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Bespoke schools better than 'one size fits all'

Oh, not again, I thought wearily, struggling through the mists of sleep to hear the early-morning radio announcement that Estelle Morris was going to argue in a speech at the Social Market Foundation that the "one size fits all" comprehensive must be abandoned. Instantly I felt angry, disappointed, depressed.

But what she said wasn't so bad - and gained credibility from her 18 years as a teacher in a comprehensive school. Treated by the mainstream media as a huge sea-change, the speech in fact consolidated ideas which have been floating around ever since the White Paper. She pushed all the right buttons for people like me, condemning the old division at 11-plus, and underlining the huge strides the system has made since. And in the end I concluded she was right. The old model can't go on much further. Of course, it never really was "one size fits all". British schools have always been very different - far too different, in my view. The gap between best and worst is much bigger than in other comparable countries.

But there's no doubt that the comprehensive ideal of 40 years ago has run out of steam. We're now simply replicating the class structure through the schools and the word "comprehensive" has become so debased through the media that to most people it has come to mean second best.

Our thinking on education is riven with contradictions. The Right refuses to face the fact that grammar schools and parental choice are incompatible. Similarly, the Left has always had difficulty with the conundrum of treating everyone the same so as not to stigmatise the disadvantaged, while meeting the individual needs of very different children.

British schools have very specific challenges. Education systems which sit at the top of the international league tables (Finland, Japan, Sweden, Singapore) have relatively homogeneous populations - and a strong national consensus as to what education is for. But Britain and the US are pluralist societies, and so find themselves in the vanguard of working out how schools can offer an effective education to a very wide range of people. Not surprisingly, there is recurrent turmoil on the issue in both countries - but we ought to see it as an exciting prospect. International migration means that most countries will face it sooner or later.

The answer for the schools, as between the sexes, must be "equal but different". Of course, this doesn't work out amazingly well between the sexes. As fast as we deal with one problem, another raises its head. But slowly things are improving. What we must avoid is the knee-jerk response that these ideas necessarily entail selection. The point is that all schools should develop a specialism.

Within a system which encourages different approaches, we could even see a return to progressive or alternative models. What really matters is that schools in poor areas with difficult intakes should be given the opportunity to develop a real mission for their particular kids. There is already a lot of expertise in the system, ignored and undervalued because such schools don't come out well in the league tables, and because most middle-class families would die rather than send their children there.

If teachers who are skilled at educating all kinds of children - including the alienated, the dispossessed, and the bewildered - were given real money and respect, we might get somewhere. They ought to be paid more, because their task is harder and more important. What might these schools specialise in? How about "inclusion"?

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