When excessive choice means the death of equity;Another voice;Opinion

Michael Austin

ALL THE TALK in the pavement cafes in Accrington in recent weeks has been of the series of articles in the Guardian which analysed the reasons for the death of the comprehensive school ideal, notably in Sheffield. The remorseless catalogue of political thuggery, regressive and vicious funding rules, and the commandeering of lifeboat seats by the articulate middle classes made depressing reading.

The articles, and the subsequent correspondence, clearly showed that the problems of an under-educated, disillusioned and potentially destructive section of the population were rooted in the poverty both of the family and of the school. The indifference of socially-deprived parents towards the attendance and achievement of their children has certainly been a reflection and perhaps a consequence of the cynical neglect by politicians, both local and national, of a cohort whose life chances they have been prepared to write off.

As they blew the froth off their coffee, some of the deeper thinkers wondered aloud what happened to those lost generations of young people with minimal self-esteem and no prospects to speak of. The answer, of course, is that they are now being recruited in shoals into the country's colleges. Or at least that is the idea.

For all the right social reasons, in the cause of combating exclusion, and in the name of widening participation, colleges are being cajoled and modestly bribed to reach out to the disaffected. This is work we recognise as our responsibility, and we are happy to do it, I think, but we are being expected to recreate comprehensive education post-16.

"Something appropriate for everyone" must be our claim, a truly inclusive and welcoming curriculum our aim. But if the author of the Guardian articles is right to say that comprehensive schools were slyly sabotaged by parental choice and a conniving government, what chance have comprehensive colleges got? Or is it already too late?

Sixth-form colleges were never expected to be comprehensive. Their restricted, niche curriculum of A-levels and the politer national vocational qualifications is understood and respected. They will continue, sometimes reluctantly, to be the bolthole for the sons and daughters of the new educational gentry. Not only will there be no welders or hairdressers to tempt Nigel or Samantha to err, but there will certainly be none of those really rough types who truanted from school and whose inadequate parents live on those unsavoury estates.

Other colleges are already taking in some of the dysfunctional Year 10 or 11 pupils from local secondary schools on to pre-vocational courses. The schools are happy to see the back of them, because their non-performance in GCSE would drag them down in the league tables and risk alienating sensitive parents.

Colleges also have league tables and recruitment targets to meet. Fear of missing a target and therefore losing funding, as well as obedience to government wishes, will drive colleges to take on in greater numbers exactly the kind of student who will pull down their achievement rates, and their local reputation.

In turn this will cause potential students and their parents and, who knows, their careers teachers too, to look for safer berths in the cosy curriculum of the nearest selective sixth form. So the cycle of decline gathers pace. That's exactly what happened in Sheffield's comprehensives, where the sought-after escape route was into a well-appointed school in the affluent suburbs.

You cannot, of course, legislate for attitudes. In the end, choice kills equity. In the early days of tertiary colleges, nearly 30 years ago now, the rhetoric was of a comprehensive curriculum set out like the tempting stalls in a covered market. Not only was all the produce of high quality, but it was possible to select precisely what you wanted from as few or as many stalls as you wanted.

That was genuine choice, uncorrupted by any need to choose between institutions. Everything you could want was there, on offer in one college. It did not work out like that. Many tertiary colleges have found that they had to choose between two conflicting curriculum profiles.

Some made great play of specialising in A-levels, and did little to develop courses at the dirty end of the spectrum (engineering and construction were particularly neglected). These colleges have essentially become sixth-form colleges with a few exotic and acceptable vocational knobs on. Middle-class parents love them.

Other tertiary colleges promoted a more genuine comprehensive approach, emphasised alternative routes to A-level as having equal status, and went out of their way to attract adult students. Many in this group have seen A-level students drift away to other institutions.

We have to decide what it is that we do. We are not believed when we say that we can cover the needs of every student. Without that public confidence we fail. Look what happened in Sheffield.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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