A Comprehensive Future

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
A COMPREHENSIVE FUTURE: quality and equality for all children. By Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn. Compass pound;5 inc pp. www.compassline. org.uk. Tel: 0207 367 6318

Is every child to be given a fair chance to learn and develop? Or does the education system exist to confirm the privileges and privations of a child's social background?

This is the challenge thrown down to the Government by A Comprehensive Future: quality and equality for all children, the first publication of a new "democratic left pressure group" called Compass. It argues, in equal measure, for what it says in its title and against the creation of more city academies and self-governing trust schools, as proposed in the Government white paper.

The authors, supporters and timing of the pamphlet underline the extent to which Labour's education policies have split the party. Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader helped to launch it. It was written by the Guardian columnist Fiona Millar, partner of Tony Blair's once most-trusted lieutenant, Alastair Campbell, and Melissa Benn, whose mother was the redoubtable comprehensive campaigner Caroline Benn. Her father, the former Labour minister Tony Benn, was also at the launch. Her brother Hilary, the Secretary of State for International Development, is also reported to have reservations about the proposed legislation.

The central argument of this readable 30-page polemic is that the creation of more schools independent of local authorities, with control over their own admissions, will result in more selection. This will exacerbate the gap between the best and worst schools. "Every piece of legislation over the past 20 years has resulted in more rather than less selection, covert and overt," it argues. And it warns that the latest proposals could produce "a fractured, splintered set of services in which schools have autonomy to select pupils and parents scramble for places in a few more generously funded, high-status institutions, while the rest slowly sink under the weight of insufficient resources and scant public regard."

There is more to this pamphlet than an attack on the white paper, however.

Millar and Benn know what they are for as well as what they are against.

They sketch an alternative vision of progressively funded, collaborative community schools in place of a market that promotes competition between schools and between parents: a market creating an illusion of choice designed to satisfy the same consumer instincts to shop around for schools "in the way they might shop around for a new hairdresser or fridge".

"Education is not just... a means of training a future workforce. Nor is it a morally neutral activity; the nation's schools play a vital part in creating, confirming and debating the kind of society we live in and want to live in."

A fair society, they argue, should offer excellent schools to all; that means fair admissions ensuring a genuine mix of children from all backgrounds. Most parents want good local schools, they say, "and so should any government whose political aim is truly social cohesion, equality and a furthering of genuine democracy".

Bob Doe was editor of The TES from 2001 until May 2005

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