Have you lost the plot?; A three-part series that explains the issues behind the news

Schools: to select or not to select?
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The plot: when it comes to academic selection in state schools the plot is complicated by the chameleon tendencies of the main characters and their parties. Policy positions are undermined by the fact that politicians are often also parents - viz Harriet Harman and Tony Blair.

Both Labour and Conservatives agreed to drop academic creaming in the Seventies, partly because it was unpopular with parents. In many areas only 20 per cent of children passed the 11-plus. The vast majority were condemned to a second-class education. Only 160 grammar schools remain in England and Wales. Where selection has survived, places are sometimes so scarce that only 2 per cent of children qualify.

Prospects: today the Labour Party officially maintains its anti-selection stance. Not so the Conservatives, who have been gradually reneging on the old consensus that saw Margaret Thatcher, then education minister, close more grammars than any other politician. But as prime minister she led the way back. She saw the creation of grant-maintained schools as a halfway house on the road to grammars. But the decision not to permit the first GM schools to be overtly selective acknowledged the differences in her party. Last week John Major announced that GM schools could increase selection.

Labour originally promised that GM schools would be returned to local authority control. But it now recognises this would be unpopular with parents who voted for schools to opt out. So if Labour wins the next election there will be no more financial incentives to opt out and no new GM schools. Those that exist will retain control over admissions and staff, rather like church schools. The future of existing grammar schools will be decided by parents at feeder primaries.

In Northern Ireland, selection is the norm. In Scotland, state schools have adopted the comprehensive system wholesale. Political consensus on education ensures that both systems, while at opposite ends of the political spectrum, avoid being the political football that the system in England and Wales has become.