Capital idea

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Peter Newsam shatters London's 11 to 16 secondary-school mould for the sake of the children - and the country.

What would happen if inner London's secondary schools, maintained and independent, were to ask themselves "what could we all do to ensure that within 10 years the quality of secondary education here is at least as good and preferably better than anything in Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo or elsewhere?" This question, which I puzzled over in The TES of April 26, is a very different from the one schools have been encouraged to concentrate on in recent years. This runs: "Irrespective of the consequences for anyone else, what is best for my school?" If heads and one or two governors from each school met to consider answers to the first question, they need to remember that London has a long way to go to catch up educationally with its major competitor cities. Young people's acquisition of five or more GCSEs, grades A-C, is, by international standards, depressingly low. More than half of London's secondaries often perform precipitously below the national average of 43.5 per cent. Furthermore, in most such cases, low performance extends to the number of D-G passes. This shows how far such schools are from a target of 80 per cent of the age group achieving five A-C grades by the end of the decade or, indeed, ever.

Unlike the situation in most parts of this country and, so far as I am aware, in competitor cities elsewhere, the London school system is highly selective at the age of 11. The age group of some 20,000 divides into four vertical streams: 2,000 go to 26 academically selective, fee-paying schools; 2,600 of the age group go to what can only properly be described as 23 secondary modern schools, which take only the occasional pupil from the top 25 per cent of the ability range; 7,000 go to 49 comprehensives, defined as schools with a broadly-balanced intake at 11; finally, nearly 8,000 go to 53 schools with intakes somewhere between those of the secondary moderns and the comprehensives".

If raising the achievement of all London pupils is the aim, any head or governor who believes that adding a few grammar schools - thereby increasing the number of secondary moderns - would help would presumably now leave the meeting. They would also need to depart if they could not see that there is a structural problem and that improvement cannot simply be achieved by each school pulling itself up by its bootstraps, Those remaining might then have to take a deep collective breath and apply some intelligence to the problem of secondary education in London, a process that used to be described as planning.

They might consider the following: first, whether 151 secondary schools, 60 of them co-operating with further education or in post-16 consortium arrangements, is too many. Given the wide disparity in performance there is a case for concentrating increasingly scarce specialist staff, skills and experience, in fewer places of proven success, so far as the older age groups are concerned.

Second, the wide gap between the intakes and subsequent performance of the different types of school at the 11 to 14 (key stage 3) years makes it almost impossible to remedy matters afterwards.

One way forward would be gradually to convert the present vertically-organised system from the age of 11 into one arranged horizontally, with a break at 14. This would create some 90 junior high schools, with an average of 650 children and, say, 60 upper schools, taking 14 to 18-year-olds.

The upper schools would be created from 35 or so of the most successful comprehensives and city technology colleges and all 26 of the present selective independent schools. The average size of such schools would be 1,150, including sixth forms of 500. These schools would be able to offer a full curriculum and some, like the CTCs, could specialise.

A pattern of this kind, with 11-14 schools working towards a variety of 14-18 upper schools is, of course, what the French have had since reorganising their secondary system in the 1980, not to mention Leicestershire's pioneering work in the 1960s. So the structure is a well-tried one.

Of the many questions such suggestions would prompt, the following can all be answered yes.Would selective fee-paying secondary schools move out of the 11-14 age range? Would they then, as 14-18 schools, take about 25 per cent of the age group rather than the present l0 per cent?

Would it not be difficult to persuade those who now use fee-paying schools at the age of 11 to entrust their children to an untried set of key stage 3 junior high schools?

So far as the 14-18 schools are concerned, would the independents still choose their students, within agreed limits, at the age of 14? Would the fees continue to have to be paid and have to be supported by a form of voucher system?

Although the independent upper schools would now be alongside those created from effective maintained schools, would not this system tend to shift the problem of variable prestige from the age of 11 to 14?

As independent schools are not bound by the national curriculum, would it follow that all 14-18 upper schools would have to be released from the national curriculum and, as in Scotland, work to non-statutory guidelines?

Would all this make the publication of league tables even more absurd than it now is?

On and on the questions would run and the answers to many would be contentious; but the essential one would remain: which is preferable, to live with the economic, social and educational consequences of leaving things as they are or to try to resolve the underlying structural problems?

A junior-high, upper-school structure is one way of creating a secondary system that could raise standards; but of course there are others. For example, schools with satisfactory 11 to 16 and 16- plus arrangements could achieve much by developing what they already have; systematic consortium arrangements, of the kind proposed by Margaret Maden in her TESGreenwich lecture (TES, May 10), could be created, and so on. And always, the special circumstances of successful small schools, denominational schools and the particular pattern in London of single-sex and mixed schools would have to be recognised.

So what next? London's difficult structural problems must be tackled and it must be recognised that standards and structure are inextricably linked. If leading practitioners do not grapple with these structural issues and think together about ways forward, no one else will. National politicians have opted out.

Peter Newsam is a former education officer of the Inner London Education Authority.

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