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Built to last

The future of the state education system is in the taxpayers' hands. Sell it to the middle classes, and we can build a better offering for all, reckons Michael Barber

Comprehensive Education: evolution, achievements and new directions

Edited by Mark Hewlett, Richard Pringand Margaret Tulloch

University of Northampton pound;20

This is a fascinating book published at a fascinating moment. Its authors include many of those who have been central to the debates of the past 40 years. The vital issues of standards, selection, equity and choice resound through the text, with different contributors arriving at different conclusions but all acknowledging their centrality.

A single question lies at the centre of its arguments about the present: is Tony Blair right to lead the education service into a "post-comprehensive era"? I can't pretend to be neutral. Instead, let me comment on the book by answering this question.

First, it is important to point out the transformation of funding that has taken place over the past decade. Remember when all the talk was of "crumbling schools"? Not any more; the capital investment is staggering. It is hard to travel a few miles these days without coming across a new school building and, unlike those built in the 1960s, which Harry Judge calls "the formative decade" in his chapter, these new schools are beautiful. Teacher supply has been transformed, too; for the first time in the post-war era we have a growing supply of excellent teachers, including in maths and science, during a period of economic growth. When schools receive three-year budgets - a dramatic reform which mystifyingly the Government hardly mentions - the resource revolution will be complete.

Second, SureStart, early years education, the significant improvement of standards in primary schools, along with major reductions in poverty, mean secondary education can build on firmer foundations than ever.

When the great historians of education of 2030 - the equivalents of Ken Fogelman, who has an elegant chapter here - write about the Blair-Brown era, and the controversies over the latest education bill are long forgotten, these foundations will stand out.

They will enable profound and enduring change, as long as one condition is met: the taxpayer must remain willing to invest in education at new higher levels, even as the pressures of health spending and a greying population grow remorselessly. For this reason it is essential to create a publicly provided school system which is so good that the growing number of parents who could afford the private alternative still choose it.

This is the key to the social democratic settlement that David Miliband, another contributor, advocates so eloquently. It means that the standards achieved, the facilities provided and the ethos established need to match those found in the private sector. Otherwise a critical mass will soon opt out of the state sector and argue that it is unfair for them to pay twice for education, once through their fees and again through their taxes for a system they no longer use. The result? Lower taxes, lower spending and a state system which is no more than a safety net for those who can't afford something better; a poor service for poor people, in Richard Titmuss's devastating phrase. Ask the citizens of Philadelphia or beleaguered New Orleans.

In short, the paradox is that only by securing middle-class commitment is it possible to design a state system that drives equity. For Roy Hattersley to dismiss in his chapter the Government's "desire to pander to the prejudices of middle-class voters" is therefore to miss the point.

Reinstating the old comprehensive system, abolishing league tables, undermining specialist schools and limiting choice - the case made here by Sally Tomlinson and Tony Edwards - would have devastating consequences for equity. The comprehensive era delivered significant improvements but fell far short of its aspirations, above all in relation to equity.

Only since raw results have been published from the mid-1990s has there been a sustained attempt to reduce school failure and, through programmes such as Excellence in Cities, narrow the achievement gap. Then there are city academies. Genuine advocates of equity should be dancing in the streets as the Government builds new schools and attracts great teachers to disadvantaged areas. Finally, critics need to accept that restricting choice in practice only means taking it away from the poor; the wealthy, after all, always have choice.

A school system so good that it meets the needs of diverse and aspirant parents while also driving equity is the central goal of the post-comprehensive era, and well worth fighting for. Richard Pring shows a subtle understanding of this challenge in his essay on faith schools. The 2006 bill, assuming it becomes law, will advance this agenda further by promoting innovation, by judiciously tightening up the admission arrangements and by facilitating the collaboration between schools promoted here by Tim Brighouse.

Of course, there are still major challenges. The standards agenda has not gone far enough and must not slip down the list of priorities. For example, as the excellent David Gillborn points out, the education system has not done enough to tackle underperformance of some ethnic minority groups, especially black boys. He lays bare the scandal of tiered papers, especially in GCSE maths.

At post-16 level the challenge remains acute, too. Far too many pupils leave school with no qualifications. These young people now find themselves competing for jobs with eastern Europeans, who, according to a recent Home Office report, are better educated and more reliable. This is great for the economy as a whole, but devastating for some individuals. It must surely be time to make education and training compulsory to age 18, at least part-time, as happens in Ontario.

If this book enables those responsible for creating the post-comprehensive era to take the best of the preceding era while leaving its disappointments behind, then excellence and equity could become a reality.

Michael Barber was head of standards and effectiveness in the DfES from 1997 to 2001 and head of delivery in Downing Street from 2001 to 2005

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