Sunday, July 31, 2005

What's gone wrong with comprehensives?

At the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth last year I went to a fringe meeting where one of the speakers was Steve Sinnott, the new general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Introducing him, the chair said that he was the first product of a comprehensive school to hold this post. From around the room there came little gasps of surprise and joy.

Comprehensives have been the major form of secondary education in Britain for 30 years or more. It should by now be utterly unremarkable for someone who attended one to gain an important, but not earth-shattering, job like Sinnott's. But it still seems a striking achievement, and that should tell us that something is going wrong.

Another anecdote. A few months ago Andrew Neil's TV programme This Week had Fiona Millar - Guardian columnist and Labour insider - on as a guest to talk about education. Neil, Michael Portillo and Dianne Abbott all agreed that in their youth grammar schools provided a ladder of opportunity that bright working-class children could climb in order to get better jobs than their parents had.

Neil said that in the 1960s he and his fellow grammar school products felt they were about to take over the world. Nowadays every young thruster he interviews for a job seems to have been to public school.

Fiona Millar sat through all this wearing the expression that Labour people always wear when they are forced to list with views they don't agree with. It is a mixture of disdain and martyrdom. She looked like St Sebastian discovering that the milk has gone off.

Millar contributed little to the discussion, but then there was little she could say because Neil and Co. were right. The widespread introduction of comprehensive education has led to a reduction in the opportunities open to bright working class children.

To understand how this has come about, read today's Observer column by Nick Cohen. He argues that the current system suits the middle classes very well. While defending the current system under the cover of anti-elitism, they can use their wealth to buy houses in the catchment areas of their best schools or use their contacts to talk their way into church schools.

Meanwhile, poor children - however bright - go to poor schools.

As Cohen writes:
40 years of comprehensives have left Britain a sclerotic society where parents' money matters more than a child's talent ... anti-elitist harangues from the upper middle class are the perfect cover for a system which suits it to a tee.
Oddly enough, Cohen's analysis is close to that of George Walden, the former Conservative minister. In his We Should Know Better: Solving the Education Crisis Walden argues that Britain is bedevilled by the class divide in education; and in The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses he argues that we are "governed by an elite of anti-elitists".

What is to be done? The problem we have is that many on the left are more interested in social equality than they are in educational excellence, and that support for comprehensive education is so deeply entrenched that questioning it is treated as something close to heresy. Many Liberal Democrats take much the same view.

The usual charge made against someone who commits this heresy is to accuse them of wanting to turn the clock back and return to the 1950s. That is silly - it is not possible to put the clock back even if you want to. And if comprehensive schools are not working as it was hoped they would, shouldn't we say so?

Walden's answer was to offer private schools - particularly the former direct grant schools - the opportunity to opt back into the state system in return for being allowed to choose which pupils they admitted. Cohen merely argues that:
this is a more class-ridden country than when the grammar schools were in place and ... Unless the brightest in the working class get an elite education the Today listeners will always win.
Elitism is the worst sin of all - and particularly feared because no one has ever defined exactly what it means - but there has always been an element of hypocrisy, not just about the overall comprehensive system, but within the schools themselves. In my day at least, the best comprehensives were usually rigorously streamed.

I suspect that the problem, as so often, lies in the socialist attempt to impose one system upon all children and all communities. Worse, almost every proposal to salvage the present system involves more centralisation and standardisation. People want to remove parental choice from the system or abolish church schools?

Why not let many different kinds of schools with different curriculums flourish? Those who complain that this will lead to a two-tier system should read this quotation from George Walden. We have a two tier system already.

With this in mind it was interesting to see Nicol Stephen, a Lib Dem MSP and minister for enterprise and life-long learning at Holyrood, calling for children to be allowed the option of going to college at the age of 14 to train for trades for which there is strong demand.

A second-class education for the proles? I don't think so. One of the problems with education is that those who run it, who enjoyed academic work themselves, assume that it is a pleasure for all and that anyone denied the opportunity to do it is being robbed.

