Leading article: A question of selection

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The Independent Online

It is odd that a Prime Minister who delights in challenging outdated Labour Party shibboleths should be so unwilling to consider the merits of a return to selection by academic ability in secondary schools. Why is Tony Blair so determined to close down public debate on this thorny but increasingly vital issue?

Politics is the short answer. Backbench Labour MPs are opposing the Government's Education Bill because they believe it would reintroduce selection by the back door. Mr Blair is terrified of showing any sign that he would favour such an outcome because this would scupper his chances of getting the Bill through the Commons. Selection is therefore the dog that must not be allowed to bark.

But this debate cannot be stifled indefinitely. The secondary education sector is clearly underperforming. Those grammar schools that remain are showing better results than their comprehensive peers. And the irony is that selection still exists - but it is selection by parental income, as rich families buy up houses next to the best state schools. This is clearly unsatisfactory.

The thrust of the Education Bill - setting individual schools free from local education authority control - is welcome and should help matters. But does it go far enough? The Government is seeking to encourage individual schools to select pupils on the basis of, among other criteria, sporting, musical, dramatic or scientific aptitude. But why not overall academic ability?

The danger of academic selection, as most sensible people would recognise, is the development of a two-tier education system in which a small minority receive an excellent education, while the majority must accept a poor one. But we need to ask whether there is some method of selection that can avoid this pitfall, while still driving up standards.

Is it possible to stretch the more academic students, while ensuring that the less academic are not written off as failures? There obviously would have to be a selection mechanism that is less arbitrary than the old 11-plus. And there would need to be greater provision for students to move schools if they changed in academic capacity after the age of 11.

Our political leaders may ignore these questions for the moment, but they cannot escape them for ever.