Cheeseboard needs to have quality choice

When ministers or their aides refer to"bog- standard comprehensives" which they would not "touch with a bargepole", my objection is not only that they insult thousands of skilled and dedicated teachers. I object far more to the foolish way in which they discredit a policy (their own, moreover) which could prove to be the salvation of British secondary schooling.

I agree with Estelle Morris that uniformity is not the way forward. We live in an age where people expect choice. I go to my local supermarket and I am confronted with up to 50 cheeses and I get disgruntled if my favourites are missing. Yet in my 1950s childhood, even the largest stores rarely offered more than Cheddar and Stilton. Though comprehensive schools did not become widely established until the 1970s, it was in that earlier period that the comprehensive idea was conceived.

People accepted what they were given. As late as the 1970s, people had to queue for months to get a telephone installed or to take out a mortgage, as well as to get a hospital bed. Small wonder that they never complained about their children being directed to a particular school. Children who passed the 11-plus went to the local grammar, those who failed went to the local secondary modern. The idea that the selective system provided choice, and that parents lamented its loss, was a myth invented by later generations.

Now people expect to choose their electricity or gas supplier, and press for a choice of hospitals and surgeons. Politicians therefore need to provide choice in secondary schooling without re-inventing selection.

Creating a "ladder" of schools is the wrong answer. Ministers should aim for a range of schools that enjoy genuine parity of esteem, offering parents real choice. Allowing each school to specialise in a particular subject area is probably the only way to achieve that.

The concept of the specialist school needs to be uncoupled from the concept of hierarchy. If we have Morris's ladder - which includes three tiers of specialist school - parents will clamour to get into the one nearest the top. Why would anyone choose a school on the fourth rather than the second rung? You would need to be very convinced that your 11-year-old was a potentially brilliant violinist or dancer to prefer a school "working towards" specialist status in the arts over an "advanced" school specialising in science. As usual, the middle classes will get their children into the "better" schools; to create a hierarchy of schools is to create a class (and often race) segregated system. The old selective system, sending roughly 20-25 per cent to grammars, and 75 to 80 per cent to secondary moderns, roughly matched the proportions of the population which then fell into the middle and working classes . It broke down because there weren't enough grammar-school places to accommodate an expanding middle class or an increasingly aspirant working class. I wonder if Morris has noticed that her five tiers neatly match the five social classes into which we are now usually divided.

I return to my cheeses. I do not prefer, say, Wensleydale to Red Leicester because I think one is better than the other. It is a matter of taste. I would like the same to be true of schools. You may argue that it is wrong to treat schools as though they were consumer goods. The same used to be said of gas, water and electricity. That is the way of the world and we shall just have to make the best of a bad job. At the moment, ministers are making an awful botch of it.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman.

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