The reality is different. As Stephen says:
"I have seen children who are bullied and unhappy in the school environment who have been transformed by college where they have become motivated and want to learn, maybe in plumbing or electrical work. There are few young people who do not want a worthwhile job, they just need the chance to develop."
There is a need for new thinking in education: a need to go beyond the unthinking defence of the comprehensive principle. And the Liberal Democrats should be leading it.


Bishop Hill said...

Excellent post.

Is there a real possibility that the LDs might adopt education vouchers as policy? It would certainly win the party a lot of votes from Tory waverers, although presumably at the cost of losing some of the Labour votes won at the last election.

Oh, and you need to check the first of the links to George Walden's books. They're both pointing at the same page.

Anonymous said...

There is a contrasting article here

The basic argument is that social mobility has been drying up anyway - the middle class got as big as it was going to get. I prefer the Finnish system personally. Small local schools taking children through to 14. Great diversity thereafter.


Anonymous said...

More than of my graduate, fortyish, friends have said that if they had known about life at 15 what they know now, they wouldn't have bothered with university, but have gone out and got an apprenticeship in eg plumbing.
I know someone, a left-winger from the valleys of South Wales, who taught for many years in a grammar school. He says that when it became comp. in the 70s, a decline in quality was evident.

R Hale

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I have to admit there is a big problem. I'm still not convinced the solution is a return to Grammar Schools though (speaking as a grammar school boy myself). The main problem, that people can simply move into catchment areas of their choosing, would remain. The only difference would be that the catchment areas would be larger and that richer families simply pay for private tuition to coach their kids through the 11-plus. That was the reality of a lot of the kids I went to school with.

I still think there is something in the idea for a UCAS style lottery admissions policy for all. People could choose whatever school they wanted, but would be subject to a lottery which would completely ignore ability or geography. It seems to me to be the least unfair system (although I admit there would be a potential problem in rural areas).

I agree there should be an open debate about all this. I'm just not quite ready to accept yet that we must go backwards 50 years in order to go forwards.

Liberal Neil said...

I think your (and Nick Cohen's) arguments are based on the wrong premise.

You have looked at reduced social mobility on the one hand, and at the change to Comprehensive schooling on the other, ad concluded that the latter has had a causal effect on the former. I see little evidence to support this.

What evidence is there that the Grammar Schools actually enabled significant numbers of 'bright working class kids' to move up through the system? Or that educational achievement was any better across the board?

Isn't the ability of middle class families to move into catchment areas for the best schools more a reflection of the general polarisation of communities in the past few decades as people live further ans further away from where they work?

Looking at people I know from a similar background to myself (state primary school, comprehensive secondary school, northern, working/lower middle class background) I see plenty of social mobility. Most of my contemporaries were the first of their families to go to Universities. Amongst my group of associates from a broadly similar background to myself are a number of MPs, senior lawyers, scientists and a best selling author with her sixth book in the bestsellers list.

In my experience Comprehensive education can be first rate. It can and should be designed to give every child the opportunity to fulfil their potential and many schools do just that.

Does splitting children into two categories at age 11 really achieve this?

The perception of Comprehensive schools - particularly by those such as Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo, Dianne Abbott and others in the media who never actually went to one - is way off the mark as far as I can see.

I also accept that there are bad Comprehensive schools. And secondary schools have also been straightjacketed by endless Government dictat too. But there will be bad schools in any system.

The other real benefit of Comprehensive schools is that they should serve a local community. This can help build community cohesion and, obviously, reduces the overal need to travel.

Much is made of 'choice'. I can see that choice might make sense in a large urban setting. In rural and suburban areas however it usually means that those with the means to travel can excrecise a choice and the rest can't. It typically enables pupils from good homes to fill up the best schools and the weaker schools to sink further behind. And it creates lots of extra traffic.

If everybody went to their local Comprehensive - and the effort that goes into inspections and league tables went into promting and sharing best practice - the overall impact would be to raise standrads across the board.


Simon Titley said...

Nowhere in this discussion has anyone extolled the virtues of the secondary modern. This is the obverse of grammar schools that no-one seems prepared even to mention, let alone discuss.

