Five GCSEs good, four GCSEs bad

George Orwell might have been forced to comment about Estelle Morris's claim that comprehensive-school standards vary hugely, says Phil Taylor.

I'm prepared to overlook the bargepole. It was gratuitously offensive and extremely demoralising to many teachers but it could lead to a vast increase in spending on schools. They can abolish the Office for Standards in Education, divert its funding to our schools and simply send Estelle Morris around the country with her bargepole.

When she became Education Secretary she had at least two enormous advantages in teachers' eyes. She was not David Blunkett. She was not Stephen Byers.

Though both Blunkett and Byers claim to have taught, to have a Secretary of State who had taught for 18 years in an inner-city comprehensive would surely end the divisive policies which were undermining comprehensive education.

Tragically, the speech to the Social Market Foundation cannot be viewed as anything other than a shameful attempt to sound the death-knell for the comprehensive system. Those who have tried to put a more positive construction on the speech have either not read it or have been totally seduced by the one paltry paragraph which purports to recognise the achievements of comprehensive education. It is unclear whether Estelle Morris has actually come to believe this outrageous twaddle or whether, as head girl, she feels obliged to read out what-ever she is told to.

What does matter is that whoever wrote it would surely have been head-hunted for Orwell's Ministry of Truth. There is a false antithesis between leaving the system exactly as it is and reform (establishing an even more divisive highly-selective system). Ms Morris then talks about updating values. Anyone who had any values could tell her that they cannot be updated.

Next we have the canard that "standards still vary hugely between schools". They do not; they merely appear to because we have not bothered to develop sophisticated enough methods to describe the potential of every school's intake and the enormously varied social and environmental challenges schools face. Results vary hugely, but Professor Harvey Goldstein maintains that standards actually vary by about 2 per cent. OFSTED reports frequently show high levels of goodexcellent teaching in schools with below-average results.

One of the most significant statements in the speech is: "We must now develop our secondary system to focus on achievement for all our children."

We will do this by modernising "comprehensive schools". Now every comprehensive I know does attempt to focus on "achievement for all our children" but we are entitled to ask why, if the Government supports this focus, it encourages the public to judge schools by the proportion of students who achieve five or more grades A* to C.

So now the message is clear: unless young people achieve five or more good GCSEs their performance is "unacceptable". Their academic prowess might be affected by Asperger's Syndrome, an alcoholic mother, dyslexia, visual impairment, an abusive father, drug problems, attention deficit disorder, Down's Syndrome, criminal parents, dyspraxia, or they may just not be intellectually capable of achieving A*-C GCSE grades - tough! Their achievements are "unacceptable".

It is difficult to conceive of a statement more at odds with the idea of inclusion and the aim of "achievement for all our children". Or a statement more demoralising and demotivating for schools, pupils and parents.

,So how do New Labour's education policies now differ from the opposition's? Orwell again springs to mind: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Phil Taylor is head of Stamford high school, Tameside.

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