Gerald Ratner's reputation as the golden boy of the retail jewellery trade was shattered overnight after he described one of his best-selling products, a sherry decanter, as "total crap". It would be a pity if public confidence in our secondaries is similarly damaged because of an unguarded remark by a government spin-doctor. The Government may live to regret Alastair Campbell's jibe about "bog-standard" comprehensives, which has caused deep offence to many teachers - the people ministers will have to rely on if their promised reforms are to succeed.
Having read the Green Paper, Schools Building on Success, I am interested in what the Government didn't say about the future of comprehensives. If I were looking to review the success or otherwise of comprehensives over the past 30 years, one of the things I would look at is admissions. This means straying into dangerous territory. It involves holding onto two statements, which seem contradictory but which are both true. The first is that schools can and do make a difference to achievement and standards. The second is that the factors that are the best statistical predictors of achievement are still poverty and prior attainment.
It is important to be able to say the latter without being accused of falling into the trap of under-expectation. It is not sufficient just to say that some schools do better with similar cohorts of children than other schools do. The admission system should be geared to ensure truly comprehensive intakes to comprehensive schools.
This is especially important in urban areas where some schools are popular, oversubscribed and successful while others struggle. The popular schools attract highly-motivated, higher-achieving pupils who have fewer issues to contend with outside school, while challenging schools end up with more than half their pupils on the special needs register, have high pupil turnover, less active parental support, difficulties with beaviour, recruiting and retaining staff and a legal obligation to take all comers as casual admissions.
If we really are to achieve the challenging targets which accompanied the Green Paper, then those schools have got to become truly comprehensive. Challenging schools need to have a "critical mass" of well-motivated children who recognise the importance of working hard to achieve qualifications, and who will have a positive effect on all pupils in their school. I can already hear you saying it would be political anathema to do anything that looked like reducing parental choice. So the superficially attractive Israeli system where secondary places are allocated by lot is not likely to succeed here. Nevertheless, I offer some suggestions that would be a move in the right direction.
First, stop multiple applications to unlimited numbers of secondaries, which allow schools to choose pupils rather than pupils to choose schools. Allow undersubscribed schools which are nowhere near to achieving the necessary critical mass to refuse to accept admissions in the middle of the school year which would push them further away from it. Require schools that are full to take casual admissions in certain circumstances. Additionally, local education authorities and schools should be able to have admission policies which aim for a balanced intake in terms of ability and which enable pupils to be turned down if to take them would skew that balance in either direction, even if that means leaving places unfilled. Finally, ban interviews at secondary transfer until after places have been offered. Such interviews are a potential means of social selection.
How we decide which children go to which schools in which combination remains the key to reducing the gap between the highest and lowest-achieving comprehensive schools, be they specialist or bog-standard.
Christine Whatford is director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham.