Equal but not uniform

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The Prime Minister's latest comments about comprehensive schools are insulting and will do nothing to attract quality graduates into the profession, says John Dunford.

THE Prime Minister's "one size fits all" description of comprehensive schools is a caricature, which is both insulting and unrecognisable to teachers and parents alike. It arises from an out-of-date view of a school system that has had a 20-year record of success the like of which any company - or government - would be proud. Comprehensives are not the reactionary places he describes, but vibrant institutions which have managed to combine responsiveness to change with providing stability in young people's lives during a period of immense social upheaval.

Nearly all comprehensive schools, Mr Blair, already have setting. None has "uniform provision for all". None is "hostile to the notion of specialisation" to fit the talents of its pupils. All seek to become centres of excellence in one or more fields of activity. Comprehensive schools are already "radically diverse" in their character - ask anyone who lives in a town with more than one comprehensive. The higher aim, which Mr Blair missed in his speech, is to provide for diversity within the comprehensive school, not for diversity among schools.

The previous government created a hierarchy of schools as a deliberate act of policy and made life impossible for those at the bottom of the heap. The present Government's pursuit of greater diversity among secondary schools may be equally dangerous unless the consequences are clear from the outset.

My strong reaction to Mr Blair's speech does not come from a belief that all is well in the comprehensive world and that no change is required, but I question both the basis for his criticisms and his recipe for reform, which is not nearly as radical as he purports it to be.

Modernising secondary schools requires a vision of the school of the future as the learning centre of the local community. Much needs to be done to build this vision and bring it to fruition. In the meantime, a sensible modernisation programme would create smaller classes at key stage 3, more books and better equipment, fairer and more accurately targeted funding. Modernisation would extend to the Office for Standards in Education and create an improved quality assurance system, with improved methods of measurement and a reformed inspection regime. Modernisation would certainly mean an improved post-14 qualifications structure, greater knowledge of why boys are doing worse than girls and of the measures for redressing the balance. It would create a culture of collaboration between schools and move away from the culture of competition that became endemic under the last government. Above all, modernisation would be carried out in a way that would enable schools to recruit the quantity and quality of teachers they so urgently need.

Just when we thought that the teacher supply crisis could not get any worse, the reruitment of the best qualified graduates into teaching will surely have received a further setback from the Prime Minister's ill-informed criticisms.

At the launch of the General Teaching Council recently, Estelle Morris said:

"There has never been a time when more has been demanded of teachers and of those who lead our schools." The Secretary of State's three speeches on secondary education early in the year made it clear that "we must be relentless in our drive to raise standards and eliminate failure in secondary schools". The Government is saying to the electorate: "Our first priority was to improve primary schools. Give us a second term of office so that we can change secondary schools." We can expect unprecedented pressure on secondary schools between now and the election.

The Prime Minister is talking about changing structures, while the Secretary of State continues to focus on standards. The main thrust of the Department for Education and Employment programme to "transform" secondary schools is the reform of key stage 3. Yet key stage 3 test targets are unnecessary distractions on the road to success at 16. Even value added from key stage 2 levels to key stage 3 levels will say little about the real quality of a school. The only sensible measurement of a school's performance up to GCSE is the value added between a child's potential on entry and an average points score at GCSE.

Particularly for schools in challenging circumstances, the proportion of pupils gaining five high GCSE passes is an inappropriate measure of success. The Government deserves praise for trying to help such schools to improve and for putting considerable extra resources into its Excellence in Cities programme, but it will surely have to refine the Fresh Start policy and avoid errors such as the 15 per cent GCSE pass threshold for survival.

After his speech to the North of England conference in Wigan in January, the Secretary of State assured me that the key stage 3 initiative would be accompanied by additional resources for secondary schools, but the early signs are not good. In the key stage 3 pilot schools, after the cost of supply cover has been met, schools will have only about pound;20 extra per key stage 3 pupil. Eleven to 14-year-old pupils already suffer from large classes and poor resources, a situation that will be made worse this year as secondary schools introduce a broader sixth- form curriculum with little or no additional funding.

A reduction in average class size in each of the next three years and a minimum of one textbook per pupil per subject are modest targets that must be met by the Government if it is to give secondary schools the tools with which to succeed at key stage 3. The "personalised provision" advocated by the Prime Minister requires a step-change in the level of resources, perhaps even doubling to the level provided in the independent sector.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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