Select Committee on Education and Skills Fourth Report

5 Grammar school ballots

216. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998[207] provided for arrangements by which parents may decide whether the area should retain selective admissions arrangements. The mechanism for making these decisions is by parental petition and ballot. Each of the 164 grammar schools are subject to one of three arrangements, falling under two ballot models according to the extent of selection in the area. The three arrangements are as follows:

Whole area ballots

217. In LEAs where more than 25% of the secondary school population attended grammar schools at the time the legislation was drawn up, all grammar schools in the area will be taken together under one ballot. These are areas such as Kent and Trafford where grammar schools are central to the pattern of secondary provision. Ten authorities are subject to these arrangements.[208] In such areas petitions and ballots must be on the question of change for all the grammar schools in that area. Whole area ballots are also sometimes referred to as "selective area ballots".

218. The electorate for whole area ballots comprises parents who either:

a)  live in the local authority area and have children up to the age of 16, or

b)   live outside the local authority area but are registered as the parents of a child at a school maintained by the LEA.

Grouped ballots

219. In areas where less than 25% of the secondary school population attended grammar schools at the time the legislation was drawn up schools are grouped for the purposes of petitions and ballots with others located relatively close. This strategy has the dual purpose of avoiding the possibility of grammar school provision becoming available to only one sex where it has previous been available to both, but also where the schools are likely to share significant numbers of feeder primary schools.[209] In such areas petitions and ballots must be on the question of change for all the grammar schools in the group.

220. The electorate for grouped ballots is limited to parents who have children attending a school (maintained or independent) from which, over the past three years, five or more children have transferred to the grammar school at the normal age of school transfer for the area.

Stand-alone ballots

221. Where a grammar school is the only grammar school in a local authority area, or cater for a specific area of the authority parents may petition and ballot on the basis of selection at a single school. Twelve schools are subject to these arrangements.[210]

222. The electorate for stand-alone ballots is identical to that for grouped ballots and is limited to parents who have children attending a school (maintained or independent) from which, over the past three years, five or more children have transferred to the grammar school at the normal age of school transfer for the area.

Defining the electorate for grammar school ballots

223. We are concerned about the manner in which the franchise for grammar school ballots has been defined. At present, in areas that are not designated as selective, the electorate has been defined too narrowly: only parents of children (under the age of normal grammar school entry) at feeder schools (either maintained or independent) from which at least 5 pupils in the last 3 years have been admitted to the grammar school[211] are eligible to sign a petition against selection or to vote in a ballot. While in selective LEAs, where the whole area ballot arrangements apply, parents whose children are of secondary school age are also included in the electorate. We question this arrangement on the grounds that as any change would take at least two years to implement the impact on the children of these parents would be very limited.[212]

224. The impact of selection reaches far beyond the boundaries of feeder schools or the selective schools themselves. Parents with the greatest interest in the future admissions arrangements of currently selective schools are those with children below school age and in local nursery and primary schools and the interest of such parents remains whether or not any of those schools have, in recent years, sent pupils into local selective schools.


225. Prior to a ballot on selection taking place 20% of eligible parents in the area must sign a petition seeking the ballot. Campaigners against selection have encountered difficulty in the practical application of the petitioning and balloting arrangements. The Campaign for State Education put the matter as follows:

"All campaigns need people willing to devote a great deal of their time. This is difficult in any circumstances but campaigners to end selection have found they need the hide of a rhinoceros to cope with vilification and misinformation of local and national press. Campaigns are long, drawn out and complicated. Campaigns have to focus on getting signatures on the petitions although the real issue is selection. As a result there is no real debate with official information about the effects of selection… The system seems designed to ensure there is no proper debate. Several campaigns became heavily immersed in correspondence with the DfES… Discouraged by the Ballot Information Code, teachers and LEAs do not make their views clear. So, a 'neutral stance' from the professionals means in practice support for the status quo. This line seems to have the support of the DfES [and means that] parents are not informed by professionals and there is no real local debate."[213] (author's emphasis)

226. Difficulties have also been experienced in collating data for petitions and ballots. STEP, Stop the Eleven Plus, a campaigning group based in Kent told us that:

"In Kent the 20% target of validated signatures needed in 2002—03 for a petition to succeed was 48,616 parents (an increase of 2,656—5.8% since 1999—2000). We found this out on 25th July (all school terms had ended by the 23rd July). It has taken the Electoral Reform Society 9 months to compile the register and announce the target figure. If we succeeded in gathering a valid petition by the end of June, preparation for the ballot and holding the ballot itself could not be completed by 31st July. The petition would have to be re-validated by a brand new register complied from September, reflecting changes to school rolls.

