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  1. Long reads
17 December 2001

Parents dare to challenge selection

The rules make it all but impossible, but a drive to stop the 11-plus goes on. ByFrancis Beckett

By Francis Beckett

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, is about to spend several million pounds, which ought to go into schools, on the collection of pointless data about parents. Morris doesn’t know this yet – she is reading it here for the first time – but she should have expected it. It is the inevitable result of the convoluted and dishonest way that she and her predecessor, David Blunkett, went about ensuring that Britain’s 164 grammar schools can carry on selecting the children they wish to teach and forcing neighbouring schools to teach the children they reject.

Just one week after the schools minister Stephen Timms declared government support for selective schools – and announced that they can have extra money for passing on bits of their supposed wisdom to underprivileged neighbouring schools – the pro-comprehensive lobby is serving notice that it is still there. In Kent, the biggest remaining stronghold of selective education – a third of its children go to grammar schools – campaigners are about to force the government into preparing for ballots of parents to change the system.

Selection at the age of 11 is cruel and unfair. When you select, you reject the poor. In comprehensives, nearly one child in five is poor enough to get free school meals. In grammar schools, it is just over one in 50. And it doesn’t work. Research by York University’s David Jesson has shown that able children in comprehensives perform as well as pupils of the same ability in selective schools, and that the presence of selective schools in an area pulls down the overall standard. The government spends more money propping up weak schools in Kent than anywhere else in the country.

When Labour came back into power in 1997, hopes that it would end selection in the country’s 164 remaining grammar schools were dashed. But ministers did promise that, in each area where selection existed, local parents could vote to abolish it. That looked a lot better than nothing.

But it was a fraud. Ministers gerrymandered the system so as to make it virtually impossible for parents to vote out selection. In a shameless piece of Tammany Hall politics, dozens of ways were found to disenfranchise those who might vote against selec-tion, and to swell the electorate with those who, if given a vote, were likely to cast it in the government-approved (pro-grammar school) manner.

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I live in the London borough of Barnet, and my children used to attend a small, local state primary school. I could not, at that time, have voted in a ballot on the future of the local grammar schools. Why? Because our local primary did not send a sufficient number of children to the grammar schools. I was therefore deemed to have no stake in the matter.

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I have some friends who live in a posh part of Camden Town, in another London borough. They sent their children to a very expensive preparatory school there. They have no conceivable interest in state education in Barnet. They do not live anywhere near Barnet, and they do not use state schools. But they would have been entitled to vote, on the grounds that their children’s prep school did send the requisite number to Barnet’s grammar schools. (Many prep schools, like this one, are used as expensive crammers for the 11-plus.)

There is no space to list every trick the government pulled. Endless obstacles were put in the way of anyone campaigning against selection, while every facility was given to those who favoured it. Why is new Labour so keen on grammar schools? Because they please two groups whose wishes it always puts first: the middle classes who see grammars as a way of keeping their children away from the poor; and big companies that think the system helps them pick the brightest future employees, quickly and efficiently.

But in their thicket of regulations, ministers made one mistake. Although they made it as hard as possible to trigger a ballot – you have to get a fifth of the eligible parents to sign a petition, and signing is complex and intimidating – they made it almost ludicrously easy to kick-start the process. Just ten people, from any part of the country, can sign a petition that obliges the government to draw up lists of those eligible to vote. And Becky Matthews and her fellow campaigners from the Stop the Eleven Plus campaign in Kent are now sitting on 114 signatures – enough to have the government researching its rigged electorates in all 14 areas where grammar schools teach more than a fifth of the secondary school pupils. Because of the absurd rules, this is a long and expensive process. It will take months, and it will cost millions.

Perhaps ministers thought nobody would be brave enough to attract the inevitable accusation of money-wasting from ministers and right-wing news-papers. If so, they failed to realise how desperate a failing education system can make parents. “The day the [11-plus] results come out,” says Matthews, “groups of ten-year-olds huddle in the playground, regrouping into pass and fail friendship groups. It’s unbearably sad to watch. After that, they are labelled by their uniforms as successes or failures for the rest of their school lives.”

Whether the campaigners can get as far as an actual ballot remains to be seen. But is there a chance that ministers will be shamed into amending the regulations so that they bear some resemblance to democracy?