Major branded 'hypocrite' over Harman row

Secondary Heads conference: Prime Minister attacked for using education as political pawn
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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister's attacks on Harriet Harman for sending her son to a selective school are hypocritical, a head teachers' leader said yesterday.

John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association, told its annual conference in Newcastle upon Tyne that Labour should have attacked John Major for hypocrisy because he had chosen to send his children to private schools instead of the successful local comprehensive.

Mr Dunford said selection was not an issue a year ago because in most parts of the country there were no grammar schools. It had become one for purely political reasons.

The Prime Minister's announcement that he wanted a grammar school in every town was a "slogan-policy, dreamed up because the Government needed a new ''Big Idea''. The aim was simply to embarrass the Labour Party.

"I do not understand how anyone can seriously believe that the creation of a large number of selective schools will improve the education system by one jot. The Prime Minister himself said that, at the top of the ability range, this country's performance is unrivalled. Presumably a good dose of rejection at the age of 11 is supposed to improve the performance of all the others."

Opinion polls showed that parents did not want a return to selection. Yet already we were moving towards more selection with the decision to allow schools to pick up to 15 per cent of their pupils for a special aptitude or general ability.

The Number 10 policy unit had become the paramilitary wing of the Conservative Party, "operating covertly and anonymously on a series of fronts, none of which bears any relation to the current situation".

The Prime Minister spoke the words and Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, followed because she had little alternative. The policy unit had promoted nursery vouchers, the plan to give schools control of their own admissions policies with no regard for its effect on other schools, and opting out for all secondary schools despite clear evidence that most did not want it.

Politicians' denigration of schools had been so successful that there was a crisis of confidence in state education. Yet in 1979 only a quarter of 16-year-olds had passed at least five 0-levels. Now over 43 per cent achieved the equivalent.

John Sutton, the association's general secretary, told the conference that the attack on comprehensives was "a lie of which the late Dr Goebbels would have been proud".

All comprehensives had been condemned because a few had embarked on experiments which did not succeed and because a few lacked their fair share of middle- class pupils. "More than that we are now told by politicians of both major parties that the very process which has created the problem - and it doesn't matter whether you label it selection or choice, the results are the same - should be built permanently into the system."

His comments came as Mrs Shephard denied suggestions that the Government was planning an across-the-board return to grammar schooling."We would not wish to return to a wholesale system of grammar schools and secondary moderns because that would be to strike at the heart of the diversity," she told BBC TV's On the Record.