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Does comprehensive education have a future?

Fiona Millar wonders whether a Brown government will make the tough political decisions needed to realise the Comprehensive ideal


t may seem strange, at the end of a decade during which the death knell of the comprehensive school has been sounded at regular intervals, to say that comprehensive education still has a future.

We haven't yet got the sort of comprehensive system that works well in other countries. But paradoxically the government's last, most controversial and most fiercely contested piece of schools legislation, the Education and Inspections Act, may have done more to revive the cause of all ability schools than any campaign that went before.

Anti-comprehensive rhetoric had become something of a watchword of the Blair era. Every time a new reform was introduced, whether for specialist schools, trust schools or academies, it was billed as a replacement for the ‘traditional comprehensive' or the dawning of a new ‘post comprehensive' era.

The White Paper that preceded the Education and Inspections Act was equally explicit. As Tony Blair explained at the time the latest tranche of reforms was designed to ‘escape the straitjacket of the traditional comprehensive school and embrace the idea of genuinely independent non-fee paying state schools'

However by the time the Bill had reached its third reading in the House of Commons there had been a change of personnel at the Department of Education and the new Secretary of State Alan Johnson could be heard pleading with his rebellious backbenchers to understand that trust schools, with the freedom to control their own admission, would be comprehensive schools.

Somewhere along the way the government had conceded that a radically tightened up Code on School Admissions was needed. More significantly maybe, both the Labour and Conservative leaders had been forced to publicly rule out any future return to academic selection at 11.

But if you don't have selective schools, the alternative must be comprehensive schools. In that sense the battle of ideas has been won. The campaigns of the future need to focus on three further goals; eradicating the continuing use of the 11 plus in almost 25% of education authorities; dismantling the curious hybrid, the selective comprehensive, that has emerged under the Tories and New Labour as more and more schools have been given the freedom to control their own admissions; and constantly exposing the myth that comprehensive education has failed.

Comprehensive schools get a terrible press, largely from journalists who don't use them and therefore have a vested interest in talking down a system they have rejected. Comprehensive education is regularly caricatured as an antedeluvian form of social engineering which should have gone out with the ark. This conveniently ignores the fact that all education systems are a form of social engineering. None more so maybe than independent schools which allow parents who can afford it to effectively buy their children competitive advantage later on in life

They sadly also get a terrible press from many of our politicians, including some of those supposedly on the left, who confuse educational failure, of which there is still too much, with the comprehensive principle which is simply that children are of equal worth and that society will be a better place if children from all abilities backgrounds races and faiths are educated together.

Too many schools and too many individual pupils do fail, in spite of the roller coaster of reform and massive investment of the last ten years. But those that do fail don't do so because they are comprehensive.

They fail because they lack the exceptional visionary head teachers, teachers and the funding they need, they suffer from an overly prescriptive target driven culture and they often fail because they are not comprehensive at all and have to deal with disproportionate numbers of children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds who present a range of complex behavioural and social problems.

However that shouldn't detract from the fact that schools which educate children of all abilities together are recognised both nationally and internationally to be the best way to raise standards for all children.

In 1968 at the end of the old tripartite system, only 18% of young people left school with 5 O levels. Today that figure is over 50 %. More pupils than ever before are going into higher education and our 15 year olds perform creditably in international studies which also show that countries with high standards and high equity like Finland and Canada have fully comprehensive systems. The alternatives, selective systems like Germany, rank poorly for both achievement and equity in international studies such as the OECD's PISA.

And we can see echoes of the German system in English local authorities like Kent that are still fully selective and embrace grammar schools which take negligible numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and secondary moderns which perform more poorly than anything to be found in often demonised London boroughs, thus depressing standards overall.

In a recent letter to the Prime Minister, a Kent parent Becky Matthews explained what it is like: ‘If you are a child in Kent you will be labelled by a test at 10 years old. You will be educated in a school exclusively populated by middle class prosperous children.

‘Or you will be educated in a school populated by children who have failed, probably with a disproportionate number of SEN students and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties with little or no sixth form, low budgets and second rate facilities.

‘These outcomes are largely determined by social class. There is a common and accurate perception by parents in Kent that the grammars are for rich people: the people that have had a child in a private primary school or paid for tutoring to pass the 11 plus.

‘The price paid for their exclusivity is paid by the children who attend the secondary moderns, largely children of ordinary working people.'

This is an important letter because it confronts head on one of the greatest myths peddled by opponents of comprehensive education; that it denies social mobility and routes out of poverty for working class children.

Evidence for that is largely anecdotal. While some working class children may have got a ladder out of the poverty and low aspirations in the old grammar schools, many did not.

Studies of children coming from streamed primary schools in the 1960s showed that most of the grammar school stream came from professional or managerial backgrounds as did most university undergraduates. Home background was largely reproduced in the national education system.

Tragically in spite of the advances of comprehensive education we can still see the links between disadvantage and achievement being played out in many of our schools today.

Hopefully the priority for Gordon Brown will not therefore be about how to eradicate comprehensive schools but how to get them to work more effectively to meet the many challenges still facing our education system; the 40 per cent of young people who fail to achieve five good GCSEs, the 25 per cent who leave school at 16, the 11% of 17 year olds in no form of education training or employment at all.

A starting point would be to make the system fully comprehensive.

At the moment, around 90% of children are educated in schools that are nominally comprehensive. In reality we have a school structure that is neither fully comprehensive or fully selective.

Successive governments, while pledging no more selection, have ushered in a succession of subtle and devious ways for schools to manage their own admissions and select pupils both overtly and covertly under the superficially seductive title of ‘diversity and choice'.

In many cities we now have what the London schools commissioner Tim Brighouse calls a dizzyingly steep hierarchy of schools in to which children are sorted according to a variety of different means; faith, cheque book, postcode, aptitude or a combination of all four.

By and large the well resourced and knowing work the system to their advantage and successive studies of the social composition of our most successful comprehensive schools illustrate clearly that a combination of backdoor selection, league tables and sharp elbowed parents have contributed to greater social and educational segregation not less.

So comprehensive education is clearly not working as well as it could or indeed in the way it was intended. Further reforms to the education system should include even more drastic action on the Code of Admissions; an end to the 11 plus ; a review of whether any school should be allowed to control the children it admits; tougher powers for local authorities to manage admissions for the benefit of every school in a given area; more work on whether all schools should band children by ability or whether it is a system that could only work well in urban areas; further debate about the role of the faith schools and whether their power to admit pupils by faith is compatible with human rights law and a socially cohesive society.

But even once the admissions question is finally sorted we need to ensure that every school has the resources and leadership it needs to deliver a top class education and hammer out a clear vision for how we manage the comprehensive curriculum of academic and vocational/ practical education so they have parity of esteem and the latter has qualifications that are worthwhile.

I believe it is possible to test to destruction my principle that real comprehensive schools work and are the best way to raise aspirations and opportunities for young people across the board. But in the end this is a political argument as much as an educational one.

The simplest and yet most profound way to understand any society is through its education system. A school system is not just about standards and exam results but about values – what sort of people we want our children to be and what sort of society we want them to grow up in.

A truly comprehensive community school, educating children of all social and ethnic backgrounds together is a clear statement of opportunity for all.

It is also the most vibrant practical example possible of the kind of society many of us want to live in. Unfortunately in many of our urban areas we still have a system that divides children in a multitude of different unfair ways, entrenches privilege and discriminates against the neediest.

No politician would deliberately set out to create such a divisive system. But it will take a tough political vision to overcome it.