Leader: Four lies to tell parents

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The Independent Online
Do politicians think we are all stupid? Last week's White Paper on schools - possibly the most dishonest and intellectually incoherent document to emerge from a government department in 50 years - suggests that they do. Since 1979, a section of the Tory party has been determined to bring back grammar schools. It has been repeatedly frustrated because most parents do not want grammar schools: partly because they don't wish their children to go through the agonies of the 11-plus, partly because they are sick of the disruption caused by politicians' pet schemes. The Tories have, therefore, invented all manner of devices to smuggle in selection by the back-door: city technology colleges, specialist schools, opted-out schools. Ministerial assurances, made again and again, that none of these novelties was designed to bring about a new generation of grammar schools were lies.

The White Paper is another step along this road of falsehood. It does not actually herald a wholesale return to the old selective system, though it makes it fairly clear that any school opened in England and Wales from now on will have to be a grammar. It allows existing schools to select "by ability or aptitude" up to 20 per cent of their intake, 50 per cent if they are opted-out schools. If you think this creation of selective ghettos within comprehensives lacks educational logic, you are right. But the White Paper is a political document and it is full of lies.

The first lie is that grammar schools and comprehensives can co-exist. They can't. A school is comprehensive only if it has very clever children as well as the average and the dull. If the clever ones are creamed off into selective schools, the comprehensive is manifestly no longer comprehensive and cannot do its job properly. The best research shows that a critical mass of bright children in a school will raise not just the overall average standard but also the attainment of the less able. The majority of supposedly "failing" comprehensives lack this core of clever children.

The second lie is that creating more selection increases parental choice of schools. It doesn't: it lets schools choose children. This was why parents in Solihull resisted a Tory attempt to turn some of their comprehensives into grammars in the 1980s; they saw that, if their children failed the 11-plus, they would be excluded from some of their better local schools. The only choice for parents is whether to enter a child for the exam. Most will do so, if they think the child has a chance, for fear of him or her being condemned to one of those comprehensives that aren't really comprehensive. Parents who decide not to enter their children are usually exercising choice only in the sense that the A-level failure does not choose Oxford or the homeless person does not choose the Savoy.

The third lie is that "the Government does not intend to oblige any school to change its admission arrangements". The reality is that, once one or two comprehensives in an area start to select children up to the 20 or 50 per cent limit, the others will be obliged to follow. If they don't, they will miss out on their share of the cleverest children. Schools that don't hold a competitive exam will be assumed by parents to be non-academic. And, just in case any schools miss this point, the White Paper obliges their governing bodies to consider the arguments for selection annually.

The fourth lie - implicit in the White Paper but explicit in recent ministerial statements - is that standards have plummeted since comprehensives were introduced. There is no evidence for this whatever: more children are passing exams, more are going to university and more of those are getting first and second-class degrees. If standards are too low against other countries that has been so for 40 years and has nothing to do with comprehensives.

Ministers claim that their White Paper is encouraging "diversity", as though this were sufficient cause for congratulation. But what is the point of all this diversity? We are not talking here about cans of soup, where you might want to try the cauliflower and Stilton one week, the French onion the next. Parents cannot, as though they were in a theme park, take a ride on one of Gillian Shephard's 50 per cent selective schools before going for a spin on the technology college roundabout. Most would happily exchange the certainty of a good school within easy reach of home for all the dazzling "choice" offered in the White Paper.