AS THE war over the retention of grammar schools hotted up, new research suggested that the pro-grammar campaigners were backing the wrong system, even for bright children.
David Jesson of York University's centre for performance evaluation and resource management told a Campaign for State Education seminar that able pupils did as well or better in comprehensive schools.
Using raw data from the Department for Education, he had compared the GCSE scores of comprehensive pupils with those of grammar-school pupils who had achieved the same standards in national curriculum tests in English, maths and science two years earlier. He found that the able and very able did better at comprehensives than at grammar schools, while the extremely able did just as well.
Professor Jesson also attacked the idea that grammar schools pulled up the standard for all pupils in an area. He had compared the results from two local education authorities with similar profiles, one with a selective system and one with a comprehensive system, and found that pupils in the comprehensive authority did better.
His comments came on the same day that Wandsworth in south London announced that it would take legal action to defend academic selection in its secondary schools.
As if to reinforce Professor Jesson's findings, news emerged this week that Abbeydale Grange school in Sheffield, the comprehensive whose deprived intake and social problems were documented in the recent Guardian series on education, had passed an inspection with flying colours. Among the areas singled out for praise were its flexible curriculum with particularly good provision for high achievers.
A total of 450 schools like Abbeydale Grange, in the most disadvantaged urban areas of Britain, are to get full-time trouble-shooters to help tackle pupils' problems and cut truancy, schools minister Estelle Morris announced this week.
She told a conference to launch the Government's anti-truancy strategy that the first 800 "learning mentors" will start work over the next two years. They will not teach, although most will be qualified teachers. The most hard-pressed schools will get two or three.
"Far too often we have said to teachers you have to teach, you aren't social workers," Ms Morris said. "But children can't learn until all of these problems have been dealt with."
The pound;35 million initiative is part of a range of policies aimed at cutting truancy by a third by 2002. If successful, it could be extended to all secondaries.
But are these schools simply reaping the harvest of soft parental discipline? Gary and Anne-Marie Ezzo, two American evangelists who addressed a London conference at the weekend, would probably say so.
The Ezzos, who have caused a furore by advocating regular physical punishment for small children, were greeted by banners with slogans such as "Sparing rods won't spoil kids."
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children condemned their views as "harmful". But a new poll suggested that the campaign led by the NSPCC and Barnardo's to make smacking illegal is not supported by most people. More than three out of four people think it reasonable to discipline a child with a smack, the NOP survey found. But only one in seven would let a teacher hit a child with a stick or ruler.