The once sacred comprehensive ideal is now being challenged from the Left as well as the Right. Lucy Hodges reports. With the traditional comprehensive coming under increasing scrutiny from politicians of both Left and Right, many of its supporters are feeling beleaguered.
Already upset by Government policies designed to increase competition and diversity in state schools they are now having to come to terms with a new Labour party which has decided to take a tough line on failure while increasing its emphasis on parents' right to opt out of their neighbourhood schools.
Traditional supporters like Richard Pring, professor of educational studies at Oxford University, reject the analysis of Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, made in a keynote speech last week, that comprehensives have failed successive generations of children and enforced drab uniformity in the name of fairness.
"Nobody can do a blanket condemnation of comprehensive schools," he says. "Some have achieved magnificently whereas others quite clearly haven't, so we should not criticise comprehensives as such. We need to ask what makes some schools successful and others not'.
Professor Pring is one of a substantial band of educational idealists who banged the drum for comprehensive schools back in the 1970s and still hold firmly to the view of a single school serving all children. While the Labour party is busy redefining its view of comprehensive education, 14 traditional supporters of comprehensives are taking part in a series of lectures at Oxford's department of educational studies under the heading "Affirming the comprehensive ideal".
Organised jointly with the Centre for the Study of Comprehensive Schools, the lecture series is aiming to promote the development of the comprehensive ideal in the light of experience. While Professor Pring, for example, acknowledges there is room for improvement in schools, particularly in how they organise themselves, he objects to any government telling teachers how to do this.
Imposing such ideas from above leads to a lowering of standards, he thinks. Professor Pring believes David Blunkett should be thinking more radically about the aims and values of education before deciding how it should be organised. For Professor Pring, the rationale for comprehensive education is rooted in an idea of mutual respect and co-operation. A necessary condition is physical proximity - the fact that all social groups are together in one place, he said in his speech in the series last month. And it is fostered by shared understanding and experience.
The traditional supporters of comprehensives are certain such schools have a future.
"People who are advocating more selection are forgetting how people felt about the 11-plus," says Maggie Pringle, former head of Holland Park, the London comprehensive school once favoured by Labour cabinet ministers, who is attending many of the lectures.
It is all very well for the Government to advocate choice for pupils and their parents, she says, but increasingly - in cases where schools are oversubscribed - that means schools rejecting children. "If more selection creeps back in you will have schools choosing children and supportive parents," she thinks. "But what school is going to choose children with behavioural and special needs? We're beginning to see it already. It's going to promote injustice."
Stephen Ball, professor of education at King's College, London, and another speaker in the series, sees comprehensive education as a value system. Being educated in a comprehensive makes a vital contribution to social cohesion and tolerance, he says. "It's an enactment of values like equity and inclusiveness." What depresses him about the Conservative reforms is that a new value system has been introduced which emphasises the market, competition, excellence, social mobility and performance. "It's a form of barbarianism, " he says. "Our schools are coming to represent a set of barbarian values."
Critics of comprehensive education are conspicuous by their absence at the series of lectures. There is no sign, for example, of James Tooley, who used to teach at Oxford and is now a research fellow at Manchester University. He believes much of the rationale for comprehensive education amounts to social engineering. He questions whether forcing children to go to a single school does result in mutual respect and co-operation.
"You can't force these virtues," he says. "By trying to force them you may undermine them." A former comprehensive pupil himself, Tooley has written a pamphlet for the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, soon to be published, which advocates vouchers for children from the age of 14 onwards.
The traditional supporters of comprehensives are uneasy about the Labour party's new rhetoric. Another speaker Geoffrey Walford, lecturer in educational studies at Oxford, thinks specialist schools are simply a covert method of selection.
While he believes comprehensives need to evolve, he doesn't want to see them go the specialist route from the age of 11 because that's too young, he says. Instead, he would like to see them being comprehensive - open to all - from the ages of 11 to 14, and specialising after that. Walford's solution to the oversubscribed school is random selection, as happens in some American school districts. Thus parents applying to schools which are particularly sought after would have their names thrown into a hat and picked out as in a lottery. Choice is important, says Walford, because it means parents and pupils becoming involved in education.
"You're introducing uncertainty into the situation," he says. "You're making it so you can't ensure your child going to a school just by buying a house near to the school."
Increasingly, people might see random selection as an open and fair way of doing business, he says. "It means parents have to fight for education as a whole rather than the school their child is going to attend" For the inner-city school shunned by professional parents such as Labour's Harriet Harman - and this week by Michael Barber, a key education adviser to the party - Walford recommends positive discrimination, that is, putting more money and effort into attracting good teachers, and giving the teachers encouragement and better resources. He also recommends homework clubs and other activities in the evening for pupils.
All the Oxford speakers reject the notion that comprehensive education has failed. For Bernard Clark, head of Peers School, Oxford, it provides infinitely better education than that given in grammar schools. "It provides the academic education which was all that a good grammar school was able to provide and a huge amount more - social education, the experience of meeting youngsters from different sorts of backgrounds," he says.
"Young people are required to do enormously more than they were 20 years ago - new areas of study and project work. I was a product of the grammar-school system and it was years before I learnt to study. Now the whole emphasis is on thinking about how people learn rather than teaching them the facts."