Live Event catch up: Comprehensive School Education – Policy Mistake, Lost Ideal or Model for the Future?

Freelance journalist Liz Lightfoot reports on the Leicester Exchanges live debate, which took place at Glaziers Hall London on Wednesday 21 September 2011. The topic under discussion was: ‘Comprehensive School Education – Policy Mistake, Lost Ideal or Model for the Future?

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The Leicester Exchanges debate panel

The biggest threat to a successful and integrated state education system is not the remaining 164 grammar schools but the insidious, back door selection going on in comprehensive schools. That was the warning from politics lecturer Dr Philip Cook to Leicester Exchanges, a meeting of leading figures in education debating the future of comprehensive education.

The meeting in London also heard from grammar school chairman Robert McCartney QC that the comprehensive system was “running this country into the ground.” And there were calls for fair banding to be introduced to ensure that the Government’s new free schools and academies did not further increase selection and the present inequality of intake.

Headteachers, policy makers, authors, teachers and politicians gathered to debate comprehensive school education at the event hosted by the University of Leicester in London. They were invited to consider whether comprehensive school education was a policy mistake, a lost ideal, or a model for the future?

Philip Cook

Dr Cook from the University of Leicester’s Department of Politics and International Relations

Dr Cook, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Politics and International Relations, said that at least grammar schools were explicit and transparent about their selection process.

“The truth is that there is an opaque and unaccountable hidden selection going on in so many of our schools. The fight should not be between grammars and comprehensives because the real threat and danger is from this insidious back door selection,” he said.

Integration is at the heart of the comprehensive ideal to guard against becoming a segregated society, split by religion and class, he said. “There should be compulsory mixing and integration in schools. We live in a plural society and our civil society is made up of different people from different backgrounds. There are many good reasons why it is important for children to be able to integrate. Fair banding, where schools are obliged to have an intake representative of the society in which they stand, brings a diversity that is the life blood of our civic society.”

Over the coming months and years it would be vital to keep “a steely eye” on the admission rules at the new academies and free schools, he added.

“Admission at these new schools needs to be on the basis of fair banding but this does not mean that we can’t have schools with different and individual identities. Those who care about democracy and equity should worry first about bringing transparency to admission policies.”

Karen Robinson

Robert McCartney QC (Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association) and Karen Robinson (Head of Education and Equality at the National Union of Teachers)

There is subtle and covert selection even at Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, the school that successive government ministers have held up a beacon of success for comprehensive education, claimed Karen Robinson, the head of education and equality at the National Union of Teachers.

“Children have to attend Saturday schools, they must agree to abide by very strict discipline and uniform rules. If they flout them, they are out. Prospectuses are sent out to the more affluent surrounding areas,” she said.

England does not have a comprehensive system because it has independent schools, grammar schools, faith schools, schools that select on aptitude, she said.

“We cannot truly say that we have a comprehensive system in this country, and if we are serious about trying to have some equity in our education system then we need to be looking at standards and not structures,” she added. “Twenty five per cent of secondary schools in England are affected by having grammar schools in their own or neighbouring authorities. It has a devastating effect.”

The debate centred on the Government’s policy of encouraging “independent” state schools in the form of academies and free schools. Melissa Benn, the writer and comprehensive school campaigner, said she was amazed to see Toby Young, the journalist heading up a free school in London, describe it as “ a comprehensive grammar”.

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying vegetarian butcher,” she said.

The idea of comprehensive education had been vindicated, but what was needed was a real effort to make sure comprehensive schools had a truly balanced intake, she added.

“There is tremendous segregation. Even schools that call themselves a comprehensive on the front of the building are often not comprehensive in their intake. Sadly, in many parts of the country, especially in urban areas, comprehensive schools are not integrated, they are segregated. We should be honest and say we do not have a true comprehensive system,” she said.

Robert McCartney, the chairman of the National Grammar Schools’ Association, said it was clear that England did have a comprehensive education system as its central principle was that schools had an all ability range of intake.

But he added: “It is a system from which many of our education woes emanate.”

He had been one of the first to sit the 11 plus in Northern Ireland. “ I came from a two up two down home in West Belfast and went on to university and the Bar and ultimately to the House of Commons. Now in 2011 I want children like me to have the same opportunity which they are currently being denied.”

