What is at stake here is not a matter of political correctness. Justice, equality and freedom - so often invoked in the fight against racism and ethnic cleansing - are founded upon education. This is something we might have expected Labour to recognise. The words of Tony Blair before the last general election still echo in many minds: his priorities, he said, were: "Education, Education, Education".
A decent education is not something that should be available only to those strong enough to force the pace, either through money or influence. Education is both an obligation and a right - an obligation by us all to provide and encourage, and a right to expect and accept.
The Thatcher years, however, fostered an entirely different outlook: choice through the market economy. Schooling has been put on a par with choosing a can of beans, a holiday, or a pair of shoes. Most people, however, have no choice. Very few parents can afford private schooling. In the case of those who can afford it, the financial sacrifice is often so great that the pressure to achieve can become unbearable. Neither is there real choice in the state sector, where selection is increasingly employed.
Comprehensive education was clearly intended to do more than inculcate the three Rs. It was supposed to be co-educational, multicultural, multi- ethnic, with mixed ability classes. The idea was that individuals should be brought up to respect their neighbours, to share responsibility and, ultimately, to care. Such a need is ever more necessary in the wake of the Macpherson report. Access based on merit or money at the age of 11 cannot possibly promote inclusion, only division and elitism.
I have six children. Five went to comprehensive schools in Haringey, north London, which had an exemplary record in promoting state education and allocated a high budget to it. My first wife taught in, and I was a governor of, one for four years. There was little or no problem for parents about gaining access or having choice. There was no selection.
Compare this to Wandsworth, where I live now. It is not uncommon in the borough for primary school leavers to sit separate exams, each of different length and content, for separate schools - some doing a series of six to eight to attempt to gain entry, or rather hope of entry. It is also not uncommon for some state schools in the borough to emphasise during their open days that competition is so keen that only the top 10 per cent stand any chance. In one case I know of, the head's talk was so peppered with the school's academic achievement of 98 per cent in various GCSEs that we just felt compelled to walk out in the knowledge that the same school creamed off only the academic top flight, and in those circumstances it would have been amazing if they did not record such standards.
Instead of returning to a position of open entry, Wandsworth has just announced it is intending to standardise the entry test, which effectively amounts to a re-introduction of the 11-plus, abolished for good reasons many years ago. I find this all the more ironical since Wandsworth hosted one of the first comprehensive schools in the United Kingdom, and David Blunkett asked us all to watch his lips before the election when he promised no selection "either by interview or by examination". Worst of all, the process of introducing selection into the state sector has been accomplished by stealth and not by consultation with, or the consent of, parents. The recently introduced Schools Standards and Framework Act could mean an end to selection, but its implementation will be complicated. Appeals to adjudicators, petitions, distinctions between "whole area ballots" and "feed school ballots" obfuscate the whole issue and render the procedure ineffective for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile on an everyday basis, very young children are being subjected to a range of assessments, over and above the exams themselves. Initially, there were Standard Attainment Tests (SATS), then school league tables and now exams for five-year-olds - base line assessment. We are fast creating a hot-house atmosphere that will inevitably lead to a two-tier system - one for the so-called achievers and another for the non-achievers. The anxiety and emotional turmoil engendered among both pupils and parents has become unacceptable and, ultimately, destructive. There is tangible fear, evident in the tearful faces of children who can't sleep, contemplating the prospect of an inability to match the expectations of the system. The end result is that the same top 10 per cent get offered the places at all the schools to which they have applied, and the rest of the 90 per cent await their fate over many months according to the fallout from the top. In this lottery we have been lucky and my youngest has gained entry, after several hiccups, to one of the few genuine comprehensive schools that remain.
Many other children are less fortunate, and parents who have cherished the comprehensive ideal find themselves impaled on the horns of an unpalatable dilemma: go private, go out of borough, or end up in a "sink school". It is at this point that the free marketeers move in to suggest that no one should sacrifice their children on the pyre of principle. They never consider for a moment that those who opt out weaken and reduce the choices for the majority who cannot afford to opt out.
Interestingly, the selection is a peculiarly English disease. In Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all state schools are comprehensive and non-selective. No one suggests standards are lower - quite the reverse, a high proportion goes on to further education. In any event, such research that has been carried out demonstrates that there is no basis for selection at 11. Howard Glennester, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, has observed that "pupils from uncreamed comprehensives do better in examinations than those in selective areas" (The State of Welfare, OUP, 1998). The experience of schools in Cheshire, which have been comprehensive for more than 20 years, has a better record than Kent, which maintains the 11-plus. One school alone, Alsager, in 1997 had A- level results superior to three-quarters of Kent's fee-paying independent schools.
Unless we return to basic concepts of fairness and opportunity, we are in danger of creating social and educational apartheid. This is no way to prepare and educate our children towards a "one nation", inclusive and egalitarian vision of the future. The one thing that cannot be said at this time is that proper comprehensive provision is unaffordable when we are prepared to spend pounds 80m so far on the war in Kosovo.