Expel the royal, share out the unruly

26th November 2004 at 00:00
I was sorry to hear Education Secretary Charles Clarke wasting precious minutes on the Today programme last week by attacking the Prince of Wales.

The views of a man who never attended a state school and has never sent his children to one are of no consequence.

True, Prince Charles inflated the self-importance of Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector, and Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail columnist, by listening deferentially to their opinions, but I am happy for those two to witter away at Highgrove rather than in Whitehall or Westminster. Mr Clarke should not dignify the Prince by giving him a millisecond of his time.

What he should have talked about was his proposal, announced the day after the Prince's views emerged at an industrial tribunal, to force all schools to take their share of expelled pupils.

As any teacher knows, a tiny number of disruptive children can make teaching and learning all but impossible. It is monstrously unfair that the most successful, over-subscribed schools can expel difficult children (if, by some mischance, they have admitted them in the first place) and dump them on nearby, struggling schools.

So, in principle, Mr Clarke is right to insist that even grammar schools should take on very few unruly children provided they have passed the 11-plus. Perhaps he should tell the fee-charging schools that they should do something similar.

But some middle-class parents will stop at nothing to get their children into the "best" local school. They already undergo instant conversions to Christianity, give out false addresses, and bribe or threaten heads. I predict a surge in bad behaviour among 11 and 12-year-olds in north London, with lawyers, architects and TV producers packing knives into their children's lunch-boxes to secure expulsion and subsequent transfer to a desired school.

Mr Clarke is covering up the cracks in a system that needs changing. New Labour's record on secondary admissions is abysmal. It has encouraged the development of a "pecking order" in which the gap between the best and worst is growing. In many ways, it is worse than the 11-plus system, under which grammars admitted anyone who passed the exam.

Today's more subtle forms of selection allow favoured schools to keep out disruptive children. Family church-going, in particular, is a marvellous proxy for the parental commitment to education that determines academic success more strongly than social class.

Alongside his new rule on sharing out expelled pupils, Mr Clarke needs to do two more things. First, he should press ahead with specialist schools so that parents can pick a school for reasons other than its position in the league tables. But he should not allow these schools to select up to 10 per cent of their entrants on "aptitude".

I find it staggering that the Government is withdrawing the selection option only from the design and technology schools. This promises to make such schools the new secondary moderns and suggests once more that, while languages and sciences require special abilities, any fool can do the practical, vocationally-orientated subjects.

Second, Mr Clarke should tell councils to abolish catchment areas, allow parents to choose any school and, where over-subscribed, hold lotteries to decide which children get places. The ideal is a system which is fair to all classes and gives every school a "balanced intake" of bright and dull, rich and poor, paragons and villains. The two changes I propose won't achieve that ideal but they will take us nearer to it than we are now.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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