Under the European convention parents had the right to education in accordance with their philosophical convictions and the vast number of citizens in the UK declaring they wanted a grammar school for their children were being denied the opportunity. “What choice has a child in an area where there are no grammar schools and where comprehensive schools are performing badly?” he asked.

“The comprehensive principle has moved from equality of opportunity to the Marxist principle of equality of results. There have been calls from a leading figure in the education establishment for the abolition of private schools. In a democracy if a successful footballer has the money to buy a Maserati sports car, then that is acceptable but if parents want to use their money in a much more laudable cause to buy private education for their children, that is to be prevented,” he said.

Melissa Benn

Melissa Benn, writer and comprehensive school campaigner

The way people talk about parental choice in the present system is a very misleading, said Melissa Benn.

“You don’t have choice if you don’t have the money for independent education, and you don’t have choice if you don’t pass the test at 11 for grammar school, and you don’t have choice if you don’t pass the faith test for a faith school. Grammar school is about selection and it is quite ridiculous to say it provides choice because it is designed for the minority of children and the majority do not have a choice,” she said.

An educationalist from Kent said that while the county’s non-selective schools did well, there was clear evidence from international surveys that the presence of grammar schools not only harmed the balanced intake of schools next to them but schools further afield in neighbouring authorities which lost pupils to them.

Robert McCartney

Robert McCartney QC, Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association

But Robert McCartney countered by quoting a study from Durham University that he claimed was unable to find any collateral harm to neighbouring schools. “You want to make out that secondary moderns are all downtrodden when they are not. Northern Ireland’s selective system produces the best results overall for GCSE and A-level in the whole of the UK,” he said.

Studies showing that children eligible for free school meals were far less likely to get into the leading universities were flawed because free school meals was a blunt instrument, he said. “Using free school meals as a way of finding out if a child could benefit from a sort of education is statistically flawed because the child may not be very bright,” he said.

A teacher in the audience objected saying people with money had choices because if their child did not get into a selective state school, they could buy private education. “You are saying that some people are not suited to grammar school education because they are on free school meals when all it means is that they are poor and don’t have much money.”

Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, representing secondary school and college heads and deputies, said he went to a grammar school and underachieved badly because of poor teaching and poor leadership.

“Good leadership and good teaching in any school allows pupils to achieve. I think about a boy called Amin who came to our school at 11 with nothing, he could hardly read. Now he is on his way to a first class degree at the University of Leicester. That is what comprehensive education is about – enabling all children to succeed.”

Samuel Marlow, a teacher at a grammar school in the London Borough of Sutton, said social and economic inequality was at the heart of the debate. He had also taught at comprehensives and at a pupil referral unit.

“Very bright, incredibly affluent children from across London come to my school. Very bright children locally do not get in. They go to the local comp. You can’t blame the comprehensive system for the sort of social and economic problems you find in some of the Kent coastal towns. The statistics show a huge growth in social and economic inequality that even the most dedicated teachers could not hope to turn around.”

Dr Cook summed up the debate saying it was important not to confuse education and schooling. Education could be bought in terms of tutoring and resources, but the nature of schooling had to do with the status and standing of different schools.

“Those who support comprehensive education have to square the circle with choice. Just because schooling is egalitarian and integrated it doesn’t mean you have to have mixed-ability teaching. Children have a wide variety of needs, interests and abilities and you have to have different kinds of education to meet the needs of all of them, within a system that has fair admissions and does not lead to segregation and inequality.”

Video Interviews

Short interviews with each of the four debate panellists.

The Live Debate

An edited version of the live debate.

Listen to an edited audio recording of the debate
Download an edited audio recording of the debate (Right click > Save Target As…)


  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 26/10/2011 at 19:43 | Permalink

    Would our politicians benefit for having been more democratically educated?

    The polls said that 80% of the population was against the war with Iraq, falling to 60% against if there was a second UN resolution. Two thirds of MPs voted for the war knowing that the vast majority or the population did not agree. Many, privately educated, MPs said they believed Tony Blair. So who was better educated? Were they dumb or were they venal? You pays your money and takes your choice. The one thing they were not, beyond dispute, is democratic.

    Would a comprehensive education make them more democratic? No, because instead of storming Parliament and kicking their backsides until they recanted, we just accepted it so we could berate them for their foolishness without rising from the sofa or the bar stool. Even comprehensively educated MPs would soon discover that it much more fun to do whatever you want and ignore the electorate. Because, despite their smarts when it came to the war, the electorate fears the responsibility that a democracy would impose on them and so prefers to pretend to be dumb. The last eighty years of universal education, secondary modern, grammar, private, or comprehensive has not managed to change that so let us not write about polity or democracy in the context of educational methods. All are lacking in that respect.


