Time to celebrate the comprehensive ideal

Fiona Millar's picture
I spoke at an open meeting last night in North London, organised by the Labour Party, but with members and non members alike in the audience.  It was a good discussion about the policies of the last government, this government and the implications of the Academies Act and White Paper. There was a strong consensus about the need for a bigger political vision for education than any party is offering at the moment. One which revolves not just around standards but includes the role schools play in their local communities and which has at its heart the very positive message that we should be creating networks of good local schools, broadly similar and uniformly excellent, rather than expecting parents to choose between vastly different institutions when it comes to results, intake, facilities and curriculum.

Giving parents the confidence to choose their existing local schools should be a central message from government, rather than  what now appears to be a mission to increase parental anxiety by subtly implying that the local school isn't good enough so parents should be starting their own alternative provision.

There was some dismay about the last Labour government's reluctance to celebrate  comprehensive education, what it has achieved and what it can still achieve in the future. Very few people had read or heard the Shadow Education Minister Andy Burnham's recent speech on the comprehensive ideal, so I am linking to it here as I think it contains an important and positive message for future campaigning.

The principle that schools should, as far as possible, include children of all abilities , is one I hope we can hold on to. Remember that the alternative to a real comprehensive system ( which we don't yet have in this country) is a fully selective system. In spite of the myths peddled about the so called 'golden age ' of grammar schools, the divide at 11 failed many children, and most were from poorer backgrounds.

What we have now is a mish mash of comprehensive, secondary modern and selective schools. So let's hear it again for the comprehensive ideal and a 'revolution' that isn't yet finished!
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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/01/2011 - 10:35

Finland, the top-performing European country in the 2010 OECD PISA figures, is a fully-comprehensive system with an insignificant number of private schools. Mr Gove knows this. However, the only time he mentions Finland is to praise their teacher education programme. Teaching is a popular job choice in Finland because teachers are respected to the extent that teachers are trusted to monitor pupil progress. This monitoring is then used to decide what is the best educational programme for that child. There is a matriculation examination for school-leavers designed to show what each individual child can do, rather like GCSEs when they first began in 1987. The results of the internal monitoring are not used for League Tables and there is no appetite in Finland for the kind of testing regime which operates here and in the US.

There is much in Finland to admire, yet Mr Gove has picked on one aspect only and has ignored the rest because it doesn't fit with his prejudices.

For the recent OECD report on Finland, go to: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/34/44/46581035.pdf

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 20/01/2011 - 15:52

I think we must never lose sight of this ideal. Our schools need to be built upon "values" not specious "free-market" ideas. Above all, our schools must be inclusive, embracing the whole community, aiming to give a great education for everyone. We must acknowledge that there is a very strong element of implicit "education" when the children of the whole community comes together in a school; this ideal reaches beyond the academic and aims to have schools be the beacon for what our whole society should be about, inclusion not exclusion.

Nigel Ford's picture
Thu, 20/01/2011 - 17:46

A few points.

I'm a great supporter of comprehensive schools which were summed up well by Professor Robin Pedley in Andy Burnham's piece and Francis above. Credit to the work done by Tony Crosland and Caroline Benn leaving the mantle to be carried by Fiona and others.

But in the 13 years of Labour rule despite the astronomic rise in independent school fees which went up vastly in real terms the number of pupils enrolled at private schools marginally increased. Too many better off parents weren't won over by Blair's mantra "education, education, education."

Some parents considering the private route may be won over by Gove's rhetoric and policies on emphasising a more knowledge based curriculum which shouldn't be mistaken for support for the e bacc.

One thing I think that may deter parents of prospective private school pupils considering their local comp is if Andy Burnham or any advocate of comprehensive schools plays up the mixed ability aspect of teaching. Whatever the research says, I really think this is a vote loser apart from in humanity subjects and my own experience back in the 1970s when I suffered mixed ability teaching in French was not good.

I'm also a traditionalist on school uniform and think it has a beneficial effect on a school's image.

The comprehensive ideal is great so that kids are not divided on the basis of exam success or failure but if it seeks to win over more doubters I believe it has to adhere to some of the conservative ideals I've mentioned. The egalitarian or trendy ethos of comprehensive education should not be allowed to go too far.

