GM could not fix class;Leading Article;Opinion

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
The great grant-maintained experiment may have ended this week as the last of the 1,199 schools opted to become a foundation, aided or community school - but it has left a permanent impression on the educational landscape.

Schools now have more autonomy than was ever dreamed of a decade ago, and many local authorities were forced to raise their game and meet their schools' needs more effectively. These gains were, however, bought at a price. The policy - along with others directed towards creating a "market" in schooling - forced neighbouring schools into competition. Expensive surplus places remained in the system as schools earmarked for closure hastened to opt out. And the extra funding available to the fledgling GM schools created resentment among other local schools who got less as a result.

The overall effect was increased politicisation and polarisation of education. And it's the polarisation that accounts for the alarming research findings which we report on page 26 - that GM schools, although seen by Middle England as beacons of excellence, have not performed better than other schools, once the social background of their pupils is taken into account. They seem to have succeeded mainly through attracting more motivated and high-achieving young people. This also meant that harder-to-teach pupils congregated in other schools which, as a result, found it harder to improve.

What the whole saga has thrown into relief is that school success is still intimately related to class background. Constantly restructuring the school system is not the way to improve achievement. It diverts enormous amounts of energy and political capital, and the class system always reasserts itself - as we have found with comprehensive schools, which were designed to overcome the social class divisions enshrined in grammar and secondary modern schools but have themselves become divided. The Government is quite right to assert that standards, not structures are really what matter. An appropriate curriculum, regular assessment, effective teaching methods - the point is, what actually happens in the classroom.

But what happens outside the classroom is significant too. We have one of the most unequal societies in the developed world - and the most polarised schools system outside the United States. Poor kids tend to get poor results - but why? It's a key question for our society, which the grant-maintained policy did nothing to address.

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