  2. Posted 14/10/2011 at 08:53 | Permalink

    I’m sorry but Comprehensive Education just doesn’t work in practice. I’m a parent governor in a local comprehensive school and we recently had a report from the maths department which voiced concerns that a disproportionate amount of time was being spent within lessons on those kids who were least able. When I asked my son for his take on this (since he was in one of those mixed ability classes) he said that he and the other kids were often just handed text books and told to get on with it. Net result, his education has all but stood still for the best part of a year.

    I used to believe in the comprehensive ideal, but personal experience as a teacher and parent have shown that it harms the opportunities of the brighter kids and, quite often, the majority of the class.

    Whether you choose selective or comprehensive models there will always be casualties. If it’s a question of losing out on potential doctors, scientists and other highly skilled professions, or marginally levelling up those at the bottom of the ability range then there is no real choice to my mind. In an ideal world I’d opt for a Marxist Utopia in a flash. However, in reality, the country needs well educated and well qualified people rather more than it does a lumpen mass of the averagely qualified. To say otherwise is foolish.

    Different kids learn at different speeds and attain different levels of outcome. The comprehensive system does not account for that and cannot cope with it in classes of 30 odd students. Ironically, where comprehensive schools do get good results it tends to be where parents have engineered the demography of the intake by colonising the catchment area, or where the schools have embraced streaming or setting. In which case they can hardly be called comprehensive schools. Sadly, for many comprehensive schools in England, what they really ‘achieve’ is dragging down the opportunities of the bright and the middle while vast resources of time and money are thrown at marginally improving the outcomes for the minority, even to the extent of rampant grade inflation. It is no coincidence that the start of the grade inflation followed the assault on the grammar schools.


    LXmoderator Reply:

    Thanks for your comment, Simon. Your perspective as a parent governor at a comprehensive brings an interesting insight to the debate. Would anyone like to come back on the points raised here?


    Ron Jones Reply:

    I am rather surprised that such a thing as an unstreamed comprehensive still exists. I left my comprehensive (one of the first in the Midlands) over 40 years ago and by the end of my schooling it had just become streamed because the ideal had been found wanting. Why teaching children of different abilities together was even tried when anyone who taught in a rural school could have explained the problems of mixed ages in the same class which equates to mixed abilities. The propensity for human beings to continue to make the same mistakes time and time again is well known but is it not the purpose of education to eliminate that propensity, not perpetuate it?

    Interestingly, older children of average ability can help to teach younger children who struggle in class provided they have empathy with the younger child’s struggle. But the age difference is important to prevent resentment caused by feelings of inferiority. Younger children expect older children to be cleverer than they are.


  3. Frank Dawson
    Posted 04/10/2011 at 19:00 | Permalink

    I’ve no problem with Grammar Schools. It’s Secondary Moderns that are the problem. Seperating half a generation from their peers amd labelling them as failures. That’s why I support Comprehensive education. It’s not about choice. If you have to go to a Secondary Modern you have no choice.


  4. Alison Moody
    Posted 02/10/2011 at 08:01 | Permalink

    Eton is a just school. Just too expensive and just for the rich. Just because it produced DC and a prince who dressed as a Nazi doesn’t mean it is just an expensive Secondary Modern. It has just produced some intelligent, well educated citizens. Some of them learned just enough to sign PFI contracts but, unfortunately, just not enough to understand them. Just save us from just schools and just anyone who believes such a school is possible in England.


