Britain still has 164 grammar schools that are allowed to choose the pupils they wish to teach, and to force other local schools to teach those they reject. The Labour government has invented a means by which, in theory, local parents can stop their children being divided into successes and failures at the age of 11.
Only now is it emerging how many obstacles the system puts in the way of parents who wish to end selection and how weighted it is in favour of grammar schools. Parents have to negotiate a narrow, winding path, full of legal traps that will be eagerly exploited by the shrill and litigious grammar-school lobby. And the mountain parents have to climb seems to get bigger as the Department for Education interprets its rules in what appears to be a thoroughly one-sided way.
In order to trigger a local ballot on whether to end selection, campaigners must first persuade 20 per cent of eligible parents to sign a requisition. Ripon’s anti-selection campaigners are the first to achieve that target. But it is in Trafford, near Manchester, that the fiercest battle looms. Trafford has a larger proportion of its children at grammar schools than anywhere else, and it still has the 11-plus.
Forty-six per cent of 11-16 year olds attend its seven grammar schools; the rest go to secondary moderns, euphemistically called high schools. The latter, with one small exception, do not have sixth forms, so that secondary modern children who want to stay at school after 16 have to apply to the grammar schools that have already rejected them once, or go outside Trafford.
A group of Trafford parents, calling themselves Step – Stop the Eleven-Plus – are currently trying to reach their 20 per cent target. They have to do it by 31 July. On that date, all the signatures suddenly become invalid, and if they have not reached their 20 per cent, they have to start all over again. They need 8,500 signatures and so far they have about 2,600. They have sweated for every one of them.
Ten Trafford parents wrote, as the government’s procedures require, to Electoral Reform Ballot Services (ERBS) to say that they intended to try to trigger a ballot. And that’s where their troubles began.
Eligible parents means all parents of children under 16 (including babes in arms) who live in Trafford, even if their children go to schools elsewhere, or to private fee-charging schools. It also includes parents of children who live outside the area, but who go to state schools in Trafford.
Eligible parents are divided into two categories: those who are automatically registered, and those who must apply. Parents whose children are at state schools in Trafford are supposed to be automatically registered. Schools supply a list of their names and addresses to ERBS. But it is nothing like as simple as it sounds.
ERBS says that if a name on a petition does not exactly match the name on the school list, that name will be disqualified. On that basis, about one in ten of the signatures so far will be disqualified because, for example, several mothers have signed in their maiden names but appear on the school list in their married names.
So can the campaigners get their hands on the school lists to check that their supporters are signing their names correctly and to distribute their literature? Well, technically, yes; they are entitled to the lists. In fact, three Trafford schools have not supplied such lists, and no one is apparently able to force them to do so.
Further, the rules give parents the right to opt out – to decide that their names and addresses should not be given to campaigners. Mike Spinks, the head of Urmston Grammar School, who is in favour of selection, decided to make his parents opt in, instead. He wrote telling them of “a request from those organisations that actively seek to abolish grammar schools”. With the letter he enclosed a very long form. The ballot requires only names and addresses, but Spinks’s form also asked for school details of the children, people to be contacted in an emergency, how children travel to school, special diets, names and addresses of GPs and whether the children have free school meals. At the bottom of the form, parents were invited to sign (or refuse to sign) this declaration: “I am willing to have my confidential data forwarded to campaigners against selective education.” Unsurprisingly, campaigners do not have names and addresses for many Urmston parents.
Spinks now admits that he made an error of judgement and has been mildly rebuked by the DfE. But the damage is done.
Even bigger problems start when the campaigners try to contact those Trafford parents who send their children to schools outside the borough. Many of these parents are probably trying to get away from the eleven-plus, and they may therefore include a high proportion of those likely to sign an anti- selection petition. But how do you persuade hundreds of parents, whom you don’t know, whose names and addresses you do not have, to write to a London address they have never heard of, enclosing a birth certificate and a gas bill and details of their children, in order that they may validly sign your petition?
These parents, remember, are not automatically registered and must apply to ERBS. But ministers have made one exception to this rule. A few carefully selected local children go a private fee-paying Catholic school called St Bede’s, some miles away from Trafford, at the council’s expense. Ministers agreed to a request from St Bede’s to have these parents automatically registered.
The rules are even more biased for those areas where fewer than 25 per cent of the children go to grammar schools. There, the only parents eligible for a vote are those whose children attend “feeder schools”, where a minimum number of children have gone to grammar schools in the past three years. In practice, this means that parents of children at small local primary schools don’t have a vote, but parents at fee-charging schools miles away do.
Add to these Byzantine rules the ludicrously biased coverage that the issue gets in most of the press – heroic heads defending standards, and excellence, and other icons of our time, versus jealous lefties with raucous voices – and you start to wonder why on earth the campaigners bother. There must be less painful things to do with your spare time. Jogging up icy mountains in swimming costumes, or watching Chris Evans on television, for example.
Very few of Trafford’s campaigners are Labour Party members or supporters. They are mostly driven by the damage they have seen the selective system do to children. Their concerns are supported by recent research by Professor David Jesson at York University which shows that, as well as damaging the rejects, selection does not even benefit those who get into the grammar schools. Able pupils, Jesson found, do just as well in comprehensives; and the overall level of pupils’ achievement is lower in areas with grammar schools than in areas without them.
According to Malcolm Clarke, one of the few Labour members among the Trafford campaigners, local parents think that the government has let them down. “They see that the proposed trigger for ballots for mayors is 5 per cent, and conclude that, if the government wants something, the target is 5 per cent; if it doesn’t, it’s 20 per cent.”
Parents knew before the election that Labour was not itself going to abolish selection. But they hoped it would be an ally. They find instead that it has sent them into battle with both hands tied behind their back and a mask over their eyes.