Missing factor in the closures equation

26th September 1997 at 01:00
As the headteacher of a Glasgow secondary school that in all probability is included in the unnamed eight that may disappear in the course of the next five years, I read your front-page article on September 5 about the restructuring of secondary education in the city with more than usual interest.

The necessity of a coherent plan of action within the city is beyond argument and it is to be hoped that on this occasion lessons will have been learnt from past mistakes. But this hope will be realised only if there is a frank recognition and evaluation of the reality of secondary education within the city. On the basis of the remarks attributed in your report to Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education convener, there is still some way to go.

There is nothing to be gained by the blanket denigration of the past: "the ghastly failure of the sixties". The move to comprehensive organisation has been a success. It may not have transformed society in the ways that its most idealistic proponents in the sixties foresaw but schools in Glasgow and elsewhere created and delivered to young people opportunities which had previously been denied to them. We need to begin by celebrating the comprehensive school and recognising its achievements.

It is also too facile to dismiss Standard grade with Dr Green's phrase about giving every pupil a "lick at gold". The doubts about Foundation level were voiced at a very early stage in the original feasibility studies when it was recognised that it had yet to be demonstrated that these courses could sustain and motivate the population for whom they were intended over a full two school sessions. These doubts have proved well-founded but it is debatable whether this reflects inherent weaknesses in the courses themselves or is a direct consequence of the folly of government which explicitly tied General 3 to the old O grade C pass. Who can be motivated to work for two years to attain an award which is publicly stigmatised as a failure?

A fresh look at school organisation and school curricula is welcome. The National Certificate model may well offer a way forwards. These courses at least build from the bottom up and certificate holders with level 1 or level 2 awards are not dismissed as failures because they have not attained level 3 or level 4.

But will the abolition of catchment areas and the creation of a free choice of school really deliver this reality of comprehensive education Dr Green is seeking? There is a significant body of opinion, however unfashionable it may be politically, which holds that what above all else has undermined the effectiveness of comprehensive education within the city over the past two decades is simply this elevation of parental and pupil choice to a point where it now seems enshrined as a fundamental moral principle and right.

There has been a steady haemorrhaging of pupils from the schools on the periphery of the city into neighbouring authorities since 1980. Within the city there has been a parallel drift from scheme schools and inner-city schools to those in the residential suburbs. That is the effect of choice and everyone in the service knows that these are choices which are made on social not educational grounds. Parents are acting in the perceived best interest of their own children but the price of placing such individual choice at the centre of things is not just to impoverish the city's schools but - and this is ultimately what matters - to accelerate the disintegration of all feeling of society and community within the city.

The school of which I am headteacher is one which has a well-balanced catchment but has consistently lost significant numbers of pupils to other schools. The result is a pupil population that is negatively weighted both in academic ability and in the social, personal challenges it presents. And the reason for this pattern of parent-pupil choice? That is summed up neatly in the returns from our last survey of parents who chose not to send their children to us: "I don't want my children to go to a school where half of ---- goes to."

This is the challenge Dr Green and his colleagues must meet in restructuring provision within the city. If the policy adopted does not go beyond the schools themselves and address the even harder social questions within the city then it will not succeed in the way all of us wish to see it do.

David Nicholson is headteacher of Victoria Drive Secondary, Glasgow.

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