[Paleopsych] Guardian: Where one size fits all
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Thu Jul 29 21:43:42 UTC 2004
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?
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
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
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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