Leading Article: A better class of selection

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The Independent Online
NOBODY wants a return to the old-style 11-plus. It divided children into those destined to enjoy a well-resourced, respected education in grammar schools and those dispatched to the second-rate, low status, secondary modern system. Movement was minimal between the two, which entrenched social divisions and class immobility. Creation of comprehensive schools in the Seventies reflected parental dissatisfaction with a rigid system that failed so many.

Yet selection is not intrinsically bad. If it identifies needs, and the education system then caters fairly for each child's requirements - be they vocational, academic or otherwise - it can be the opposite of elitist. It can make the best of varied talents. Developing potential fully is crucial if Britain's workforce is to be competitive.

The Government appears convinced of the case for more selection but is too politically wary to come clean about its convictions. The Department for Education plans to allow new schools - and existing private schools - to enjoy grant-maintained status. In other words, like church schools, they could set their own rules for entry, provided they raised 15 per cent of capital costs. The plan may never catch on, but it sounds like selection by the back door. It will be attacked as a charter to bail out private schools and for middle-class parents to remove their children from the comprehensive system, largely at the state's expense.

Dressed up as increasing parental power, this policy of creating ad hoc grammar schools could cause confusion. It would further drain local education authorities of morale, without putting any alternative strategic body in their place. To rely on parents to take the educational initiative would inevitably create a disparity between middle-class parents, who have the energy and organising skills to benefit from the system, and less aspiring mothers and fathers.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, should adopt a more co-ordinated approach. He could learn from experience in Buckinghamshire, where the Tory- controlled council has maintained selective schools, but within an integrated education system. Non- grammar schools have not become sinks of deprivation. Children can move relatively easily between systems. The education authority, rather than parents, controls policy. Exam results suggest considerable success for less able children and more academic pupils.

Buckinghamshire's example may not be repeatable universally. It is a wealthy county without the inner-city problems of some areas. And, although it has mitigated the more odious aspects of the pre-comprehensive system, its selection system remains unsatisfactory. Fourteen may be a better age to channel children into different types of education. A key flaw is common to the rest of Britain: vocational training still lacks the status enjoyed by academic schooling. Until this injustice is corrected, there is little chance of squaring selection with fairness to all.