Leading article: Selective confusion

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The Government's policy on selective education remains confused and highly unsatisfactory. Officially, in the words of a Department for Education spokesman, "legislation prohibits the establishment of new grammar schools – and ministers have been clear that will not change". Which might reasonably be expected to mean that no more grammar schools can be set up.

That, however, is not quite true. You can establish a new grammar so long as you call it a satellite of an existing grammar school. A plan to do just that has been agreed by Kent county councillors so that families in Sevenoaks – where there is no grammar school at present – could have one to send their children to.

The school – with an intake of 120 pupils in its first year – would have "links" to grammars in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, which appears to be how Kent County Council has got round the Government's restrictions. But to all intents and purposes, a new grammar school is exactly what it will be.

That the desire for grammar schools remains strong – 70 per cent of Sevenoaks parents backed the plan – is not the point. Britain has a state education system of bewildering complexity comprising many different models, and for the Government to say one thing on grammar schools and acquiesce over another adds to a general sense of incoherence.

It is not just the Coalition Government that is obfuscating over selective schools. Labour was just as bad when it was in office. Both David Blunkett, when he was Education Secretary, and Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, often used to rail against the inequities of the 11-plus exam. Yet not one of the country's 164 remaining grammar schools was closed during Labour's 13 years in office. Indeed, the number of grammar-educated pupils increased under Labour.

Broadly speaking, Labour is opposed to grammar schools while many in the Conservative party favour them. But neither party has the courage to come out and say it. That benefits no one. Such prevarication has been a feature of the debate over education ever since the comprehensive ideal was – supposedly – embraced in the 1970s. Will it ever end?

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