The Grammar Schools Debate: Minister defends education plan: Critics claim proposals for selective schooling would undermine parental choice

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THE GOVERNMENT said yesterday that its highly controversial proposals to extend selective schooling were a natural extension of its commitment to 'choice and diversity' in education and its aim of giving more power to parents.

Baroness Blatch, education minister, speaking on Radio 4's World at One, emphasised the Government's desire to escape 'the stultifying uniformity of state education' and take state education out of the sole hands of local authorities.

But critics retorted that the proposals would undermine parental choice and create a two-tier system: provision of a different sort of school across the country would be uneven and more parents would be denied places for their children at their first-choice schools.

Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, said the plans were fundamentally undemocratic. 'What most concerns me is that the Secretary of State for Education is using its power to enable small groups in the community to overturn the wishes of larger groups.'

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the strength of the old grammar school system, largely replaced by comprehensives in the early Seventies, had been that it had enabled academic children to be educated alongside each other and given the right academic diet.

'But the defects were that it operated grossly unfairly against a large number of children who failed to get in to the grammar schools,' he said.

Professor Ted Wragg, at Exeter University, said there had been some fine grammar schools, and some good secondary moderns, but the problem had been the stigma felt by pupils at the latter. He said failing to pass the 11-plus exam was 'a stigma they still carry'.

Buckinghamshire education authority still retains the grammar school system, and its examination results suggest that its secondary modern schools as well as its grammars are performing well, with 52 per cent of all pupils gaining five GCSE grades A to C in 1992, compared with the national average of 38 per cent.

The Buckinghamshire system allows late developers to transfer to a grammar school later on, often for the sixth form. But Alan Smithers, professor of education at Manchester University, said the most effective way to allow pupils of different abilities and interests to develop was not to select at 11, but to provide different 'pathways', vocational and academic, from the age of 14.

This could be done, he said, either within the same school, or by several schools and colleges working together to share facilities. 'But this demands an element of planning - which seems to be anathema to the Government.'