Obviously I haven't seen the programme made by Andrew Neil, to which Nigel Ford refers on this site, but I have been involved in several debates with Andrew on the subject of selective education in the last decade and believe he is wrong in his belief that students from comprehensive schools will sink without trace in future generations of political leaders.
We shouldn't forget that the main push for comprehensive education only came in the late 60's /early seventies so the ' comprehensive generation' is only now feeding through into public life. There are several names one could add to those suggested by Nigel; Charles Kennedy and Danny Alexander, for example, Lib Dems who went to the same local comprehensive school in Scotland. I can also think of many younger MPs and political activists who went to comprehensive schools so I think this trend will continue.
In my various discussions with Andrew Neil on this subject, I have always found his theory - that there was once a ‘golden age’ when grammar schools reigned supreme, giving poor children ladders out of poverty and into the best universities - to be based largely on anecdotal evidence rather than hard facts which are as follows.
In 1959, at the height of the ‘golden age’.
- 9% of 16 year olds got five O levels
- More than a third of grammar school pupils only got 3 O levels.
- Fewer than 10 per cent of the population went to university and most came from professional or managerial homes.
- Most children were failed by the 11 plus test and sent to secondary modern schools where they couldn't take O levels or progress to the sixth form
Fast forward to today.
- Around two thirds of 16 year olds get five good GCSE’s.
- Almost 40 % of young people now go to university and, even though the gap in attainment and university access between children from the best and worse off homes is still too great, teenagers from the poorest homes are 50% more likely to go to university than they were 15 years ago.
State school access to Oxford and Cambridge is also frequently used as an example of falling standards in state schools. But contrary to popular, and media, myth the number of state school pupils getting into Oxford and Cambride has risen steadily since the 1960s, coinciding with a greater percentage of the population attending comprehensive schools. The evidence is presented clearly in a research note on Oxbridge elitism from the House of Commons library
- A survey for the Robbins Report in 1961 found that 34% of all students from Oxford and 27% at Cambridge came from state schools
- Rates of entry to both institutions from state schools had increased to more than 50% by the late 1990s.
- in 2008/9 57% of pupils at Cambridge and 53.4% of pupils at Oxford came from state schools.
- The acceptance rate for state schools pupils in 2008 was 25% at Cambridge and 26% at Oxford although varied by college.
- The acceptance rate for independent school pupils was 31% at both universities.
For a good dispassionate look at what schools were really like in the mythological golden age of elite education, read ‘State Schools since the 1950’s. The good news’
by former head teacher and Ofsted inspector Adrian Elliott or follow his excellent series
in the TES which also look at exams papers over the last few decades contests the notion that qualifications have been 'dumbed down'. While it is true that teachers have got much better at coaching pupils to pass exams, many of the old ‘O’ and ‘A’ level questions of yesteryear were much duller and less challenging than papers our children face today.
Overall the evidence seems clear. State schools are improving and giving greater opportunities to more young people, in contrast to the supposed ‘golden age’ when only an elite minority prospered at school. Comprehensive education has played a huge part in that process.
Clearly there are people who preferred it the old way and may well resent the opportunities presented to children other than their own. We need to make sure their hidden agenda to divide the system again, doesn't take hold again.