Election '97: Tories plan parental choice over grammars

Shephard says schools would have to make case to her in order to go selective
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Parents would decide whether they wanted a grammar school in their town, ministers said yesterday - but only up to a point. The next Conservative education secretary would decide whether or not local demand for selection was strong enough to justify it.

Announcing details of how the Prime Minister's plans for a grammar school in every town would work the current secretary of state, Gillian Shephard, made it clear that schools would have to make a case to her in order to go selective.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that the process by which a comprehensive could become a grammar would be similar to the process for opting out - that there would be a parental ballot. However, aides made it clear later that it would be up to the school's governors whether they wanted to hold a ballot or not. They could also decide whether or not to consult parents in feeder primary schools about whether or not they wanted their local secondary school to be a grammar.

Mrs Shephard would not speculate on what would happen if all the schools in an area applied to be selective, as comprehensives in Bromley have done, but an official said later that she would be likely to choose two or three rather than allowing all to go ahead.

Yesterday's announcement also included plans to give local authority comprehensives more control over their budgets, with councils being forced to hand over all the money apart from that needed to carry out statutory obligations such as planning and running welfare services. Under the reform, schools could own their own buildings and be the official employers of their own staff.

Announcing the moves, the Prime Minister said they would give state schools an independence and freedom they had never had before. There would be no return to the eleven plus, he said, but there would be an increase in diversity.

"Doctrinaire Labour councils won't be able to stand in the way. We just want more good schools that are all aiming to offer the best, and we want more choice in education for parents and more variety for pupils," he said.

Labour attacked the plans, saying they would mean secondary moderns in every town and that they also highlighted splits in the cabinet. There had been plans to offer financial incentives to new grammar schools under the government's specialist schools programme, but these were dropped after an internal dispute.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said the proposals would mean many more children would be unable to go to the school of their choice.

"They would deny most parents the opportunity of good schools. Instead a small group of parents could decide to deny to other children the same choice and opportunities which their own children have," he said.

John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the plans were profoundly undemocratic: "The parents of potential future pupils and the parents of pupils at other schools will have no say in a matter which directly affects their children's future."

Margaret Tulloch of the Campaign for State Education, the parents' pressure group, said that support for grammar schools had been falling steadily. In 1957 a Labour party poll showed that only 10 per cent opposed selection and in 1967 76 per cent were in favour of retaining grammar schools. By 1987 a MORI poll showed 62 per cent in favour and a Harris poll last year showed 54 per cent backed a return to full selection.

Margaret Dewar chairman of the Grammar Schools Association said: "I would like to see funding go to academic schools as well. I do think that they need some financial incentive."

Peter Miller, president of the Secondary Heads Association, asked how selecting the top 20 or 30 per cent would help under-achievement. "The turmoil over admissions will be made worse by any increase in selective schools. The Conservatives have abrogated their responsibility to plan the system."