Government web sites and unwinnable ballots

downloadI have spent some time recently discussing selective education on Mumsnet. Alongside the busy threads about eleven plus tutors there was a long thread about Kent education. Many sad smilies and confused faces were posted, with both sides having a say, and a good debate of the pros and cons of the grammar school system.

I’ve also been exploring the subject via the smiley-free zone of  government webpages. department_for_educationThe most important recent document relevant to Kent education is the Education and Skills Select Committee Secondary Education Fifth Report of Session 2004–05.

Yes, that is quite a mouthful. But despite the long name I found the insights of the report interesting.

It has some recommendations about selective education, and the current method for parents to change the system. Here’s the point on selective education.

Recommendation 31: For some time, the current Government has largely managed to sidestep the issue of selection. This strategy has helped it to avoid the political consequences of endorsing either grammar school or comprehensive education. It is of little help to parents with a genuine wish to change the admissions arrangements in their area. Whilst this issue does not currently have a high profile nationally, falling rolls mean that in selective areas, an increasing proportion of children are being selected by grammar schools, who choose a fixed number of pupils each year. This must eventually have consequences for education in selective areas, which national Government will no longer be able to ignore.

There is also a point about grammar school ballots which are the only system in place for parents to petition for a change.

Recommendation 30: The current arrangements for grammar school ballots demonstrate that the Government is not prepared to give all local parents a genuine opportunity to express an opinion on the kind of schools they want their children to attend. The present system does not work. It should therefore be withdrawn and replaced with new arrangements. The Government should consider commissioning a specialised study to determine more appropriate ballot arrangements. 

I was glad to see such strongly worded points. But then I got to the government response, and on Grammar School Ballots this was just one line.

Recommendation 30 The Government does not agree with the conclusion of the Committee but will give consideration to its proposal for a specialised study into the matter.

So is this rather casual attitude because the government believes in selective education? No, it seems not

Recommendation 31. The Government does not support selective education and does not want to see it extended in terms of the number of places offered. The Government’s aim is to improve standards in all schools so that all children have an equal opportunity to develop and fulfil their potential. It wants all schools to offer good quality education so that the choice parents have to make is between good schools. This applies equally to schools in selective areas….Chapter 3 of Higher Standards, Better Schools for All: More Choice for Parents and Pupils makes it clear that the Government does not want to see a return to the 11 plus.

So while the government ‘does not support selective education’ it is not very helpful to the parents in Kent who are stuck with it.

I do hope that this ‘study of the matter’ will take place. I like the government’s policy on education on the whole, it seems to involve parents having a greater say on their schools. It even allows new free schools to open in response to parent’s wishes for local education. This doesn’t help the people of Kent. We’re not very free at all, we have no workable way to have a say on a system the rest of the country has decided doesn’t work.

The government’s own education committee describes the method for appealing against the selective system as ‘unwinnable.’ The ballot system involves parents of younger children sending birth certificates and utility bills to the electoral commission, while the parents of school age children must give personal details about their child’s name and school to strangers with clipboards. I asked my MP if a petition could be offered online and was told a ‘no.’ I believe the select committee when it says the system doesn’t work, and the committee advised change so no concerned citizens waste any time with it.

The question the ballot asks also feels wrong, involving a change to all grammar schools immediately. I don’t like selective education but this is still not the way I’d like to implement change. I would prefer a considered long term plan administered by the local authority. I’d even be okay with a few grammar schools remaining, the most important thing is to give parents some choice about their local schools.

So, if there is no sensible way for people in Kent to have a say, what is a concerned parent to do?

I wrote to the Minister for Education, Nicky Morgan to ask her that question. I will of course let you know the response when I get a reply.

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