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Stick to the idea

If Labour is to build on the many examples of successful comprehensives, it must face up to uncomfortable truths, says Christopher Price

The comprehensive debate is once more touching the national psyche. Those who failed the 11-plus blame it for their missed chances in life; but younger ones who hated their comprehensive want the 11-plus back.

The response of the Government has been gradually to reintroduce selection - some of it formally authorised, much more connived at. They are happy to see parents buying private schooling or wangling selective schooling off their local council. For the past few general elections, the 11-plus has scarcely been an issue. This time, it will be.

This is only partly due to the Harriet Harman affair, which unleashed a spate of tabloid attacks on Labour 11-plus hypocrisy rather like those on Tory marital infidelity some years ago. The Government naturally hopes the affair will win them back the "aspirant parent" vote and recent left-wing punditry on the issue must have strengthened this belief.

Will Hutton in the Guardian wants selection back to curb fee paying and Labour's Peter Mandelson, in his new book, implies that standards, being unconnected with structure, could be raised by exhortation from above. Under all this pressure Labour is now in danger of wobbling, torn between softening the hard edges of the original comprehensive idea or going on the offensive to justify it. Whatever it chooses to do, it should start by washing away political soundbite myths and emphasising new and often uncomfortable realities.

The soundbite myths that need to be tackled are, for example, "Parental choice is paramount." There is no such thing as pure parental choice. Parents express preferences for a school: schools choose the children they want.

"Comprehensive schools have failed." Most comprehensive schools in Britain do well and maintain the confidence of parents. A minority, in places where society is in poverty and breakdown, simply cannot compete, even with the most dedicated teachers, in any league-table market; only a few utterly fail the children in their care.

"Life was better with the 11-plus." The old 11-plus was deeply unpopular: parents were affronted when their children were pronounced secondary-modern failures. Now all developed nations are aiming at putting between 40 to 80 per cent of 18-year-olds into higher education, selecting 20 per cent of 11-year-olds for separate schools is educationally and politically absurd.

Turning to the uncomfortable realities, the consumer society has solidified its grip on Britain and schooling is now a consumer good. Parents will continue to want more say in the school their children go to and what happens to them when they are there. Solutions cannot be imposed from above by government. "Comprehensive" schools are not comprehensive when a large proportion of 11-year-olds go off to private or state grammar schools. The existence of selective schools means that the comprehensive next door is more likely to become a depressed school which generates alienated youngsters.

Education can never be fully privatised: it is a public responsibility with a lot in common with public health. Ignorance, like contagious disease, knows no boundaries and can infect the whole community.

What Labour now needs is a positive set of practical measures to improve, encourage and celebrate comprehensive secondary education. It will need to consist of three strands.

First, rules to let parents decide where and whether selection is retained and to ensure that non-selective schools actually seek to achieve a comprehensive intake. Second, a framework for cooperation within which schools can work with parents to ensure their objectives are understood and standards are raised. Third, a curriculum which reinforces co-operative values among the (quite properly fiercely competitive) youngsters in the school.

There is only one straightforward way of picking children for oversubscribed, popular comprehensive schools. You take those who live with the local community, the nearest, geographically. Elder brothers and sisters, religious affiliations, and curricular specialities (the latest suggestion from David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman) can have a place in the process. But surreptitious selection by schools claiming to be comprehensive should not be allowed. Procedures should be strengthened to make all schools stick to rules which everyone understands. Not that proximity guarantees an academically balanced intake; but it does promote community solidarity and if you are not going to have academic selection, it is the only fair alternative.

The other element of regulation in Labour's policies involves testing parental opinion on selection at 11-plus by letting parents vote on the future of those comparatively few grammar schools which remain, often in lush suburbs. The ebb and flow of parental ballots will be a good indication of how far the comprehensive argument is winning hearts and minds and at least parents, in voting for or against comprehensive education, will be dealing with an educational issue, not an arid distraction, like a ballot on grant-maintained status.

Will Hutton has been right to make the connection between the existence of thriving fee-paying schools and the success of neighbouring comprehensives. Private schools, however, cannot be wished away: they are an increasing fact of life worldwide. Historically, in England, they have always been more influential and resilient than elsewhere, far more worried by economic recession and rumours of a wealth tax than by direct political interference.

