Leading article: Selection is the taboo politicians must confront

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The Independent Online

One advantage of the flurry of initiatives pouring from the office of the new Conservative leader is that a broad spectrum of policy areas is being opened to fresh scrutiny. Unfortunately, all too often they are opened, only to be closed again almost immediately. Nowhere is this truer than in education - David Cameron's brief in the Shadow Cabinet. After becoming party leader, he made a point of saying that he would not oppose government policies just for the sake of it. So it was that yesterday he went to Basildon to speak about education. And here he did not stop at broad agreement with what the Prime Minister was trying to do. He wanted more of it; much more.

First, he reversed the Conservatives' illogical opposition to university top-up fees. Then he embraced specialist schools. Where the Government advocates 10 different types of specialist schools, only four of which may select a small proportion of their intake on aptitude, Mr Cameron wants more. He believes that all such schools should be allowed to select pupils according to aptitude - but only, like Mr Blair, up to a maximum of 10 per cent of the intake.

Mr Cameron coupled his more-Blairite-than-Blair message on specialist schools with a warning shot across the bows of those who might have hoped that a Conservative government would at least broach a return to selective schools. There would, he said categorically, be no going back to the 11-Plus, and no return to grammar schools. He wanted selection within schools, but not between schools. To this end, he said he would give priority to "setting" by ability, if necessary by central government directive.

Leaving aside the matter of how receptive individual headteachers would be to the imposition of "setting" by government fiat, Mr Cameron's musings leave precious few differences in schools policy between the two main parties. As of yesterday, the gap between the Conservatives and Labour boils down to statutory setting within schools and a wider range of specialist schools.

But in this age of wider choice, is that really the best option available to voters and to parents? And should these be the - very limited - parameters within which public debate about education policy is conducted? We hope not. With at least three years probably remaining before the next election there is time for a broader debate, and it is one the country surely needs.

At least one element of this debate should be the principle of selection. Labour has spoken, at best confusingly at worst with forked tongue, about how selective schools may be. Its policy allows selection for physical, but not cerebral, ability; for specialist economics schools, but not for for schools to specialise in maths. These are distinctions that seem expressly designed to get around the vexed question of selection by academic ability. The degree of independence that Labour will give to its proposed trust schools is also in question: they will, it appears, have much budgetary and curricular autonomy, but none on admissions.

Focusing the discussion on specialist schools also avoids mention of perhaps the greatest source of injustice in the present system: the de facto selection that has resulted from the combination of comprehensive schools, league tables and catchment areas. The disparity in house prices between areas with desirable schools and those without is arguably an even greater bar to social mobility than was selection - because money provides the only escape.

It is high time that selection, in all its blatant and subtle forms, was addressed directly. No education debate will be worth the name unless it breaks this new Labour, and now new Conservative, taboo.