Is the comprehensive school dying? It is a question an increasing number of metropolitan newspapers seem to be asking, clearly expecting the answer yes. The question may be incomprehensible to teachers and parents in the large swathes of the country which surveys show are highly satisfied with their comprehensives. But if the metropolitan elite thinks it has detected a problem then the political debate about the future of secondary education can only become more fierce.
This month has seen Labour's David Blunkett call for greater specialisation within a comprehensive system, and economist Will Hutton recommend a return to selection at the age of 14. In January Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State, suggested increasing the proportion of children any school can select on the basis of suitability or aptitude from 10 per cent to 15 per cent. For the first time academic ability would be included in the selection criteria.
Even without these full-frontal assaults, there is evidence that the Conservatives' recent reforms, particularly the introduction of grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, are producing a sort of creeping selection which is undermining comprehensives. Sir Peter Newsam, former education officer of the Inner London Education Authority, argues forcefully (see opposite) that before any discussion about comprehensive schools takes place there should be a rigorous definition of terms. Schools which are "creamed" of the top-ability pupils are not comprehensives, they are secondary moderns by another name. Failure to grasp this, he has previously argued, leads to hand-wringing articles in the press about the flight from inner-city comprehensives or the failure of the whole system.
There is an understandable exodus of parents from schools which they correctly perceive to be secondary moderns, Newsam says. Some flee to the private sector, but far more battle to get their children into schools which are genuinely comprehensive and cater for the whole ability range.
The other side of the coin is represented by those areas where schools which still claim the title comprehensive are introducing various forms of selection. This, say some critics, turns them effectively into grammar schools. The Department for Education and Employment has given some grant-maintained comprehensives permission to select up to 50 per cent of their intake on academic ability and 10 per cent, soon to be 15 per cent, according to other criteria. The governors of GM schools also have the right to set their own special criteria for admissions. These range from tests for technological aptitude, a musical audition, to advantages for the children of former pupils.
The London borough of Barnet is one area where passions are running high over the right of GM schools to select. According to Jenny Brown of the pressure group Barnet Parents the local comprehensives had happily co-existed for years with two girls' grammars. They resent the decisions of GM schools in the borough and in neighbouring authorities, including those in Watford, to introduce selective tests.
"There is no proper consultation with anyone except the parents of children actually at the schools, no ground rules, and yet this is going to affect the education of all Barnet children," Mrs Brown says.
Outraged parents are not the only groups rallying to the defence of the comprehensive ideal. The Centre for the Study of Comprehensive Schools has helped to organise a series of lectures at Oxford University that are exploring the history and principles of comprehensive education and discussing best practice for the future.
"A tide of opinion seems to be running against comprehensives without any evidence," says Richard Pring, professor of educational studies at Oxford University. "There have been spectacular achievements within the system and many schools have more than proved their ability to deal with the whole-ability range. I think people have lost sight of the sound reasons behind the introduction of comprehensive schools."
Professor Pring defines these as a belief that the education of every child is important, and acceptance that tests of academic ability are seriously flawed, and that there is a range of abilities and talents which must be catered for which cannot be picked out at an early age.
He is also concerned about misleading information about overseas practice. As the European Commission reported last year, almost all the Western European nations have comprehensive secondary systems, as do the USA, Japan and Korea. The German system, which is commonly held up as a desirable tripartite selective system by opponents of the comprehensive principle, in fact operates on the basis of guided parental choice, not competitive entry.
Derek Wise, head of Cramlington high school in Northumberland, is one of many comprehensive heads concerned about misinformation in the current debate. He objects to the assumption that all teaching in comprehensives is mixed ability and that all schools must be judged by the standards of those in difficult inner-city areas.
"Inner London has particular difficulties and always has had," he says. "It has nothing to do with the system. What we no longer seem to be able to get across is not just that selection is unfair but that educating young people of different backgrounds and abilities together is a benefit to society as a whole."
As far as the success of the comprehensive system is concerned, the academics can produce no definitive proof that results are better or worse than they would have been in a divided system. Most of the research comparing selective and non-selective systems was done in the early 1980s, soon after reorganisation had taken place. Examination results were already improving and have continued to improve ever since.
Surveying the evidence for the National Commission on Education, Geoffrey Walford, of Oxford University, concluded that the difference in performance between the two systems was small, but that once comprehensives become established they appear to decrease social class differences in attainment. The difference between individual schools of the same type, for instance between one inner-city comprehensive and another, he says, is a much more serious cause for concern.
Dr Walford is also concerned about the long-term effects of the creeping reintroduction of selection. "The broad range of selection criteria being used tends to favour those families with the greatest interest in education, " he says. "Rather than society giving extra help to those most in need, selection on a diversity of criteria assists those children from families where education is already valued."
Recent research into the much more inclusive and highly regarded comprehensive system in Scotland also indicates some social cost as a result of the increase in parental choice introduced there in 19823, even in the absence of any selection. Michael Adler of the University of Edinburgh, says that this has led to increased social segregation, greater inequalities in attainment and an inefficient use of resources as the "market" creates small schools.
So where is the current debate likely to lead? Mavericks in the Conservative party like George Walden, a former education minister, decry "mediocritisation" and call for the full-blooded return of selection and the integration of the state and private sectors, at the academic end of the spectrum, at least. More realistic Conservative MPs and ministers, who have borne the brunt of parental fury over the underfunding of well-supported shire comprehensive schools, realise that in many areas of the country selection is not a practical proposition. Parents would not stand for it. But "choice and diversity" will continue under the Conservatives and the "cream" scooped off the comprehensives in some areas will grow richer as GM schools see the market advantage of a higher-ability intake.
Given a change of government, the options are more various. Labour guru Will Hutton's perception that by the age of 14 young people have developed distinct talents and aptitudes is hardly disputed. It is the basis upon which Sir Ron Dearing is developing his 14 to 18 curriculum options. Hutton's prescription does not mention further education colleges, but prescribes another major institutional reorganisation into age groups 3 to 8, 9 to 13 and 14 to 18. He suggests selective entry as the solution to the admissions problem of over-subscribed 14 to 18 colleges. Geoffrey Walford told the National Commission on Education as a result of his research into selection that comprehensives offer the best opportunity to ensure that all children receive the highest quality education possible. But he warned that recent developments were creating a hierarchy of schools which would discriminate against the children in greatest need.
His solution is that on transfer all children should move to a well-funded comprehensive school, all families should be required to select three or four schools in order of preference, and that entry to oversubscribed schools should be on a random basis.
In his recent lecture to the Social Market Foundation, Labour's David Blunkett gained most publicity for his attack on low standards. But in fact most of his speech was taken up with examples of successful comprehensives which are offering diverse opportunities for their pupils across the academicvocational divide and using, where appropriate, setting and differentiation for the most and the least able.
He neatly sidesteps the issue of selection for "centres of excellence" by supporting co-operation between schools where they cannot all offer all the courses, and the increased use of information technology to individualise learning.
This addresses the concerns of one comprehensive head who has an excellent music department. When asked why he didn't capitalise on this by selecting for musical ability, his response was: "What would happen to the good musicians in other schools who did not have anyone else to perform with?" For the supporters of the comprehensive ideal, that seems to say it all.