|Eric Hammond's letter of 18th
to Estelle Morris
Dear Secretary of State,
I am sure you are aware that opponents of selective education in Kent have twice attempted to seize the opportunity provided under existing legislation to invoke a ballot on the future of Kent's grammar schools. Despite lengthy campaigns throughout the region they achieved little and acknowledged as much in public on a number of occasions. However, a small group of activists continue their efforts to undermine the good work going on in all Kent's schools. Having spectacularly failed to obtain public support for their stance they have resorted to other tactics including being instrumental in disrupting the admissions arrangements for secondary pupils. This is currently causing considerable distress to pupils, parents and schools.
Very recently anti-selective campaigners have succeeded in inflicting yet another administrative burden on all schools in, I believe, every Education Authority with grammar schools. They have done this by requesting Electoral Reform (Ballot Services) to identify the size of the parental constituencies, even though they have clearly stated that campaigns will not be initiated this school year.
This futile exercise, requiring a register of parents from all affected schools, will serve only as an irritating distraction and inflict further demands on the public purse. It is nothing more than a political gesture, but one which comes at a substantial cost. The Government has recognised the need to ease the administrative burden on schools. This cynical manipulation, indeed abuse, of the legislation will add to the work of the already overloaded staffs of primary and secondary schools. At the very least, and as a matter of urgency, your Department should devise a regulation to prevent phoney applications to ERBS triggering unnecessary work for hard pressed schools. If petition organisers were required to produce 5% of an ERBS estimate of the number of signatures needed for a viable petition as against the present list of just 10 names, it would not be unreasonable.
The Government has recently acknowledged the contribution grammar schools make towards maintaining high academic standards. If further improvement is to be achieved, as the Government desires, then all schools will have to play their full part - as they are willing so to do. But they need to be certain that their future is secure. No such guarantee will exist in selective areas until the current legislation allowing opponents to initiate abolitionist campaigns year after year has been repealed.
Support Kent Schools, an organisation of 6000 parents, governors and teachers, looks to you therefore to take the necessary action to remove this Sword of Damacles. This will allow all schools to concentrate fully on what they are best placed to do - challenging their pupils to produce of their best year after year, and improving standards as demanded by both Government and tax payers.
Response from Department for Education and Skills
Dear Mr Hammond
Thank you for your letter of 18 January to the Secretary of State about the petition on the future of selective admissions currently under way in Kent. Iam replying because the issues raised in your letter fall within my area of responsibility.
I understand how you feel about the current policy on grammar schools. However, before 1997 decisions on the future of grammar schools were in the hands of local education authorities (LEAs) and Ministers in Whitehall. The Government had a Manifesto commitment to put those decisions in the hands of local parents.
|They delivered this commitment
precisely because, while they believe that further selection by ability
would not enhance standards, it should be for parents locally and not local
education authorities or Ministers to decide whether they wish to change
the 11 plus.
I appreciate your point about the uncertainty felt by grammar schools when petitions are being collected in their area. However Ministers feel that campaigners have to be given the opportunity to test public opinion if they wish. Current ballot arrangements, with the petition acting as a trigger for the ballot to take place, ensure that changes to selective admissions to grammar schools could happen only if there is a strong display of support from parents.
Schools are already required by law to keep information about all those who have parental responsibility for registered children at the school, including details of their names and addresses, as set out in the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 1995. We are asking them to provide this information to the Electoral Reform Services (ERS) and are paying them grants for the administrative costs.
I appreciate that you might find this reply disappointing. However Ministers believe that current arrangements are fair and sensible and do not plan to alter them.
Gabriela Grimley, School Admissions Team 1
Further letter to Estelle Morris on 22nd February
Dear Secretary of State,
Thank you for the letter of 4th February from Gabriela Grimley under reference 2002/0005353TO.
My letter of 18th January was not primarily about the Government's policy toward grammar schools, although I must challenge one point made in your response. It is hard to reconcile the claim that ministers believe "further selection by ability would not enhance standards" with the Government's significant expansion of its specialist school programme in which selection as a principle (be it by ability or aptitude) is readily endorsed.
Rather, my letter was mainly concerned with the abuse of the petition / ballot legislation by anti-selective campaigners. You did not really deal with this matter.
No doubt you would agree that the regulations administered by ERS are about measuring the extent of parents' feelings towards selection. They are surely not intended as a means of making a political point, involving the harassment of all our schools, when there is apparently no intention to collect signatures. If nothing else, we thought your Department would not condone the waste of public money on this exercise.
You do not respond on these matters or on our suggestion to deal with them, except to say that all schools are required to have details of those with parental responsibility. If you really believe that the call from ERS, to provide registers of eligible parents, only entails the copying of an existing list, then the Department is not in touch with the real situation in our schools. The last time a petition was launched in Kent it took several months before ERS had collated a register of eligible voters.
Once again, we urge you to consider introducing effective means to block irresponsible applications to ERS and thus prevent the scandalous waste of public money and unnecessary work for all our schools.