[Paleopsych] Guardian: Where one size fits all

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Where one size fits all

[More on the retreat from equality.]


    Where one size fits all

    Underlying the debate about choice and selection in education is the
    assumption that comprehensive schools failed. But did they?
    Melissa Benn
    Friday July 23, 2004

    The government yesterday found itself embarrassed by a cross-party
    MPs' report arguing against the extension of selection in education.
    Labour has only just published its plans for yet more specialisation
    at secondary level. While there is argument about whether the
    introduction of specialist schools really means the re-introduction of
    selection by stealth, one thing is clear: selection by so-called
    ability at age 11 not only disadvantages those not selected, but
    confers only minimal advantage on those who do make it through.

    Education experts have long argued that New Labour's persistent search
    for a "post-comprehensive" nirvana, and its public denigration of
    existing local schools, has helped obscure the solid success of the
    40-year-old comprehensive revolution. The strangely uncelebrated story
    of the comprehensive school - local, non-selective in principle, with
    fair admissions controlled by a local authority - has been one of
    slowly rising standards for all, including the middle class.

    It is a tale of mass education that has had a significant impact on
    occupational mobility if not - yet - on levels of social inequality.
    In 2004, despite the retention of 164 grammar schools and the
    introduction of selection in some areas, most of England's schools,
    educating over 90% of pupils, remain nominally non-selective.
    Pro-comprehensive campaigners believe it is vital that they remain so.

    According to Sally Tomlinson, professor of education at Goldsmiths
    College, University of London, the gains of the comprehensive have
    been "remarkable". In her 2003 lecture, Comprehensive Success: Bog
    Standard Government, she sets out the evidence of rising standards. In
    1962, when 20% of children were selected for grammar schools, only 16%
    of children nationally obtained five O-levels. In 2001, that figure
    reached 51%. A-levels, originally designed for just 10% of the
    population, were gained in two or more subjects by 37% of pupils in

    Anyone who was at school in the 1960s and early 1970s will remember
    the class of "school leavers", children already written off by the
    system in their mid-teens. In 1970, nearly half of all children left
    school without qualifications. By 2000 that had fallen to just 10%.

    Nearly 40% of school students currently go on to some form of higher
    education, compared with just 10% in the early 1960s. As Tomlinson
    shows, most students who made it into higher education in the early
    1960s had parents in professional or management jobs. Only 4% had
    fathers in semi-skilled jobs and 2% came from unskilled homes. By
    2000, some 450 further education colleges were providing education and
    training for nearly 5 million students, and a million more were
    enrolled on adult education courses.

    Critics of the comprehensive system still insist it fails the
    brightest children. There is little evidence of this. Even the most
    unfavourable study, comparing the exam results of 350 bright children
    at elite independent schools, state grammars and comprehensives,
    showed the private school pupils outperforming the comprehensive
    students by only half a grade per subject at A level. Take into
    account the intense selection at elite schools, the superior
    facilities and much smaller class sizes, and such a small gap appears
    miraculous rather than shameful.

    According to Professor Clyde Chitty at Goldsmiths College: "Broadly
    speaking, so-called academically able children do as well in a
    comprehensive as they would in other kinds of schools. What the
    comprehensive system clearly does is massively enhance the life
    chances of all those children who under a selective system were
    written off as failures."

    This echoes the findings of yesterday's education select committee and
    numerous other studies. Selection depresses majority achievement. In a
    2001 paper, Tomlinson, Chitty and others point to "the lowering of
    standards of around two to three percentage points in those
    communities where selection at the age of 11 is still the norm". Exam
    results in Kent, which retains grammar schools, are worse than in many
    London inner-city boroughs frequently reviled for their poor
    educational performance.

    Despite the familiar rhetoric about grammars providing an "escape
    route from poverty", these schools remain the preserve of the middle
    class. According to the 2001 paper, in the 15 LEAs with around 20% or
    more of their pupils in grammar schools, the average percentage of
    children eligible for free school meals was just 2.9%, compared with a
    national average (in England) of 17.3%.

    The question remains: why has the comprehensive system had such a bad
    press? Well, it hasn't everywhere. Go to a rural comprehensive in
    Leicestershire and you are much more likely to find high levels of
    parental satisfaction. In the big cities, with widening class, ethnic
    and religious divisions, and far greater "opt out" possibilities for
    the middle class, the local school has had to carry the can for social
    polarities and attendant problems.

    Influential opinion-makers have also been highly critical of
    comprehensives over the decades. The elite of most institutions, the
    media included, tend to educate their children privately or at highly
    selective state schools. They are at best indifferent, at worst
    hostile, to the social justice implications of a more democratic
    system of schooling.

    That the comprehensive system, maligned and tampered with by hostile
    Tory and Labour administrations, has managed to make significant
    inroads into entrenched class expectations is in the circumstances a
    big achievement.

    Melissa Benn is co-editor of a book of essays on education and
    democracy to be published by Continuum press in September

    mbenn at dircon.co.uk

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