Tony Blair should ask if today's comprehensives satisfy the vision of their old Labour architect Tony Crosland before declaring the class war is over, writes Roy Bentham.
I HAVE lived in Grimsby for 15 years, latterly as chief executive of North East Lincolnshire Council, but never met the town's former MP and Labour's guru Tony Crosland.
What would he have made of new Labour, its top priority still based at the secondary level on the comprehensive principle which he championed as education secretary? In his recent conference speech, the Prime Minister featured two children, a have and a have not. The Government's view is that they should both receive a comprehensive education, irrespective of their background. Tony Blair's speech at Bournemouth predicted an end to the class war.
Education has always been a powerful weapon. The interesting thing about Tony Crosland's speeches from the 1960s is that his motivation was precisely the same as Blair's is today...to end the class system. If the war is indeed won, as the PM maintains, then surely much of the credit should go to Crosland and his comprehensive revolution. However, the victory announcement may be premature and this article attempts to view the achievement of comprehensive schools through the eyes of their originator. What would he make of it?
Let me first of all set out what Crosland had in mind when he tackled the old order of selection by the 11-plus. Certainly, the class system was at the heart of the problem as he saw it. "Our schools," he said, "have been essentially middle-class institutions. I believe this system to be educationally and socially unjust, inefficient, wasteful and divisive." I doubt any indictment could be more wide-ranging.
To summarise, his criticism of the 1944 Act was that selection favoured the middle class and that this class division in education was perpetuating undesirable characteristics in society as a whole.
Is that very different to the secondary system today? For 75 per cent of our children the answer is a resounding "yes". Crosland would surely be stunned that the proportion going on to university has increased threefold and would see the majority of our secondary schools as fulfilling many of the comprehensive ideals. But there is a side which he would not find so palatable.
The market approach to allocating school places now holds sway. Indeed, at their Blackpool party conference, the Conservatives put forward policies to drive it to new heights. Likewise, Education Secretary David Blunkett has made it clear that there can never be a return to the pre-choice days.
As any economist knows the market relies on information. If the possession of that information is skewed, then the market will operate in a partial way. To play the market in school places (unless you have the wealth to buy into a catchment area) requires knowledge, information and sophistication, which is typical of the middle class and untypical of the working class.
To put it more plainly, the less fortunate of Blair's two conference children will grow up in a home that knows little of educational opportunity and probably cares less. Indeed, in areas like Grimsby the view of education in the poorer communities is often not neutral, but hostile. So parents simply send their child to the nearest secondary school. In Crosland's vision this would have been the start of a degree of equality of opportunity. He acknowledged that changing negative attitudes would take generations.
North East Lincolnshire has 12 secondary schools. If Tony Crosland were to visit them today I guess that in more than half of these he would see his vision achieved. These have prospered via the market by attracting children whose parents have the qualities, information and background needed to exercise parental choice. However, he would be shocked at what market forces have led to in some inner-city schools in many parts of the country.
Some have declined to a size which Crosland would have thought totally inadequate. Their children are nearly all from difficult backgrounds and poor neighbourhoods. The proportion of special needs children is very high indeed and perhaps around 10 to 20 per cent get five A* to C grade GCSEs.
These schools often do a great job but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, comprehensive. Those pupils attending there, far from experiencing the Crosland melting pot, are suffering class reinforcement in a form which is no less damaging than in the 11-plus days. And these schools could represent, in my view, 30 to 40 per cent of our secondary schools.
The Government response to this is the creation of education action zones. We have one here and it is beginning to make an impact, but it can never be the solution. Currently there are few answers. This is election by social class, as insidious as the 11-plus ever was. While the proportions, thankfully, are the inverse of the 75 per cent failure rate of the 1944 Act, I am confident that Tony Crosland would not sit by while whole communities suffer educational disadvantage at a level which is quite alarming. While this persists, the class war is far from over.
Roy Bentham retires as chief executive of North East
Lincolnshire Council in January