THE Prime Minister wields a broad brush. He is not known for mastery of detail, unlike, for example, Margaret Thatcher. Nor does he know much about education - Lady Thatcher had at least been Education Secretary. Therefore Tony Blair's speech last weekend on comprehensive schools owed more to the chitchat of Islington dinner tables than to a grasp of the research on the subject.
Coincidentally a conference in Northern Ireland, which retains secondary school segregation in more than a denominational sense, heard a more accurate summary of the position from Linda Croxford of Edinburgh University (page four). Under comprehensive education in the three countries of the UK which adopted it, pupil achievement has risen significantly.
The successes are greatest where the comprehensive approach is most firmly embedded - in Scotland and Wales. England (in common with only the Scottish caital) has a large number of independent schools creaming off abler pupils, mainly from middle-class families. Therefore the problems identified by Mr Blair, which have prompted so many of the Islington dinner-party set to bypass comprehensive schools, are more pronounced in areas where social and educational segregation is greatest.
The Prime Minister is right to argue against a "one size fits all" constriction within comprehensive schools. Fortunately, the attention now given to individual needs makes that less of a worry than it was a decade or more ago. Lack of resources continues to narrow choice: the take-up of Advanced Highers will be an indicator in many schools. But social inclusivity is not, or should not be, synonymous with uniformity. The danger in Tony Blair's half-informed speech is that it gives succour to those who still question the comprehensive principle.