Face up to the class divide
The current wave of criticisms of comprehensive schools prompts me to write to you to express great unease about what seems to be a split in Labour party attitudes towards its fundamental principles. I have worked voluntarily for the improvement of state education as a school governor in London for 25 years (for Labour until 1981 and thereafter in a co-opted capacity).
I am writing to you rather than to David Blunkett because it was your decision to send your son to a school selecting by interview which prompted others to decide similarly. I don't wish to embarrass you - you have the right to do as you wish on this question - but I do hope that you can see your way to initiating measures which will help to clarify the issues more publicly.
What new evidence is there to support the encouragement of a trend away from comprehensives and towards selective schools? The current obsession with measured results has inevitably led some politicians and parents to believe in the figures published annually of school exam results as though they were all the school should be judged by. It is not easy for prospective parents to discover what a school is delivering in the broadest sense. Most parents base their decision on a single visit backed up by the local grapevine. Actual exam performances only tell us what was achieved in the past year or two. They do not tell us how children of parents with different educational backgrounds have performed in different types of schools. I don't know ow of any data which tells how children of, for example, graduate parents fare in comprehensives compared with selective or independent schools.
It is perhaps relevant here to recount some family experience. My 19-year-old daughter, who went to an Islington junior school, was not offered a place at her first choice, a comprehensive, and went to an independent secondary, followed by a state sixth-form college. But she and most of her friends from primary school all got three good A-levels and are now at university, whatever form of secondary school they attended.
Our 11-year-old son is about to go to the local comprehensive along with four primary friends. The most important factor in this decision has been his enthusiasm for the school, and his motivation to succeed alongside his peers. He did not want to go to a selective or an independent school. When we discussed the exam performance of the school (25 per cent of the intake achieving five or more GCSEs at grades 1 to 3) he said witheringly: "So you think I won't be in that 25 per cent?" We and the parents of our son's friends have opted for this school because it is what our children want. Its ethos is sparky, tough and sensitive, the staff seem alive and keen, and the head produced the recent (positive) Office for Standards in Education report when I asked to see it, as an odd nameless parent visiting the school. The school is now attracting a cross-section of the community, which, in our part of London (on the borders of Islington and Hackney), means a diversity of cultures, something that has been an enormously enriching experience in primary school for both our children I don't think our own case is at all unusual; all over the country there are schools which are quite good enough for our children. No doubt there are also some where urgent improvements are needed. There are systems now in place which will gradually help such schools, in the state sector, to improve their performance, if there is adequate funding. After 10 years of quite painful transition to the national curriculum (and its many revisions), and the introduction of elaborate assessment procedures, comprehensive schools are now better placed to achieve higher general standards than ever before. There are school development plans in place in almost every school, and the introduction of staff training days has provided teachers with the long-needed space to work in groups on strategies to achieve their targets. I'm impressed by the professional development of staff at all levels over the years. In primary schools there is far more evidence of proper management, despite (or perhaps because of) a reduction in the quality of back-up from the local education authority. Teachers, like any professionals under fire, are likely to react defensively to overgeneralised criticisms of the kind that come increasingly from the current chief inspector.
The cooler, more measured approach of Sir Ron Dearing will surely lead to a positive response from those involved in implementing his recommendations. Parents, too, are at last becoming part of the educational equation. but there is still a long way to go. A "contract" with parents is badly needed, and is the vital link that has for so long been absent from the expectations of schools, drawing them in as part of the whole process of supporting what the school is trying to do.
There are few countries in the world where parents are less involved in their children's education. In this country, even in the post-war years, only about 8 per cent of the population attended tertiary education until the 1980s, and of the whole university population in the 1970s only about 15 per cent were from manual working-class families. I doubt if this figure is much higher now despite the great increase in the total numbers of children attending university. We still lose the 55 per cent of pupils who fail to get five decent GCSEs. We then find 30 per cent of A-level students fail their exams, despite having demonstrated adequate academic ability to aim for tertiary education. Don't parents have some responsibility to support teachers on a day-to-day basis ?
When comprehensives were introduced in the 1960s there was a general belief that this would help most children and also begin to break down British class diffidence. Much has been achieved, but there is still a need to involve parents more fully in the process.
Although the class structure has been reinforced during the past 15 years, people are less afraid of it as something inherent in our way of life. Schools operate as part of the wider society, and cannot be separated from its uncertainties. It is essential that we should know more about what students with different backgrounds (educational, cultural, gender and so on) go on to achieve after attending different types of school. We need to look at the influence of educational background on children's performance, and we should not be embarrassed or afraid about doing this.
We need to involve parents in playing a full part in encouraging consistency between the school ethos and that at home, and in supporting staff in winning students over to understanding and achieving shared goals. In today's world, politicians, businessmen or teachers can't succeed with authoritarian attitudes, whether in schools or anywhere else. Children, like adults, have to feel engaged with the general objectives of education.
Parents need to hear a more positive message from all those responsible for state education. We need more qualitative information about what each school is trying to achieve; better quality management information for governors; more encouragement of positive parental support; better briefing of the media, and less appealing by politicians to the fears of the electorate.
Attitudes could start to change quickly if a more positive attitude were introduced into the debate. There is so much you can do to encourage greater public understanding of the professional approach of schools to the raising of standards, so that parental choice may be exercised on the basis of better informed judgments of what is best for the individual child.
I write as someone who has voted Labour in every election since 1964 (when I was 20), though I have not been a member of the party since 1981.
Martin Pick is a former publisher, now a literary and film agent. He had been a school governor for 21 years.