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What future for grammar schools?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Does Charles Clarke plan to do anything about the remaining 164 state grammar schools in England?

Will he be the education secretary who finally ends the 11-plus examination?

Since he took on his role at the end of last year, Mr Clarke has been saying things which have put a new spring in the step of anti-grammar school campaigners.

Campaigners in Kent, one of England's remaining fully selective secondary school systems, have said: "Things are looking up."

And earlier this month a Labour Party campaign, supported by 40 Labour MPs, was launched to try to stop academic selection.

'Nothing is safe'

So what exactly has Mr Clarke been saying?

In a BBC interview recently, Sir David Frost asked him whether grammar schools were "safe in your hands"?

Charles Clarke
What is Charles Clarke planning to do?

His answer attracted the sort of textual scrutiny that Kremlinologists used to apply to the utterances of Soviet leaders.

In his characteristic rapid-fire delivery (Clarke can get twice as many words into a sound-bite as any other politician), he said: "I have never used that phrase - I don't think anything is safe in anybody's hands, ever."

In a more recent BBC interview this week, the education secretary was asked his views of the 11-plus. He did not hide his dislike of the exam.


"I and the Labour Party have believed for many years that the 11-plus is an old-fashioned idea. I remain of the view that this is still the case', said Mr Clarke.

So when, this week, the education secretary gave a major speech which his advisers said would set out his "vision for transforming secondary education", we might have expected to hear his plans for abolishing this "old-fashioned" examination.

But Mr Clarke did not once mention grammar schools or academic selection. They do not appear to be part of his "vision".

Equally, he did not outline any plans for getting rid of them either.

'No more selection'

Selection by ability has been an Achilles' heel for Labour education secretaries.

I suspect David Blunkett must have regretted the attention attracted by his comment: "Watch my lips: no more selection under a Labour government."

But Mr Blunkett and Mr Clarke's immediate predecessor, Estelle Morris, did their best to stay silent over the grammar school issue.

By contrast, Mr Clarke has not hesitated to reveal his personal views.

His department even went out of its way to publicise the recent school inspectors' report from Ofsted, which found that the selective education system in Kent had more underperforming schools than any other part of England.

Flurry of activity

The grammar school debate was further fuelled by this month's report from the Institute of Public Policy Research, which recommended the scrapping of selection by interview and ability in London, where 19 grammar schools survive.

Indeed, there seems to have been a flurry of activity in this area.

Research from the Education Network, funded by the local education authorities, suggested grammar schools were reinforcing social polarisation.

It found that in almost one-third of schools the student population was either heavily under-representative, or equally over-representative, of poverty levels in the neighbourhood.

Grammar schools were dominant among those which had a very low proportion of poorer students.

Vote for status quo

But where is all this leading us? When Labour came to power in 1997 it introduced a new system of ballots, in which local parents could decide whether to keep their local grammar schools.

The mechanism proved to be so complex that only one ballot has been held. That vote - in Ripon, North Yorkshire - went in favour of keeping the grammar school.

Campaigners elsewhere were deterred and there is no immediate prospect of a further ballot under the current rules.

Instead, the pro-comprehensive lobby has fixed its hopes on either a change to the ballot arrangements or on some other government initiative.

Yet, despite the raised expectations, there is no sign of this happening.

Downplay selection

The prime minister said in the House of Commons recently that focusing on grammar schools was not the right way forward.

So the policy appears to be: downplay selection, ensure it does not spread, but otherwise ignore the grammar schools which still survive.

But if that is the case why raise expectations? Is it that Mr Clarke, while having no plans to move against grammar schools himself, has hopes that local education authorities will.

If so, then Northern Ireland could be the model.

Just before the Northern Ireland Assembly lost its devolved powers, the former Education Minister, Martin McGuiness, had announced the end of the 11-plus there.

Risky business

Now Northern Ireland is again under direct rule, the government has indicated it will go ahead with the plan to end its grammar school system.

Is Mr Clarke just waiting for Kent, or Essex, or Buckinghamshire to follow Northern Ireland and take the initiative?

So far, councils in areas with grammar schools have showed no sign of wanting to change the status quo.

At some point, those who have been encouraged to think something might happen to grammar schools will become impatient if, in fact, nothing does.

It is always a risky business raising expectations.

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

Kent's selective schools compared
17 Jan 03 |  Education

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