NS Special Report - Comprehensives: a minute to midnight

Do you remember voting for the return of selection at 11? Well, it's coming all the same. Francis Be

There are just a few months left, at most, for those who want to save the ideal of a comprehensive secondary school system - an ideal once as central to what Labour is about as the National Health Service. It is doubtful that any parent in the country is conscious of having voted for the abolition of the comprehensive system, but, barring a U-turn by the government, it is now doomed.

Anyone in doubt about new Labour's intentions should refer to Tony Blair's speech at the Blackpool party conference. "We need," he said, "to move to the post-comprehensive era, where schools keep the comprehensive principle of equality of opportunity but where we open up the system to new and different ways of education, built round the needs of the individual child."

The aspirations may sound reasonable, but those familiar with history will hear echoes of the bromides behind the Education Act 1944. That legislation, largely the work of a Conservative minister, R A Butler, created three kinds of school, again supposedly to meet the needs of the individual child: grammar, technical and secondary modern schools.

It fell to a Labour minister of education, Ellen Wilkinson, to put the 1944 act into place. She, according to the historian Peter Hennessy, in his study of the 1945-50 Labour government, was "appalled at the prospect of boys and girls doing practical things in their secondary modern schools which they would, perforce, spend the rest of their life doing. . . . She didn't want children of different IQs going to physically separate schools." She hated the idea, she told her civil servants, of giving "the real stuff to a selected 25 per cent" while steering 75 per cent "away from the humanities, pure science, even history".

But to provide a proper, free secondary education for all, and to raise the leaving age to 15, she needed an enormous programme of school-building. To get the money, she had to battle with a near-bankrupt Treasury, already struggling to finance William Beveridge's universal benefits and Nye Bevan's NHS. She won - and the price was the 11-plus. Sending all children to the same schools, it was judged, would be too much for an already frightened middle class, and for a deeply conservative education establishment.

It fell to Anthony Crosland in the 1964-70 Labour government to try to end the system by which schools were divided into grammars (for future managers and professionals), technical schools (for future technicians) and secondary moderns (to give future unskilled labourers such limited education as their predestined station in life required). In practice, in most areas, only grammars and secondary moderns existed, and the choice between success or failure was stark.

Crosland asked local councils to produce plans for getting rid of selection. Although the Tory education secretary, Margaret Thatcher (1970-74), withdrew his request, the momentum behind comprehensive education was such that many local authorities continued to submit schemes to introduce it - and, in one of the stranger ironies of history, Thatcher approved more such schemes than any other minister, of any party, has ever done.

By the 1980s, the whole of Scotland and Wales, and great swathes of England, had gone comprehensive. State-financed grammar schools, with a few exceptions, were confined to diehard Tory areas such as Kent and Buckinghamshire. But with Labour out of office, the pressure for a return to selection grew. The impetus was not so much a belief that comprehensives were failing but - in the words of a senior civil servant quoted in Thirty Years On, an exhaustive study of comprehensive education by Caroline Benn and Professor Clyde Chitty - a feeling that "we are beginning to create aspirations which increasingly society cannot match". The civil servant warned that "we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences. . . . People must be educated once more to know their place."

But the 11-plus was by then widely discredited. Saying that there were no successes or failures because secondary moderns were just a "different kind of school" had not fooled 11-year-olds or their parents for a moment. Tory attempts to reintroduce selection outright - in comprehensive Solihull, for example - fell foul of parental opposition.

The alternative was to bring back selection by stealth. That has been the approach adopted since the early 1980s, first by the Tories, then by new Labour. For the first time in more than 50 years, the two parties now have more or less the same agenda for secondary schools.

The trick was to find ways of allowing schools to select some or all of their pupils, while giving them more money than their neighbours. Thus, one Tory education secretary, John Patten, encouraged comprehensives to "do a little bit of picking and choosing on the side, without coming to me for approval". The "picking and choosing" was supposed to correspond to specialist strengths. One school I know - one example out of hundreds - selects 10 per cent of its intake on aptitude for technology, 10 per cent on music, 5 per cent on dance.

When Kenneth Baker was education secretary in the late 1980s, his solution was to create new schools called city technology colleges (CTCs). Though private sponsors were supposed to contribute heavily, the money came mostly from the Treasury. It flowed on a generous scale. In Bristol, the government contributed £8m capital so that the CTC could educate 900 children, while the city's 150,000 other children had £4.5m capital between them. Middlesbrough's CTC got £4.5m from Whitehall while the 238 other secondary schools in Cleveland got £3.6m.

Baker insisted that the colleges would have a mixed-ability intake. But they were allowed to select their pupils "on the basis of their aptitude, their readiness to take advantage of the type of education offered in CTCs, and their parents' commitment to full-time educational training up to the age of 18 and to the CTC curriculum and ethos". Thus, from each ability band, the colleges took the more hard-working, well-behaved and motivated children. It was hardly surprising that they then tended to get better examination results than their half-starved comprehensive neighbours, which teach the children they reject.

It is this spurious "proof" that selective or partially selective schools get better results that has slowly undermined confidence in comprehensives over the past 20 years. Alastair Campbell's "bog-standard comprehensives" are getting worse because more and more of their neighbours can cream off the more promising pupil material. The bog-standard comprehensive is really a reborn secondary modern.

Despite pre-election assurances of "no more selection", Labour has continued and extended Tory policies. The Tories had allowed schools to opt out of local council control and become grant maintained, with more generous funding and more scope to select. New Labour has simply changed the name - to foundation schools. It has also kept the 15 CTCs, and created new schools on the same model, called city academies, which get £123 per pupil more than their neighbours and can pay teachers extra, and so can poach the best from nearby schools. Schools that already have good results are called beacon schools, and get an average of £36,000 extra per year, supposedly to pass on the secrets of success.

