We need help to help each other
When he launched his interim report on 14 to 19 qualifications earlier this year, Mike Tomlinson argued that so complex were the needs of learners, society's demands and the challenges facing schools, we should recognise that no individual school was capable of meeting the learning needs of all its students.
This is a powerful insight from which a great deal flows. It means recognising that schools have to function as part of a network of local learning providers, social care organisations and employers. It means individual schools trading institutional autonomy for the needs of students at a time of increasingly complex learning and employment demands. Why, then, does this view seem to have been ignored by the Department for Education and Skill in its new five-year strategy for children and learners?
The Government offers a vision of "independent specialist" schools flexing their independence as autonomous organisations, operating freely in the educational marketplace, varying salaries for staff, raising loans against their capital to finance unplanned local expansion, providing traded services to other schools and developing their distinctiveness.
Any sense of a local education service providing comprehensive education for all appears to be abandoned. Without piloting, without public consultation, without apparent estimate of the economic costs or social impacts, the DfES proposes a wholesale restructuring of secondary education. There is a strong suspicion that the production of the strategy document was over-dependent on the prejudices of the No 10 policy unit, a few maverick outsiders, and the desire to grab "end of comprehensive schools" headlines in the Daily Mail.
The Government's plan for secondary education envisages 5,000 autonomous schools making decisions about their priorities, ethos, organisation and provision. There will be presumptions in favour of new school sixth forms, local expansion and greater specialisation.
The document is awash with the language of choice (the word appears 96 times), independence (47 times), freedom (26 times) and opportunities (57 times), and almost devoid of the language of community or responsibility.
The difficulty with this vision is that it is at odds with almost everything we know about the way school systems work effectively: change depends on local co-ordination as well as individual initiative, on recognising that education is one of a number of instruments of social policy and that individual schools, however effective, are rarely equally successful across all their operations. The rapid - untested - expansion of the absurdly expensive city academy programme will have consequences not just for pupils lucky enough to secure places in lavishly sponsored academies but on the schools near them from which well-motivated pupils will be drained.
The specialist schools that develop new sixth forms will narrow curricula and choice in the sixth-form colleges or school sixth forms from which they attract pupils. The expansion of popular schools will make it more, not less, difficult to raise standards in schools facing difficulties. The plans lock into secondary education inefficient surplus capacity.
The disappointment of this vision is that it had seemed that we were moving to a quite different model of secondary education: a model in which schools, each with distinctive climates and specialisms, had a core responsibility to co-operate to provide for all learners, collaborating sometimes with each other, sometimes with external services and sometimes with employers.
Effective co-operation, brokered outside schools, is the only way to help schools meet the needs of the most demanding learners. Co-operation is often difficult. To work effectively, it involves pooling independence, sacrificing autonomy and putting learners first. At its best, co-operation produces a model of an interdependent educational system, not an independent one. It recognises that schools, as social institutions, have a primary responsibility to focus on the excluded and the underprivileged, who are the most challenging to teach and require the greatest input of pooled resources.
Two cycles of education authority inspections by the Office for Standards in Education have shown that effective local education authorities, working in partnership with schools of different ethos and character, remain the most efficient way of brokering these relationships. Wherever the decision was made to brief the national press to run headlines declaring the end of comprehensive education, it was ill-informed and short-sighted: over 30 years, comprehensive schools have raised standards, aspirations and expectations across the entire country.
All benefit socially, and the vast majority also benefit academically. Over the past 15 years, comprehensive schools have raised the proportion of students gaining five A* to C grade GCSEs from 35 per cent to 50 per cent.
Comprehensives have transformed achievement and aspirations in rural communities. There remain huge difficulties for schools in urban areas, but here above all else success depends on building collaboration over curriculum, staffing and budgeting to combat the problems arising from seriously skewed intakes and appalling staff recruitment difficulties.
The ingenuity and imagination of teachers and schools which are celebrated in the Government's strategy are essential components of successful schooling. But they are far from sufficient. In place of independent schools pupils need interdependent schools. In place of individual autonomy they need collaboration. In place of a vision of individual schools, they need a vision of a comprehensive education service.
Professor Chris Husbands is dean of education and lifelong learning at the University of East Anglia Letters 18, Ted Wragg back page