Under the old selective system, at least 75% of state-educated children went to secondary moderns. Anyone advocating a return to the '11-plus' ought to devote at least as much time to justifying secondary moderns as they do to grammar schools.

It is forgotten that the political pressure for the comprehensive system originated with middle class parents whose offspring failed the 11-plus. Whether one passed or failed this exam was partly a function of the number of school places. Typically, a local education authority had grammar school places for only between 12% and 25% of all children, so a child placed at about, say, 20th out of 100 would have had his future determined by this factor more than any other.

As the middle classes expanded during the 1960s, more and more middle class parents found their children allocated to the local secondary modern. With obvious political consequences.

It is also noteworthy that those counties (such as Kent and Lincolnshire) that have persisted with selection at 11 have achieved generally worse examination results than counties with comprehensive systems.

I don't believe that comprehensives are perfect but I think we should be wary of assuming that the '11-plus' system represents some lost idyll.

We need some creative thinking but I fear that, no matter what system or systems we choose, the English would find a way of imposing some form of class prejudice on it.

Bishop Hill said...

There appears to be an assumption in some of the responses on this thread (but not in the original post) that the options open to us are to reintroduce grammar/secmod schools or to keep the status quo. This seems to me to be a rather old-fashioned top-down approach to the problems of secondary education. The point in the original post was that we should "let many different kinds of schools with different curriculums flourish". It specifically stated that we can't go back fifty years to try to recreate the status quo ante.

Surely the experience of the last century a state bureaucracy is not a suitable system for running anything very much. It is systemically incapable of responding to consumer needs because there is no economic incentive to respond. Whether the system is split into grammars or comps or secondary mods is irrelevant. If the economic incentives are wrong you are flogging a dead horse.

Liberalise (!) the education system, and let different people find out what works best.

Anonymous said...

A thought has been nagging me for the last couple of days. This applause for someone being a comp schoolboy is as much as anything a sympton of the terribly middle class crowd you get at Lib Dem party conferences, is it not? All sorts of people went to comps - J K Rowling comes to mind (I know her books are full of cliches, but so are many others.
Acouple of years ago the England cricket team were full of ex-public schoolboys. Lately they have moved to being dominated by people from state schools. It doesn´t necessarily mean anything at all.


Iain Sharpe said...

I agree with Liberal Neil. We shouldn't romanticise grammar schools, which were divisive nor underestimate the effects on people of failing their 11 plus.

If there is a problem, it is around so-called 'sink schools' which end up not being real comprehensives with a balanced intake, but where there is a lack of academically-inclined children. This then means that some parents become reluctant to send their children to such schools and a vicious circle begins.

This is a problem we have to think creatively about, but bringing back grammar schools is not the answer.

For what it's worth, I attended an independent school followed by an FE college and ended up with very similar qualifications to my younger sister who attended a comprehensive school.

Iain Sharpe said...

Oh, except I don't totally agree with Neil's criticism of choice. It is not a panacea, but we should avoid rubbishing it. "Liberals against Choice" is an odd slogan!

Liberal Neil said...

Hi Iain! I agree that we have to be careful about not being seen as 'anti-choice' for the sake of it. My key point is that we should challenge the assumptions that 'choice' as it exists in the school system either a) improves standards, or b) actually offers much real choice to many people. Realities such as the physical limitations of school sites and geography mean that there is very little real choice, and where there is, it is usually at the expense of someone else.

Where there should be a lot more choice is for individuals, guided by parents and teachers as appropriate, to be able to choose what they do at school so that they recieve an education/training suitable to them and to help them fulfil their potential.

This is no hader to acheive in comprehensive school than in any other system. The grammar/secondary modern split might even make it harder to achieve.

Bishop Hill said...

Liberal Neil's argument that choice is about allowing people a greater range of courses is to miss the point.

Unless consumers of education have the right to take their custom elsewhere the whip hand will remain with the producer and there will be no impetus to change. Choice means breaking up the monopoly of state provision so that consumers are empowered. Surely monopoly provision of anything is the antithesis of liberalism?

The point about rural areas is also, I think, wrong. I live in a rural area, with a single secondary school. The state has dictated that this is what they will provide. There is no reason at all why there should not be two smaller schools competing with each other.

