Dr Philip Cook, University of Leicester
Well-informed and impassioned; exciting and enlightening: last night’s Leicester Exchanges debate was a wonderful event. A highly experienced and knowledgeable audience contributed enthusiastically to the exchanges between the panel members, and amidst the heat of argument some important issues emerged that demand further attention.
As I argued in my earlier piece, we need to distinguish carefully between education and schooling. 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.
But schools are about more than delivering education. Schools are important civic institutions. Defenders of the comprehensive ideal on the panel and in the audience emphasised that the comprehensive ideal was driven by political as well as education values. In a democratic society where all are entitled to equal respect and dignity, we must prevent segregation and promote inclusion and integration. Whilst there may be a role for academic selection in order to help children achieve their potential within comprehensive schools, the social consequences of creating selective schools is enormous and invidious.
Whilst all selection that leads to social segregation may be invidious, most pernicious is hidden and unaccountable selection. And in this respect grammar schools are largely blameless as they are open, explicit and maintained grammars are accountable to the local community through ballots about their selection policies. The real threats to an inclusive civil society are the opaque and unaccountable selection policies emerging in our new school system. Pleasing, and perhaps surprising, was the unanimity that emerged on this point across the panel and audience.
All academies and free schools are their own admissions authorities. Whilst they have to comply with the Government’s admissions code, their ability to define their catchment areas can lead to direct segregation. More worrying is the lack of clarity and accountability of the details of their selection policies and practices. For the comprehensive ideal to survive, we must first demand transparency, and then hold all admissions authorities to account if their selection breaches rules of fair access embodied in the admissions code.
But this is only the beginning. The admissions code, even if applied properly, may prevent harmful social segregation, but does little to promote integration. Only policies such as compulsory fair banding, where schools are required to accept a representative mix of children from all abilities and backgrounds, will achieve integration. And here last night’s debate ended, and here is where some of the hardest thinking must begin.
How can we respect parental choice, promote plurality and diversity in our school system, whilst also preventing segregation and promoting integration? As one of the most inspiring comments from the floor suggested: if all schools are truly comprehensive in composition through fair banding, we could then embrace the opportunity offered by free schools. If schools cannot select and segregate, then they can be freed to compete in the quality of their teaching. We could see a great flourishing of plurality and diversity amongst schools.
This was an inspiring thought. Can we combine freedom from segregation for our communities, freedom of choice for parents, and freedom of opportunity for all our children? Compulsory fair banding which promotes inclusion may offer the best basis for a truly free school system. Only then could competition and plurality flourish without segregating our communities. We may not have solved all the problems in the Exchanges debate, but some seeds of ideas may have been planted that could germinate into a school system we can all celebrate.
Dr Philip Cook interviewed at the Leicester Exchanges live debate ‘Comprehensive school education: policy mistake, lost ideal or model for the future?’ held on Wednesday 21 September 2011 at Glaziers Hall, London.
Dr Philip Cook appeared on the panel at the live debate ‘Comprehensive school education – policy mistake, lost ideal or model for the future?’ alongside Robert McCartney QC, Melissa Benn and Karen Robinson. You may also be interested in the official report of the evening.