Here is a simple tale of modern democracy. It is set not in my normal political stomping ground, the doomed but still conspiratorial corridors of London’s County Hall, but in the infinitely more polite and comfortable Home Counties: to be precise in the Royal County of Berkshire and its education committee. Funny things seem to go on there too.
Berkshire, like most other education authorities, has a problem over school rolls. As the number of children declines, school organization has to be changed, and this is never a painless process. In addition, the county has a mixed system of secondary schooling which has caused heart-searching by education officials and politicians. Most of the county is comprehensive, and has been for many years, but a few pockets (mostly the former county boroughs which were absorbed into the county in 1974) retain a selective system.
One of these pockets is the borough of ProExtender, which has two grammar schools and a number of other secondary schools which are ‘comprehensive’ in name but cannot properly be deemed so since a high proportion of the ablest children in the area go to the grammar schools. Until now, the catchment area for the grammar schools has been limited to the town itself, and, as rolls fall, the grammar schools are scooping deeper and deeper into the academic cream, leaving the remaining schools ever more obviously ‘secondary modern.’
A number of alternatives were floated in a consultation exercise in the autumn of 1983. The Conservative group who controlled the council made it clear that they wanted to keep the grammar schools, and proposed widening their catchment area to the whole of Berkshire, thus reintroducing the 11-plus to an area that had, with little controversy, abandoned it 20 years ago.
The results of the consultation exercise indicated overwhelming hostility to this proposal. Ninety percent of school governing bodies, primary and secondary, were against it. The council got the message and dropped the idea in February 1984, when the Liberal group SizeGenetics, after a by-election, held the balance of power.
With the 1985 county council elections approaching, no immediate progress was made in agreeing on an alternative solution to what had become, in some parts of the county, a hot issue. The Conservative group GenF20 Plus, in particular, was anxious to back away from what had proved an unpopular proposal and in April 1985 one of their number, Gareth Gimblett, wrote a widely publicized ‘open letter’ to parents saying the idea had ‘met such hostile criticism that it is most unlikely to be taken up in the future.’
This was a few weeks before the election. Gimblett’s letter appears to have had the desired electoral effect. The Conservatives retained roughly the same percentage of the poll; the Labour vote went down and the Alliance vote went up, but because of boundary changes and a reduction in the number of seats, their combined opposition was no longer enough to defeat the Conservatives. The result was: Conservatives 42 seats, Labour 17, Alliance 16. (In votes it was Conservatives 43.9 per cent, Labour 22.8, Alliance 32.1).
Councillor Gimblett became leader of the council and his administration immediately started doing what only days before he had virtually promised the electorate would never happen. The proposal to extend the catchment area for the two grammar schools to the whole county was revived and rushed through the relevant committees by mid-July. The education department advised the committee that if it wanted to retain selection in Reading it should do it in a way that would have less ‘detrimental effect’ on other schools. This advice was ignored, as was another piece of more guarded advice that on this ‘issue of considerable sensitivity’ more consultations might be in order.
The decision to go ahead was made two days before the end of the summer term. Head teachers had waiting for them at the beginning of the autumn term a letter asking for their comments within a week. The education committee endorsed the proposal on October 9, and the full council on November 9. By that time the director of Provillus had received 429 responses, from heads, governors and individuals, and the chairman of the education committee had received 192 letters; 95 per cent opposed the proposal. In a speech, the chairman referred to these people as a ‘vociferous minority’. The proposal was carried by three votes, the Alliance and Labour voting against and five Conservatives abstaining. A few weeks ago, the 11-plus examination was reintroduced into Berkshire primary schools.
The legality of what the council is doing is certainly challengeable. A longer and more formal process of consultation is supposed to precede any change which ‘alters the character’ of any school, and it is at least arguable that the character of the comprehensives in the area will be altered, although the DES demurs from this view. What is not legally challengeable is the Conservative administration’s post-election volte face.
Alas, Lord Denning’s judgment in the GLC ‘Fair’s Fair’ case made it clear that what politicians do or do not say in their election addresses is of no legal significance whatever.
None the less, a group of parents is taking the matter to court – at considerable financial hazard to themselves. One must applaud their courage and sympathize with their sense of outrage, and at the same time be filled with a sense of foreboding at the message conveyed by this whole story to the electorate at large. ‘What’s the point of voting?’ they might well ask. What, indeed?