Selective education has no place in a fair, progressive and socially mobile nation. So say the Tories, the Lib Dems and Labour. If the new politics that Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband constantly refer to is to have any substance at all then here is one policy area where all three leaders can find some common ground. The problem is that existing legislation relating to ending selection is complex and deliberately opaque.
The present system allows selective entry into grammar schools to remain unless a majority of local eligible parents vote for it to change or grammar school governing bodies decide to change their admission policies to admit children of all abilities. To date, no governing bodies have done this. Before a ballot can be held, 20% of eligible parents in the areas concerned must sign a petition calling for a ballot. To require all of the 164 grammar schools in England to take children of all abilities would need 48 petitions and ballots.
Crucial to the present legislation is the definition of an eligible parent. This differs depending on whether the ballot would be an area or feeder ballot. Area ballots would be needed to end selection in the 10 local authorities defined by the regulations as fully selective (Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway, Slough, Southend, Sutton, Torbay, Trafford). Here, all parents living in the area are eligible to sign a petition and ballot, including those with children below school age or those living outside the area but with children in the schools within the local authority. For the 38 ballots in the other 26 English local authorities with grammar schools, only parents who have children in the feeder schools to the grammar schools would be eligible. Feeder schools are those that have sent a total of five or more pupils to the grammar schools in question in the year the signatures are being gathered and the preceding two years.
The only ballot to be held was in Ripon in 2000, where two thirds of eligible parents who took part voted to keep the status quo. This was a feeder ballot. One success was that it showed up the bizarre effect of the feeder school ballot regulations. Private school parents are over-represented in feeder ballots, as many private schools exist to coach pupils to pass the entry tests to grammar schools. In Ripon, private school parents made up a quarter of the electorate, although a parliamentary question at the time revealed that only 4.6% of primary children in North Yorkshire were in private education (Hansard 2000). In feeder school areas, many local parents, even those sending their children to schools near the grammar schools in question, are ineligible to sign petitions and vote. In Barnet, campaigners trying to collect signatures found that parents of children at a primary school next door to a grammar school were not eligible to sign the petition, as not enough of the children at their school had passed the entry test.
The second largest group of the Ripon electorate after private-school parents were parents of children in a school 10 miles away, while some Ripon parents were ineligible. So the promise in Labour's 1997 manifesto - "Any changes in the admission policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents" - was never fulfilled.
What can be done? There are several options that the present coalition government might pursue in order to make the present system fairer and more transparent.
If ballots have to remain:
• Make all ballots area ballots (remove the option for feeder ballots).
• Reduce the 20% threshold figure to 10%
• Allow people to sign up for petitions electronically (similar to the ePetitions on the Downing Street website)
• Reduce the time period for the collection of signatures for petitions.
Other options that the government might consider include:
• A requirement for governors of selective schools to vote regularly on proposals to end academic selection as a criterion for admission to the school.
• The extension of Para 3.17 of the 2003 school admissions code of practice (pdf) ("Academic selection should never be used to decide entry into primary education"). to include entry into secondary education.
• Commission a report that looks into the impact of academic selection on standards and social inclusion.
The time is now right to review the arrangements to allow local people a greater say in the shape of secondary-school provision in their area. One would hope that any review would be pushing at an open door; after all, there is cross-party agreement that academic selection is a bad thing, isn't there?