Toby Young's picture
Sat, 22/01/2011 - 15:45

As always, I'm struck by how much common ground there is between us, Fiona. I, too, believe in the comprehensive ideal. I just think enabling parents and teachers to set up free schools is the best way to revive it.

This is a piece I've written for next week's Evening Standard, setting out this argument in more detail. All comments welcome.

Grammar Schools For All

By Toby Young

Most people think it can’t be done. An all ability secondary school that asks every child to learn Latin and study at least eight academic subjects up to the age of 16? Impossible. That expects every pupil to stay on in the sixth form and go on to have a fulfilling career? Absurd. That takes children from the very poorest backgrounds and gives them the confidence and ambition to take on the world? Stop dreaming.
I’m leading a campaign to set up a free school by over 1,500 parents and teachers in West London who think it can be done. We believe that any child, no matter what their ability, can access an academically demanding curriculum provided they’re taught in the right way. This requires a thorough knowledge of best practice, a familiarity with the latest academic research and a willingness to innovate and experiment. It requires a core of outstanding teachers, devoted to constantly improving their own and their pupils’ performance. Above all, it requires a renewal of faith in comprehensive education.
When comprehensives were first rolled out in the mid-60s, Harold Wilson described them as “grammar schools for all”. The idea was to preserve the standards that made our grammar schools the envy of the world while dispensing with the eleven plus. It was a grand experiment, fuelled by the optimism of the day. In the white heat of that technological revolution, anything seemed possible.
Today, that optimism has curdled. Subject knowledge has been replaced by “skills” and standards have given way to targets. Schools are now so obsessed with league tables that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are steered towards soft subjects in the belief that a GCSE in French or Biology is beyond them. Potential has been left untapped and social mobility has ground to a halt. There are some outstanding comprehensives out there – some of them in West London – but the average is pitifully low. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain’s schools are now ranked 23rd in the world, behind those of Poland, Latvia and Estonia.
The majority of parents and teachers have long been aware of this problem but there was little we could do about it. The state enjoyed a complete monopoly over taxpayer-funded education and who betide anyone who tried to take on the bureaucrats or the teaching unions.
But that changed with the election of this government. The Coalition has made it possible for parents and teachers to set up free schools, unleashing a wave of enthusiasts. In my group we have a retired headmaster, a former librarian and the governor of a local primary school – and that pattern is repeated in hundreds of groups up and down the country. Some people think our faith in the original comprehensive ideal is naïve, but we believe it’s only by reaching for the impossible that you discover what’s possible.
So far, our confidence hasn’t proved misplaced. In the past year, we’ve devised a curriculum, hired a headmaster and discovered a former school in Hammersmith that will make an ideal site. We opened for admissions last month and we’ve been flooded with applications from people across the social spectrum. When the West London Free School opens its doors in September, we hope it will serve as a beacon to parents and teachers everywhere, restoring their faith in all-ability schools.
Most people still think the idea of a “comprehensive grammar” is a contradiction in terms. We are determined to prove them wrong.

To find out more about the West London Free School, visit www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 22/01/2011 - 18:38

I am pleased you have finally seen the light when it comes to comprehensive education. Maybe we could interest you in supporting 'Comprehensive Future' which is campaigning to end the continuing use of the 11 plus in 25% of all education authorities. This test deprives others schools in those areas of a fully comprehensive intake and also discriminates against children from poorer families who can't afford the private tuition that is now rife in those areas.
This, and other devious forms of covert social and academic selection, is also the reason why many of the comprehensive schools that you condemn as failures, aren't really comprehensive at all, having had the most aspirant and able pupils, siphoned off into a variety of other neighbouring institutions.
Of course many comprehensive schools do allow young people to achieve a string of academic GCSEs - one reason why we are now sending so many young people to university that we can't afford to pay for them all. Your baleful description of our state school system is not one that I recognise in my local area.
However the point about comprehensive education is surely that it also offers a comprehensive curriculum and allows every pupil, regardless of background, to make the choices that are right for him or her. So while I also dislike the way some schools have inevitably, and I imagine reluctantly,chosen to degrade the curriculum in order to boost their league table positions, I am not sure that opening new schools which simply focus on a different but equally narrow range of subjects is the answer.
This, alongside the failure by successive governments to deal with the amount of selection we still have in our school system, will inevitably lead to us drifting back to the old two tier system by default.
No doubt this is what the Tory Party secretly wants.Some children will go to schools specialising in 'academic subjects' others to schools specialising in what are clearly now going to be seen as 'lower status' subjects, thanks to the EBac, while the truly comprehensive schools will struggle, in a difficult political environment to offer the broad curriculum to which all young people should be entitled.