Under a new register the valid petition would probably be declared invalid. The target number is increasing as Kent's population rises. About 4,000 signatures may no longer be valid because their children had passed 16. Another 4,000 may be invalid because their children may have changed school at 11. We would be given the opportunity to "top up" the petition in the autumn term—and can only hope that this process can be completed well before the end of that term or … yet another new register will be required […]

The petition itself requires not just a signature but also the name and full address of each petitioner, the name of their child and the child's school. Common sense prevents many potential signatories from handing such potentially dangerous information to strangers.

Parents with children under 16 but not at school must register with the Electoral Reform Society by sending a birth certificate and a utilities bill if they wish to sign a petition or vote.[…]

These procedures are fundamentally flawed, the details ridiculous. The thought that the Grammar School Ballot Regulations were designed to preserve the status quo is inescapable."[214] (emphasis added)

227. Setting aside the desirability or otherwise of selective systems of education, the current arrangements for a selection of local people to decide the admissions arrangements of their grammar schools are flawed. The petition and balloting arrangements are a gesture in the direction of local democracy but waste the time and resources of all concerned. If the Government believes that a local vote is the appropriate mechanism by which the future of selective schools should be decided then it is high time for a review of the present arrangements. In any event, the current provision for grammar school ballots should be immediately withdrawn so as to ensure that no further resources are wasted in this exercise.

The question

228. The question parents are asked when the issue of ending selection at designated grammar schools is raised takes the following form:

Are you in favour of all the schools listed introducing admission arrangements which admit pupils of all abilities?[215]

229. In our view this is the wrong question. It is unreasonable to ask parents whether selection should be ended at an individual school without making it clear what the practical consequences of this would be.[216] For example, to end selection at a small grammar school which happened to be close to a non-selective school leaves open the crucial question of what the relationship between the two schools, and indeed others nearby, would be. Simply to create a small non-selective school could be disastrous educationally. One solution in some areas has been for the selective school to become a separate 14—19 school, admitting all 14 year olds and sixth formers in the area. Alternatively such a school may become the upper school of a new 11—18 school, with the 11—14 year olds accommodated in the non-selective school's premises. Ending selection at one school always affects the future of other schools and parents need to be aware of this before voting on the issue.

230. Ballot proposals also need to be make clear the proposed future status of the school or schools created on the ending of selection.[217] Would the school become an Academy or become or remain foundation or voluntary aided? What adaptations to buildings would be needed and how would these be funded? Evidence from the Campaign for State Education set out this difficulty in the current arrangements:

"It is clear that the petitioning and balloting system put in place by the School Standards and Framework Act will not result in an end to selection. Not only are there the complex requirements for huge petitions; unfairnesses in the eligibility to vote and virtual silencing of education professionals and the Government, but, crucially there are no plans for a comprehensive system for which local campaigners can campaign. So 'better the devil' you know' arguments hold sway. Meanwhile the cost of gathering information to provide parental lists in order for petitions to be gathered has so far resulted in public spending of £1,102,945 since 1999."[218]

231. The balloting arrangements at present ask the wrong question of the wrong people. It is our view that without proposals explaining the educational and practical consequences of ending selection at a particular school parents have insufficient information on which to reach an informed decision on the question. This leads us to the conclusion that the public money spent on preparation for grammar school ballots has been wasted.

207   1998 School Standards and Framework Act, S 105. Back

208   SA 18, Annex F a. Back

209   SA 18, Annex F b. Back

210   SA 18, Annex F c. Back

211   Also see paras 220 and 222 above. Back

212   Q 976 Back

213   SA 13, Appendix 1. Back

214   SA 8, Note C. Back

215   The Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998 para 13. Back

216   Q 984 Back

217   The text refers to a single school, although this would apply equally to a number of schools balloted under whole area or grouped ballots. Back

218   SA 13, para 35. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 22 July 2004