Comprehensives aren't working;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00
THE JOYS of being a first-time granny and the adventure of early learning . . . My "baby" is 14 months and wriggles to be allowed out of her pushchair to practise her sturdy if erratic walking skills. The excitement of the discovery that the scrunch of gravel feels and sounds different to grass was a wonder to behold.

Her first encounter with a puddle presented a notable dilemma: do we put our feet in this? She finally went for it, but not before reaching for my hand as a just-in-case insurance policy.

Hopefully Claudia will still be an excited little learner on her first day in school, and would that all children were so. William Blakey, head of Drumchapel High in Glasgow, has now spoken out, courageously because he in fact points a finger at an authority and a system which has obviously failed many Glasgow primary children.

Mr Blakey's school continues to lose bright children and interested parents to Bearsden Academy up the road. He points out that education is no longer comprehensive at Drumchapel.

But was comprehensive education ever more than an ideological figment in the minds of socialist planners, at least in Scotland's cities? It is, of course, not only social mix which is missing in some schools. The level of what can be taught is bound to be profoundly affected when large numbers of 12-year-olds arrive reading at primary 3 level, and some children can't tell the time or recite the days of the week in order.

I recall visiting a secondary in Lothian 10 years ago where, under the guise of office studies, first years were learning filing (ie the alphabet). Schools with such intakes have more immediate problems on their mind than the availability of Advanced Higher courses.

So what happened to the 5-14 programme in the feeder primaries? Where was the early intervention? Are the measures Glasgow is taking sufficient to counteract such evils? Or should our Scottish Executive be paying more attention to the results produced by the key stages and literacy hours used elsewhere?

Professor John MacBeath is soon to publish the product of research which confirms that the comprehensive ideal is dying, and is in urgent need of renewal (my italics). We are all middle class now, it appears, or certainly a far higher proportion of us so describe ourselves than a few decades ago.

Just like the Blairs, Harmans, Galbraiths, Darlings and countless Labour Glasgow councillors before them, the middle classes (you and I, dear reader) passionately want the best for our own child, including a clutch of qualifications and the best possible opportunities thereafter. It's no accident the teaching profession was well represented in take-up of the late lamented assisted places scheme.

Modern young parents should not be pilloried, however indirectly, for the demise of the comprehensive system, by the unspoken accusations of a raft of misty-eyed educational sociologists and conference-goers. It is fruitless to lay blame on alleged middle-class opportunists who somehow selfishly let down the communitarian side by refusing to let their children be used as ballast in social mix experiments.

Those who bemoan the existence of magnet schools may consider the comprehensive system offers the best possible model - a somewhat dubious assumption, actually, if you consider how it has been abandoned as inadequate by most European countries decades ago.

So what should be done to help the least advantaged? Perhaps a root and branch change of approach? My space runs out - but I hope to be back, pace the editor.

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