Going backwards

7th October 2005 at 01:00
In Tony Blair's distaste for traditional comprehensives he has gone all the way back to the thinking of 1947, says Peter Newsam

In its education policies, New Labour believes itself to be moving forwards. Opposition to those policies is seen as backward- looking. A contrary view is that, far from reforming anything, it is New Labour that often has been back-pedalling into the past. Secondary education provides two examples of what is at issue here. Until recently, locally-elected people have been responsible for providing and maintaining the effectiveness of the secondary schools in their area.

Nearly all local authorities have exercised those responsibilities well, but now, under New Labour, that responsibility has been effectively removed. Local authorities are now to be commissioners of educational services. But when major functions are removed from any organisation, the people competent to exercise them go too. That is already happening, so the expectation that local government will continue to be able to commission education services efficiently seems misguided. Expert knowledge will be lacking.

Meanwhile, into the vacuum caused by the removal of local democratic involvement in secondary education have moved the likes of Lord Adonis, Sir Cyril Taylor, the Learning and Skills Council, the chief inspector, some wealthy sponsors and various others. The defining characteristic of these individuals or agencies, however worthy in themselves, is that none has been elected by the public.

Can the removal of local democratic involvement in secondary education be regarded as progress? Historically, it looks more like a reversion to the confused mixture of local agencies; with conflicting aims and responsibilities, to which the Balfour Act of 1902, despite formidable opposition, managed to bring a now vanishing degree of coherence.

A second reversion to past thinking concerns New Labour's values in dealing with diversity. It is common ground that secondary-aged pupils differ widely in all manner of ways; but there are two fundamentally opposed views on the appropriate response to these differences. The first is that it is on these differences between individual pupils that educational emphasis should be placed. This was the view taken by Ellen Wilkinson, Labour's minister of education, in 1947: "as no two children are alike, schools must be different too". Hence the tripartite system of grammar schools for the bright, technical schools for the not so bright and secondary modern schools for the rest. This has remained the Conservative party's preferred system in some local authorities, consistent with the Thatcher "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families" approach.

An opposing view, equally recognising the facts of difference, places its emphasis on what secondary pupils have in common. On this view, secondary schools are seen as places where children, as well as being taught things with marks attached to them, learn to live and work together and are introduced to "the simple truths that bind us together" as Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, put it recently. The circular on comprehensive education issued by Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland in 1965 incorporated this approach. Over the years, most local education authorities, Conservative, Labour and others alike, developed school systems that recognised that, as others had argued from the outset, diversity, of ability or anything else, was better dealt with within schools than between them. This became official Labour party policy.

So where does New Labour now stand in relation to these fundamentally opposed views on how to give institutional expression to difference? In the opinion of Lord Adonis, schools based on the Crosland principle have been, he declared in 1997, a mistake. The Prime Minister's own distaste for secondary schools which deal with diversity of all kinds within themselves, comprehensive schools, is regularly made apparent. Hence the present proliferation of different types of school, organised on different lines, differentially funded and sponsored, with many now specialising in different elements of a rapidly disintegrating national curriculum.

Evidently, New Labour's leadership does not believe that diversity of all kinds should and can successfully be contained within a single secondary school. Accordingly, tugging its forelock to Lady Thatcher on the way, it has retreated all the way back to the thinking of 1947. This is hardly progress.

Fortunately, if Ofsted reports are any guide, there remain hundreds of schools which are successful and fully comprehensive, in the sense of containing within themselves pupils of all abilities and family circumstances. Such schools continue to represent one of this country's most notable achievements in secondary education over the past 60 years. It is sad that New Labour has not recognised the success of these comprehensive schools, particularly as it has itself developed nothing of equal value since 1997 and seems most unlikely to do so now.

Sir Peter Newsam was chief schools adjudicator between 1999 and 2002

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