  5. Stephen Elliott
    Posted 26/09/2011 at 10:44 | Permalink

    I too share Mr Seaton’s concerns over the lack of balance in the so-called debate. It surely would not have been impossible for a competent event organiser to find a willing panelist/contributor to defend the principle of the European Convention on Parental Rights in Education at short notice. Indeed what debate would have occured at all if Mr McCartney had withdrawn?
    Having watched Dr Cook’s U-Tube contribution prior to the debate I was struck by his “equality of results for all our students” remark. It resonated with the political ideology of Sinn Fein and their failed decade-long campaign in Northern Ireland to impose a comprehensive, totalitarian regime on schools operating a successful diverse elective system Taking Dr Cook’s Marxist ideology as part of his value system, the views expressed within his The Just School paper stating; “The just school is characterised as a political institution that is non-selective and compulsory.” are exposed as dangerous political rhetoric for parents and educators alike. Dr Cook should understand that it has only been through the determined actions of parents from diverse backgrounds to defend and uphold their rights in choosing the education system best suited for each child’s needs that the current system has been protected and maintained. The actions of a cabal of academics, educationalists, civil servants and politicians have sought to undermine the principles of equality of opportunity and parental choice. The Sinn Fein Education Ministers in Northern Ireland have even sought, with the help of direct rule MPs such as Peter Hain, to ban the 11-plus, a simple test of competency in numeracy and literacy. So much for choice and diversity. They, of course, failed miserably because parental demand for grammar schools continues apace.
    I would refer Dr Cook to the speech of the outgoing president of BERA, John Gardner, in which he opines “Ultimately our research may be transformational but as a rule it does not have the immediacy or clarity of impact that in other fields a new drug or technological innovation may have.” Educationalists should simply stop pretending that they have the answers, including the delusion that comprehensive schooling provides the answer to all problems.
    Having read Melissa Benn’s “School Wars” and in particular chapter 4 ” The politics
    of selection” it becomes apparent that she is ill-informed on the facts of the matter. For instance she relies on information provided by a former education correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph, Kathryn Torney, to declare that the intakes to grammar schools are all-ability, a claim which originally eminated from the Department of Education, Northern Ireland under the control of a Sinn Fein Minister. A typical example of the blind leading the blind, since the advertising income from the DENI Exam Boards and the ELBs along with a constant supply of expense account lunches and copy-ready press releases make investigative or critical reporting by an education correspondent well nigh impossible. (note Kathryn Torney no longer works for the Belfast Telegraph but a group of journalists called, who claim they are independent of such influence. This group is funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, a group with an interest in changing structures in Ireland.) The grammar schools fill up their places because the DENI introduced open enrolment and parents and pupils wish to avail themselves of a grammr school education. Even the most avowed comprehensivist in N.Ireland, Tony Gallagher,
    acknowledged the “grammar school effect” which amounted to a 16 point difference between equal pupils starting secondary education at GCSE.
    Melissa Benn should stick with the fiction writing lest she wishes to incur the wrath of One of Us parents not easily led or fooled by progressive clap trap. She states on p 198 “No mainstream political leader will condone selection, but none will seriously suggest we phase it out. Why? Quite simply because they fear the fury of established interests, not just the grammar-school lobby but many within the media, including many of those who benefited from a grammar school education themselves. As a result, politicians debate schools policy as if selection, in both the state and private sector, simply doesn’t exist. Or doesn’t exist enough to matter. Or just doesn’t matter.”
    This statement from Ms Benn exemplifies her willfull ignorance of the Northern Ireland selective system where despite the full-fledged efforts of politicians to dismantle selection, the views of the public and their resilient opposition to removal or fettering of parental choice has thwarted the imposition of a one size fits all comprehensive system.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Dear Mr. Elliot,

    Thank you for your comments. I hope it is clear from my contributions here and to the debate on the night that I strongly support parental rights, including rights of parents to choose amongst a plurality of schools. I have tried to argue in these contributions that the concepts of education and schooling can be separated, and that choice and plurality have a place in educational provision. As institutions with a civic dimension important to the continued stability and flourishing of a just democratic polity, I have argued that school admissions should seek to avoid segregation as this is harmful to the quality of democratic decisions in the long run, and to the values of equality of respect owed all citizens.

    I’m afraid I don’t recognise your description of my arguments as ‘Marxist’ on any standard understanding of that term. My work follows in the broad tradition of liberalism particularly as informed by the work of John Rawls (my paper defending Rawls in the Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence may be helpful to you to clarify this point). Thank you for your contributions to the debate.


    Rural Retreat Reply:

    I really don’t think calling everyone who disagrees with selection at 11 Marxist is a particularly helpful perspective.


  6. Posted 25/09/2011 at 16:12 | Permalink

    Dear Dr Cook,
    Sorry, but your answers to my questions are not at all clear. You agree that parental choice of school is morally and politically valuable. You also suggest that ‘under appropriate conditions’ (whatever they may be?), choice ‘may have positive effects’. But you also say that ‘schools that create or reinforce segregation are harmful to society’ – choice should be allowed only is where schools are ‘inclusive democratic social institutions where segregation is prevented’.
    Surely, in a free, democratic society, genuine choice and prevention of segregation are incompatible? You can’t have both. Thousands of schools segregate in one form or another, so they are not ‘inclusive’. So which is it? Parental choice or state-controlled prevention?


