Selection: the great divide: GRAMMAR SCHOOLS

The Tories have promised a grammar school in every town but would parents vote for it? Judith Judd charts the thinking of the parties on which pupils go where
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The Independent Online
Selection is the issue that most divides the parties. Broadly speaking, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are against it and the Conservatives are in favour. Even the Conservatives do not want to bring back the 11- plus and the allocation of children to grammar and secondary modern schools. However, their promise of "a grammar school in every town" would, in theory, amount to much the same thing. If you have a grammar school there will be a test to get into it and the other schools will be stripped of their cleverest pupils.

In practice, it probably would not work out like that. Grammar schools would not be introduced unless parents wanted them and most of the evidence suggests that they do not.

Only parents in the school in question would have a vote. All schools would be free to decide whether to become grammar schools or not, but the Secretary of State for Education would have to approve proposals and would stop all schools in an area becoming selective.

But schools would have more freedom to select pupils. Grant-maintained schools would be able to select up to half their pupils without reference to the Secretary of State, specialist schools would be able to select 30 per cent and all schools up to 20 per cent. The number of specialist schools would increase from the present 150 to 720. Even with grant-maintained schools, selection may not prove popular. Only 15 out of 1,500 were in favour of it in a recent consultation.

Labour's position on selection is also complicated - and sensitive - since Harriet Harman, the shadow social security secretary, sends one of her sons to St Olave's grammar school in Bromley. David Blunkett, the shadow secretary of state for education, has promised that there will be no more grammar schools, but that the remaining 161 will stay if parents want them. The party will offer parents at feeder schools to grammar schools - but not those in the school - a vote on whether the grammar school should continue. Details of the ballot have not yet been worked out. The important unanswered question is: what proportion of parents will be needed to trigger a ballot? If the figure is set comparatively high, most of the 161 existing grammar schools may be safe.

There would be some selection under Labour, because the party supports specialist schools. Under the 1993 guidelines on admissions which the party would restore, they would be able to select 10 per cent of their pupils for technology, arts, languages, sport and possibly other subjects. But Labour says this is "irrelevant", because specialist schools would have to share their facilities with neighbouring schools.

The 1993 guidelines also say that schools which are not selective should not interview their pupils except, in the case of church schools, to confirm their religious affiliation.

IN FAVOUR: Elspeth Insch

Just why should grammar schools be allowed to survive? This is the thorny question of the moment. If Labour is elected, Tony Blair pledges that they will - while sceptics fear that while New Labour is smiling at the grammars, Labour-run town halls are as dead set against selection as they ever were. At the end of the day, under the proposed "parental ballots" our future could still be in jeopardy.

As the head of a girls' grammar school in Birmingham, I think it would be criminal to close what are clearly such popular schools. This year I received 900 applications for our 128 year seven places at the school.

The applications came from all over the city. Yes, there were applications from the middle classes in the leafy suburbs, but there were just as many from the inner-city streets, many from Handsworth itself. We are offering a first-class education to any clever child who lives here, regardless of race or background.

In this school there is a pervading sense of the desire to succeed academically. The pace of lessons is fast - new staff are always amazed how much work they have to prepare. Homework is thorough; the marking load is great. Lessons are very challenging; difficult texts and high-order language are used. We teach beyond the national curriculum; all girls take Latin and two modern languages and we are continuing with three separate sciences at GCSE.

The girls have very clear goals - yes, we are aiming for the highest grades at GCSE and A-level, but were also aiming to develop fully rounded girls with a social conscience. Our school is completely multiracial - we have girls from all the major ethnic groups in the city.

Girls who come to us from other schools comment on the motivation shown by pupils. Discipline in the class is regulated by the pupils themselves, and overall there is a great willingness to learn. Going on to university is the norm for our girls, and from early on in their school lives they begin to make plans about what they want to become.

I support the idea of a grammar school in every town. The parents of 10-year-olds I meet certainly endorse the idea, too. It is well known that the results of non-selective schools in the areas where there are grammars are among the best in the country. Grammars drive up standards elsewhere. If we agree to the principle of specialist schools, then why not academically "specialist" schools?

There must be sufficient opportunity and encouragement for pupils of all different types of ability, and if there is an outstandingly academically gifted child from the inner city, should he or she be denied a chance to shine?.

The writer is headmistress of King Edward VI Handsworth School, Birmingham.

AGAINST: Steven Andrews

Comprehensive schools are a huge success. Almost half of all our sons and daughters achieve five or more top grades at GCSE. A-level success means that higher education participation rates have increased to just over 30 per cent. The result of this is that the number of young people entering higher education has increased by 250 per cent in the past 20 years.

The vast majority of our nation's youth attend comprehensive schools, and it will be comprehensive schools that deliver our ambitions for the future. There are only around 161 grammar schools nationally; good schools they may be, but in relation to the challenges that face us they are barely significant.

The CBI tells us that shortly after the turn of the millennium the country will need 50 per cent of young people attending school to go into higher education, and that by the end of the first decade of the next century this need will rise to 75 per cent. In other words, we have to have an inclusive rather than an exclusive educational system. Comprehensive schools include; selective grammar schools, by their definition, exclude. We should not believe for a moment that an educational system that selects a minority can deliver success for all.

A selective education system did not deliver across-the-board success in the Fifties and Sixties. In the late Sixties, only 6 per cent went into higher education. A selective system cannot deliver the kind of across- the-board success we need to achieve in the future, either.

Whether we should allow a return to grammar schools is an unhelpful and diversionary debate. What we should be talking about is how to make all schools good schools, and then how to make good schools even better schools. That means focusing on the things that are known to work; that are known to deliver individual success, and to motivate and encourage all our children. At best, selective schools can achieve this with only some of our children.

The future we face is one which demands that all our sons and daughters should be successful at school. Given this, it cannot be right to select young people at 11 years old and classify a few of them as successes and the rest as failures - and for them to learn of this judgement (which will almost certainly contain a percentage of error) at such an early age. It cannot be right to go back to a system where schools choose the student, and sometimes the parent as well, rather than the child and the parent together choosing the school; and surely it cannot be right to have a grammar school in every town, if it means the equivalent of a secondary modern in every town, too.

The writer is head of Sandringham school, a popular comprehensive in St Albans, Hertfordshire.