In Britain, the percentage of parents who use such schools is remarkably stable at 7.2 per cent with distribution heavily skewed towards the South: South Yorkshire, Blunkett's territory, has 1.5 per cent of its school-age children in private education. Labour's best bet is to enter into a dialogue with the private schools and try to induce them to take more responsibility, as they did in the 19th century, for the wider national community. It should also try to build a culture and curriculum within comprehensive schools which can counteract the culture represented by the fee-paying elite in the City and industry.

Labour's effort should be directed to stimulating cooperation between parents, governors and teachers. Much of this will involve simple information: about the democratic values of the school, about its mission to look after all children and accentuate success rather than failure, about the curriculum options, about the targets the school sets itself, about the real meaning of any inspectors' verdict on its progress. But there will also be measures to be taken at national level.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education should be told to integrate comprehensive co-operative values into their curriculum and assessment culture. They should be reminded that standards are not raised by petulant top-down criticism.

Raw league tables which discourage some schools and induce false complacency in others should be either discontinued or put in a proper context with value added indices and comparisons of like with like. Genuine parity of esteem between the academic and the practical curriculum, together with more creativity and less rote learning, should be encouraged.

Most important, a start can be made on the (long-term) task of achieving a minimum national funding formula, which local authorities can top up if they wish to. Peace can be declared in the arid propaganda war between the Department for Education and Employment and local authorities.

Labour can also direct the budget to better use. Nearly Pounds 4m has already been spent (to little effect) on a public relations apparatus for the grant-maintained idea. When Labour dismantles the GM apparatus, it should use its budget and facilities to establish a similar network to expound the comprehensive idea.

The third mechanism to entrench the comprehensive school will involve the curriculum. Education ministers' attempts to modernise the curriculum and examinations have foundered on the A-level obsessions of the ideologists in the prime minister's office. Labour should recast the curriculum in a wider framework as a better preparation for the actuality of courses in further and higher education and the reality of jobs in the modern world. Far too many 14 to 18-year-olds plough their way through an academic undergrowth which they find irrelevant, towards a higher education with a practical curriculum which they actually enjoy, which their employers appreciate and where they are encouraged to take responsibility for much of their own learning. The task over the next decade (the next two Labour governments) will be to build a comprehensive curriculum which both mixes diversity with common democratic values and can stretch each individual student. If these same "citizenship" values inform Labour's constitutional reforms, the whole political atmosphere could help enthuse and inspire a rising teenage generation as the new millennium arrives.

Strengthening and celebrating the comprehensive idea will not be easy. Schools will have to offer individualised solutions rather than deliver a monolithic curriculum. More seriously, the 1980s have taken their toll on machinery for cooperation and community. The original comprehensive tide was borne along on ministerial encouragement, powerful chief education officers, enthusiastic local councillors, widespread parental optimism, rising secondary school numbers and generous public expenditure on both salaries and capital projects. Virtually all of these components have now disappeared. Education officers are reduced to clerks and parents have been driven to expect little more from secondary school than a utilitarian credentialing exercise. There is no expectation of any brave new world.

On top of all this, social breakdown has continued apace. Many parents' insistence on selective schooling is born of the wish that their children be spared classes that are disrupted by disturbed children. It is at this level that a diversity of solutions is so important. Disruptive youngsters cannot be allowed in class yet must not be simply excluded on to the streets. There are projects - in Manchester and elsewhere - which have become successful re-entry mechanisms to orthodox schooling. Labour should fund and encourage ways of channelling the undoubted talents and creativity of a disruptive young underclass away from the criminal fringes of society towards relevant courses of education and training.

Labour rightly, has now abandoned the top-down strategies for social change, inherited from the Second World War; it is now as committed to empowering consumers as the Right.

A sustained effort should be made to celebrate the achievements of the best comprehensives over the past 30 years and inform a new generation of parents about what is possible. Just as important will be action to raise morale over the comprehensive idea in the early weeks of a new Labour government.

Christopher Price is a former chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Education

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