Can comprehensives really work?

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Are their original aims still achievable? Father and son go head to head in our final summer debate

Comprehensive schooling has not failed. Most so-called comprehensives are doing fine, if not very comprehensive. Their enemies are mostly either hostile to social justice or ill-informed. But current conditions are unfavourable to the comprehensive ideal and, more importantly, it does not help us in the task of pursuing educational justice.

The comprehensive ideal had three elements. Schools were supposed to reflect the social and economic diversity of our society, so that our future captains of industry would rub shoulders with their future employees. They were to be focal points of our neighbourhoods, helping to maintain a sense of community. And they were to ensure every child a good education regardless of social class or performance on a crude sorting test taken at age 11.

These are all admirable ideals. But they are not, in our society, congruent. Neighbourhood schools inevitably reflect and reinforce the residential segregation arising from the housing market. As the children from wealthier neighbourhoods congregate in "good" schools, those schools can more easily attract high quality teachers, and the less advantaged children who congregate into other schools suffer. Neighbourhood schooling drives out equality.

The comprehensive ideal emerged at a time of real progress toward social justice. Tensions within it seemed resolvable; greater economic equality would desegregate neighbourhoods. But in the past 30 years social inequality has not only grown, but has been normalised - it is widely seen as an inevitable accompaniment of growth.

Into this new anti-egalitarian ethos came the school choice reforms of the 1980s. These were, indeed, deeply flawed and inegalitarian. But the comprehensive ideal misled many opponents into ignoring the vices of the old arrangements. There is, in fact, no evidence that educational inequality has worsened, partly because under the previous arrangements choice was already available for the privileged, who could move to the catchment areas of desirable schools or, if necessary, opt out in favour of private education. Extending formal choice to the less advantaged did not constitute the introduction of choice, just a leveling of the playing field.

But only a very slight levelling. Because schools retain admissions powers it is often they, rather than parents, who decide where children go. And because many schools continue to give great weight to place of residence, wealthier parents retain an advantage. The comprehensive ideal is particularly ill-suited to deal with this: the adherence to an ideal of neighbourhood-based schooling makes it difficult to devise egalitarian responses. If residence has weight in socio-economically segregated areas, schools reflect that segregation. Wealthier parents move into desirable catchment areas, driving up prices and reinforcing segregation.

This is why the other response comprehensive advocates had to the reforms was wrong. From the inegalitarian nature of the choice reforms they concluded that choice itself was at fault. But this was a mistaken inference, and one which those not in the grip of the comprehensive ideal found it easier to avoid. The problem is not parents having choices, but schools having power over admissions.

The right egalitarian response is to say, as the recent Social Market Foundation report on admissions does, that parents, and only parents, should choose their children's schools, so oversubscribed schools should select by lottery. This response ditches the residence element of the comprehensive ideal, and moderates the demand for socio-economic mix. It aims for equality by using a funding formula which acknowledges that schools with higher concentrations of lower-income children face a greater educational challenge: it is harder for them to maintain discipline, harder to retain good teachers, and harder to foster academic achievement. The egalitarian response demands appropriate funding formulas. It recognises that schools with high concentrations of poverty may need more than twice as much per pupil; they might need three, four, or five times as much.

Parental choice is with us for the foreseeable future; there is nothing regrettable about that. Segregated neighbourhoods and entrenched economic injustice are also, regrettably, with us. A progressive ideal of social justice for education has to deal with both these facts; an appropriate ideal prioritises improving education for disadvantaged children by giving their parents more support and choice, and by funding the schools they attend properly. We should, indeed, challenge the other elements of social injustice; but in challenging educational injustice we will do best to underline the demand for equality.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States

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