Let’s begin with a wee quiz.
What do the Today programme’s latest presenter Evan Davies, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, his brother and fellow government minister Ed Miliband, the novelist Zoe Heller have in common with yours truly? Is it that we are all passionate Manchester United fans? Or is it that we are all ardent Coronation Street watchers? Or how about we all holiday in Aberdovey? Actually it is none of these. The simple answer is this - we are all products of the comprehensive system of schooling.
Our parents all took the bold decision to become part of the solution, rather than seeking to be part of the problem when they decided to send us to the local school. There is only one factor more powerful than a pupil’s social background as a predictor of her/his future academic performance at sixteen and that is the average social background of other pupils in her/his school. Since comprehensive education was introduced barriers to achievement for many young people have been removed. The annual government statistics of school attainment, examination results, and participation in further and higher education offer clear evidence of a 'levelling-up' over the last 30 years.
In some areas of England it is reasonable to regard comprehensive schooling not as a 'failed experiment' but as an experiment that has not yet been tried (Hackney being a good example). In 2007 well over half of all 15-16 year olds in maintained schools in England achieved 5+ 'higher passes' at the end of compulsory schooling. This is the hurdle set in the past for only those attending grammar schools, one which many, even of that selected minority, failed to surmount. In 1970, nearly half of all of pupils left secondary school with no qualifications; in 2007 that figure was down to 3%. In 1971-72 14% of under-21 year olds entered higher education, in 2005-2006 43% entered. Over a third of the age group entering higher education is an aim which would have seemed impossibly ambitious a generation ago. Given that expenditure on education did not increase in real terms between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s this remarkable increase in productivity as measured by qualifications is attributable, in large part to the promotion of the comprehensive system.
I often hear some of my friends and "comrades" attempting to ease their conscience by announcing that the local comprehensive school is simply not good enough and then seek to justify their decision to go private in the name of parental responsibility. It is also the case that because so many of these parents work in the media (or are in government) there is little political mileage in calling for the reform of private schools and more equal access to universities. Those who do have influence, those who have a "voice" in our society have such a high stake in the current order they will seek to mobilise and organise in order protect it. The sad truth is that when middle-class parents abandon the comprehensive state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs.
There are plenty of other talented and successful Evans, Davids, Eds and Zoes out there and many of them have their local comprehensive school to thank for helping them achieve what they have.