New Labour encourages faith schools, many of which interview prospective pupils with their parents - for example, the London Oratory, attended by Blair's son Nicky, says the interview is "to assess . . . whether the aims, attitudes, values and expectations of the parents and the boy are in harmony with those of the school". The government has also protected the 166 surviving grammar schools, which select the whole of their intake at 11 on ability. A ballot system that was supposed to allow local parents to vote out selection was rigged so that no attempt to get rid of a grammar school could succeed. The corollary is that secondary moderns survive, too - though everyone is too genteel to use the name now, preferring such euphemisms as high school, or even comprehensive.

But new Labour's biggest blow against the comprehensive ideal has been the introduction of its very own method of extending selection: the specialist school. A school can apply for specialist status (in art, technology, science or languages, say) if it can persuade a private company to give it £50,000. It gets taxpayers' money that neighbouring schools won't get: a lump sum of £100,000 and an extra £123 a year per pupil for at least four years. The system favours schools in prosperous areas, which have more access to cash-rich businesses and where the dividends of sponsorship are more obvious. Once it has got specialist status, the school can select up to 10 per cent of its pupils on "aptitude". Selection by aptitude is pretty much the same thing as selection by ability. The main difference is that it's a vaguer process, and therefore easier for those with know-how and contacts to fiddle.

Thus the comprehensive ideal - that every secondary school should have a spread of ability and social backgrounds, and offer a full range of subjects to a high level - recedes further and further. The middle classes (or Middle England, as we are now supposed to call it) can expect their children, who come from bookish homes where education is valued, to get the better schools, free from hoi polloi, as they did in the days of grammar schools. But a new generation of what are in effect secondary moderns will ensure that the children of the poor will be failures.

The myths about selective schools

Grammar schools provide a way out of poverty. They do exactly the opposite. Mostly, poor children do not get to grammar schools, partly because middle-class parents can afford private cramming for the 11-plus. In comprehensives, one in five of the children is poor enough to get free school meals. In grammar schools, it's about one in 37.

Able pupils need selective schools to fulfil their potential. According to research from Professor David Jesson at York University, able children do just as well in comprehensives as in grammar schools.

Selective schools raise standards. They don't; they depress standards. Pupils aged 11 to 16 in wholly selective areas make less progress up to GCSE, on average, than those in comprehensive areas (Office for National Statistics, June 2002). Jesson's research compared the results from two local authorities with similar socio-economic profiles, one with a grammar school system, the other with a comprehensive system. In the comprehensive authority, 52 per cent of pupils got five or more good GCSEs, against 48 per cent in the grammar school authority. Research also shows that effective teaching depends on a core of able, motivated pupils, which is why secondary moderns are so often doomed to failure. The government has to bail out weak secondary schools in selective areas almost twice as often as in the rest of the country.

Grammar schools are good schools. As Professor Clyde Chitty points out, in a pamphlet published last year by the Campaign for State Education, "The prominence of highly selective schools at the top of league tables, or in annual lists of the country's 'best' schools, proves nothing except that academically able children usually do well in examinations." Jesson's research shows that Kent's grammar schools seriously underperform: some grammar schools coast along, knowing they are bound to get better results than neighbouring secondary moderns.

There are no secondary modern schools any more. No schools now call themselves secondary moderns. But the government recognises the reality, and the Department for Education and Skills says: "We use the term [secondary modern] to cover all mainstream, maintained non-selective schools in education authorities deemed wholly selective."

Selection at 11 doesn't harm anyone. It harms, sometimes irreparably, those who are judged failures. Any teacher at a secondary modern will tell you that the school's first and hardest job is to restore the pupils' self-esteem. Selection may also damage those who succeed: some pupils receive intensive private coaching for the 11-plus and then struggle to keep up at a selective school. In Northern Ireland, which still has an almost wholly selective system, a recent report from the regional assembly expressed concern about "pupils whose performance in grammar school belied their transfer grade. There was a suggestion that these pupils were over-coached." It also said: "Many pupils coming to secondary [that is, secondary modern] schools arrive with a sense of failure."

The myths about comprehensives

Comprehensives teach in mixed-ability groups, so everyone learns at the pace of the slowest. Almost every comprehensive school uses some form of ability grouping. The most common practice - followed by at least three in four comprehensives - is to place children in ability sets for each subject, so that a child who is good at English but struggles with maths can go in a high English set and a low maths set.

Comprehensives have a "one size fits all" approach, and "fight shy of excellence and diversity". The quotes are from the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, a former teacher who ought to know better, and once did. The truth is that no group of schools is as diverse as comprehensives. Some are run on liberal lines, others are highly disciplined, traditional and academic.

Comprehensives have failed. In 1965, with fewer than one in ten secondary school pupils in comprehensives, fewer than one in five got five or more GCSE passes. By 1998, with nearly nine out of ten in comprehensives, nearly nine out of ten got five or more passes. In 1970, nearly half Britain's pupils left school with no qualification. In 2000, it was one in 20. Education spending did not increase in real terms over this period.

Comprehensives are out of date. "The grammar school system . . . was a response to the needs of a vanished society which required a small educated class and a large number of manual workers. It is no longer the appropriate model for a world where most jobs require educated men and women." (Tony Blair, June 1996)

Comprehensives are the cause of Britain lagging behind other countries. "Our school system has been judged, by the most authoritative international analysis, among the top eight in the world, above France and Germany." (Tony Blair, Blackpool, October 2002)