The last two weeks’s PMQs exchanges between David Cameron and Tony Blair have concentrated on education, with Cameron doing his best to try and drive a wedge between Blair and his backbenchers, and Blair doing his best to paint Cameron as a supporter of academic selection in schools. Is that really such a bad thing to be though – some Labour MPs may retain a visceral hatred of the 11-plus, but what do the public think about academic selection in schools?

The latest YouGov poll also included a series of questions on education. The idea of streaming by academic ability within schools meets with overwhelming support – only 4% think streaming is a bad idea. 83% of people supported streaming, with respondents split fairly evenly between a programme forcing all schools to stream pupils by ability, and allowing schools to chose whether to stream or not.

Asked if the abolition of Grammar schools and secondary moderns and their replacement with comprehensive schools was in hindsight a good or bad idea, 48% of people think it was a bad idea, with only 31% thinking it was a good idea. There is a sharp political divide here – Conservative voters overwhelmingly think it was a bad idea (72% to 16%), Labour voters broadly support it (48% to 31%), while Lib Dem voters are pretty evenly split.

While people may think the passing of the old 11-plus system was a bad thing, there is less support for the reintroduction of academic selection in schools. 41% of respondents thought that schools should not be allowed to select any pupils on the basis of ability. 28% thought that schools should be free to select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of ability, while 20% thought that schools should be able to be completely selective. There were predictable differences between supporters of political parties – Labour voters were most opposed to selection and Conservative voters most favorable towards it. However, the division were not as sharp as you might think – 39% of Labour voters supported some degree of selection, with 11% supporting complete selection. 28% of Conservative voters were opposed to selection in schools.

YouGov also asked where decisions about admissions policies should be made. 38% supported leaving the decision with LEAs (either as at present, with some grammar, church and specialist schools allowed to make their own decisions, or giving complete control to LEAs), 45% of respondents supported giving all schools the right to make their own decisions on admissions (either with (29%) or without (16%) the option of returning to the 11-plus). Again there were sharp political divides – amongst Tory voters the split was 26% in favour of LEA control, 62% in favour of giving control to schools, amongst Labour voters the split was 49% to 33%.

It seems that on education there are still sharp divides between the supporters of different political parties, even if the two party leaders make a show of ‘agreeing’ every Wednesday lunchtime. Conservative voters tend to support selection and giving admissions control to individual schools. Labour voters tend to be opposed to selection, and support the role of LEAs in distributing school places. Overall the Conservatives seem to have regained their position as the party most trusted with education – a position they last achieved in Michael Howard’s honeymoon as leader – asked which party had the best policies on improving the quality of education in schools 24% said the Conservatives, ahead of Labour on 20% and the Lib Dems on 11%.


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