Michael Keenan's picture
Sat, 22/01/2011 - 20:34

"Subject knowledge has been replaced by “skills” ..."

Does Mr. Young really think that knowledge of a subject (which one? Latin, Ballet, History?) will prepare a child or for the world of work, where subject knowledge usually takes second place to having a skill? Unless they are going to teach latin, become a ballerina or a historian, somewhere along the line children will need to be taught a skill which will allow them to read, to decode, to decipher, to use a computer, to speak to people, to listen to an opinion and maybe even to see both sides of an argument.
Narrow minded I'm afraid.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 08:34

Thoughts from the OECD re 21st century learning:

“The 21st century economy will need not only more skills but also new skills… creativity, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, curiosity, team-work, leadership, problem-solving”
What is needed is a “pedagogy of success” not a “pedagogy of failure” and “Selection may have been appropriate in educational systems aimed at producing relatively small elites, but is much less so in societies that need to develop all talents.”
“There is no question that state-of-the-art skills in particular disciplines will always remain important. However, educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations”

Mr Young's new school, about which he is obviously enthusiastic, may indeed, as he claims, be a truly comprehensive school. However, the provision of one school in one area does not address the inequality in educational provision in another. Mr Gove would argue that by becoming Academies or opening free schools, then schools can have freedom from a state-imposed curriculum, freedom to innovate etc and this would somehow beneft all children (although we must remember that selective schools that become Academies can remain selective). A far cheaper, and less divisive reform, would be to allow all schools that freedom.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 08:53

The OECD figures are trotted out everytime anyone wishes to criticise the UK education system. League tables don't give the whole picture, but I'll leave that argument for another day. However, anyone who quotes these figures should at least get them right (as Mr Gove will one day acknowledge).

Mr Young says that UK was behind Poland, Estonia and Latvia. This is supposed to give the impression that the state of education in the UK is truly shocking if those impoverished Eastern European countries did better than us. Actually, only two 'beat' us. Latvia was ranked below UK at 30. We 'beat' other European countries such as Portugal, Italy, Spain and Austria.

Rob Davies's picture
Sun, 23/01/2011 - 10:44

Standards in Education

I am having a real problem with the debate around standards in schools and the merit of skills or knowledge as a ideology for learning.

Anyone who suggests that school standards have fallen in the last 20 years is ignorant to the point of offence. School leaders, teachers and other professionals have been driving up the quality of what is happening on a day to day basis with relentless fervour. You can prove what you like with statistics, particularly international ones, but the fact more than half of all pupils now leave school with at least 5 good passes including English and maths has to reflect this. I have been lucky enough to have taught across the world and in state and private schools in the UK. Let me tell you that the dedication and commitment of UK state school teachers is rightly respected - everywhere but in the UK it seems.

So what about "soft" options that us heads use to inflate our league positions. All UK qualifications are ratified to be of a comparable standard. Just because they assess different aspects of intelligence or assess in a different way is missing the point. If you seek a plumber you don't ask them for an essay, you want evidence of practical ability and value for money. Assessment in practical subjects has to be the same.

Finally the debate about EB and subject such as Latin (oh, please!). Who are we building this curriculum around? Not the students - well not all of them. Every school has students who enjoy this style of subject, but to say that EB is a "rounded" education is nonsense. Surely by definition rounded would include a touch of all disciplines - theoretical, practical, creative... In fact this is what employers have been asking for. Young people who can make a difference is their organisation. I can't remember the last time I saw Latin as a requirement in a job ad.

So I am going to continue delivering a student centred curriculum that allows for personalisation and creativity. One with a strong core to provide essential skills, but one where the next Margot Fontaine can choose Dance, Drama and Music (Btec).

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