Debate obscured by bog-standard rhetoric

28th September 2001 at 01:00
It's business as usual for Labour this coming week. Despite the terrible events of September 11, the party's members will be gathering as planned in Brighton for their annual conference. As usual, one of the key areas for debate will be education.

It's an interesting paradox that education reform was one of the few genuine success stories of the party's first term; a paradox for two reasons. The changes Labour has made have been modest - great problems still need to be addressed, such as teacher shortages. And most of the rank-and-file party members oppose even what the Government has done so far, let alone the bolder changes proposed in this month's White Paper.

The first-term programme can, with hindsight, be seen to have been focused almost exclusively on primary education. Unless the basics are sound, any attempt at fixing secondary schooling will be frustrated. As the White Paper showed, however, the Government's agenda for its second term will be judged on secondary reform.

Not that there was anything genuinely surprising. As so often, the story behind the White Paper was contained in Alastair Campbell's infamous phrase, that the Government would get rid of the "bog-standard" comprehensive.

The Government is said to be hell-bent on introducing selection by the back door; its real intention is to construct a secondary system far removed from practice in recent decades. Both wings of the debate, from die-hard defenders of the comprehensive ideal through to advocates of selection, subscribe to this view, but from different perspectives. The die-hards see the proposed reforms as threatening their ideals, the advocates see reforms as a first step to transforming the system.

The alternative, official, view is that ending the bog-standard comprehensive does not mean scrapping the comprehensive; it means ensuring that there is variety and vitality in the system, with schools no more able to select today than they were 20 years ago. Both analyses of government policy are right, but the second view is disingenuous. Taken as it stands, the White Paper involves a bit of tinkering here and there. It maintains the mixed-ability comprehensive, as the foundation of the secondary system. After all, the 10 per cent threshold for admission of pupils with an "aptitude" for a school's speciality outlined in the White Paper is not an increase. Even bog-standard comprehensives have been able to "select" 10 per cent of their pupils until now; most merely chose not to. But it is sheer sophistry to argue that the White Paper is therefore merely about refining the comprehensive. What matters is what the White Paper means for schools tomorrow. Much depends on the Government's success in delivering its vision. But if it succeeds, the picture will look very different in 10 years' time. The bog-standard comprehensive will have been replaced by thousands of specialist schools. Such schools may only be able to select 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of aptitude, but no one can seriously argue that there is a genuine, rather than semantic, difference between aptitude and ability.

A world in which most secondary schools routinely select a sizeable proportion of their pupils will be a very different world. And once we are used to 10 per cent selection in such schools, a 10 per cent ceiling could appear to be an arbitrary limit. Soon we have arrived at a system where schools specialise in all sorts of different subjects, areas, and abilities, and where their pupils fit that specialism. And by no worthwhile definition can that be described as resembling what we now think of as a comprehensive system.

In the coming debate the Government will defend itself from the likes of Lord Hattersley by pointing to the 10 per cent ceiling and the rejection of selection by ability. But it will wink at those who favour selection, or at least genuine change, by pointing to the White Paper's implied logic. So we should be even more wary than usual of taking anything said at this week's conference seriously.

* Stephen Pollard will debate the future of comprehensive education with Russell Moon, head of Philip Morant school, Colchester, at a Young Fabians fringe meeting at the Labour party conference at 5pm on Sunday. The debate, sponsored by 'The TES', will be at the Brighton Media Centre, 9-12 Middle Street, Brighton.

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