Jump to content
The Education Forum

The Myth of Comprehensive Education

John Simkin

Recommended Posts

  • 1 month later...

I see that John Prescott today has revealed that he believes that Labour’s proposed new Education Act will bring an end to Comprehensive Education. Prescott, a man who failed his 11+, is someone who still believes in comprehensive schools. Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, two people who experienced private education, have probably never understood, yet alone supported, comprehensive education.

Eton educated David Cameron is very keen on Ruth Kelly’s bill. He has promised to use his new power as leader of the Tory Party to get it passed in Parliament. So far 72 Labour MPs have signed a document stating their opposition to the Education Act. As Labour has only a 66 majority in the House of Commons, the government will need the Tories to get it passed.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

Death to all modifiers, cried Yossarian in Catch-22. Quite right too. Modifiers are a politician's let-out. They bridge the gap between the promise and the lie.

When Labour came to power David Blunkett said, "Read my lips, no more selection". Tony Blair repeated the pledge: "No return to academic selection." Ruth Kelly chimed in: "It will be illegal to select by academic ability." The Tories' David Cameron agreed: "No going back to 11-plus selection."

A normal person might take that as final. But we are dealing with politicians. The devil is in the modifiers.

The spin on Blunkett's pledge turned out to be not "no more selection", in the sense of not selection any more, but no more selection than there is now. So the system could stay riddled with it. In the case of Blair and Kelly the relevant modifier was "academic". To understand this we need to turn back the page of history.

The 11-plus examination was, of course, not academic. It was introduced in 1944 on the basis of a mass of theory purporting to give local councils an objective measure of educational "aptitude", not achievement. The 11-plus was an intelligence test not an academic test. Pupils were to be allocated by suitability between three types of school, grammar, technical or "modern". The aim was to eliminate class bias from the transfer to the new secondary system. With roughly 30% of places in grammar schools, access should not depend on parental choice or income, nor on the quality of a particular primary school. Though much of 11-plus theory was fanciful, many bright working-class children were admitted to grammar school as a result, and some dud middle-class children were rejected.

To deny a "return to academic selection" is mere rhetorical flourish. It obfuscates what other sort of selection is intended. The confused Tories seem to want 10% of places in popular schools allocated by competitive examination. This is selection, but with a narrower gate. Since Cameron is happy with the adjective academic, he loses even the class-blind virtues of the old 11-plus. It is what pundits call a middle-class creamer.

Blair's position on selection is more opaque. The white paper written by Lord Adonis clearly seeks a return to the 1944 bipartite system, prior to the comprehensive reform. It wants, but will not compel, schools to opt out of local control and thus break any formal link with their communities. When the Tories tried this in the early 1990s they found most schools said no. Heads regarded their local authority as helpful and supportive in time of trouble.

The probable result of Blair/Adonis will be a marginal increase in the present scatter of some 40 independent city colleges and academies, in effect a new direct grant list. Meanwhile the "non-Blair" sector of local authority schools will mostly claim "specialist" status and be thus entitled to compete for bands of pupils outside their catchment areas.

The Blair plan envisages that popular schools will expand until anyone can go to them. This is stupid. Schools are successful and popular precisely because not everyone goes to them - as Blair knows from his own experience. Nor will the Treasury tolerate new classrooms being built that eviscerate sixth forms and empty other classrooms down the road. This was explicit in the local five-year-plans which the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, negotiated with Gordon Brown in 2004.

Assuming some schools are always more popular than others and comprehensive school catchment areas become ever more porous, some admissions regime there must be. Over large parts of urban Britain, selection is already subcontracted to churches. The Anglicans and Roman Catholics control admission to their schools, their pews overflowing with eager parents waving forms certifying attendance. For Blair to say he is against exclusive faith schools is hypocrisy. He is currently building what amounts to two Anglican mission "academies" in Muslim Leicester.

Since the essence of Blair's Thatcherism is institutional competition, he clearly wants heads to do everything they can to admit pupils who will boost their league-table ranking. If they are required by a code of practice to admit a quota of low-achieving pupils, they will be the more determined to select a balance of high-achievers. What is that if not selection?

At this point our old friend equity enters the fray. Just as it is clearly unfair to bias state-financed education against those who do not go to church, so it is unfair to bias it against the children of less astute or forceful parents, or those from less advanced primary schools. Avoiding this bias was the whole point of the 11-plus. Indeed its rejection of thousands of middle-class children was what roused Tory voters against it in the 60s. This so traumatised the party that Heath (and Margaret Thatcher as education secretary) did not dare reverse comprehensive reorganisation in 1970.

That Cameron feels obliged to disown the 11-plus is a ghostly echo of that trauma, despite his intention to revive it for his 10% of places.

