Ready for haute couture?

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Is Blair dyeing old selection clothes Islington pink? Should schools be uniform or made-to-measure? Peter Smith pins down the issues behind specialist schools

abour's proposal to extend the specialist schools network will be a sharply controversial campaign issue during the run-up to the imminent election.

Some of the Government's staunchest supporters think it a push too far. They claim that new Labour is cynically abandoning the comprehensive ideal for which old Labour fought so hard. They allege that the Government plans to reintroduce selection. New Labour, they complain, is rifling through the Tories' policy wardrobe and brazenly dyeing the second-hand clothes a shade of Islington pink.

The Conservatives themselves are not beyond being a touch disingenuous. The specialist schools initiative was after all theirs. They now argue that it does not go far enough. There should be a wholesale expansion in the number of grammar schools. Higher on their priorities is exhuming the corpse of the grant-maintained school "movement". For that, in reality, is what their proposal to force (or liberate) all secondary schools to become free schools actually means. Once "free" they will presumably admit whoever they like by whatever criteria they choose. Exactly what will happen to the hindmost the devil only knows....

What worries me is that the slogan-slinging we will experience during the next few weeks will mask issues which really matter. The most central is that the very comprehensives for which Labour campaigned so long and courageously arguably failed in one major and highly important respect. They failed to stimulate the fundamental shift in our national attitudes to school success which alone would have guaranteed the equality of opportunity comprehensives were intended to create.

That was because of a powerful and peculiarly British cultural imperative - the value we place upon academic success to the exclusion of almost anything else.The late former Conservative education secretary Keith Joseph saw the issue very clearly. Although his innate scholarliness made him resist closing grammar schools ("schools of proven worth"), he was aware that the very schools he valued were failing - and were bound to fail - the 40 per cent of children who left with little evidence of achievement of any kind. He therefore resisted pressure to extend selection. He saw vouchers as a cranky irrelevance. After years of political dithering by his predecessors he approved the introduction of the GCSE because he believed it might give more children more opportunity. That was hi now almost forgotten legacy.

But his important examination reforms went only so far. To some extent they may even have been counterproductive. They may perversely have reinforced the hierarchy of academic esteem which had so profoundly distorted the shape of our public education and examination system and continues to do so.

It seems to me that there is a strong case for arguing that the specialist school initiative moves the debate on. Far from looking backwards, it could suggest how we might re-shape the comprehensive system of the future. That is not because the system itself wilfully failed. It is because the re-evaluation of what we think matters, which should have accompanied the introduction of comprehensives, failed to happen. That was not the schools' fault - and that is why many teachers found the reference to "bog- standard" comprehensives by Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, offensive. But Campbell's politically maladroit throw-away line should not stand in the way of the debate which is needed.

What is the evidence, for instance, that the 403 specialist schools in existence in 1999 were a herd of Trojan horses crafted to smuggle in wholesale selection? Precious little. Only 20 of them were grammar schools. Of the comprehensives (prohibited by the 1998 Standards and Framework Act from selecting on the basis of academic ability) only about 7 per cent selected pupils on the basis of aptitude. They have probably been right to be so tentative. Though there are a few cases where children demonstrate striking, precocious and identifiable talent, they are the exception. The fundamental issue is that schools should be freed and supported to develop their own ethos and that pupils' achievements, whatever they are, should be nurtured and valued. There is no talent we can afford to waste in the arts, sport, business, technology or languages.

I am not an unquestioning acolyte for the specialist school initiative. It makes far more sense in densely populated urban areas where parental choice and the possibility of sponsorship are real than in thinly-peopled areas where neither are serious options. However you dress it up a two-tier system of funding is inherently inequitable.

But I have no objection at all to the concept of haute couture comprehensive education for all children as a preferable option to a cut-price, one-size-fits-all chain store outfit. I would certainly sooner have the debate than throttle it.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Parliamentary questions, 25

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