'Don't give idealism a bad name'

14th June 1996 at 01:00
The grammar-school system - grammar schools for the minority, secondary moderns for the majority - was a response to the needs of a vanished society which required a small educated class and a large number of manual workers. It is no longer the appropriate model for a world where most jobs require educated men and women. But the excellence they provided and the ladders of opportunity they formed are things we want to preserve.

New Labour understands that people are not born into equal circumstances, so one role of state education is to open up opportunities for all. But we also need to recognise the different abilities of different children, and tailor education to meet their needs and develop their potential.

To return to the 11-plus, as the Prime Minister wants us to do, would be a mistake of monumental proportions. Who can really justify settling a child's fate by one exam at 11? Do we really want the majority of children going to secondary moderns? But, equally, the comprehensive system is not working as well as it should and we want to refine and redefine it.

New Labour will encourage teachers to choose their methods on the basis of what works: to make decisions on the basis of evidence, not ideology. That means using teaching methods that recognise and develop the different abilities and talents of children.

Mixed-ability teaching, for example, is for some people as much of an ideology as the principle of comprehensive admission itself. It works in some cases - when done by the best teachers with proper support and a well-motivated and cohesive group of children. But mixed-ability teaching makes heroic assumptions about resources, teachers and social context.

While an overly rigid system of streaming can lead to the same problems as the 11-plus as I said in my Institute of Education lecture last year, not to take account of the obvious common sense that different children move at different speeds and have differing abilities is to give idealism a bad name.

It is not, of course, up to central Government to prescribe classroom organisation in 25,000 schools. Professional judgment according to local circumstance is important. At the moment setting tends to be adopted most among older pupils but in fact it can do as much if not more good early on. Interestingly, in maths and science, where progress is most easily measured there is the least use of mixed ability teaching. If setting is best in these measurable subjects, shouldn't it be applied too in less easily measured subjects like history and English?

In government we will start from a general presumption in favour of grouping according to ability or attainment unless a school can demonstrate that it can meet the heavy demands of a mixed-ability approach. Every school needs to justify its approach to grouping pupils and show how it stretches all pupils to achieve their best. There are a number of ways in which this can be done.

The use of new technology support staff such as associate teachers and flexibility in timetabling will make it possible to move beyond the traditional debate of mixed-ability versus 11-plus. Some schools now have individual learning programmes which set targets for improvement for each pupil. Others have achieved timetable flexibility that allows them to make special provision for high-flyers, for girls interested in science, for pupils who want to take lessons at a local FE college. Still other schools provide enrichment activities before and after the formal school day to challenge those capable of achieving more and support those who need help. And still others have shown how accelerated learning - not taking a pupil out of his or her year group, but making it possible for them to progress beyond their own year group's study - can retain pupil interest and promote achievement.

This is the way to ensure that children with aptitude in a subject advance as fast as possible and children with less talent receive the help they need. In the vision that is unfolding the current debate about selection promoted so vigorously by the Prime Minister will be revealed to be the anachronism it is. Children will not be stigmatised by one make-or-break exam. They will move up depending on how well they achieve. Adding these strategies to a general policy of grouping by ability we can ensure the excellence and mobility for all pupils and not just a few. We will examine in government how we can further push this process forward.

First, the Grants for Education Support and Training budget now amounts to Pounds 260 million. Should an element of it be used to encourage new approaches to pupil grouping?

Second, the Office for Standards in Education inspection framework has a number of criteria. Does it pay sufficient attention to schools' policies for grouping pupils? Should it demand that schools make explicit their approach?

Third, the Teacher Training Agency has a key role to play. But is it ensuring that trainee teachers understand the balance of advantage and disadvantage of mixed-ability teaching and the alternative approaches? Will its preparation for headship and professional development encourage new thinking in this important area?

Fourth, we have proposed that a new grade should be established in the profession: the Advanced Skills Teacher. Can't we use this initiative to promote a third way between the limitations of the 11-plus and mixed-ability teaching?

Fifth, when the time comes to revise the national curriculum we will look to promote greater flexibility in its operation.

Extracts from a speech by Labour leader Tony Blair in Oxfordshire last week

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