It is hardly conceivable that the government is about to take Britain back not to 1944 but to 1934, to pre-war institutional apartheid based essentially on class. The Blair/Adonis plan is a re-enactment of the old grammar/ elementary divide, with a privileged Whitehall sector creaming off the best pupils and a despised local sector left on short rations. It is Britain as a 30s educational theme park.

The 1944 and 1965 reorganisations sought to break the dominance of religion and class over public-sector schooling in Britain. To a large extent they succeeded. Ever since, religion and class have been fighting their way back. Blair and Adonis are their latest champions. This is archaic.

Whoever runs a school, there are only two equitable ways of admitting pupils to it. One is central to the comprehensive principle, that entry be open to all in the local community as determined by catchment area, warts and all. The task of the state is to make that school as good as can be. The other way sees children admitted to school on some other criterion. In that case the admission must be seen as fair, especially if so critical a decision is to be made at the tender age of 11. There is only one such fairness, a universal examination sat by all. The fairest was the 11-plus. Those who cannot bear catchment areas have no alternative.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

The difference is this.

Teachers may endorse the idea of setting, seldom of streaming. They have some respect for their colleagues. If a Maths teacher finds it easier to teach in sets, they usually recognise that an English teacher might well teach mixed ability.

Teachers might want to teach in 1950s grammar schools in their dreams but know damn well they could end up teaching in 1950s Secondary Modern schools.

And nobody wants the religious right taking over schools. Nobody ( including evangelists who are teachers) wants Noah's ark and Adam and Eve to appear in science books.

They want teachers deciding what happens in the classroom rather than a bunch of politicians in Westminster (or the Church of the Second Coming!) deciding for them.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...


Kelly stands firm on schools bill

Oliver King

Tuesday February 28, 2006

The government gave no further concessions on its controversial schools reforms as it published its long-awaited education bill this afternoon.

After giving ground earlier this month on schools admissions and the role of local authorities, the education secretary, Ruth Kelly, today rejected demands to further water down the legislation.

Demands by rebel Labour MPs that local authorities should have the power to set up new schools without reference to the education secretary were rejected by the government.

But the words "trust schools" - which ministers have adopted as the brand for their plans - do not appear anywhere in the legislation. Trust schools would instead be legally known as "foundation schools with a foundation".

As MPs were left to digest the 200-page bill without a Commons statement by Ms Kelly it was unclear tonight how many of the potential 100 Labour rebels had been brought back onside by the government.

Rebel MPs opposed to the bill under centre-left Labour thinktank Compass are meeting at Westminster to discuss how to take forward opposition to the bill.

Organiser Neal Lawson said: "There are still a pretty substantial figure - 80, 90 even a 100 MPs - opposed to this bill. There have haven't been any fundamental changes.

"Tonight's meeting will discuss tactics on where and how we go from here."

Before publishing the bill in Westminster, Ms Kelly visited a school in west London. She said: "I'm confident that this is a bill that my colleagues should be able to unite around.

"It is a very good bill. It gives schools the freedom they need to raise standards."

The education secretary will tonight address the northern group of Labour MPs as ministers undertake a fresh round of lobbying.

The proposals cover reforms to the way schools are run, measures to improve classroom discipline and new rules to make school meals healthier.

The department for education said every school would have the chance to become a trust school, free from local authority control and able to manage its assets.

Trust schools will be backed by businesses, faith groups, universities or other successful schools under the proposals, which were first outlined in a white paper last year. The original white paper proposals set out moves to strip local authorities of their power to create new community schools. Instead, local authorities were to have a new "strategic" role. The bill published today makes it clear that a local education authority in England, may with the consent of the secretary of state set up a new community school.

Ms Kelly has insisted she would only use this power of veto rarely, and "will not normally intervene" where the council in question has a good track record and parents in the area want the new community school.

Vera Baird, Labour MP for Redcar told Guardian Unlimited: "I wasn't one of the original 100-strong rebels but I was somewhat unhappy at the bill and the concessions have gone some way towards solving that. I'm inclined to think the bulk of the problems are out of the way but I'm still worried about the veto."

Clive Efford one of the 100 Labour rebels MPs who signed the alternative white paper promoted by the Compass thinktank, said he wanted time to consider it.

"I picked up this bill five minutes ago with the intention of not voting for it. I will now go away and read it, but it is very difficult to confirm that the government have moved as far as it's said it has. I'm still concerned about getting the resources into low performing schools but we seem to have moved a long way away from the free for all disaster it would have been," he said.

With the Conservatives indicating they will support the bill with reservations it was left to the Liberal Democrats to officially oppose the legislation.

The Lib Dem education spokesman, Edward Davey, said: "Despite the hype, these are limited reforms, containing hidden dangers that ought to alarm parents and schools across England.

"We will now study the fine print, but if ministers want the votes of Liberal Democrats they would be strongly advised before second reading to refocus on reforms proven to raise standards.

