Divide the children and rule the country

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
IT must be great to be Prime Minister, mustn't it? Not only do you get to travel the world and meet interesting despots . but you also become an overnight expert on everything under the sun!

Look at our own dear Tony Blurgh. The poor lad had to suffer a private education and hasn't even the good fortune to send his children to a prooper comprehensive school. Yet this man knows everything there is to know about comprehensives, . except the address of the one nearest Downing Street.

Not only does the boy Tone know everything about comprehensive education, but he is able to tell us lesser mortals exactly where we have been going wrong for the past 30 years or so.

It seems those old Labour chappies, in their cloth caps and shawls, whippets and clogs, had it all wrong. They all believed that the key to equal opportunity involved scrapping the elitist public schools and selective grammars, and giving everyone the same start at the age of 11 at the same sort of school, regardless of how much their parents earned or where they happened to live.

But no, Mr Blurgh says public schools are so good we should all be following their lead - and old-boy Tone should know.

(Small aside, Mr Blurgh, public schools don't have to suffer the national curriculum, national tests or OFSTAPO inspections. If we're all going to follow the public school lead should we maybe scrap the curriculum first?).

I wish Uncle Tone had been my tutor when it came to understanding the principles of comprehensive schooling. Back in 1970 I joined the staff of one of Britain's first purpose-built comprehensive schools and I learned "on the job".

And what a learning curve! It was tough, but there are methods of teaching mixed-ability classes successfully and we learned and honed those methods at the chalk face. (And, unlike you, Tone, I sent my daughter to a comprehensive school because I knew how well they could work).

Now Mr B says we were wrong. "We expect every secondary school to do as well for high ability pupils through first rate teaching and facilities, rigorous setting and personalised provision."

As a humble English teacher, I taught in four comps in the '70s and '80s. Two were streamed and two wereunstreamed. The quality of the experience (and the results) were far superior in the unstreamed situations. Education was enhanced for the academic pupils and the non-academic . not to mention the teachers. But I was just a humble English teacher who experienced the two systems first hand. What would I know? I don't have the detachment of an ex-public-schoolboy and Prime Minister.

Just a humble question - if we give the "high ability" pupils the first-rate teachers then what do we do with the second-rate teachers? (And your chief inspector Mr Woodentop will tell you there are plenty around!) Do we give the "medium and low ability pupils" the second rate teachers?

This solution is divisive, and the low-ability pupils will feel undervalued and failing - but that will be good practice for when they take their key stage 3 SATs and GCSEs - and fail.

Tell you what, instead of "rigorous setting" just put all the "high ability" pupils in their own schools with their "first-rate teachers". Let's call them "grammar" schools, shall we? Put the rest in their own schools too - let's call them "modern" schools, eh? They won't have to mix with the academics and be reminded daily of their inadequacies, will they?

These "grammar" schools will be so popular, and so many people will want their kids to go there, that those schools will be able to pick and choose pupils. So perhaps we should give the applicants a test at age 11. (Yes, I did that as a kid! I learned bog-all of any use but I was an expert at passing tests and I went to the grammar school where I learned bog-all of any use but became an expert at passing exams).

"Rigorous setting" is the first step on the road to dividing our society into the academic elite and the peasants: it is divisive, wasteful and unnecessary.

So why propose this tosh? Because it is popular and it wins votes. If you promise a "rigorous setting" the voters will understand it - in a way parents and politicians have never understood "unstreamed" teaching - and they will vote you all the way back to Downing Street!

It must be great to be Prime Minister, mustn't it?

Terry Deary is a children's author, former drama teacher and professional actor.

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