New Labour's selection dilemma;Debate;In the dock;Comprehensives; Interview;Stephen Pollard;Ian Corfield

17th April 1998 at 01:00
The Government plans sweeping reforms to state schools. Will comprehensive education survive - and should it?

In the first of an occasional series examining major issues, Jeremy Sutcliffe spoke to two young Blairites with diametrically opposed views

If there's one thing Stephen Pollard and Ian Corfield agree on, it's that standards in state schools have fallen. Not just in relative terms - although the international comparisons are gloomy enough - but absolutely. Britain's kids, they argue, have fallen down on the basics and something must be done.

Do their views matter? Both are young and hold opinions largely in tune with the rising generation of Labour party activists, but more importantly they have connections.

Ian Corfield, a Sheffield comprehensive boy made good, has worked for David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and, until recently was chief policy wonk for the Labour party think tank, the Fabian Society. In January, he began a new job as business manager to Sir Dennis Stephenson, chairman of Pearson PLC and adviser to the Prime Minister on information technology in education. As one of a network of 20-something ultra-Blairites, it's just the sort of fast-track appointment you'd expect for someone with obvious political ambitions.

Stephen Pollard, a former public school boy, is rather more maverick. Two years ago, he quit his job as research director of the Fabians (where he was Corfield's predecessor) after using an Oxford seminar to make an outspoken call for the reintroduction of grammar schools. In doing so, he earned the dubious distinction of being heckled by the future education secretary (Blunkett). He jumped ship (some say was pushed) to take up a similar post with the Owenite Social Market Foundation, where he has argued effectively for an open market in health and education. He is now a freelance commentator and writes regularly for the Express.

They disagree on one of the fundamentals of education - academic selection. But each, in his own way, argues for greater social integration and for a better deal for average and under-achieving youngsters. And, while their final solutions for curing the nation's ailing school system may be radically different, their diagnosis and recommended treatment are at times strikingly similar.

Their arguments begin with the same premise: that, since the late 1970s standards have fallen.

The reason, says Stephen, is that comprehensives have failed even to bring greater social integration. This, he argues, is because over the past two decades increasing numbers of middle-class parents have fled the state sector and put their children into private schools.

The simultaneous disappearance of many high-achieving direct-grant schools helped transform the socially elitist public schools into highly-selective institutions.

Stephen's solution is to move towards a selective, free market system, allowing schools to specialise in their best subjects.

While his support for selection may be shared privately by some Labour ministers - perhaps even by the Prime Minister himself - it's a minority view within New Labour and likely to remain so.

Ian's view corresponds more to that of most of Blair's ministers. He accepts Stephen's analysis that new forms of selection - through the housing market, as well as the appearance of an enlarged private sector - is a problem in some large cities, especially London. But in most of the country, he says, comprehensives operated well until the late 1970s, when they fell prey to new teaching methods promulgated by local education authorities and civil servants.

But he still insists that the comprehensive principle is right. His solution is a reformed system with an emphasis on the 3Rs, a return to in-school selection through streaming and giving schools scope to develop academic or vocational specialisms. Parents could choose any school for their child, with popular schools expanding to meet demand.

Stephen Pollard supports this agenda, but claims it is simply a staging post on the road to the kind of market based system he himself would like to see. Such a system would be bound to lead to a return to selection, he says.

"It's confused thinking. If you have a system for deciding who goes to which specialist school you have a de facto selective system. Everything the party is saying goes against the grain of comprehensives."

Ian sees no problem with a reformed comprehensive system embracing specialist schools, open enrolment and allowing good schools to expand. Indeed, he is strikingly Blairite in his defence of such a system: "If you give schools the capacity to expand and say to those that are contracting, 'You're not going to get the same amount next year,' that will drive the quality through the system and give parents real choice."

Ian Corfield draws the line on allowing schools to select pupils on academic ability. He's also opposed to selecting by aptitude in a particular subject. Parents should, he says, always be able to choose schools - not the other way round.

