Is greater diversity healthy?

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
Are the Government's plans to create more faith and specialist schools in everyone's best interests?


IN July this year important things happened in Bradford. The first was that parts of Manningham, where most of our school's pupils live, went up in flames in an awful weekend of rioting.

By an uncanny coincidence, a few days later Lord Ouseley published his report on race relations in the town. And just for good measure, it was in the same week as Bradford education authority handed over most of its school support services to Serco, the firm which runs the Docklands Light Railway and the National Physical Laboratory. There's never a dull moment here, believe me.

All of these things got people thinking about the state of Bradford's schools and, in particular, how schools might best promote social harmony.

How should we tackle the issue of some Bradford schools being almost all white and others being almost all Asian? This was something Lord Ouseley saw as a problem for us.

At first sight, the Government's policy of encouraging more specialist and faith schools seems to compound the problem. If Muslim youngsters end up in a Muslim school and Catholics end up in a Catholic one - and neither of these groups gets a chance to benefit from the state-of-the-art equipment at the nearby specialist technology school - this does look like a recipe for divisiveness.

True enough if the schools themselves (perhaps unwittingly) create an ethos of inward-looking, stand-alone exclusivity.

But if they look outward and seek to make partnerships with other schools, things start to look different.

In fact the polarisation on race lines in Bradford's schools has little or nothing to do with specialist or faith status and much more to do with local geography.

Besides containing some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England, Bradford also encompasses some well-heeled towns such as Ilkley. Different communities live in their own areas and use their local schools, contributing to what Lord Ouseley's report calls "virtual apartheid".

In the 1970s Bradford experimented with bussing as a way of forcing schools to have a balanced pupil mix. The experiment did not last long and it would be almost unthinkable to try it today.

So much has changed in the past 30 years. People nowadays expect, quite rightly, to have more control over their own lives and more choice in things, whether it be telephone company, gas supplier or school.

They expect diversity too, rather than a one-size-fits-all society. So instead of reverting to a spurious uniformity in education, I think we need to harness this desire for more choice and make it work in schools for the general good.

Some Scandinavian countries have straightforward ways of setting up and funding faith schools totally from the public purse, if that's what local people want. Many countries have a much wider range of specialist secondary schools than we do. I know of a gap-year student working in China at a specialist tourism school, for example.

The trick, it seems, is to combine our citizen-consumer's desire for diversity and choice with what good schools are already beginning to do.

Increasingly, schools are working together to spread good practice, share expertise and resources, swap staff, twin pupils and be inclusive rather than exclusive. This creates rich and diverse networks which will, in time, contain a full range of specialist schools and all kinds of faith schools.

Using ICT to enhance these networks should help to remove the geographical barriers mentioned earlier. Different social and ethnic groups will be brought together by using diversity positively.

Alan Hall is head of Belle Vue girls' school, a mainly Asian comprehensive in Bradford.


Comprehensive schools are all about diversity. In true comprehensive schools, you find it in bucketfuls, you bump into it around every corner, inhale it in every classroom.

One of the most glorious achievements of 20th century Britain was the comprehensive school, doing its best by every student, finding and developing the talents of all its young people.

As a result, in great swathes of the country where parents have little or no "choice" about secondary education, they couldn't care two hoots, because the local comprehensive regularly coaches some students into Oxbridge and delivers a productive future to other young people, who would previously have been ghettoised in dead-end institutions.

However, even though the alleged "failure" of comprehensive education is a tabloid myth dreamt up at Islington dinner parties, there is still a problem.

Tony Benn is fond of telling a story about Mahatma Gandhi. When Gandhi paid his first visit to Britain, a reporter asked him what he thought of western civilisation, to which he replied: "I'd like to see it tried." I feel much the same about comprehensive education.

It has always been the case that some schools labelled comprehensive have inevitably borne a close resemblance to the secondary modern schools they used to be. They have been fatally handicapped in their mission to provide diversity because their intake has been restricted in terms of ability and socio-economic background.

The way to make the diversity found within the best comprehensives available to all young people is to make all secondary schools comprehensive ones.

The Labour party used to understand this. Way back when Jack Straw was shadow education secretary, he entertained the annual conference of the Secondary Heads Association by ridiculing the Conservative government's divisive manipulation of the education system. It had, he said, created a hierarchy with the public schools at the top, grammar schools close behind, then city technology colleges, church schools, grant-maintained schools and, finally, what the Conserva-tives saw as "council schools".

No one present at that conference would have believed that a Labour government would continue with this trend, creating more specialist schools, city academies, beacon schools, a "new category of advanced specialist school" and more schools provided by the churches and other faith groups, leaving bog-standard comprehensives and sub-comprehensives to fend for themselves.

If we only had comprehensive schools, and all of them were specialist, then this talk of diversity might make a kind of sense. In reality, the schools which achieve specialist status need already to be successful and thriving.

If we had the fair and agreed admissions policies that David Blunkett was once foolish enough to promise another SHA conference, it might not matter so much that some schools were able to present themselves as special. But at present schools select students rather than the other way about.

Research has indicated that in many cases a specialist school's specialism is not its strongest subject. Schools apply for the specialism they feel will be easiest to achieve in their area. It is not unknown for schools that fail to achieve specialist status at the first attempt to switch their approach and eventually succeed in a different subject area. The young people in these schools undoubtedly benefit from the greatly enhanced funding. But many school leaders also feel responsible for all our young people. They reject specialist status for some because it is at the expense of all the others.

Phil Taylor is head of Stamford Community high school, Tameside Next week: Should private companies control school governing bodies?

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