They kill prophets, don't they?

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
When Martin Stephen criticised comprehensives in print he recieved extensive hate mail. But he still urges the new Labour government to bite the reform bullet

The General Election has changed nothing in education, and a different result would have changed nothing. A new government of any colour would have faced the same problems.

We are still heading for the greatest crisis in teacher recruitment in our history. Our examination system is still on the verge of collapse. More and more students are being pushed towards university without anyone having worked out how we pay for them, and how many graduates our society actually needs.

Post-16 education is expanding almost uncontrollably into a plethora of 11-18 comprehensives, 11-18 grammar schools, sixth-form colleges and many and various further education colleges, with no coherent strategy behind the bewildering variety of schools, colleges and courses on offer. A-levels and GCSE appear increasingly unable to satisfy or fulfil the most able, while too many vocational qualifications lack credibility with either students or employers.

One reason for these problems is that for the first time in decades we have no coherent overall strategy. We launch initiatives as if there were no tomorrow, but do so in the manner of a doctor who can only attack symptoms of an illness.

It has not always been so. The 1944 Education Act proposed a system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. It failed to produce the goods because successive governments failed to invest in the technical schools, thereby damning vocational education and producing an us-or-them system whereby up to 70 per cent of the school populace were designated failures at the age of 11 and consigned to what were doomed forever to be seen as sump schools. Failure should not disguise what was a bold, radical and intelligent blueprint for education. It was a scheme that addressed directly the perceived social and educational needs of the day. It may have been wrong, but at least it was driven by a coherent philosophy that sought to impose a set of standards on education, rather than merely knee-jerk react to the crisis of the day.

Then in 1976 we changed things. The move to comprehensive schools is still a source of bitter, and sometimes vitriolic, debate. I have never received more hate-mail than when I proposed in an article for The Guardian that we should move on from the basic comprehensive to another model of school, though I never felt the need to use the phrase "bog standard".

For all its faults, the idea of the comprehensive school was a genuine attempt to address a real social and educational need. It may have failed, as did the 1944 Education Act, but it was a bold, radical and intelligent blueprint that sought to address the needs of the day. As with the schools proposed in 1944, we shall never satisfactorily know if comprehensives might have worked. We never did have a system of comprehensive schools, but alway ran a mixed economy. One of the basic truths about the comprehensive - and perhaps one of its greatest weaknesses - is that it could never work or be properly tested in the face of competition from schools based on a different philosophy.

Unless society is seen as being completely static, we probably need a radical rethink of education policy every 30 years or so. We do not appear to have anyone out there with a true plan for our times.

Instead we have what can only be described as a right old mess, a patchwork which we keep adding to and stitching up on a make-and-mend basis. We have grammar schools, 11-16 comprehensives, 11-18 comprehensives, middle schools, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges in bewildering confusion. Some are funded locally, some centrally and some by Lewis Carroll out of Franz Kafka.

We have a system where we forever weigh the pig without fattening it, and where we could be forgiven for expecting within the next few years a test designed for children who have not yet actually been conceived. We have tuition fees restricting entry to university alongside expensive access schemes to encourage applications, and a university system that we continue to describe as one sector but which has to encompass world-class research departments at one end and students offered places with no A-levels at the other.

We desperately need a thinker who will impose some coherence on our present dog's dinner, someone who can give us a system that is a bold, radical and intelligent answer to our needs. When it comes, it would make a pleasant change if the government of the day allowed it to happen as planned.

If and when that person does come, they might ask why we insist on major change for children at the age of 11, why universities no longer have any say in A-levels and employers no real say in vocational qualifications. Or why we have denied graduate teachers the opportunity to teach their subject, why we insist on treating all children as if they had the same natural ability as distinct from the crucial task of giving them the same opportunity. They might even ask why we are heading for spending more time on examining children than on teaching them, why we have no mention of team membership or risk management in our national curriculum, why we have come near to killing music and sport in our schools, and why we do not have a creativity hour to go alongside the literacy and numeracy hour.

There is one new problem facing today's educational prophet. He or she cannot be bald or have a funny-looking face, and must be able to squeeze their whole philosophy into a three-minute soundbite on the BBC's Today programme. That will be on top of the traditional problem for prophets, which is that we tend to kill them and then realise their worth several years later. As far as our educational system is concerned, several years later will be several years too late.

Dr Martin Stephen is high master of Manchester grammar school

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