Choice omissions by the New Model Army zealots

28th February 1997 at 00:00
In seeking to raise pupils' levels of achievement, there is cross-party agreement about the key strategy being school improvement, not structure. The latter is modishly consigned to the dustbin of history, including as it does, questions about school choice, selection and an increasingly complex pecking order of schools.

Sometimes, school improvement is conflated with "standards" and we are encouraged to feel slightly below stairs if other factors, such as structure and money, are advanced as relevant to the debate. What is particularly depressing about this is the implicit suggestion that we have to choose between two opposing and mutually exclusive theories.

The more zealous pamphleteers of the school improvers' New Model Army would have us believe that the composition and balance of a school's intake have little or no bearing on the school's capacity to be academically successful. This is bracing stuff and is a welcome antidote to determinist ideas about immutable associations between socio-economic status and academic performance. However, there are at least three issues which need to be thought about beyond the monofocal vision of school improvement.

First, there is a need to be clear about the way we measure and define success. This inevitably raises questions about the purposes of schooling and what kinds of adults we envisage today's children becoming. A school is a powerful community, the first to which a child is enrolled and wherever possible, it should contain diverse groups in terms of gender, ethnicity, social class and talent. This is increasingly important in a rapidly changing world where "portfolio" careers and frequent moves into and between different teams at work are required. One of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences is that which relates to interpersonal relationships and for this and other, more intrinsic, reasons connected with basic values, it would seem to make sense if children and young people learnt how to live and work together while at school. This involves acknowledging what they, the pupils, have in common, as well as what separates them.

At a quite basic level, it is this that I found most depressing about Harriet Harman's most recent choice of school; single sex, academically selected and, almost certainly, predominantly white and middle-class. Contrast this with another parent of a similar child facing the same concerns about secondary school choice in inner London. In this case, she decided that her daughter would benefit from "learning to rub along with people she wouldn't otherwise meet". This mother added that "I would argue that no child should be culturally isolated..

My contention is that such choices are as much matters of social and educational policy as they are expressions of parental values and priorities. Good public policy should encourage and facilitate desirable behaviour; in this case, children's wider social and cultural learning.

Second, and linked to increased priority being attached to school choice (whether by parents of school or, more often, by school of parents and child) is the problem of the disappearing local school. Recently, Sir John Hunt, MP for Ravensbourne, expressed his anger at a grant-maintained comprehensive school in his Bromley constituency being allowed to select 25 per cent of its intake. The domino-effect of this was soon apparent, with other schools then deciding to select 15 per cent by examination."I frankly blew my top," he said, as constituents were "deprived of a place at their local school". The most recent Circular 696 on "Admission to Maintained Schools" confirms and extends such a mess of potage. Neither is it all clear what an incoming Labour government would do about this. A central principle should be a commitment to each child being guaranteed a place at a local school. If parents don't choose to take up such an entitlement, that is a separate matter. This wouldn't necessarily ensure pupil heterogeneity but, in most areas, would help reduce academic and social narrowness, as well as curtail the unfairnesses experienced in Bromley.

My third cluster of questions relates to the impact of admissions arrangements on the academic performance of pupils. Dangerous territory, of course, because there are many schools which demonstrate that from a seemingly indifferent intake can come high achievement. However, we need to know much more than we do about performance of similar kinds of pupils in selective, as opposed to non-selective, school systems. Achieving national training and education targets may depend as much on research knowledge about the organisational systems in which schools operate as on data concerning pedagogy and school leadership.

There are already signs that further progress in the key performance indicator of five subjects, grades A-C, at GCSE level is slowing down for the relevant age group. Does a finely graded, hierarchical school system comprising grammar, grant-maintained and "comprehensive" help, hinder or make no difference in such matters? In areas where non-selective comprehensive education has reached a fairly mature stage, it is noticeable that pupils perform well on both the five A-C grade and the broader A-G grade criteria. In seeking to improve a mass education system, this matters. In Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and North Yorkshire, for example, 90 per cent of 16-ear-olds achieve at least grade G in five or more subjects and less than 5 per cent of their schools have less than 25 per cent of their pupils achieving five or more A-C grades. By contrast, LEAs with selective systems often perform less well on these measures. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised or concerned that in Kent, for instance, 45 schools (28 per cent) have less than 25 per cent of their pupils achieving at least five subjects (A-C grades). In Wirral, there are five (20 per cent) such schools and in Lincolnshire, another selective system, there are 20 (27 per cent) of these. In all three areas, fewer pupils achieve five subjects at grades A-G, compared with the non-selective areas.

Probably because the progenitors of the School Improvement movement are school effectiveness studies and the educational marketplace (an unholy alliance, perhaps), too much emphasis is placed on performance data at school level, rather than for age cohorts and longitudinal profiles. Future inspections of local authorities should include all three. Additionally, however, we need to know how schools in a finely graded system are working with different kinds of pupils. For schools operating at the bottom of such a system, are there problems in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers, even when there is "firm and purposeful leadership"? There are, as well, important questions about peer group influences and dynamics among pupils, about "critical mass" issues and about likely or possible curricular range and options. Even if these have marginal impact, they deserve as much attention and devotion as many school improvement measures currently command.

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Centre for Successful Schools, Keele University

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