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?’
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Short interviews with each of the four debate panellists.
The Live Debate
An edited version of the live debate.