Light beneath the rhetoric

Estelle Morris made a good speech this week - wrapped up in a bad one. She extolled the achievements of the comprehensive system over the past 30 years to the Social Market Foundation: double the percentage getting five good GCSEs; nearly three times as many staying on beyond 16; one in three in higher education compared with one in seven; and the elimination of girls' underachievement. It is not a record to be ashamed of.

But as she also said, this is no longer enough. Comprehensives need to move beyond "opportunity for all" towards "achievement for all". That was brave. The more-means-worse elitists hired by the right-wing press will not forgive her for that.

She sketched out a new menu of government support and incentives to ensure that every secondary school - not just a few favoured specialist colleges - can start to achieve the comprehensive ideal. If this aspect was understated in her speech, it was presumably because details depend upon next month's Comprehensive Spending Review.

But so far, so good. Excellent, in fact. It was a timely reaffirmation of the aims of a 21st century inclusive schooling system "which guarantees fair admissions, and entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum, high expectations and good quality leadership" and in which "each school chooses its own identity, has its own sense of purpose and reflects and develops the individual strengths of its pupils and its community".

Few who have devoted their lives to the comprehensive ideal will disagree with any of this. They will be distraught however that the Education Secretary, in what seemed like a crude act of fealty to Blairism, chose to dress up these remarks in a cloak of anti-comprehensive rhetoric.

The essence of her attack appeared to be that comprehensives do not deliver because they are too uniform. She condemned "one-size-fits-all", and "off-the-shelf" comprehensives. While these slogans sound more refined than "bog standard" quite what they mean is no more apparent. They are clearly not meant to be complimentary, however.

If schools have lost any individuality it is largely because they have been persuaded to focus more narrowly upon the curriculum and performance targets imposed by governments. And the idea that comprehensives fail because they are all the same is laughably wrong.

As every international comparison has shown, English schools are more socially differentiated than any others in Europe. Some hardly warrant the description "comprehensive" at all, thanks to the parental choice policies pursued by successive governments. They may be even more socially stratified than the old grammar and secondary moderns they replaced.

Ms Morris was right when she said that being honest about the challenges and failings of the comprehensive system is not betraying the ideal. But it was both dishonest to give no recognition to the skewed intakes which create the most serious challenges, and a betrayal of those prepared to take on the difficult schools she admitted she would not care to teach in herself.

Her former colleagues still striving at the other end of the bargepole deserved better than this.

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