"Schools don't need to become trusts to get the benefits ministers promise, but if your local school adopts Labour's trust model you could find your children don't get a place. Labour wants schools to choose pupils, not parents to choose schools. That's a threat to parental choice."

The 25-strong Socialist Campaign group of MPs immediately signaled they were still unhappy with the bill.

Chairman John McConnell said: "The bill remains unacceptable to any Labour MP seeking to ensure fair access to a decent education for all their constituents, rich or poor.

"Having secured a series of concessions so far, our strategy will be to await further government shifts - as even with those concessions the government cannot be sure of its majority."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What can he say when the Conservative party has been seized by Blairite airheads and Labour battles to re-enact a Tory education bill? David Cameron returned from paternity leave this week like a Beatle from an ashram. He brought a mission statement spun as casting caution to the winds. He daringly espouses truth, beauty, compassion, motherhood and fatherhood. When it comes to rough stuff, Cameron clearly means to take no hostages.

Tony Blair's case is more puzzling. The education bill published by Ruth Kelly yesterday is a straight copy of Kenneth Baker's 1988 Education Act as amended by John Patten in 1993. Both were an attack on local education authorities and tried to induce schools to "opt out" and come under the wing of Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher told her party conference in 1987 that she intended to "give parents and governors the right to take their children's schools out of the hands of the local authority".

The Tory right in 1988 favoured a voucher scheme in which "money follows the parent" wherever the market should lead. Thatcher decided not to go that far in dismantling the local education structure. She preferred voluntarism, assuming that every school would jump at the chance to escape. What therefore evolved after 1988 was a three-tier secondary system: private schools; the 24,000 local authority schools; and an intermediate group of roughly a thousand centrally-funded schools.

The last group was to evolve under various ministerial initiatives over the years. Governors were first told they would be free to determine admissions, code for selection, but after a furious row Baker conceded they should adhere to local "comprehensive" arrangements. The schools were dubbed opted-out, grant-maintained, trusts, foundations, city technology colleges and city academies. The academies are costing five times their local authority equivalents (plus gongs for their founders).

By the time Thatcher left office, just 340 schools had opted out, many of them undersubscribed city schools facing closure. In 1993 Patten returned to the attack. Like his boss, John Major, a trenchant enemy of local government, he promised to get "most of the 3,900 maintained secondary schools and a significant proportion of 19,000 maintained primary schools to opt out by 1996". This would "mark the end of the long-standing local education authority monopoly". But the Treasury insisted on coherent planning of local school capacity under a new Funding Agency for Schools. Council schools remained part of the mix, but with the secretary of state empowered to overrule council decisions.

The changes that Blair and his ministers, Kelly and Lord Adonis, have had to concede are the same as those conceded by Baker and Patten in 1988 and 1993. They have had to concede voluntarism. They have had to concede a comprehensive admissions code. They have had to allow Treasury control over school building. They have had to allow councils to continue to build. They have kept secretary-of-state discretion over that building. Nothing is new. This is the old Tory bill.

Voluntarism failed. Despite often frantic efforts by ministers, barely 1,000 schools had opted out by the time the Tories left office. Half were in just eight badly administered areas. There was no antipathy to local councils running schools, at least outside the boroughs inhabited by London's commentariat. While Blair, Adonis and Kelly may be keen to replace council schools with faith ones, most parents have been sceptical of sectarian education and satisfied with local education authorities. Mori recently found the public's "trust" of local councillors at 35% compared with just 20% for government ministers.

That Blair should expend so much political capital on the same blind alley explored by Thatcher and Major is bizarre. Most secondary-school transfer in Britain works reasonably well. Britain's education challenge lies in teaching and resources, not in governance. What is gained by converting a mostly comprehensive system into a chaotically selective one is a mystery. In my area, access to the most desirable primary and secondary school is currently by a certificate of church attendance signed by a parson. Is this what Labour means by equal opportunity?

Kelly said on the radio yesterday that her bill was vital "to give teachers the power to raise standards". How do they lack that power at present? If local control is the root of evil, as Blair implies, why did he abolish grantmaintained status in 1997?

The worst feature of the bill is the implied discrimination. Schools are community institutions. The government's 1,000 centrally financed schools already enjoy a virtuous circle of leaguetable success, de facto selective entry and extra money. The reason is that, as with academies and the Tories' grantmaintained schools, ministers have a vested interest in boasting their success.

The Kelly model has good schools "expanding" or "taking over" poor ones. This was said in the 90s and meant nothing. Schools have no interest in diluting their ethos or risking their league-table position. Nor will the Treasury permit spare capacity in unpopular schools. The result will owe more to Charles Darwin than Adam Smith. Bog-standard comprehensives, renamed "community schools", will stay crammed with rejects. The weakest will go to the wall, which, in Britain's inner cities, is the last place social policy should want to send them. It is back to British secondary education prior to the 1944 Butler Act.

