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A positive champion of reform

After some years of inactivity, PRISE - Programme for Reform in Secondary Education - is officially winding up.

Established in 1975 as a pressure group working to "support the principle of a fully comprehensive system of secondary education", it united a caucus of prominent, like-minded professionals. Professors Ree, Kogan and Peston, Caroline Benn, Gabriel Chanan, Margaret Maden and Maurice Plaskow were among those determined to see practice reflect ideology.

"Reform" was not a threatening word then. It was a time of positive feelings about the future, a time to eliminate the waste of talent among a significant proportion of young learners, to reject the unacceptable divisions in British society reinforced by a selective and discriminatory education system. This was a time to maximise investment in education.

PRISE had a good run for its money. On a membership subscription of only Pounds 2 it stimulated debate, exerted influence and sustained professional interest in central issues. Its conference titles included "Education and Social Class"; "Peace Education"; "Freedom and Democratic Control in Secondary Education"; "A National Curriculum - a working model"; "The Continental Day - food for thought"; "Education for Responsibility"; "Learning outside the Classroom"; and "From Moral Education to Moral Behaviour".

The reform of education since 1988 has taken place in a very different climate: legislation has superseded professional commitment; dogma has replaced debate. Regrettably, there is no pressure group or movement to replace PRISE - when it is most needed.

It is quite clear that comprehensive education is being dismantled and we are being drawn back to the worst practices of selection resulting in educational disadvantage and blatant under-use of human resources.

Comprehensive education was inspired by the systematic, dismissive neglect of almost half the school population. It is a system that has succeeded. A far higher proportion of children now reach a worthwhile, valued educational standard at 16 and numbers proceeding to higher education have risen dramatically. Many of these are youngsters who, 25 years ago, would have both understood and deeply resented how their life chances had been severely restricted.

PRISE has gone but the issues remain. No doubt, former members and contributors are still out there, doggedly promoting its ideas and its ideals. To them, PRISE executive committee sends thanks for past efforts and encouragement for the future.

George Varnava is a former chairman of PRISE and this year's president of the National Association of Head Teachers.

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