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Propelled by the weight of history

Those who want a return to selective public education underestimate community support for the current system, argue Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty

The history of the advanced industrial world makes the case for continuing to extend comprehensive education. Since the end of the 17th century, we have been moving towards a more democratic and inclusive education system, involving an ever greater number of people until ever later stages of their lives. If attempts to recreate selection in Britain are designed to return to a system of rationing opportunity and resources based on prior judgments of likely future attainment, they are mere self-defeating delaying tactics.

On the other hand, they could be constructive if they force us to debate matters like admissions systems, increasingly corrupted in recent years, or the question of whether a narrow, specialised "grammar education" is itself any longer a worthy goal, even for "selected" students, when work of all kinds requires flexible, wide-ranging and demanding preparation of a quite different nature.

For one conclusion that emerges from any review of progress in the past 30 years - re-affirmed in one research project after another, as well as in individual and collective experience - is that the main brake on educational development in Britain has been that we have stuck too long to the inappropriate ways of the past and not that we have tried to precipitate change too quickly,.

We asked those running the majority of Britain's schools and colleges what single factor (apart from better funding) holds the key to their improvement and to the future of comprehensive education. A number of specific reforms and changes were listed in the 1,560 questionnaires returned to us but at a deeper level almost all replies were about the need for recognition of the national commitment that is required first and foremost if Britain is to develop successfully in its educational life.

For there has been a severe and debilitating contradiction at the heart of the majority's education over the past 30 years. On the one hand, governments ostensibly supported the comprehensive education to which most schools and colleges were progressively becoming committed: but at the same time they failed either to support it adequately and, more recently, worked hard to undermine its principles and practices, in some cases repeatedly making it clear they had no confidence in a system that did not pre-judge an individual's worth or facilitate an escalation of enclaves for the favoured few.

There is no understanding in government, political and media circles at national level of the widespread support the comprehensive principle enjoys among the majority of the community. So those working in the field have felt a distinct lack of support for the values upon which a comprehensive educational approach is based: the assumption that every human being is educable and that given the right support and opportunities, and a diversity of goals that develop the full range of human intelligence, we are all capable of reaching the highest standards.

Since Britain has effectively changed to a comprehensive system at primary and secondary stages, we should concentrate on comprehensive excellence. It is time to develop comprehensive-compatible criteria that enable us to judge progress, and to debate the direction we wish comprehensive education to take, which is by no means fixed. Yet if everyone's energy is taken up with unreal discussion about which route back to the past is preferred, the real choices might never be discussed. Decisions will be taken by special interest groups or political people with temporary mandates, or most likely of all, by default.

This is not just at secondary stage but equally at pre-school and post-18 years, for comprehensive reform is applicable to a diversity of institutions and to all ages and stages of education.

The most serious problem facing comprehensive education is that one of its central principles - giving equal value to all learners and all forms of learning - is being seriously compromised.

For more than 30 years we have seen the severe limitations of attempting to secure both equality and quality through paternalistic public programmes on the one hand and on the other, through central direction relying on simplistic market mechanisms that favour most those who are already favoured. Millions of hours have been spent on equality and the system is still markedly unequal; millions of pounds have gone on administrative, curricular and assessment change to improve quality and yet the system retains many basic faults. Internationally, Britain "keeps up", but only belatedly.

Governments can require league tables and tests to make 11-plus scores available but they cannot compel the education community to use such tests for selection rather than for monitoring development. Such use depends less upon governments than upon schools and colleges, parents and teachers, and communities themselves. The many legislative "permissions to select" since 1979 have been unsuccessful and schools and colleges which could have been selecting in 1994 simply chose not to do so.

There is thus a new context in which those arguing against comprehensive education have to make their case: one that accepts its validity and realises that the old divided system cannot be resurrected. Those institutions choosing to select will have to understand that this is seen to be detrimental to the efforts of the majority.

And the majority have sound reasons for believing this. One of our most telling findings was the bad effect that schools practising selection had upon the comprehensive schools in their own vicinities in 1994; distorting their social and attainment intakes, lowering their overall numbers and staying-on rates, and, above all, depressing their examination results.

But in the long term, the erosion of democratic accountability is the most serious threat. Taking hold of the comprehensive principle to ensure individual and community development will flow from renewed democratic activity, and nobody should make assumptions about which direction it should take. Communities themselves have to decide between alternative forms of comprehensive education and to take responsibility for developing a way forward. It cannot be done by outsiders.

Governments, whether local, national or international, can be enlisted to support the drive for improved and extended comprehensive education but they should not be handed the power to do it on behalf of people. Part of the challenge of developing the comprehensive principle is a new awareness of individual and community interests and needs, and how these interact. Increasingly, others' interests are being accepted as part of our own wider interest rather than as some rival claimant. In Britain ultimately all have a common dependence on the same publicly provided, democratically accountable education service.

Margaret Maden's Greenwich lecture TES2, Pages 3,4 This article is based on the introduction and conclusion of Thirty years on: is comprehensive education alive and well or struggling to survive? by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty which is published this week by David Fulton Publishers, Pounds 25.

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