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What now for inner London?

Peter Newsam suggests that schools in the UK's capital need to pit themselves against those of the world's other great cities. In a recent article (TES, March 22) I argued that secondary education in inner London remained both diverse and highly selective. To illustrate the point I divided the 151 schools into four main types: selective fee-paying, fully comprehensive, secondary modern and, hovering between the last two and liable to move either way, "other". The schools were divided by the nature of their intakes rather than by the names on their notepaper.

Of the schools identified in this way, about half - the selective independents and the fully comprehensive ones - are doing well to considerable parental satisfaction. So too are a number of the others, but there is a long tail of schools on which it will prove extraordinarily difficult to build the improved 14-19 arrangements envisaged in Sir Ron Dearing's latest report. How, I asked, could matters be improved?

Answering that question requires some ground-clearing. First, it has to be recognised that the problems London faces are specific to London and to one or two other large cities. Such problems have little relevance to what is happening elsewhere. In most parts of the country, comprehensives are unaffected by nearby selective schools, public or private, and the claim that these schools are somehow "failing" is misplaced.

The second point to recognise is that the four vertical routes into inner London's secondary schools, taking those who enter them to predictably different destinations, constitute a structural problem. All schools can and should improve but the gap between schools where 99 per cent or so of an age group obtain five-plus A-C GCSEs and those at which fewer than 10 per cent do so cannot be bridged by each group improving on what it is doing at present. The gaps and public perception of them are too wide for that.

Third, it needs to be recognised that the underlying structural problem of secondary education in inner London and some other cities is compounded by the part played, quite unintentionally, by the selective independent schools. The London age-group has approximately halved in the past 20 years but the number of places in the independent schools that select by exam has stayed about the same. So the proportion of the age-group going to these schools has doubled to some 10 per cent or, to put it another way, is now 40 per cent of the top 25 per cent of the ability range.

The far-reaching educational, social, economic and ultimately political consequences of these schools, which include some of the highest performing schools in Europe, have been repeatedly pointed out by George Walden MP and by others, such as Will Hutton, Roy Hattersley and John Gray.

Identifying the structural problem of London is one thing; finding solutions to it quite another. For example, there are at least six approaches sometimes suggested to the inter-related problems of standards and structure, as these relate to urban secondary education, which either leave things as they are or make matters worse:

* straightforward denial: pretending that structure can be divorced from standards, ignoring the former and concentrating all efforts on the latter; * persuading some selective fee-paying schools to become publicly-maintained. This would prove an expensive way of leaving things roughly as they are;

* encouraging more selection into a few of the best comprehensive schools, adding to the number of assisted places at independent schools, even re-creating some grammar schools. Measures of this kind would simply push a number of hard to manage "other" schools into becoming almost impossible to manage secondary moderns. The Bronx is already hovering on the edge of some parts of inner London so there is no need to encourage it;

* altering the national curriculum or devising yet more rigorous and time-consuming testing or inspection systems. There is little evidence that the differences between school outcomes has anything much to do with differences in curriculum or the way in which it is assessed;

* concentrating on, attacking and finally closing a few of the schools I have described as "other" or secondary modern and then seeking to re-open them with fresh and better teachers assumed, at a time of increasing teacher shortage, to be standing idly by waiting for the call;

* threatening or attempting to coerce the selective independent schools. The likelihood is that, almost without exception, these would wish to help improve matters if ways could be found of enabling them to do this which preserved and preferably enhanced the quality of education the best of them now offer.

If suggestions of this kind are unpromising, what is to be done?

The essential first step would be for all the schools concerned, maintained or independent, to ask themselves a new question instead of the usual and, in its context, quite proper question of "what is best for our school?" Without threat or commitment to action, the question to be explored might be formulated as "what can our school do, in association with others, to ensure that, within 10 years, the quality of secondary education in inner London is at least as good and preferably better than anything that will be on offer in Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo or elsewhere?" Only if a question of that nature be asked, is there some prospect of an answer being found to inner London's educational problems. It is to possible responses to that question that I will turn in my next article.

Sir Peter Newsam is a former education officer of the Inner London Education Authority.

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