First choice for everyone

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Affirming the Comprehensive Ideal

Edited by Richard Pring and Geoffrey Walford

Falmer Press

#163;39 and #163;14.95 (pbk)

Before the election, Gillian Shephard, echoing John Major, again declared it to be a fact that creating many more grammar schools would raise educational standards for all. She also dismissed as "perverse" any constraint on the right of individual schools to decide for themselves how selective they wished to be, without regard to the effects of that decision on neighbouring schools or on efficient and fair provision for all children in their locality. Against such dogmatic faith in the virtues of a divided system, and in restrained institutional self-interest, it is timely to have re-affirmed the "moral and educational ideals" embodied in comprehensive education.

The book originated in a series of public lectures and it benefits from contributors willing to keep firmly to their common task. It therefore has much more coherence than most collections. As the editors note, its publication coincides with a revival of nostalgia for grammar schools and for the "dominant principle" on which British (more particularly English) education has been based - "the selection of children for unequal provision". Unlike Mrs Shephard, they recognise the difficulties of comparing selective and non-selective systems, even against the important but limited criterion of examination results. The conclusion they draw from the evidence they review is that where comprehensive schooling is well-established, the general level of achievement rises and social class differentials are diminished.

But as Caroline Benn shows, drawing on her recently-published survey (with Clyde Chitty), the effectiveness of comprehensive schools can only be assessed within their widely differing social contexts. And parental choice (reinforced by encouragement of partial selection) has tended increasingl y to polarise intakes in terms of prior ability and social background.

The high hopes initially placed in comprehensive education are well described by Brian Simon, as is the Conservative Government's "staged return" to selection. He notes that the changes in employment which brought such dissatisfa ction with the waste of ability through identifying "failures" early are much more sweeping now, making that backward step economically as well as socially "perverse". Peter Cornall's account of the disadvantages of concentrating "superior resour-ces, prestige and expectations" on an "elect" minority also identifies a general failure to solve the pedagogic problems of mixed-ability learning - and to appreciate the democratic potential of the first national curriculum. The paradox identified by Caroline Benn, that comprehensive education has to be "the same but different", is confronted by other contributors too; in her words, the answers will change over time to the question "where the same is needed and where the differences should start".

Both Richard Pring's analysis of "emancipation through knowledge" and Denis Lawton's of a fully comprehensive curriculum, focus on the kinds of learning on which active citizenship should rest.

Like Sally Tomlinson in her delineation of a "comprehensive curriculum 14-19", they reject the continuing divide between the academic and the vocational, and the damaging association of the latter with less able students.

Confidence in "what comprehensive schools do better" and strong belief in "learning to learn" are especially marked in the contributions from John Abbott, Bernard Clarke and Ted Wragg, but they permeate much of the book and reflect extensive experience of teaching in the kinds of school being defended.

A common theme is that the comprehensive ideal extends to many kinds of institution and to lifelong learning. Another is that it has always been confronted by myths about its failures and nostalgic beliefs that the exclusive systems of the past were so successful that we need only return to them. As the chapters by David Halpin, Geoffrey Walford and Stephen Ball make clear, familiar ideological challenges have been greatly reinforced by government promotion of at least partial selection, and by the power of parental choice as a sorting mechanism. A major move away from comprehensive values has occurred with remarkably little public debate, and with it what Ball terms a "backwards march" towards "division, litism and exclusion".

A very different vision, of local democratic accountability and a remade civil society is offered in the closing chapters by Tim Brighouse and Stewart Ranson. John Prescott's "afterword" is a passionate rejection of rationing educational achievement. It provides a splendidly affirmative coda to a book which largely justifies its publisher's claim to be "essential reading" not only on the successes, failures and undermining of comprehensive schools but on the moral framework within which "education for all" should be debated and shaped.

Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle

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