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Speak plain old comp that we can understand

Did I detect a glimmer of light when Education Secretary Charles Clarke spoke to a committee of MPs a few weeks before Christmas?

Selection at 11 "inhibited educational opportunities", he said; he referred to "the great successes of comprehensive education"; and he coined the term "comprehensive-plus", which is as mysterious as "post-comprehensive" but somehow sounds better.

Labour ministers ought more often to proclaim the success of the comprehensive system which, as Donald Hirsch reported in The TES on December 13, has produced pupils with higher reading literacy than the average for industrialised countries. There is absolutely no evidence, from either Britain or abroad, to support the claim that comprehensives are a failure.

Ministers know this perfectly well. But they live in such terror of associating themselves with old Labour ideas that they dare not admit it. To them, anything - city academy, beacon school, foundation school, faith school, technology college, grammar school, advanced institute of mechanical utility (did I invent that last one?) - is better than a plain old comp.

Just as Labour had to be re-branded, so did the comprehensives, and now the branding has become more important than the product. The labels are meaningless. We are told that parents must be offered "diversity". But I doubt that one parent in a thousand could offer a crisp definition of the difference between a beacon school and a city academy.

Mr Clarke should create a system that people can understand. It should be based on the Government's plans for specialist schools which, in their present form, arouse suspicion because people fear they are another attempt to introduce selection by stealth and to give advantages to the middle classes. They are probably right but, in a few simple ways, Mr Clarke can change the whole thrust of the policy.

First, he should sweep away all the spurious categories of school and, with them, the extra funding that goes to beacon and foundation schools and the like.

Second, he should announce that all schools can become specialist schools, with substantial extra funding to develop their specialism. Diagnostic tests would help parents choose the right school. There would be warnings about the difficulties of diagnosing an 11-year-old's aptitudes, but it would also be pointed out that every school would continue to offer a good general education and that further tests, and opportunities to switch schools, would be available at 14. The tests would not be used for selection; any surplus of applicants over places would be resolved by drawing lots.

Third, and here is the sting, specialist school status - and the extra funding that goes with it - would not be open to grammar schools or to any school that selects any children by any means whatsoever. Mr Clarke could present this as being entirely logical. I am designing a post-comprehensive or comprehensive-plus system, he would say to these schools, and you cannot be post or plus if you have not been comprehensive in the first place. So you must remain pre-comprehensive and unmodernised (dread word!) unless you agree to give up selection.

There would be unfairness in this system as there is in the present one. Why should a musically talented child have inferior facilities for studying music in, say, a technology school, than the child who, by luck or good parental judgment, got to the music school? But the logic of this objection is that every school should offer identical facilities - which, besides being an impossibility, plays into the hands of those who equate comprehensive education with grey uniformity.

My proposal offers genuine diversity - a diversity which is easily understandable and which gives parents grounds to choose schools other than on the basis of league tables or the class backgrounds of the pupils. It would allow Mr Clarke to ease selective schools out of existence without the odium of actually abolishing them. And it would allow new Labour to re-brand every school in the country without betraying its comprehensive ideals.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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