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Lucky for some, unlucky for most

In response to last week's White Paper, Andrew Collier argues that selection will drive down standards for the majority. Selection stole the headlines on the White Paper on schools. It is remarkable that after so much emphasis on parents having the right to choose the school for their child, schools should now be given the real choice. Will parents prefer a competition for places? Perhaps the popularity of the National Lottery is the political inspiration, although the odds there are at least the same for everyone.

But what would this do to the current drive for higher standards? A single league table for all schools implies that every school can achieve the same high standards if only they try hard enough; standards in inner-city schools at risk are compared with national norms regardless of circumstance. This may be rough justice, but it probably does its bit to drive up standards.

A framework of different schools for pupils of different aptitudes and abilities removes all pretence that such expectations are reasonable. The British attitude has always been to admire the achievements of the select few and to be content with low expectations for the rest of us. Selection drives down standards for the majority.

For one brief interval our obsession with selection was replaced with a focus on curriculum and achievement. From 1987 there developed a common curriculum, a common examination (the GCSE) and a common set of expectations for secondary schools that are overwhelmingly comprehensive. Since then the proportion of 16-year-olds achieving higher grades at GCSE has increased by more than a third, and numbers progressing to further and higher education have grown dramatically. The schools should be left as they are, and only the expectations improved.

"Specialist schools have proved popular with . . . parents and pupils." Are the rest of the schools unpopular? Can we see not just a grammar school in every town but a technology school, a language school, a sports school and an arts school? There would not be much choice without it. And doesn't every parent want these opportunities for their child alongside a good broad education?

The rest of the White Paper, dealing with local management, grant-maintained schools and local education authorities, not surprisingly failed to galvanise the daily newspapers and may not do much even for the erudite readership of The TES. Percentages of potential schools budget and staff appeal arrangements in grant-maintained schools are not dazzling issues.

However, that attention to detail does show that nanny government is alive and well, in spite of welcome simplification of some procedures. Why, when talking of services for schools is it " . . . for the Government to keep under review how these services are organised, so that they provide effective support for schools and pupils"? Are schools unable to judge for themselves? And why cannot the very tough "market", whereby every LEA school has the option to go for 100 per cent delegation of funds by becoming grant-maintained, be left to resolve how much delegation schools actually want? Why, for that matter, does the Government persist in imposing a teacher appraisal scheme for its objective of school self-improvement? Self-improvement and self-government surely imply the right to choose the methods for achieving the desired objectives.

It is all too tempting to bridle at the historical picture of the controlling LEA directing everything that happened in schools. Better to start from where we are and try to be positive, reflecting that today's civil servants are anyway too young to remember.

Recognition of the role of the authorities and their schools is welcome. Only last year, in guidance to the Local Government Commission, the Department for Education and Employment continued to present a picture of grant-maintained schools as the norm, and to treat the existence of more than 20,000 authority-maintained schools as an official secret.

By surviving the lean Clarke and Patten years, LEAs have won the right to a place in the Government's strategy. Central to that is a role in promoting higher standards in schools. The proposed quality assurance functions of direct intervention, target setting and support services will be familiar to most LEAs, although some will need time to regroup, following the period of very mixed signals from the centre.

Funding will be an issue, as will be the balance between intervention and relying on each school to judge exclusively for itself when it may need - and should pay for - help. Authorities willing to raise extra funds through the council tax to spend above Government guidelines should be allowed to retain money without delegation to use on school improvement.

Inspection will be welcome, and the initial emphasis should be on models of good practice. Those who fear inspection may be based on unfair opinions and prejudice should take comfort from the fact that LEAs have already successfully survived such judgments, and will be keen to be tested against objective criteria. The final test will be the strength of the LEA partnership with schools, and the school partnerships with parents. The latter will decide to what degree the policies in this White Paper are put into effect.

Andrew Collier is general secretary of the Society of Education Officers

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