Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In praise of comprehensive schools

Let’s begin with a little quiz.What do the Today programme presenter Evan Davies, Ed Miliband, his brother and David Miliband, the BBC Business Editor Robert Peston, novelist Zoe Heller and Labour List editor Alex Smith 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 the south of France? Actually it is none of these. The simple answer is this - we are all products of the comprehensive system of schooling.

Years ago 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 state comprehensive 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 2009 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 2009 that figure was down to 2%. In 1971-72 14% of under-21 year olds entered higher education, in 2007-2008 45% 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, Robert, Alex and Zoes out there and many of them have their local comprehensive school to thank for helping them achieve what they have.


Julian said...

I live half way between two comprehensive schools. One is a beacon school and excellent. The other is a dump. You may well be right that the reason for this is "average social background" of the pupils in each school. Parents who can, move to the catchment area of the better school. Others choose private education.

Comprehensive education has obviously not been the answer where I live. It could only be made to work by bussing all children to a random school within a 20 mile radius. Is that the answer?

I'd be interested to know if Davies, the Milibands, Peston, Heller, Smith and you went to a good comprehensive where the average social background of the other children was high. If so, that seems to me to damn the comprehensive system as a lottery that depends on whether parents can afford to live near a good school. Many can't.

Anonymous said...

Thats the problem some school are great, my grandson school has been used for the dumping ground for Polish and Asians, most unable to speak English it pulled the school status down.

But the catholic school has a waiting list for families.

God we have to do something to pick the poor schools up, they were paying the head teacher 120,000 to try and improve it, the first thing he said that other schools had to take it's fair share of immigrants, but that was turned down, so now we have another headmaster.

My grandson as many do in this school has whats called an average education which will enable him to go to college for the next three years.