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17 July 2000

How Blair and Blunkett betrayed us

Exclusive: Trafford parents give up the fight against the 11-plus

By Malcolm Clarke

Earlier this year, I received a copy of the centenary Labour Party magazine, which included a picture of Tony Blair embracing twins who have been long-standing party stalwarts. One, Margaret Jones, cited “comprehensive education for all” as one of Labour’s “great victories”, before describing Blair as the “best prime minister we’ve ever had”. Well, Margaret Jones, this is the week that Blair can rejoice in the knowledge that his efforts to cancel that victory have succeeded.

The government said that parents would decide the future of the 11-plus and of the country’s 164 remaining grammar schools and their associated secondary moderns. But ministers then invented a system so biased in favour of keeping the 11-plus that, one by one, local campaigns for its abolition were forced to give up the unequal struggle, until the only one left was in the Greater Manchester borough of Trafford, where I live. Now Blair’s system has defeated us, too. In order to trigger a ballot on the future of the 11-plus, Labour’s rules required us to get signatures from 20 per cent of the 43,000 parents eligible to vote. We had to do this by 31 July. We have now accepted that it is impossible.

So our children will still have to sit an 11-plus based on two short IQ tests that take no account of willingness to work, late development, language skills, different abilities in different subjects, or nerves or ill health on the day of the test. Everybody refers to a “fail” if a child is not selected for grammar school. The exam’s divisiveness damages families and friendships. A Kent headteacher was right to describe it recently as “evil”.

Coaching for it is banned in Trafford’s state schools, but no such restrictions apply to those who pay for home coaching or who send their children to private schools. This is one reason why the differences in 11-plus pass rates between areas within the borough – to the disadvantage of the less well off – are far greater than the differences in the national standardised tests that the same children take.

Despite the obstacles of the government’s regulations and its interpretation of them, we got the signatures of more than 15 per cent of the eligible parents. That is three times the percentage required to trigger a ballot on whether we should have a directly elected mayor. If the government wants something, the trigger is 5 per cent; if it doesn’t, it’s 20 per cent.

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It is more difficult than you may think to identify and contact 20 per cent of the parental electorate. Lists of parents can be obtained only from each of the 120 individual schools in Trafford and, under Labour’s rules, you have to find a parent at each school who is willing to request a list.

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Some lists took months to arrive. Many contained numerous errors. Parents are entitled to exclude themselves from the available list. There were great variations in the proportions who did so, partly because some heads, mainly through incompetence but occasionally mischievousness, did not follow the guidelines.

Parents from outside Trafford who send their children to Trafford schools (possibly because they favour the 11-plus) appear on lists. But, extraordinarily, we had no legal access to the lists of Trafford parents who send their children to comprehensives in Manchester and Cheshire, often to escape the 11-plus. When the head of one such comprehensive circulated our letter telling parents about the petition, he was found guilty by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, of using school resources inappropriately. Yet this head also offered to circulate material for the pro-grammar campaign; and this was the only way in which parents could find out about their rights. Further, when a local Tory MP took a TV crew into a grammar school during the school day to do a piece in support of the 11-plus, this was deemed not to be using school resources.

So, with the dice so strongly stacked against us, we did very well to get almost 20 per cent of the parents we knew about. Our “failure” certainly does not represent widespread contentment with the present system; many parents are still expecting a ballot to take place and do not think they need to do anything to make it happen.

When you have been in the Labour Party for as long as I have, you learn not to use the word “betrayal” lightly. Yet now I find a Tory leaflet pushed through my door triumphantly quoting a plea from Ben Chapman, the Labour MP for Wirral South – for whom I spent many hours campaigning in a February 1997 by- election – for the retention of grammar schools. Blair demanded, Blunkett acquiesced in and Stephen Byers (as schools minister) constructed a cynical betrayal, now supervised by Estelle Morris (the present schools minister), who refuses even to meet campaigners against the 11-plus.

The writer is the chair of Wythenshawe and Sale East Constituency Labour Party and a member of the parents’ group, Trafford Stop the Eleven-Plus