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Dear Mr. Seaton,

    Thank you for your comments. I think we are using somewhat different notions of segregation here. Free democratic societies can have very different levels of social segregation. Empirical research shows that, for example, Norway and America have widely different levels of social segregation. So the form of social segregation I have in mind is not a necessary outcome of free democratic choices, and democratic polities can, through a host of different socio-economic policies, allow or prevent social segregation to differing degrees. Even within the UK there are significantly different levels of social integration: compare Northern Ireland to, for example, Leicester which is a highly integrated community by comparison.


    Nick Seaton Reply:

    Dr Cook:
    Afraid I don’t understand why you are so disingenuous about all this?
    I am not talking about social (or racial) segregation, much of which is against the law anyway.
    But on page 41 of your ‘Just School’ paper, you write: ‘Parents discretion over school membership…is constrained to the fulfilment of the special principle of justice. This means that parents would be perfectly entitled to choose between [comprehensive and compulsory] just schools, on the basis of such considerations as location, ethos and educational standards. But parents… are not entitled to choose whether their child attends a just school.’
    What about parents (or children) who choose to reject your narrow definition on moral or other grounds?


  7. Alison Moody
    Posted 25/09/2011 at 09:40 | Permalink

    My SM was a mini Comp. The only problem was the C stream. The A stream did Latin and metalwork. The C stream would try to break the lathes. Put the C stream in the Isle of Wight and schools would improve immensely. That’s the main reason people like grammar schools – no C stream.


  8. Richard Hagan
    Posted 24/09/2011 at 10:10 | Permalink

    Children from different social backgrounds don’t mix in comprehensive schools, they merely experience each other. That may be useful in later life but does tend to foster prejudices that take many years of experience to remove. Is it better to have the experience than not? Few prime ministers have, so, while it would be useful to the public, it clearly is not good for a politician’s career. When you reach the world of work it only matters that you have an open mind and some empathy to work with others rather than the type of school you attended. Not being a complete bast…… won’t get you to the top of RBS but you can become one of those in any school. Prince Harry went to an exclusive school but he yearns to be one of the lads and, within the confines of his position, has become one.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Dear Mr. Hagan,

    Thank you for your comments which are very interesting. I think I broadly agree with your point that it is most important that we as individuals are interested and motivated to learn from, discuss, and challenge the ideas of others.

    In one of my previous posts I mentioned that part of my argument in favour of greater integration in schools is epistemic. Recent research in deliberative democracy shows that having the greatest number of points of view available when making a decision can improve the ultimate quality of that decision, and institutions that are more integrated are shown to produce a wider range of points of view. Having the opportunity to exchange a wide set of views and to acquire the habit of considering and critiquing these at an early stage of political development seems to me advantageous to our polity.


    Simon Scarrow Reply:

    This presupposes an isomorphic relationship between ‘deliberative democracy’ and the situation in a mixed ability comprehensive classroom. How naive, or dishonest is that? Any teacher will tell you that decision making is not on the agenda, it is all about control and dividing effort across ability and behaviour ranges. Far from there being an chance to exchange a wide set of views, the more able are isolated and left to their own devices, as my son reports of his maths and english classes. Two subjects which are supposed to be at the heart of the educational process.

    In any case, your argument is laughable. Do you really think that our polity would be improved if all our politicians had been coerced to attend a mixed ability comprehensive system? Or would they have been handicapped by having to have the pace of their learning constrained by that of their less able peers? Would parliament make better decisions if it was obliged to have a quota of participants from the Jeremy Kyle show?

    It staggers me that educational theorists rarely ever get the point of education. It is a process whereby a teacher must avail themselves of an unlimited range of strategies to promote the development of an unlimited range of personalities. In the course of which there are material constraints such as budget, demographics, legalities, an imposed curriculum and lesson duration which mitigate against the one to one teaching that the reality requires. We can’t get round that, but what we can do is cater as far as possible for the individual needs of the student by at least putting them with like minded peers with the same contemporary potential. Rather than throwing them all together, regardless of their individual needs, and then justifying it by abstract reference to ‘our polity’, for thinly concealed ideological reasons.

