Leading Article:A playground punch-up that misses the point

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A grammar school for every town, a grammar stream for every school. Buoyant enthusiasm in the Conservative media heralded the arrival of the Government's White Paper on selection in schools yesterday. "Selection at last," enthused the editorial in the Daily Telegraph. What nonsense - the headline that is, not the Government's new proposals. Because this is barely selection at all.

Mrs Shephard's White Paper isn't nonsense. It's just pointless. The very limited increase in selection it proposes will make no difference to most school children. A tweak at grant-maintained schools here and a tug at local authority schools there do not add up to legions of new grammars, or a whole stratification of bands and streams throughout the land.

Schools will only increase selection if parents want it. If past record is anything to go by, most parents, teachers and governors in the state sector will see fit to keep their schools comprehensive. Most parents are well aware that bringing back selection risks stopping their own precious 10-year-old getting into the school they want.

So why is everyone babbling about grammar schools? Politics, of course. John Major has a vision of a grammar school for every town, yet his proposals fall far short of that. Even Gillian Shephard, that long-time advocate of comprehensives, has been reciting the merits of grammar schools, and she certainly doesn't want to see more of them.

The Government's aims are purely political. Mr Major and his advisers think there are votes to be won in selection, and in the rhetoric of returning to grammar schools. And they believe they have found the issue to confuse and confound the Labour Party.

At first sight the logic of this approach seems bizarre. If it is true that so few parents in Britain want to revive grammar schools, there can be few votes in screaming about them so loudly. Allowing the debate to become polarised around a return to the 11-plus is a great mistake for the Conservatives. Barely anyone wants it back. Mr Major may have wrongly allowed his romantic attachment to a mythical golden era, when polite grammar school boys played cricket on the village green, to dictate his politics once more.

But he has a better pitch. When the Prime Minister delivered his own passionate endorsement of grammar schools in March, it was heavily tinged with the language of aspirations. He clearly hopes that by characterising grammar schools as the meritocratic route out of the ghetto for striving working class children, he can appeal to the same group of voters that Mrs Thatcher harnessed. What council house sales were to the aspiring working class in the Eighties, perhaps education will be in the Nineties.

If it works, it's a great stick to beat Labour with too. The Labour Party cannot afford to appear hostile to the aspirations of the ordinary voters they hope to win back from the Conservatives at this election. Even worse, they dare not allow John Major to position the Conservatives as the party offering ordinary people opportunities while Labour politicians reject them and protect their own privileges instead.

Yet, as John Major well knows, decisions made by Tony Blair and Harriet Harman have made Labour vulnerable to exactly this kind of attack. Mr Blair is sending his eldest boy to the London Oratory, which selects on parental interview, while Ms Harman sends her second son to the grammar school St Olaves. By embracing selection so wholeheartedly in their lives, yet opposing selection officially, the two politicians are open to the hypocrisy charge which the Conservatives desperately want to tee up for the election.

If John Major can convince voters that Labour are the party of the hypocritical, patronising elite, while he represents ordinary aspirations, he will have pulled off a remarkable trick. The problem is that while he couches the debate in terms of grammar schools, his argument is hopelessly flawed. Astute aspiring voters will be as aware as anyone else that while grammar schools may help some of their children, their siblings may get stuck in the secondary modern down the road.

The Conservatives would be better off arguing for what their proposals actually add up to, rather than pretending they are something else. As Gillian Shephard tried to point out, above the grammar-babble yesterday, the new proposals in the White Paper are actually about encouraging diversity and variety among state schools. Giving schools the chance to select a certain number of pupils by aptitude for music or sport, for example, allows them to develop distinct specialisms and strengths. This is not only good for parental choice in the area, it also provides the school with a sense of pride and confidence in its own identity, which will be good for all its pupils.

Moreover Labour are on much weaker ground if they try to oppose the promotion of diversity with some retreat towards uniformity. The party has in theory embraced variety among schools, despite offering few clues about how it could be achieved.

As always, talk of sheep and goats has inflamed political passions, to no obvious avail, while politicians argue about how to change the system, instead of how to improve its quality.

The big failing in our school system is not primarily lack of diversity, lack of meritocratic opportunity, or lack of parental choice, though all those things are important. It is our complete inability to provide an adequate education for large numbers of children who leave school without qualifications, and often without basic literacy and numeracy skills. Standards - particularly the quality of teachers - is the real issue. Seen in this light, yesterday's selection row seems little more than a minor outbreak of playground fisticuffs.