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Grammar/Secondary v Comprehensive

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Yesterday, Peter Morris, from Bishop Gore comprehensive school in Swansea, told the Professional Association of Teachers conference that grammar schools had been "the most successful type of school Britain has ever seen" and called for grammar schools to be reintroduced across England and Wales.

Morris had himself failed his 11+ and attended the local secondary school before passing the 13+. He has memories of his grammar school being far superior to his secondary school. This was in terms of discipline, standard of teaching and quality of uniform (he is very keen on those).

Morris believes that Bishop Gore Comprehensive is more like his secondary school than his grammar school. His solution is to see a return of the 11+.

No doubt Morris does experience discipline problems in his school. Many former grammar school students who become teachers have difficulty understanding the needs of less able pupils. Those of us, like myself, who failed the 11+ and attended secondary schools, realize what the main problem is. Namely, poor self-esteem caused by being labelled as "low ability".

There is of course no chance of the 11+ being introduced. The schools for those who failed the 11+ would be unable to attract enough teachers to function properly.

The real problem is that over the last few years is the government have been bringing back selection by a series of underhand methods (church schools, specialist schools, city academies). This is combined with the continuence of fee-charging schools and grammar schools in certain LEAs,has helped to completely undermine the comprehensive ideals introduced in the 1960s (by both Labour and Conservative governments).

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Why has social mobility declined? By far the most important reason is the growth of credentialism: access to professional and executive careers is now almost wholly dependent on general educational certificates - GCSEs, A-levels and degrees. When only a minority got qualifications of any kind, most left school on roughly equal terms. Many from poor homes reached the top by performing well at work or earning job-related qualifications at night school. The media was one of the careers where school-leavers started at the bottom - perhaps as office messengers - and rose to become editors. Now you'll be lucky to get within shouting distance of the editorial floor without a degree.

And it's the middle-class kids who get the degrees, particularly from elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. All the expansion of higher education has done is to allow nearly every child from an affluent home to go to university, while working-class children have a better chance than they used to, but still not a very good one. Fewer than one in 10 from the poorest fifth of the population get degrees. In effect, we have gone back to the days when family money could buy positions in the most desired professions, such as the army or the civil service. Positions are now bought indirectly - through paying privately, buying a house in the right state-school catchment area or supporting your offspring through postgraduate courses or work experience.

But why have schools failed to narrow the attainment gap between the social classes? Why do so few children from poor homes get to university? Many believe the answer is to bring back grammar schools across the country, as a delegate to the conference of the Professional Association of Teachers proposed yesterday. Comprehensives, it is argued, have failed: they were supposed to narrow the gap between classes, but the reverse has happened. Grammar schools were open to all children of talent, not just to those whose parents lived in the right area, knew the local vicar or could afford fees. Some ministers agree, and the thrust of Labour's policies has been to increase the amount of selectivity in secondary schools. The 168 surviving grammar schools have been allowed to expand, specialist schools invited to select up to 10% of their pupils, and hidden selection quietly encouraged in church schools and city academies.

The grammar-school lobby is wrong, however. If we restore selection, we would also have to restore secondary moderns, though we would find a posher name for them. Though some working-class children did get to grammar school, the large majority went to secondary moderns, where they regressed so much that they left school with lower IQs than when they entered. Figures that Kelly issued with her speech on Tuesday show that if we restore grammar schools, nothing is likely to change. Between 1998 and 2004, the gap in English and maths attainment at the age of 11 between poor children (defined as receiving free school meals) and children from better-off homes actually widened. This was despite all New Labour's bright ideas, such as introducing literacy and numeracy hours, declaring "action zones", and sending hit squads into "bad" schools.

Moreover, a recent report by the Sutton Trust showed that Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland all have higher social mobility than Britain. These countries have fully comprehensive systems, high performance in international tests and relatively small gaps between the attainment of the top and bottom pupils. What are they doing right? Almost certainly the answer is that they have a smaller fee-paying sector than we do and less of a pecking order of state schools. Studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggest that Finland has a particularly high degree of social mixing in its secondary schools.

That is the extent of the challenge that faces Kelly. There are many ways to help children from poor homes: high quality pre-schooling, for example, and better funding for schools in deprived areas. But there is powerful evidence, from research in this country as well as overseas, that peer groups - who they go to school with - are crucial. Secondary schools that have a "balanced intake" - a mix of rich and poor, able and less able - are the ones that do best. They raise the performance of the less able children and children from poor homes (not necessarily the same thing), with little or no detrimental effect on brighter children. Schools that have mostly deprived and unmotivated children, by contrast, drag everybody down. And schools that have mostly bright children from affluent homes pull everybody up. That is why rich parents are willing to pay school fees.

In other words, we need truly comprehensive schools - "bog standard", if you like - whose pupils are not creamed off by a variety of fee-charging schools, grammar schools, church schools and academies. Yet up to now, government policies have been directed to almost exactly the opposite end. New Labour feared a middle-class flight to the private sector, ending in resistance to paying taxes for state schools. Its strategy has therefore been to help middle-class parents opt out of the "worst" state schools (ie those with lots of under-achieving children from poor homes) by offering more choice and new types of school to create a hierarchy.

It is all very well for Kelly to promise, as she did at the IPPR, that she will make it easier for working-class parents to choose a "good" school for their children - by, for example, offering free transport. But does she expect middle-class parents to stand meekly aside when the buses from the rough end of town arrive? And if they all take their children elsewhere, will it still be a "good" school anyway?

The truth is that if Labour really wants to improve social mobility, it has to be very bold indeed, perhaps using some kind of "banding" system that allocates fixed numbers of children of different abilities to each school, and possibly also a fixed quota of children on free meals. The old Inner London Education Authority had just such a system and it was abolished because the middle classes hated it. Labour may also have to introduce formal quotas to get more deprived children into elite universities. The middle classes are furious about the little that ministers are doing to that end now. Does Kelly have the legs for such rough political weather?


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