Here they part company. Stephen says: "I think in the last resort schools should be able to select a child. If you have a properly selective system of parental choice, the two clash. Schools must have power to say, "That child doesn't belong in this type of school. It won't happen all the time, but where they conflict the school should be able to select."

Name - Stephen Pollard

Age - 33

School - John Lion, Harrow, independent

University - Oxford (modern history)

Current employment - Freelance journalist

Previous jobs - Research assistant for Peter Shore, research director, the Fabian society;head of research, Social Market Foundation.

Other relevant factors - Co-author (with Andrew Adonis), A Class Act:the Myth of Britain's Classless Society.


Stephen Pollard

"Comprehensives in the main have achieved nothing. It's certainly true that there are good comprehensives and there are large areas of the country where no one has a problem with their schools. What we need to concentrate on are the inner cities. It's not where schools are successful, it's where they have failed that matters.

"Over the past 30 years the comprehensive system has destroyed something which worked very well - grammar schools - and replaced them with something which doesn't address the failures of the old secondary modern system and doesn't have the success that the old grammar schools had.

"Comprehensive schools have been socially regressive, to the extent that we now have two forms of selection that we never used to have. We have selection by house price, and we have a new form of selection which didn't really exist until about 15 years ago, which is the selective private school.

"In the past, private schools existed basically for networking and to buy privilege. Most private schools are now basically service providers. They are selective, but the only way you can get into them is if you can pay.

So to that extent comprehensives are socially regressive. Because of their failings 7 per cent of the most able pupils - and those with the pushiest parents - have been lifted out of the state system and given an exclusive education, the only entry to which is money.I don't think anyone on the Left can defend that. That's not necessarily an argument against comprehensives, but about the failure of the state system. I would argue, however, that the reason for that failure is the switch to comprehensive schools.

"The market will offer far greater choice for parents. It's the only way you break down the class apartheid in this country.

"It would lead to a system where schools could focus on one aspect of a child's ability, whether it be vocational, academic or sporting. All the evidence shows that selection draws out children's potential much better than any other system. That will increase parental confidence and they will be less inclined to send them to private schools."

Name - Ian Corfield

Age - 26

School - King Ecgbert, Sheffield, comprehensive

University - Warwick (politics)

Current employment - Business manager to Sir Dennis Stephenson, chairman of Pearson PLC

Previous jobs: Anderson Consulting;research director, the Fabian Society.

Other relevant factors - Former chair of Labour students and constituency organiser for David Blunkett.


Ian Corfield

"The comprehensive system has helped me enormously. It has enabled people like me to look beyond their immediate social surroundings and to move through and improve in that system.

"It's done it in two ways, firstly, it's opened doors which the old system could never have opened because of the strict division which it created between schools. No one is really arguing that we should go back to the old system and I think that shows the extent of what comprehensives have achieved.

"Secondly, comprehensives have forced teachers - at least for a period - to look beyond simply the best and those who are achieving the most to actually upping skills and the abilities of pupils across the ability range.

"But I accept that the comprehensive system needs to be modernised. There are two issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, there is a problem about new types of selection. That is largely a London problem.

"The second issue is teaching methods. During the late 70s and early 80s the system fell prey to new teaching methods and forgot about the basics. That approach meant we saw standards decline, particular in literacy and numeracy.

"But I don't think that delegitimises the idea that getting together people of mixed ability at school - albeit with a system of setting and fast-tracking - is a positive benefit both for the pupils and the country as a whole.

"I am basically in favour of a modernised comprehensive system that focuses on the prime areas of learning - numeracy, literacy, literature and information technology. That is what we should be working towards. I think that selection is divisive and doesn't result in a better education system.

"Comprehensives have opened up a wider view of society to people for whom social background was an enormous hindrance," he says.

"The minute you apply selection to a school then you create a socially divisive system and, not only that, you create a system which is worse for the culture and learning in that school."

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