Fanfare for a free for all

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Tony Edwards looks back at 30 years of mixed fortunes for the much-maligned comprehensive school. THIRTY YEARS ON: IS COMPREHENSIVE EDUCATION ALIVE AND WELL, OR STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE? By Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty David Fulton Pounds 25

Essential reading is a recommendation overworked by publishers, but this book deserves it. Published on the thirtieth anniversary of the circular which made comprehensive education into national policy, it answers both its questions affirmatively. It does so through a lucid, coherent, and richly-documented analysis of successes, failure and difficulties and of the necessary conditions for improvement.

At the outset, comprehensive education struggled against unrealistic expectations of its equalising effects, the obstacles of surviving forms of privileged education and a disinclination to review the content of common schooling. But while the achievements have been substantial, they have been accompanied by an intensifying government disposition to deny or diminish them. This book's publication is therefore a timely assertion of confidence in comprehensive education.

Opponents may deny its claim to provide an "independent enquiry", especially as both authors were (with Brian Simon) responsible for Half Way There, a previous examination of the progress towards a wholly undivided education system published in 1970. But while the defence is eloquent, arguments for and against inclusive education provision are plentiful. What makes the book distinctive is the wide-ranging evidence it offers about the comprehensive education we have and the extent to which it is being endangered.

New evidence is drawn from a survey of 1,560 schools and colleges which was undertaken between 1993 and 1994. These represent 35 per cent of the relevant institutions. The value of the evidence provided by the questionnaire is enhanced by the inclusion of the post-compulsory stage, with community colleges receiving close attention. It also benefits from covering all parts of a kingdom which is considerably disunited in the way secondary and post-secondary education is organised. Academic selection, for instance, is retained though increasingly questioned in Northern Ireland, while the Scottish schools in the survey were fully comprehensive and had (as a category) the best 16-plus results and the highest staying-on rates.

Those now campaigning vigorously for a return to more selective provision are unlikely to be converted by facts. Indeed, the Government's practice has been to undermine comprehensive education rather than evaluate or challenge it directly. Yet the book is an exceptionally rich source of information relevant to the questioning of some prevalent and often officially-sponsored myths. It includes, for example, an examination of the relative performance of selective and non-selective local systems, and the effects on the apparent achievements of comprehensive schools of retaining or constructing selective and quasi-selective alternatives (including the use of parental choice as "a substitute for selection").

The book also demolishes the stereotype of institutional uniformity. The authors note the decline of the 11-18 model predominant in 1970 and seek to rescue the 11-16 pattern from its undeserved reputation for inferiority.They identify grammar school residues in the entry policies and curriculum bias of many sixth form colleges, and describe the impact on post-16 provision of the transformation of colleges into independent, competing businesses.

The compatibility of denominational schools with a comprehensive system is examined, with generally positive conclusions, including a warning against using faith as a cover for selection.

There is a careful analysis of the effects and the unfairness of current disparities in the legal status of secondary schools, and the consequences for their funding and their capacity to choose their "clients". The healthy diversity which the Government claims to be creating appears differently when viewed more searchingly.

There are three substantial chapters on variations in the 11-14 curriculum, on the provision of curriculum choice post-14, and on the persistence of different and unequal pathways through the post-compulsory stage. Nor is a mediocre uniformity apparent in the chapters on schools' and colleges' organisation of student welfare, and on different patterns of accountability.

Although the book begins from the apparent reversal in the ratio of selective to comprehensive schools since Half Way There, the authors demonstrate the trend-in-reverse which already carries one in five to private, selective, and non-comprehensive schools. Insisting throughout on the impossibility of treating the comprehensive alternative simply as one kind of competitor in an open market, they argue for a thoroughly comprehensive system of education from 3 to 19.

Far from being the socialist doctrine of which its detractors complain, international comparisons show that such a system can prove that the tradition of rationing educational opportunity and achievement is neither democratic nor economically sensible. But the necessary conditions for it to survive and prosper include freedom from uninformed, unconstructive criticism. It is to be hoped that politicians and policy-makers are among the many readers of this impressive review of where we are and where we could be.

Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle

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