    If you step outside of the ivory tower and engage with the real experience of education you will find that mixed ability education is strangling potential at the higher end of the ability range. The brighter students in my son’s mixed ability classes spend most of last year marking time while their maths teachers deal with the least able students. In English they have to sit and re-read the set text while their peers are coaxed to read the opening chapters.

    A little more honesty, integrity and openess to the real facts is required from those who claim to be professional educational thinkers is required…


    Simon Scarrow Reply:

    Typos and E&OE…


    Simon Scarrow Reply:

    Apologies, due to haste and irritation I whacked the post key before re-reading. That penultimate paragraph should have been…

    If you step outside of the ivory tower and engage with the real experience of education you will find that mixed ability education is strangling potential at the higher end of the ability range. The brighter students in my son’s mixed ability classes spent most of last year marking time while their maths teachers dealt with the least able students. In English, this year, they have to sit and re-read the set text while their peers are coaxed to read the opening chapters. In what way does this validate mixed ability comprehensive education?


  9. Simon Stiel
    Posted 23/09/2011 at 09:20 | Permalink

    Thanks to LXmoderator for replying. Professor Sir Robert Burgess

    Dr Cook’s point about setting and streaming raises the question: if it’s true that selection by ability entrenches social division, labels children and alienates them, why is internal selection fair but not external selection?

    The Coalition and the Labour Party have accepted that parents who can afford the fees of the independent sector have the option of submitting their child to an academically selective school. The parties have ruled out that option for those who don’t have the money.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Thank you for your comment, which is very interesting. I think the answer is that children would have opportunities to mix with other children in wider school activities, and particularly in schools where streaming is practiced, the composition of the groups would vary according to subject/year. Wider opportunities for mixing are reduced if the whole school is selective.


  10. Jacqui D
    Posted 22/09/2011 at 18:35 | Permalink

    Comprehensive School Education has failed pupils from across the social spectrum and brought social mobility(upwards) to a complete standstill with it’s one size fits all socialist mantra. Many schools are too big, the optimum size of a secondary school being in the region of 800 – 1000 pupils, making it difficult to maintain standards, discipline and unity. The brightest pupils are often held back and the weakest left behind, so the worst of all worlds.
    Areas with remaining Grammar Schools such as Kent continue to provide healthy competition amongst it’s schools and enjoy an increase in standards all round as a result. The pupils being the clear winners. The Grammars also face competition from a number of excellent local public schools without any detrimental effects. I only wish that all areas of the country were as fortunate as Kent in it’s diversity of schooling and sharing of excellent facilities and expertise.
    In my experience children learn better and with more confidence when taught in classes of children with similar abilities. Mixed ability classes are asking for trouble both in behaviour and understanding. And the same goes for schools.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Thank you for your comment and contribution to the debate. As mentioned in my original post, the evidence about the effect of comprehensives on social mobility is complex. The most recent research by Vikki Boliver and Adam Swift shows that in fact, comprehensives had no detrimental effect on social mobility at all:

    As Boliver and Swift argue, in order to understand the effect of schools on social mobility you have to look at the system of schools as a whole, and not just of the effects of grammar schools on those who passed the 11+. Whilst there is some evidence that some children from poorer backgrounds achieved a degree of upward social mobility through a grammar school education, you also have to look at the data from those who failed and went to secondary modern schools. These children often suffered detrimental effects on their prospects for social mobility. Indeed, if you look historically, the original thrust of opposition to selective grammar schools came from middle class parents whose children were failing to get into the grammar schools those parents knew would be advantageous to their children.

    So we need to look at the overall effect of all schools in the system, and comprehensives had no greater detrimental effect on social mobility than the previous grammar and secondary modern system.

    I tend to agree with your other points, but they do not count against or in favour of any particular kind of school. There is certainly an optimum size of school (more importantly there is an optimum size of class for teaching). Many state comprehensives were no doubt too large as were class sizes, but there is no intrinsic connection between the admissions policy and the class/school size.

    As I argued in the my earlier pieces, education is different from schooling. An argument for inclusive schooling (that is, inclusive admissions policy to membership of a school), does not imply mixed ability/inclusive teaching. Most evidence points to the importance of targeted teaching to pupils’ needs, and this will inevitably involve types of selective teaching such as streaming and setting. This is a common and widespread practice in both grammars and comprehensive teaching. I also argued that choice and competition are important and valuable, and have a role in our school system. How we combine the benefits of competition, the rights of parents to choose schools, and protect against segregation is a complex question, and I offer suggestions above. Thanks again for your comments.


