Few prospects for poor

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
I am delighted that such a distinguished academic as Walter Humes should think about increasing the autonomy of schools and reducing the power of local authorities in Scotland, even though he comes to no definite conclusion at this stage (TESS, last week).

He does, however, flag up the key issues - moving away from a "command and control" structure, breaking down the tradition of public service paternalism in Scotland and overcoming the conservatism of headteachers.

Importantly, he shows sympathy for the argument that 40 years of comprehensive education have not removed underachievement in areas of social disadvantage.

This problem is not just "intractable", as Hume says; it is actually getting worse. Social mobility in Scotland has seriously declined over the course of two generations, as is shown by the Edinburgh University study, Moving up and Down the Social Class Ladder in Scotland by Cristina Iannelli and Lindsay Paterson. In education, the inevitable effect of this has been a postcoded incidence of educational achievement.

With only rare exceptions, the overall level of achievement of a school's pupils is closely co-related to the socio-economic character of its catchment area, in particular to the predominant form of housing tenure in that area.

I was a working-class boy, born in Glasgow in 1935 and brought up in a council house. After attending my local secondary school, I went on to obtain a good honours degree at the University of Glasgow. It is a sad reflection on my time as a teacher, teacher-politician and educationist, that a boy born in similar circumstances in Glasgow today would be unlikely to enter higher education or have a professional career.

The fundamental reason, in my view, is that we confused equality of opportunity with equality, believing that the one led to the other. In the event, the children and grandchildren of the postwar aspiring working class have a huge advantage over today's working-class children. This is because equality of opportunity has to be reasserted and reinterpreted for each generation and we have signally failed to do this.

Since our school system is heavily implicated in this failure, we must subject it to a fundamental re-examination, however painful this may be and however many sacred cows have to be sacrificed.

If we are to be fair to today's working-class, council house youngsters, we must get away from the dominance of the catchment area and provide a range of high-aspiring schools, offering rigour in their educational programmes and insisting on high standards of attendance and discipline.

In populous areas, these schools should compete for pupils over wider areas and should offer specialisms in terms of both curriculum and teaching approaches. They should produce attractive prospectuses and should be parent-friendly. Although they would be publicly funded, non-fee-paying schools, they would be free of local authority control and answerable directly to the parents, the inspectorate and the Scottish Executive.

They would be under the operational control of a new breed of headteachers, who would welcome the managerial and financial responsibility without losing sight of the school's educational objectives.

Many will disagree with my analysis and my proposed solution. That's fine, provided that the critics can put forward alternative proposals for dealing with the social immobility achievement crisis.

There is no evidence that the present set-up, which pretends to offer a uniform service but does nothing of the kind, will be able to resolve the problem, no matter how much money is poured into it.

Fred Forrester North Larches Dunfermline

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