run authorities like Birmingham are particularly concerned. As Margaret Dewar puts it: "David Blunkett has said, 'Watch my lips - no selection'. We are very concerned that education will become a political football."

Martin Morris, the head at Bacup and Rawstenstall Grammar School, believes that local ballots could mean in reality a change in the admissions policy which would change the nature of the school.

"I think giving the local community a say in what's going on will in effect mean giving locally elected members a say in our admissions policy - which would give us less selection and from a geographically more narrow area," he says.

Like many other grammar school headteachers, he has also seen a trend in the increase in applications this year and believes there has been a "re-emergence" of the grammar school in many parents' minds.

"A few years ago people had simply forgotten that the grammar schools existed," he said. "Now, with the Government's emphasis on selection and all the publicity surrounding Harriet Harman's decision to send her child to a selective school, I think parents have realised that this can be an option for their child.

"Over the past two years we've seen our applications rise from 350 to 450 for the 150 places. I am sure that will increase even further this year."

He also puts the dramatic increase down to parents' fears about state education. "Parents come to me saying they're worried about their children in the local comprehensive. They're being labelled as 'swots' and bullied. I think parents like the idea that their children are being pushed along academically and they like the ethos of discipline here.

"But what's very important is that parents are realising that the grammar schools of the Nineties are very different from the old idea of the grammars in the Fifties. We are not dinosaurs and we have changed with the times - for example here we're leading the field in the development of modular A-levels and we have excellent IT facilities," he said.

Tony Dempsey, headteacher at the popular Tiffin School in Kingston-upon- Thames, says his phone has been red hot for the past month. Last year the school received nine applications for every one place.

"People are becoming more interested in the grammars - and realising there isn't just a stark choice between state or private," he says.

Entrance for the schools is generally by their own 11-plus-type exam. This year more children than ever before will take part in the traditional fight for places - as the grammars themselves are preparing to face the potential battle for their own existence n

'I have friends here from all walks of life'

"I had this image that it was going to be like St Trinian's, or something out of Tom Brown's School Days."

Sixteen-year-old Debbie Tracey is a sixth-former at King Edward the Sixth Handsworth Grammar School for Girls. She lives in nearby Balsall Heath and her mum is a shift supervisor, while her dad works at the Rover car plant. Her parents had pushed her to apply to the school, which has 10 applicants for every place.

"It surprised me," says Debbie. "Most of my friends go to the local comprehensives, and I thought it was going to be really old-fashioned with a big school-marm standing over you all the time. But it's not like that at all - it's a really modern school, and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.

"It's in an inner-city area, so there is a real cultural and ethnic mix and it's not at all stuffy. It doesn't matter what your parents do - I have friends from all walks of life, we're all here to get a good education."

Driving to the school takes you past the site in Handsworth where the infamous riots of the last decade began. There is still appalling poverty in the area. The school also backs on to the more affluent area of Handsworth Wood. Many of the girls who attend come from Handsworth itself - others from more affluent areas of the city such as Harborne. Daughters of the middle class rub shoulders with girls from unemployed or low-skilled families without a trace of snobbery. The school is truly a classless society; you sense a real willingness to leave social-stereotyping at the door.

The school was built in 1911. It is an imposing redbrick structure. Inside your feet echo on the wood-block floors along the white-tiled corridors. The great hall is there, too, and in some classrooms rows of wooden desks remain. But there the old grammar school similarities end. "Anyone who has the image of a grammar school 25 years ago would be quite wrong," says the deputy head teacher Sue Newton. "There has been a complete transformation. The ethos of striving for academic standards is still the same, but the way that we deliver the National Curriculum is extremely modern and our teaching style is more relaxed."

The school is constantly introducing new subjects. This year, pupils can take a joint GCSE in Information Technology and Business Studies, as well as a GCSE in Dance. The school is pioneering modular A-levels, in Maths, Psychology, the sciences and Economics. Over half the sixth-form is taking Maths A-level, bucking the national trend. At lunchtime, the sixth-formers run clubs for the rest of the school, ranging in subject from allotments to Star Trek.

The school has 879 pupils. In class the girls are attentive, but there is much lively debate and the sixth-form centre rings with whoops of laughter. Despite the uniform, fashion is much in evidence.

Sixteen-year-old Natasha Harris came to the school from a state primary in Handsworth. She lives with her mum a few streets away from the school. She is taking A-levels in Psychology, Religious Studies and English Literature and Language combined, as well as a GCSE in Drama.

"My mum wanted me to come here because she felt the standard of teaching was very good," says Natasha. "It's not at all snobby, and I'm still the same person I was before. I don't walk through the gates and turn into Margaret Thatcher's daughter! My friends thought I would change but I haven't - I still hang out at the weekends."

The school works hard to attract pupils from all walks of life. Information about all the King Edward Foundation schools are sent out to all the primary schools in Birmingham each year, and every year this school invites local heads in to see what kind of education on offer. The emphasis is always on the fact that the education is free.

Ms Newton was a grammar school girl herself. "My background wasn't wealthy at all and it meant I mixed with a variety of people I would never otherwise have met. Going to university and becoming a professional was seen as the norm, so I accepted it was possible for me, too.

"I'm really anxious that our girls get that chance, too. I hope we're turning out well-educated and confident young women who will be successful in their personal and professional lives. These are the children who are likely to be leaders in our society, and make a positive contribution