LEADING ARTICLE: Tories select a loser

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The Independent Online
The Conservatives are dangerously close to the edge of a gaping hole. It's called a return to the 11-plus and it could swallow them. Encouraged by the short-term success they enjoyed exploiting Harriet Harman's decision to send one of her sons to a selective school, they have decided that selection is an issue they can exploit. If they do so, by proposing the widespread reintroduction of selection for secondary schools, it will be as politically misconceived as it is educationally flawed and socially regressive.

Britain needs reforms that will break down the class-ridden nature of its education system, not reinforce those divisions by taking us back to the Fifties.

Education yesterday provided the reluctant backdrop for another pre-election political skirmish. Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, promised a White Paper to expand academic selection in grant-maintained schools. Earlier, her Labour counterpart, David Blunkett, had launched a plan for Individual Learning Accounts. Underpinning their statements lie two quite different responses to concerns about the quality of education. Yesterday's announcements will set the pattern for many a clash to come.

The Prime Minister's policy unit appears to have persuaded Mrs Shephard to go along with its dream of recreating grammar schools. The White Paper will canvas the possibility of allowing schools to select their intake. It would be a grave mistake.

Setting children for subjects is a great improvement on mixed-ability teaching. Institutionalising segregation into separate ability schools is a mistake. Borderline children cannot switch easily between ability groups, and less academic children would be quickly stigmatised. Academic segregation goes against the grain of other advances in the Government's education policy - including this week's Dearing report, which tried to encourage a more open and respectful attitude towards vocational skills. Mr Major will find that evoking grammar schools is a political error as well. Schools are not interested. Only 1 per cent of the grant-maintained schools and education bodies consulted on increasing selection responded with any enthusiasm.

Parents know that education is increasingly the best, if not the only insurance policy against unemployment and insecurity. They also know that expanding selection will only help those with the brightest. Everyone else will be even more worried than before that their children will be written off.

By advocating grammar schools Mr Major is attempting to soothe parental dissatisfaction by the use of atavism. The educational standards and discipline of a mythical golden past are invoked as a solution to the anxieties about change and insecurity in the present. Few will find this convincing. Parents who are concerned about the next generation will be looking for new ideas to help equip them for the future, not old promises about a return to the past.

This is where Messrs Blunkett and Blair step in. Their proposals are aimed at providing remedies for very modern problems. Targeted first at the unskilled, their Individual Learning Accounts would incorporate government, individual and employer contributions to help people take control of their careers by acquiring new skills. Of course, Labour hasn't found the answer to the skills deficit in Britain, just as it has not yet found a way to combine diversity and choice within the comprehensive system. But they are at least taking the right kind of approach: one that is inclusive but leaves ample room for choice and individual initiative. Those should be the watchwords of a modern education and training policy.