'Let's shout about the success of comprehensives, not just explain why a selective system is bad'

12th September 2016 at 12:19
As a result of comprehensive schools, standards have risen and the system has been a success, says one leading educationist

We live in a comprehensive society that is comprehensive in its ethnicity, faith, wealth and gender. Our communities exist in a comprehensive world and, uncontroversially, we have community comprehensive primary schools.

Why do we need 19 different types of secondary school, when we could have community comprehensive schools, supporting each other to reach the standard of the best and serving all the children of the local community?

I have already set out some of the many arguments why increasing the number of grammar and secondary modern schools is a bad idea, and many other excellent articles and blog posts have been published stating why Theresa May’s first domestic policy announcement is a terribly backward step, certain to damage the life chances of many young people.

In order to win the debate on these proposals, those of us who are opposed to the extension of selection at 11 need to put the case why a comprehensive school system is a good idea, not just why a selective system is bad.

I spent all but the first two years of my teaching career in comprehensive secondary schools. In these schools, young people were educated to take their place in a comprehensive society. Academic standards were high; bright students got into good universities; all children got a broad and balanced education, as is their statutory right; after a common set of subjects up to 14, a range of courses was offered to suit all abilities and interests; a big programme of sport, drama, music and other activities took place outside school hours; the highest standards of teaching were aimed at and pupils were taught how to learn, as well as what to learn; skills were developed as well as knowledge; we worked with other schools in the area, not against them.

While ministers pursued the mantra of "diversity and choice", these comprehensive schools provided for diversity and offered choice. While ministers wanted greater diversity between schools, we provided diversity within a single school.

With many schools now joining together in multi-academy trusts, the opportunities are even greater to provide for all abilities and interests within a single group of schools.

On taking office as secretary of state for education in 1997, David Blunkett said that "there will be a focus on standards, not structures" and he put in place the national strategies for literacy and numeracy and raised standards of achievement in those areas.

Yet successive ministers have been unable to resist the temptation to fiddle with secondary school structures, as beacon schools, grant-maintained schools and other new structures have been introduced and later abolished. When a new type of school is invented, hundreds of civil servants are diverted from other areas of work to plan what the shiny new schools should be called and how they should be structured.

As John Hattie has written: "The evidence shows that what’s most important is to focus on the classroom - that is, championing teacher expertise, and spreading it from classroom to classroom. Yet, too often, policymakers propose school-wide solutions that have little proven effect, such as lengthening the school day or year, or creating new forms of schools, which tend not to be any better than existing options."

If ministers and civil servants devoted half as much energy and resources to systems that support the work of comprehensive schools, instead of inventing new types of school to make the job of the comprehensives more difficult, our taxes would be better spent.

'It will actually reduce parental choice'

Parents want good local schools. For the secondary age group, that means – in the view of the vast majority of parents – a good local comprehensive school in which their children can gain good qualifications, learn useful skills and develop well as young adults. Introducing more grammar, secondary modern and faith schools in the name of parental choice will actually reduce choice, increasing the extent to which schools choose pupils.

In looking for political support for comprehensive schools, one need look no further than the article by Mrs May herself in the Daily Mail in which she referred to "the first step of an ambitious plan to set Britain on the path to being the great meritocracy of the world … a vision of a society where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will allow." That’s a good description of comprehensive education.

"A good school place for every child that caters to their individual talents, abilities and needs." That’s the comprehensive school education I have described above.

"Putting government firmly at the service of ordinary working-class people." That’s the government supporting comprehensive schools with policies like the pupil premium.

"I want every child to have the kind of opportunities that I enjoyed." Well, society has moved on, but that’s the aim of comprehensive schools for all children, including bright, ambitious ones like Theresa May.

"This means committing to the task of spreading opportunity." That’s exactly what comprehensive schools were established to do – and have done well for many years.

"I want every parent to have the peace of mind that comes with knowing their children will get the chance to go to a great school. And I want every teacher and every school to have the resources and the capacity to deliver on those promises." That means supporting comprehensive schools to get better, not undermining them by creaming off the 20 or so per cent of their pupils with the highest academic ability.

"I am determined that we will build a school system that works for everyone. That is a hallmark of a truly meritocratic Britain." That is my aim too, prime minister, and the aim of everyone who works in comprehensive schools.

It almost makes one nostalgic for the return of Michael Gove, who recognised that reintroducing grammar schools would be a retrograde step that would make no contribution to raising the standards of the system as a whole.

Instead, he broadened the main school accountability measure from the threshold of five GCSEs at grade C or better, including English and maths, to Progress 8, which is a measure of the progress of all learners. It may not be perfect, but it is a more appropriate measure for a comprehensive school system that aims to reflect the attainment of every learner.

Over the period that there have been comprehensive schools in England, standards have risen and the system has been a success. Let’s shout that from the rooftops.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford

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