Time to get the house in order

17th August 2001 at 01:00
PROMOTING COMPREHENSIVE EDUCATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Edited by Clyde Chitty and Brian Simon. Trentham Books pound;13.95. TES Direct pound;13.45

Michael Duffy on a manifesto for a fairer education system

It wasn't only teachers who were outraged earlier this year by Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell's calculated put-down about "bog-standard" comprehensive schools. For many supporters of the comprehensive movement, inclined until then to give New Labour at least the benefit of growing doubt, the comment was a turning point.

Hence this volume, seen by its authors as the opening of a nationwide campaign for a return to principled and equitable public education. Hence, too, Steve Bell's cover drawing of two adjacent toilet cubicles, one restricted (access by swipe card only) to "special students" and one, emphatically bog-standard, for standard students.

The Government, looking at the cover and the list of contributors, will mutter darkly about the usual suspects and read no further. Too many teachers, it will say, and too many from the National Union of Teachers and from London. For New Labour, teachers are part of the problem, not the solution. But the Government may be wrong.

Though the teachers who write in these pages - Carole Regan, for example, on initiative proliferation; Bob Wood on privatisation; Rachel Jones on creeping selection; Mike Davies on the "one-size-fits-all" direction from the centre of so much of students' learning - are motivated primarily by a sense of anger and betrayal, they articulate a level of concern that parents and governors are increasingly expressing. Is there anyone, for instance (other than government ministers), who will publicly defend our chaotic secondary school admission arrangements? Or who can mount a principled defence (Margaret Tulloch's challenge in these pages) of the rules that govern ballots to overturn 11-plus selection?

Then there are the academics. Brian Simon is our most eminent historian of British education and a lifelong champion of comprehensive schools. Clyde Chitty is head of education at Goldsmiths College and a lifelong enemy of selection. He argues that while at least the old 11-plus had some objectivity and fairness about it, the selection we have now is less fair and less open. He calls it "obscene". Richard Hatcher, from the University of Central England, dissects the Government's determination to develop an "edu-business" sector capable of competing in a hugely lucrative global market.

Again, the usual suspects. But do their arguments stand up? Which is precisely the question posed in two of the most compelling chapters here. Tony Edwards and Patrick Eavis (Newcastle University and, until recently, chair of governors and head respectively of one of Britain's outstanding comprehensive schools, Queen Elizabeth high school in Hexham) contribute a scrupulously objective evaluation of the Government's specialist schools initiative, clearly seen as central to what it has flagged the "post-comprehensive" era. Do they succeed because they are specialist - or are they specialist because they are succeeding already? That's not the issue, they say. You can't evaluate success without taking into account its effect on the other schools - the "standard comprehensives, at risk of being left behind".

Geoff Whitty, director of the London Institute of Education, makes the same point. Comprehensive schools didn't get everything right. Like Old Labour, they never resolved the tension between meritocracy and egalitarianism. But there was a commitment to inclusion. New Labour's plans for diversity and choice within what it qualifies as "a broadly comprehensive system", he believes, effectively dilute that commitment. In effect, the standards agenda is getting in the way of the social inclusion agenda.

Whitty's argument, and the argument of this book throughout, is that diversity is becoming a two-tier, hierarchical system. We need to rebuild the sense of a public education service, giving our schools a common status, a common admissions policy and equitable funding. And we need a curriculum that emphasises creativity and innovation above the "Gradgrindery" that characterises most learning.

It sounds a tall order, yet 15 years ago we were close to achieving it. GCSE was ending the assumptions of in-built failure locked into the old two-tier examination system, and the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative was transforming learning for hitherto resentful students. Delegated budgets stimulated innovation - and sharply highlighted funding inequities everywhere. Curriculum review was in the air.

It was, in spite of everything, a time of optimism - and it laid the foundations for the huge increase in the number of students going on to higher education in the 1990s. We came closer then than we have ever been to resolving the in-built tension of the comprehensive system - that peculiarly English obsession with excellence at the top at the cost of quality right through.

As Brian Simon says in his concluding essay, comprehensive schools, overwhelmingly supported as they were by parents, were beginning to succeed. Which is, of course, why they have been so consistently caricatured, not just by the Conservatives but now, insidiously, by edu-business and New Labour. At the very least, it's time to put the record straight.

More urgently, it's time to recognise the destructive tension government policy is creating between selection by stealth and social inclusion. As more than one contributor to this book points out, the alternative to such a debate may prove to be a great deal worse.

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