Leading article: A comprehensive failure

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The Independent Online
At The age of 11 all children used to be divided between the sheep and the goats. Some 30 per cent of the saved went up to grammar school, while 70 per cent were damned to secondary moderns. It was to the Labour Party's eternal credit that they abolished this useless child cruelty in the Sixties: it was Shirley Williams's legacy to the quality of British life.

Now Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, has cast aside that legacy. Watch Blunkett's lips - absolutely nothing will be done. Parents of children in grammar schools will have to vote for the destruction of their own schools before Labour lays a finger on them - and pigs might fly.

In truth, Labour abandoned its commitment to do away with selection 18 months ago when Tony Blair said there would be no vendetta against the 161 remaining grammar schools. That went hand in hand with a promise that Labour would not "allow a return to the division of children into successes and failures at 11". Maybe this attempt to square the circle passed muster in June 1995, and Mr Blunkett's subsequent invitation to the Labour party conference to watch his lips saying "no selection" might have led reasonable people to suppose that the party was committed to ... no selection. In the sharper focus of the Wirral South by-election the flaws in Labour's attempt to face both ways at once are all too apparent. The Conservatives see electoral advantage in emphasising Labour's historic enthusiasm for the comprehensive system and in emphasising an imaginary threat to the popular local grammar schools. Labour sees capital in restating its promise to protect the existing grammars. Those looking to find a policy that differentiates the two parties find themselves again let down. But why are both parties so sure that grammar schools are an electoral winner?

In the Wirral, one-third of children and their families are thrilled when they pass in to the local grammar schools. But two-thirds of the children fail, marked down, rejected and cast aside. Les Byrom, the Conservative candidate, was one of these himself. Consider the angry disappointment of middle-class families who have invested heavily in buying property there, only to find their child rejected after all. Consider the misery of all those families told by the education system that their child is "not academic" or "more suited to a technical education". Those old enough to have taken the 11-plus will remember it for the rest of their days - the glory of passing for the few, the ignominy of failure for the many. Families were split asunder, as one child made the grade and another failed. The secondary modern children felt branded for life: though enough subsequently passed A-levels, or moved on to better schools or colleges, to illustrate just how bad a predictor of intelligence and later success in life the 11-plus was.

The 11-plus was designed for a society that thought it needed a small educated elite to give orders and a large lumpen labouring mass to obey them. Those days are gone. The uneducated are mostly doomed to unemployment. Education policy has had to focus on equipping the many for a technological future. Successful countries are not those with the most Einsteins, but those with a highly educated population across the board. The grammar/secondary modern divide runs against our urgent economic need for a high level of mass education.

Grammar schools account for a small proportion of our secondary schools in Britain. But the annual selection process for these 161 schools still leaves a great many children living under the shadow of rejection at the age of 11. Maybe under Labour comprehensives would be so much improved that they will gain universal approval and parents will readily vote for the dismantling of the anachronistic grammars. But the trouble with grammar schools is that in the areas they survive there can be no proper comprehensives, deprived as they would be of the brightest third of 11-year-olds. Grammar schools never wither on the vine. They will only ever be removed by some brave education minister decreeing that it shall be so. But political bravery is not the dish of the day. Read his lips, Mr Blunkett will do absolutely nothing about it.