Secondaries modernised

16th February 2001 at 00:00
The vision behind Labour's Green Paper - that education should develop the full potential of every boy and girl - will meet with universal approval. There can hardly be a comprehensive in the country - bog-standard or otherwise - which does not aspire to that in its ethos or mission statement.

To give Labour its due, no government before has ever shown such resolute commitment to achieving success for all. It has also shown itself prepared to match expectations with investment. So thousands of teachers and heads who have devoted their lives to children's advancement - and to the achievment of a better world through fair and equal access to education - ought now to be celebrating the Green Paper's vision.

Instead, many feel betrayed, insulted and let down, not just by Labour's proposals but by the way in which they have been presented. Once again a political party seeks short-term electoral gain by rubbishing their work and their ideals of equal opportunity.

Although the Green Paper is, in effect, the Labour party education manifesto (conveniently produced at public expense) there is much in it to welcome and endorse. But why must it be heralded with a spin calculated to alienate the very people upon whom its success depends? Why does the Government's spokesman have to dismiss the efforts and ethos of thousands of comprehensives by referring to them as "bog-standard"?

Why denigrate the majority of secondary teachers, as David Blunkett did when interviewed by David Frost last Sunday, by describing their achievements as medicre? The Green Paper itself recognises that retaining good heads and teachers - particularly those working in the country's most difficult and deprived secondary schools - is imperative. But if the Government set out to convince them that their efforts are not appreciated, it could hardly have done so more effectively.

The policy being emphasised - encouraging diversity by expanding church and specialist schools - runs the risk of increasing still further the social polarisation already making it difficult to staff some schools at all, let alone raise basic standards to match the rest. Allowing more schools to select in the way church schools do is a recipe for creating secondary moderns rather than for modernising secondaries. It is true that few specialist schools select pupils. But these schools are themselves selected for their capacity for sustained improvement. It seems likely that it is this, rather than specialist status as such, that is behind the above-average progress that has coaxed further investment out of the Treasury.

That capacity for improvement needs to be built in every school. Extra support for schools in more challenging circumstances and Excellence in Cities-style investments don't play so well in the Daily Mail. But these too are promised in the Green Paper - though you would hardly know it. If it is to live up to its promise to promote greater equality and to improve all schools the Government must make sure it really is investing more moral and material support where pupils' needs are greatest.

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