Labour to ballot parents over scrapping grammar schools

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The Independent Online
LABOUR is planning to ballot parents on the future of Britain's 160 remaining grammar schools. If the majority of parents in a grammar school's locality voted against selection, the school would have to close or scrap its entrance exam.

The proposals, being drawn up by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, emerged as a fierce row erupted over the decision of Harriet Harman, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, to send her 11-year-old son to St Olave's, a grammar school in Bromley, Kent. The school is opted out of local authority control. Ms Harman's decision was privately described by one fellow Labour front-bencher as "absurd" and "disgusting".

She and her husband, Transport and General Workers' Union official Jack Dromey, live about 10 miles from Bromley, in Dulwich, south London, where schools are run by a Labour education authority. They have another son who attends the Oratory, the grant-maintained Roman Catholic comprehensive school attended by Tony Blair's son, Euan.

As the row raged over Ms Harman's decision, senior Labour sources yesterday stressed the party's opposition to selection. Last year Mr Blunkett declared to the Labour party conference after a bruising battle with delegates who wanted a firmer pro-comprehensive stance: "Read my lips, no selection, no interviews".

Where grammar schools still exist, a Labour government would ballot parents of children attending local primary schools.

A source said: "We will consult with all those affected. That will involve testing the opinion of those who could have a reasonable expectation of their children entering the school."

Parents of children already at grammar school and other local secondary schools would probably not have a vote. Their children would be allowed to complete their education in the existing schools, whatever the outcome.

As many parents in "feeder" schools know their children may not meet tough entrance criteria for grammar schools, the ballot plan poses a big threat to some of the remaining grammar schools.

Previous policy statements have kept Labour's method of consultation vague, with a pledge that change could only come about with "local agreement". Details are being drawn up by Mr Blunkett for inclusion in the party's election manifesto.

Sensing a propaganda coup, the Conservatives leapt on Ms Harman's decision yesterday. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, said: "The Labour Party's hypocrisy and double standards on education are breathtaking. Tony Blair, Harriet Harman and Paul Boateng [Labour's legal affairs spokesman] have chosen grant maintained or selective schools for their children, but their stated policy intentions would remove those choices from everyone else."

The row is a deep embarrassment to Labour ahead of tomorrow's consideration of the Government's education Bill in the Commons.

Mr Blunkett, a passionate defender of comprehensives, accused Mrs Shephard of "intellectual confusion" and said that her policies were restricting parental choice of schools for their children. Ms Harman's choice of school for her son was "entirely one for her and her husband to make".

Mildred Gordon, Labour MP for Bow and Poplar, admitted: "It looks bad, and it's embarrassing." But she defended Ms Harman's decision, arguing that her son Joe might have friends at the school, or be seeking a particular form of tuition.

John Horam, Conservative MP for Orpington where St Olave's is situated, said: "It's hypocrisy, isn't it? That says it all. This is a very successful school. It has excellent exam results. I am not at all surprised that she wants to send her boy there. But it totally contradicts Labour policy."

St Olave's was originally a religious foundation school in the City, which moved out to Kent after the war to expand.

n Labour was bracing itself for a new row this week with reports that Joy Johnson, its director of communications, is to resign. after clashes with leading "modernisers".

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