The grammar versus comprehensive war is almost over, but state education has a new set of battles to fight
I hugely enjoyed my schooling at a London comprehensive in the 1970s, and my teenage daughters love their mixed, inner-city school.
All our children should be educated together, not divided by social class or ethnic background, religion or so-called academic ability. It has been cheering to watch how the comprehensive principle - and practice - has developed and improved over the decades.
Even so, pro-comprehensive campaigners like myself are often presented as a kind of exotic bird, promoting a minority passion in the face of mainstream incredulity, if not downright hostility.
It’s rather puzzling, given that so few voices at national level call for the reinstatement of the 11-plus and none at all for the return of the blighted secondary modern. Yet during the recent riots, many in the right- leaning press were quick to blame the mayhem in our streets on comprehensive schooling.
For my new book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education, I unearthed a few answers to this long-running conundrum.
From the mid-1960s onwards, grammar schools were swept away with popular parental consent. In their place, a more optimistic idea held sway: that all children could benefit from a broad and balanced education in well- resourced neighbourhood-based schools. It still sounds like a pretty good idea.
Yet comprehensives have been consistently undermined since by a mix of ambivalent government policy, parental nervousness - particularly in big cities - and media hostility. As a result, selection in our system has intensified, not reduced, creating an over-complex, hierarchical and rather typically English mess. And it’s about to get a lot worse.
We are now at a significant moment in the history of state education. The old war between the pro-grammar and comprehensive lobby is more or less dead. We are into a new set of skirmishes within our state system - about more subtle forms of social, ethnic and faith segregation, democratic accountability, and the growing role of the private sector and potentially profit-making groups.
Everyone, from right to left, now asserts the need for “a good local school for all”. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Coalition supporters say that “parents just want a great local school for their kids”. It’s that “just” that makes my skin prickle, as if this was a fresh idea dreamed up by privately educated policy wonks, rather than the result of a long struggle by comprehensive campaigners.
However, it is equally clear that educational elitism, or at least expressing it in public, is now a lost cause. Politicians and others must now speak the language of fairness to appear credible. That’s progress of a sort.
The less attractive truth is that Michael Gove and co are counterfeit radicals. They appear to champion all-ability, cross-class schools, particularly with the free-school model, yet see no contradiction between that and their stubborn defence of the more elite private, grammar and socially selective faith sectors.
Since 2010, the Coalition has consistently run down the achievements of many state schools, particularly those of a community or comprehensive character, largely on the grounds that these have let down less-advantaged children.
It’s a spurious charge on at least two counts.
Yes, not enough of our poorest children get into top universities, but let’s be honest about the true reasons. Poverty plays a big part in holding children back, as does an educational system that puts a rocket under the social mobility of the already highly privileged. Within a successful comprehensive, raw ability combined with sheer hard work will always win out over simple social privilege.
The second unpalatable truth is that Mr Gove’s “quiet revolution” has essentially shifted taxpayers’ money from the most needy to the relatively advantaged in a remarkably short space of time. Revenue handed to the new free schools and “conversion academies” has meant cuts across the board to those institutions serving the most vulnerable.
The Government also helps free schools and “conversion academies” to pull ahead by granting them short-term advantages in terms of admissions, curriculum and teaching freedoms. It is frankly irresponsible of the Government to introduce such divisive and deep structural reform at a time of national economic stringency, with no guarantee that new schools will work better than the schools they undermine and may eventually replace.
What would a genuinely comprehensive system look like in 2011? We could start by improving the schools that serve the majority of families, most of whom, surveys show, are largely happy with their children’s education. Part of that slow, steady change would involve the phasing out of all forms of selection, in order to help create genuinely mixed, high-quality comprehensive schools.
We have learnt a lot about what makes comprehensives successful since I was at school more than 30 years ago. Key is the presence of a high- attaining group in every school. That, and a number of clear measures to truly engage pupils and improve behaviour. Certainly, schools in the most challenging circumstances need to have the smallest classes, the best teachers and first-class resources.
International evidence shows that the most successful comprehensive systems offer all pupils a broad curriculum, including academic and vocational provision, with specialisation delayed until later in adolescence.
As for school accountability, we can learn from countries where assessment is more pupil-centred, concerned with quality of work rather than gearing everything to misleading league tables. In Finland and Alberta, Canada, teachers are not only highly trained, but enjoy constant feedback and discussion and far greater freedoms in terms of teaching itself.
Sadly, we are far from adopting these measures. Instead, we face years of dealing with fallout from the Government’s ill-thought-out reforms. Destroying - not supporting - local authority involvement, de-skilling our teachers, and setting up rival institutions that will undermine our most fragile schools can only take us backwards. What a pity, when we all agree that “every parent just wants a good local school for their kids”.
Melissa Benn is a writer, journalist and campaigner. Her book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education, is published by Verso on 5 September.