Liberal Neil said...

Great in theory but does it work in practice?

Such 'choice' as has been provided in the sytem hasn't had the effect it was meant to.

And the theory ignores the serious practicalities around closing and opening schools.

And it assumes that 'consumers' have the informatiom they need to make informed choices, which is incredibly difficult to achieve in education.

The suggestion about having two schools rather than one in a rural area is intersting. But all the evidence is that secondary schools need to be a reasonable size in order to be able to provide a reasonable breadth of curriculum. In any event is two schools really much of a choice?

The theory also ignores the motivation of those in the teaching profession. It assumes that heads and teachers are motivated by the same factors as businesses - a will to expand, gain market share etc. In fact many heads and teachers are motivated by doing the best they can to provide a good rounded education.

You can count how many widgets each widget factory produces. It is far, far harder to measure good quality education.

Bishop Hill said...

Neil - a line by line response to your comments:

"Such 'choice' as has been provided in the sytem hasn't had the effect it was meant to."

Well, no. Good schools are not allowed to expand. Bad ones rarely close. There is still a single monopoly provider. That's not much of a choice is it?

"And the theory ignores the serious practicalities around closing and opening schools"

They seem to manage in the private sector though don't they? The state also opens and closes schools.

"And it assumes that 'consumers' have the informatiom they need to make informed choices, which is incredibly difficult to achieve in education."

Very quickly you would get providers of information filling this gap: "Which School Magazine" and so on.

The suggestion about having two schools rather than one in a rural area is intersting. But all the evidence is that secondary schools need to be a reasonable size in order to be able to provide a reasonable breadth of curriculum. In any event is two schools really much of a choice?

All the evidence? Examples please. My local school has a roll of 900 odd. Two schools of 450 would be fine. There are plenty of schools with a roll that size. I heard a radio programme which mentioned the primary school in, I think, Newcastle-upon-Clun which is apparently one of the best in the country as well as one of the smallest. I also heard a suggestion from a LibDem blogger that schools should become something like events venues, where visiting lecturers gave courses on desired subjects. The size thing is a red herring. Oh, and two schools is a choice. One school is a monopoly. That is 100 percent more choice.

"The theory also ignores the motivation of those in the teaching profession. It assumes that heads and teachers are motivated by the same factors as businesses - a will to expand, gain market share etc. In fact many heads and teachers are motivated by doing the best they can to provide a good rounded education."

This is the kind of thinking one expects from the Labour party! A business will not be able to expand or gain market share unless it provides a good rounded education!!

"You can count how many widgets each widget factory produces. It is far, far harder to measure good quality education."

You are conflating quality with quantity. A widget factory which produces poor quality widgets will go bust. Try applying the same argument you make here to food: "You can count how many widgets a widget factory produces. It is far far harder to measure a good quality restaurant." Are you arguing for a state monopoly in hot food provision? A night out at the state-run canteen? Yummy!

Anonymous said...

The problem is all down to monopoly provision. Monopolies are always bad, schooling is no different. The best way to ensure people have a choice is to follow a system like that in Sweden in which all children are provided with education vouchers to be spent at the school of their parent's choice.

That way a bad school will attract competition and have to improve - or go under. And the decision would be in the hands of the parents and their children, not some government official.

I attended a Comprehensive School, and my children will. But I'm lucky enough to live in a decent catchment area. Our local comprehensive has something like 1600 pupils - we could easily accomodate 3 or 4 competing schools.

Incidentally, there were supposed to be 3 classes of school: Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern. For some reason very few of Technical Schools were built, and their pupils ended up at Secondary Moderns instead. (My old comprehensive was originally a Technical School).

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts:

- on Technical Schools: money, as ever, was the problem. very expensive to equip a tehnical school properly.

- Independent vs Comp schools: where the Indy sector "works" is in the peripherals: extra-curicular activities, networking of former pupils, confidence (arrogance) engendered by being told form an early age you are "better" than those in ths state system, smaller class sizes, better facilities (I could go on)

Anonymous said...

This would be so much easier if you enabled trackback...