Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Comprehensives and academic education

A couple of weeks ago, as the A level results came out, I argued that the common prejudice that those exams are getting easier is right, but that - paradoxically - this is making things harder for the young people who are taking them. It means that they are having to work that much harder to excel and have less time to read outside the curriculum.

This view is supported in a Comment is Free piece today by Professor John Mullan from University College London. He writes:
Like many English departments, mine requires applicants to have an A in English A-level. Most of the undergraduates I teach have achieved three A's at A-level. They are clever and diligent; quite a few seem to have a love of literature. Yet plenty of them have never been stretched intellectually, never been encouraged to venture beyond the little paddock of the A-level syllabus.
Sadly, those who have ventured beyond that paddock tend to come from private or selective schools:
there is such a thing as a good academic education, valuable in itself, and ... the candidate from a comprehensive is less likely to have had it.
He also goes on to make an important point about the supporters of comprehensive education:
Those who "believe in" comprehensive schools (as if it were a religious matter) put a high value on the social mixing found in such schools. This is indeed a good thing, found little in selective schools and not at all in private ones. But it is just one of the good things that a good school should teach. Please stop making this value predominate over all others.
I don't know if a belief in comprehensive education quite has the status of a religious belief, but those who hold it do often talk of being "committed to" comprehensives in a way that suggests the belief goes beyond any available evidence. He is also right to say that while mixing social classes is a good thing, it is not the only good in education.

Mullan's solution is to introduce streaming and setting into comprehensives, but is life that simple?

My experience of the comprehensive system - which was admittedly a long time ago now - was the schools were streamed to such an extent that the comprehensive ideal was already compromised.

Have things changed that much in the interim? Are streaming and setting really such novel ideas today?

1 comment:

Richard Gadsden said...

The point that is often missed in advocacy of streaming and setting in comprehensive schools is that even in the largest school, the highest stream is unlikely to represent more than 10% of the intake; 20-25 (4-5 streams) is more common.

In a selective school, the whole school comprises essentially the same academic range as the top stream of a comprehensive - and selective schools can and do set and stream too.

If we're looking at AAA students, then we're talking about the top 5% or so - which means the top set of a selective school. That's a far narrower group than any realistically-sized comprehensive can ever offer. If the proposal is to merge 6-8 comprehensives together to build schools big enough to get such a stream/set, then that needs to be explicitly stated.