Today's report by the Local Government Ombudsman censuring two Kent grammar schools for flouting admissions regulations raises fresh questions about the role of selective schooling in state education. In essence, the Judd School in Tonbridge and the Skinners' School in Tunbridge Wells were found guilty of compromising the independence of appeals panels set up to hear complaints of unfair treatment by the parents of prospective pupils.
The report exposes a disturbing arrogance on the part of the schools. They clearly did not take the appeals system seriously enough. But it also, inevitably, feeds into a bigger debate about the future of the grammar school sector. The Government is in a quandary over what to do with these schools. While it accepts that the 164 remaining state grammar schools in England provide a first-class education for their pupils, it will not allow the grammar system to expand outside the areas in which it already exists. This is because the 11-plus selection mechanism is widely regarded as unfair, with its considerable bias to children from middle-class homes.
It is also outdated from an educational perspective. The secondary sector is steadily becoming a 14-19 system. At 13, children will soon be forced to make a choice as to whether to take diplomas (with a vocational slant but academic content) or GCSEs followed by A-levels. It makes no sense, even if one believes the 11-plus to be a fair exam, to divide children into academic and vocational "sheep and goats" at 11 if they are only going to make a fundamental choice about their future education just two years later.
It is interesting to note the reaction of one grammar school – St Joseph's College in Stoke-on-Trent – to a radical proposal from the local education authority to improve education standards. Stoke-on-Trent council has floated the idea of reorganising all the secondary schools in the area, closing them down and building a new system based on establishing one of the Government's flagship academies in the city.
In opposing the plan, St Joseph's has understandably emphasised how the reorganisation would bring an end to what had been, for many years, an excellent school. But the school's head teacher, Roisin Maguire, also argues that she might be prepared to drop selection if it proved a barrier to the school's existence.
Ms Maguire is right to argue that a good school should not be closed down. But the logical implications of her comments are also correct: academic selection at 11 is unfair and increasingly unsuitable for today's educational world.