  11. Chris McGovern
    Posted 22/09/2011 at 17:08 | Permalink

    If you seek a monument to comprehensive schools, look around you. Is our education system allowing us to compete in the global economy?
    Are employers and universities happy with the level of attainment school leavers bring with them?


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Thank you for your comment. As someone who has taught at universities for a number of years, I think students are entering university well prepared and well taught. In particular, I think that students are much more highly motivated to study hard and succeed than ever before. I have conducted no particular research into this issue of students’ motivation and attitude to their degree studies, but my initial intuition is that this may have a lot to do with the new funding system for University education where students are effectively paying for their education through loans, which may encourage them to value the experience more highly and also demand more (quite rightly) from universities and their teachers.


  12. Posted 22/09/2011 at 16:33 | Permalink

    It was a great pity (and a disgrace) that Leicester University failed to provide a balanced panel for this debate.
    Dr Phillip Cook of Leicester University, Karen Robinson from the NUT and Melissa Benn were all hostile to genuine parental choice. It was left to only one of the four panelists, Robert McCartney, to argue for choice between different philosophies and different types of school.
    It was also disturbing that none of the three anti-choice panelists nor, apparently, many of the more vocal members of the audience, seemed to understand the difference between a democratic value system (which allows choice and competition) and a Soviet-style value system (where the state is the sole provider and choice is forbidden).
    Fewer than 1 in 5 of those questioned in the ICM poll commissioned by the NGSA in 2010 did not support the retention of the remaining grammar schools – the Cook, Robinson and Benn view. A remarkable 85% of 18 to 24 year-olds wanted more grammar schools. So why should a supposedly open-minded university present minority views as representing the majority?
    Those who, for political purposes, advocate a totally comprehensive school system have had 30 or 40 years in Scotland, Wales and four-fifths of England to prove that it works. So why is concern about choice and standards rising exponentially?
    Facts and evidence may be uncomfortable for educationists in positions of influence who hope to manipulate our minds. But in an open democratic society with a free press, the general population is not so easily fooled!


    LXmoderator Reply:

    It was unfortunate that a panel member had to withdraw at the 11th hour due leaving no opportunity to secure a replacement. Saying that, the panel Chair, Professor Sir Robert Burgess, did an excellent job of ensuring a balanced discussion and all four panellists contributed to an excellent debate.
    My recollection was that Dr Philip Cook supported Mr McCartney on a number of points, as evidenced in his reflections on the evening, which include:
    “Robert McCartney defended ardently the educational benefits of selection and grammar schools. He made the astute point that most comprehensives also practice academic selection within their schools through streaming and setting. There is no doubt that a successful education system will include elements of academic selection in order that children’s particular educational needs can be met. ”

    Thanks for contributing to a debate that I’m sure will run and run.


    Nick Seaton Reply:

    It is true that, on the surface, Dr Cook’s school proposals sound reasonable. But in his paper, ‘The Just School’, he writes: ‘I argue that the special principle of justice and the just school trumps certain kinds of parents’ rights of school choice…Schools fulfil the special principle of justice for children if they are comprehensive in admission, and compulsory in membership.’ He also writes that: ‘The just school provides a physical space where children are removed from the influence of their parents.’
    In other words, he wants the state to be the primary provider of children’s education and upbringing, regardless of the wishes of parents. Meanwhile, he seems to have nothing much to say about educational standards.
    This is dangerous, totalitarian nonsense, especially when presented to young people who may have little knowledge or experience of politics or the real world.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Dear Mr. Seaton,

    Thank you for your comments, I’m flattered and grateful to you for taking the time to read one of my papers on the topic!

    I’m afraid I disagree with your interpretation of my argument. Firstly, my point about principles of justice for schools trumping certain kinds of parental rights was merely to make the (philosophical) argument that parents cannot have the right to decide that their child does not receive any education or schooling. This is in fact the current state of law in this country (and most other western liberal democratic states): all children are required by law to receive an education/schooling. This is most clearly expressed in the legislation covering ‘home schooling’ where even if parents wish to remove their child from all kinds of institutional schooling (whether state, private, selective etc), the parent must provide an adequate education and schooling environment at home.

