Labour is set to reignite the political row over selective education by making it easier for disaffected parents to force the closure of their local grammar schools.
Jim Knight, the schools minister, has instructed officials to look at how to simplify the balloting process by which schools can be forced to drop selection under a 1998 law.
Knight’s move will be seen as an attempt partly to appease the Labour left and partly as a ploy to reopen a split in the Tory party over selection that emerged this summer. David Willetts, then shadow education secretary, said the 11-plus exam “entrenches advantage”.
The balloting system is a complex three-stage process that requires 10 parents to trigger a petition which must then be signed by 20% of all parents in the affected area before a full local vote takes place.
This has proved so complicated that only one full ballot – in Ripon, North Yorkshire, in 2000 – has gone ahead. It failed to end selection at the local grammar school.
“We are firmly committed to giving local parents the right to vote to abolish selection at existing grammar schools,” said Knight this weekend. “It is absolutely right we keep the parental ballot arrangements under review to ensure they work effectively and give value for money.”
If parents are to have the right to vote to abolish existing grammar schools, should they not also have the right to vote to create new ones? Well, no, of course not. Because this isn't really about parental choice at all: it's about getting rid of grammars. Hence the desire to make it easier to seek the abolition of individual grammar schools.
In addition to shortening the process required to trigger the full ballot or lowering the number of petitioners required to trigger it, another option now under consideration would be to allow antigrammar school campaigners early access to a full database of parents eligible to vote.
This could require MPs to change laws on the electoral register and on data protection, requiring a debate in parliament.
I'd imagine that it would also give the anti-grammar campaigners something of an edge when it came to campaigning. After all, they'd be able to start contacting prospective voters, before the defenders of grammar schools even knew that a vote was a possibility.Of course, perhaps the main reason for the lack of votes on grammar schools is that there simply isn't any public support for closing them. 66% of voters (and 70% of Labour voters) say that they would like to see a state grammar school in every town. This reflects almost exactly the results in the vote on the future of Ripon Grammar School, where the proposal to end selection was defeated by a majority of two-to-one. The public know, even if the government and the opposition do not, that grammar schools produce the best outcomes for the most able pupils, and fiddling around with voting systems is not going to change this.