The Kelly bill offers a worse separatism than the geographical selection of "postcode" comprehensives, where institutions are community-based and close to home and parents. It is worse even than a "loaded" voucher system. Both these embrace a clear redistribution of resources from rich neighbourhoods to poor ones. Kelly, like Patten, will find herself bribing successful schools to opt out of community control and adjudicating constantly over their admissions regimes. She will be giving to "them that hath" and thus taking from them that have not. Labour MPs will be voting for this. Amazing.

There is one light on the horizon. In conceding voluntarism, the bill faces the same fate as its 1993 predecessor. Then, schools, parents and teachers simply turned their backs on central government and said, no thanks. They preferred the devils they knew. They can do so again.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar

Wednesday April 19, 2006

The Guardian


If the government had hoped its problems over the education bill would fade away over the Easter break, it has had a rude awakening. The NUT conference last weekend was dominated by continuing discontent at these "needless reforms"; ballots will now test the waters of possible strike action. The arrest of the hapless head teacher Des Smith, over alleged offers of honours to potential academy sponsors, is a raw reminder of the anxieties many feel about a policy that hands over huge chunks of the public estate to private individuals with no proven experience in education matters, with few safeguards about propriety. It certainly does not augur well for a bill which claims, at its heart, to further the interests of the most disadvantaged children.

And as parliament reconvenes, the bill, now at committee stage, will be the focus of a battery of amendments from both right and left. Many Labour MPs remain deeply uneasy about the reforms: they will table a raft of amendments on admissions, the arrangements for trust school governance, monitoring the means by which trust school partners are selected, the local authority's role and whether the secretary of state should have a veto over proposed community schools. Meanwhile, the Tories have cannily indicated that if the bill moves too far from its "original radicalism" they may reconsider their support.

The next month will be crucial, then, in deciding the fate of this intensely Conservative bill. As former Tory cabinet minister Ken Clarke reminded the Commons: "If it looks like a dog and barks like a dog, it probably is a dog. Labour members are never more ridiculous than when they go blue in the face trying to convince us that the supposed trust schools are not grant-maintained schools, or that the city academies are not city technology colleges, renamed."

For those of us primarily interested in defending, and building on, the comprehensive inheritance, this is the time to hammer home the implications of the proposed changes. It's easy to make jokes about second-hand car salesmen, creationists, and now cash for honours. But how many parents are fully aware of the effects of wealthy individuals taking control of schools, including lands and property, and being able to run them as their own private fiefdoms? Or of what it really means to hand over so much educational influence to religious groups across the faith spectrum?

And what of the new government educational orthodoxy - the statement that slipped into last autumn's white paper, that one can divide all children into three types: the gifted and talented, the plain average, and the struggling?

Such arcane and unimaginative ideas might be laughable if they were not wedded to a requirement in the bill for pupils to choose either an academic or vocational path post-14. Ten years from now, we may see a new version of the grammar/secondary-modern divide. Those academies and trusts set up to replace failing schools, but working with the same pupil intake, will focus on vocational paths to boost results. Far from being the crack troops of an intellectual revival in our inner cities, these institutions may well be the secondary moderns of the future: old-fashioned uniforms, tough discipline, yes, but a depleted curriculum for the urban poor.

Meanwhile, some of the new academies, trusts and community technology colleges will use their admissions freedoms to create a pseudo grammar school. Trust schools with a more academic "ethos" will largely serve the middle class. These will join the existing grammar schools which still operate in a quarter of all education authorities.

But where does this leave the much trumpeted concept of parent, or indeed pupil, choice? Will children be asked to decide their own educational "paths" at 10 or 11? Will they always know what they are "choosing"? Now more than ever we need to remind ourselves not just of the comprehensive system's many successes, but also of its rationale: the chance for all pupils, whatever their background, to experience the broadest curriculum, to stretch their talents, proven and latent, well into their teens.

There is still much work to be done to raise standards for all, and to help the most disadvantaged: the classic Labour project. But at public meetings over the past six months we have heard parents, teachers, governors, councillors and MPs speak repeatedly of the waste of opportunity that this bill represents. Once again, the chance to make simple changes on the ground - reforming the curriculum, reducing the burden of testing, cutting class sizes and boosting resources for the least advantaged - has been passed over, in favour of needlessly uprooting the entire system.

Unamended, this bill deals a potential killer blow to a long held progressive vision of high-quality non-selective schools, serving all children in the community, giving each of them access to the same broad, liberal curriculum. Let's hope parents are waking up to the full meaning of these changes, and that they will back those Labour MPs who remain uneasy at the double blow the bill strikes at the comprehensive ideal and the wider idea of a publicly funded, publicly accountable service.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...