I think I've got it right. Grammar schools are good things and will be protected by the Tories, but their numbers will not be increased. Among the plethora of choice that parents are now subjected to there will be no button marked "grammar school?" Access to this particular social good, an effective and well-regarded school, will remain a matter of luck, a sort of postcode lottery - just like access to good comprehensives.
No one mentions secondary modern schools. When the Tories promised to restore grammar schools back in the 1980s, everyone was silent about secondary moderns, the corollary of academic selection. Now, neither party has a coherent approach to organising secondary education. Having proclaimed the failure of the comprehensive system, New Labour is imposing another "choice", the city academy, to follow the Tories' grant-maintained schools and city trusts and their own foundation and community schools.
There were, and may still be, good secondary modern schools, as good, perhaps, as some comprehensives. In many places grammar schools have been left in leafy suburbs where comprehensives would have flourished – in the leafy parts of Buckinghamshire, for example, and in the London Borough of Redbridge where I went to school, but have been removed from educationally deprived areas where comprehensives struggle – such as Hull, where there are no longer any state grammar schools.
There never has been a proper comparison of the two systems, and I'm not sure that there could be. David Willetts, the shadow Education secretary, speaks of the statistics indicating that academic selection sustains the fortunate at the expense of the less fortunate, an interesting flourish. However, whatever the statistical niceties in respect of exam results, it is the spread or concentration of the "less fortunate" that is important. Where they are concentrated by academic selection and consigned to secondary modern schools, or concentrated geographically in comprehensive schools in poorer and deprived areas, they are more likely to prove difficult to teach. And, where there are sufficiently large numbers of them, their presence militates against the education of other children in the same school.
This is the unspoken truth that lies behind the determination of many parents to get their children into good schools whether they are academic, better located or independent. It is the same unspoken truth acknowledged by parents such as Tony Blair and Diane Abbott when choosing schools for their children. It has as least as much to do with the influence of less fortunate children as with academic selection. Academic standards are important, but they will in any case be sustained more readily in schools that are not troubled by indifference or hostility. When I was a teenager, ambitious parents who could afford it stumped up fees to avoid indifferent secondary moderns; now more of them do the same to avoid indifferent comprehensives. The new types of school on offer will only succeed where they enjoy the same advantages as successful comprehensives – a high proportion of supportive parents.
This truth is integral to the support for grammar schools. No parent is obliged to send a child to a grammar school; they only attend if the parents enter the child for the selection process. If they don't bother, the child is sent elsewhere. It is the wish of the parent here that is crucial. Like admission to independent schools, or oversubscribed state schools, this system tends to discriminate against children whose parents are less interested in education or who are not concerned to support schools. This is what enables these more fortunate schools to succeed. And, of course, there is no easy way for the state to provide all children with effective parents.
Secondary modern schools are no longer to be found in leafy suburbs. They are in more deprived areas. They, and the larger comprehensive schools that have succeeded them, struggle to gain popular support. Politicians ignore or are unaware of this. The law can and does oblige parents to send children to school; crucially, it cannot compel them to support schools. So, politicians maintain the pretence that the right system, if only they could find it, would transform those schools. What they cannot do is to transform families.
Never mind the system Mr Willetts. What will you do for this troublesome minority of children who cannot help themselves and serve only to hinder others? What rabbit will you pull out of the hat for the secondary modern schools, official and unofficial, that remain among us?
The writer is a former west-London comprehensive school head whose first novel dunno tells the story of a professional truant