    In this sense, we trump the parents’ rights to decide that their child should not be educated/schooled at all. Now, it is of course entirely valid to argue that this is ‘totalitarian’ and there are coherent libertarian/anarchist arguments against any kind of coercion by a state over what parents do with their children. I’m not sure if you take such a view that all coercive law governing parents’ choices over their children is ‘dangerous, totalitarian nonsense’ (such as laws requiring parents to provide a minimally safe and beneficial home environment, on pain of having the child removed by social services).

    As I say, this is a coherent argument to make from an anarchist/libertarian perspective, but I disagree that all forms of state coercion/obligation to obey the law are unjust and illegitimate. The question is: is the coercion legitimate? This question marks the division between liberals (who accept the validity of legitimate coercion) and libertarian/anarchists (who mostly reject the validity of legitimate coercion).

    On your second point, I have tried throughout to separate the question of education and schooling, and make no comment at all on by whom or how education should be provided in my ‘Just School’ paper. My argument regarding ‘removing children from the home environment’ was part of the wider argument that in a liberal democratic just state, we all have an interest in ensuring that all children receive at least a minimum amount of education and personal development, particularly for those children who are unfortunately born to abusive or neglectful parents who fail to provide this minimum.

    This interest is part of the justification for state schooling: to ensure that sufficient minimum welfare, education, and schooling is provided to all children, even if their parents have to interest in providing it. I’m very interested to hear arguments again this point of view, as I’m unaware of people who claim that we have no responsibility to ensure this sufficient minimum is provided to all children, particularly in the case of abusive/neglectful parents.

    Thank you for taking the trouble to contribute to this debate, your questions are very stimulating, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss these important questions further.


    Nick Seaton Reply:

    Yes, Dr Cook, but your paper specifies that a just school is ‘comprehensive in admissions and compulsory in membership’.
    So do you believe that, where geographically possible, parents should have the right to choose from all of the following options:
    For their child to take a voluntary 11-plus test in pursuit of a place in a grammar school?
    To send their child to a ‘standard’ comprehensive school?
    A technical school?
    An academy or a ‘free’ school?
    A faith-based school?
    A single-sex or co-educational school?
    An independent school (if they can pay the fees or win a bursary)?
    Educate their child at home or ‘otherwise’?
    Or do you believe that, under the principle of ‘comprehensive in admissions and compulsory in membership’, all this should be decided by the state?


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Thank you very much for your comment and contribution. In the midst of the impassioned debate we were unable to discuss in detail some of the very important points you make, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further.

    As I hope was clear from my contributions to the debate and to this blog, I think that parental choice is morally and politically valuable, and that parental choice should be extended to the schools their children attend. Under appropriate conditions, choice may also have positive effects on the quality of teaching, management, and productivity of educational providers through competition. Robert McCartney recognised that I sought to defend choice and plurality in schools, and that was why I tried to indicate that the new system that is emerging through free schools and academies may have the beneficial effect of creating greater diversity in schools. I’m not sure if all the other panelists agreed with me on this.

    My main reason for supporting this is pedagogical: following J. S. Mill, we need as many different ideas, arguments, and points of view to be discussed and tested publicly for the best and truest to emerge. This is an epistemic argument in favour of plurality and diversity in education.

    My argument is based on separating education and schooling (as was argued for by Milton Friedman in his important work on schools, capitalism, and markets). Friedman was clear that schools are an important social and democratic institution. The organisation and provision of schools has a direct effect on the stability of our society through the kinds of values and behaviours they promote (and discourage of course). This is what Friedman called ‘neighbourhood effects’ of schooling. As I mentioned in the debate, education is a good that can be bought and sold, or distributed by the state, and any free society that also values equality will have some mix of both private and state funded (not necessarily state provided as Friedman argued) education provision.

    The question I tried to concentrate on was the ‘neighbourhood effects’ as Friedman calls it of schools. What is the effect of social segregation in our society that is created by overt and covert selection? Does this promote or diminish freedom, prosperity, and justice? I argued that there are many harms to segregation, and therefore schools that create or reinforce segregation are similarly harmful to society.

    My goal is to try to understand how the different values and principles that should govern the provision and distribution of education and schooling relate to each other, and how we can combine the best aspects of a free, vibrant, plural education system where choice is promoted, with inclusive democratic social institutions where segregation is prevented.

    Thank you again for your contribution, and I hope this response adds a little more detail to the discussion.


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