Thursday 11 October 2007

Grappling with grammars

Grammar school policy has been a headache for both main parties. This year, the Tories came unstuck trying to ditch support for more selection, while explaining what would happen in selective areas if demographic change required new grammar schools to maintain an existing balance. Twelve years ago, Labour was determined to avoid its entire education policy being hijacked by the grammar school issue, which is why in the 1995 policy statement Diversity and Excellence, the party made clear that it would not allow local authorities to close grammar schools; instead it would be a matter for parents through local ballots. To quote the 1995 document for the benefit of younger BBC online hacks: "...while we have never supported grammar schools in their exclusion of children by examination, change can only come through local agreement. Such change in the character of the school would only follow a clear demonstration of support from the parents affected by such decisions."

As it happened, the then shadow education secretary David Blunkett, battling Roy Hattersley over grant-maintained schools, used the 'read my lips: no selection either by examination or interview, under a Labour government' phrase in his speech which helped secure the passage of the new policy on grammar schools. Blunkett made clear - as did I - to any interviewers and journalists that he was referring to new selection. And crucially - although this is never reported - he made it clear in his 1996 conference speech a year before the general election.

The policy was firmed up ahead of the 1997 Wirral South by-election, where the issue threatened to prevent Labour's candidate Ben Chapman from winning a victory. Newspapers were briefed that ballots would only happen when a fifth of parents petitioned for one (see, for example, The Times 7 Feb 1997). Further details, including that the parents would be those from feeder schools, were also provided. In government, those rules were enshrined in law, and only one ballot - at Ripon - has ever taken place, where parents opted to keep the existing selective system. (This, incidentally, was a position backed by the main local modern school which has since improved significantly in partnership with the grammar). There were occasional flurries in the media on the issue and fanciful suggestions that the government was trying to destroy good grammar schools. But ministers knew that there was no point opening up such a divisive issue unless there was a real groundswell of opinion in favour. As ministers look at the rules for ballots again, I hope they remember the history of all this. This is not a vote-winner: it could be a real vote-loser. Far better to build on the idea of grammar school partnerships and leave the existing ballot procedures to be used when there is a genuine groundswell of opinion for change.

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