Alongside the National Health Service, the comprehensive school is the last surviving totem of the old Labour tribe. Public ownership, trade union power, state planning, free university education, high taxation of the rich - these and many more, once articles of faith, are now forgotten. But the NHS and the com- prehensives remain as enduring monuments to British social democracy, the one associated with Aneurin Bevan, the other with the scarcely less important figure, to a later generation, of Anthony Crosland. Take them away, and you may as well write off the first century of Labour history.
That is why the Education Bill has turned into a definitive confrontation between Tony Blair and his party. It is why the scale of the potential rebellion far exceeds the usual hard core of habitual malcontents. And it is why tribal elders such as Lord Kinnock and John Prescott have felt stirred for the first time to express open doubts about a Blairite policy. The argument goes to the heart of the new Labour project and its idea of the role that education should play in the life of the nation - a very different idea from what drove the pioneers of comprehensive education. But the argument, as we shall see, also reveals a profound ambiguity within new Labour's own guiding principles.
To their early supporters, comprehensive schools were not just an educational project but also a social one. The eleven-plus was an inefficient instrument. It consigned three-quarters of the nation's children to a second-class education at an age too early to judge their abilities and aptitudes. Moreover, though the exam was supposed to allow children to rise regardless of background, it tended to favour those from more affluent homes. Grammar school intakes had a heavy class bias. Crosland and others argued that selection wasted talent, and that comprehensives would therefore benefit the economy as well as increasing social justice.
But there was more to it than that. Comprehensives were to be an expression of social solidarity, a melting pot where children and parents of different backgrounds would learn to respect, if not exactly love, one another. Professor Robin Pedley, a prominent early campaigner, defined the comprehensives' purpose in 1963 as "the forging of a richly diverse communal culture by the pursuit of quality with equality, by the education of pupils in and for democracy, and by the creation of happy, vigorous, local communities in which the school is the focus of social and educational life".
It would be hard to imagine anything further away from new Labour's conception of education - or from the Education Bill's proposal for a variety of religious, charitable and commercial interests to own and run schools, with elected local authorities only grudgingly allowed to set up new ones. For new Labour, the purpose of education is almost entirely instrumental. It is about individual ambition and aspiration - and, through that, national economic competitiveness. Blair believes in meritocracy, not equality or solidarity.
Education is described in ministerial speeches as "a driver of social mobility" or "a locomotive". Schools must "add value" to children. They must not "coast along"; they must aim to improve year by year, as must the nation as a whole. This is the language of the boardroom, not of a public project designed, in the words of the cultural critic Raymond Williams, "to express and create values of an educated democracy and a common culture".
The aspiration to meritocracy - "where the only thing that counts", in Blair's words, "is not where you come from but what you are, and where everyone, not just the privileged few, gets the chance to succeed" - is central to new Labour. And education, as ministers see it, is the vehicle for that ambition. The comprehensives, despite the hopes and promises of their pioneers, have failed to deliver. Students from fee-charging schools still take a disproportionate number of places at the top universities. Indeed, several recent studies have suggested that social mobility in Britain has declined.
The reason, according to Blair and his closest associates, is that the comprehensive system has replaced selection by ability with selection by postcode. Whereas bright children could once escape a deprived background by going to grammar school, they are now condemned to the neighbourhood comprehensive. As Blair's former adviser Lord Adonis, now an education minister, put it in 1997: "The destruction of the grammar schools . . . only had the effect of reinforcing class divisions."
Reintroducing grammar schools, however, is unthinkable, and not just to the Labour Party. When she was at the Education Department in the early 1970s, Margaret Thatcher approved the closure of more grammar schools than any minister before or since. The momentum behind the comprehensives was irresistible. Too many parents had memories of eleven-plus failure, and wished desperately for their own children not to experience such heartache. Among the middle classes in particular, a child's failure brought something close to social shame on the family. An open return to nationwide selection was a vote loser. David Cameron, the current Tory leader, clearly believes it still is and has promised that, under the Tories, there will be no return to the eleven-plus.
A written examination, however, is not the only possible form of selection. "Read my lips. No selection by examination or interview," David Blunkett, as shadow education secretary, told the Labour party conference in 1995. From a member of the Labour left and a former leader of Sheffield City Council, that seemed as good a guarantee as you could get. The reality has proved different. Despite ministerial protestations, selection has flourished under new Labour.
"There will be no return to the divisive eleven-plus," last year's white paper stated prominently. But hopes that a Labour government would quietly strangle the 164 remaining grammar schools in England and Wales have been disappointed. While no new grammar schools have opened, existing ones have been allowed to expand and the number of children attending them is higher than when Labour came to power. The newly created specialist schools are allowed to select 10 per cent of their intake by "aptitude", though few have taken advantage of that provision.
More important are Labour's attempts, echoing the Tories, to differentiate between comprehensives in the name of "parental choice". We already have voluntary-aided schools, foundation schools, technology colleges and city academies. All can largely decide for themselves, within limits, which children to admit. The bill, with its proposed category of "trust schools", dramatically extends that policy. Until now, the introduction of new types of school could be passed off as attempts to provide a bit of diversity at the edges and to prod the council-controlled comprehensives, which remained dominant, into improving their performance. The bill heralds what amounts to an entirely new system. Its critics believe that it would, to all intents and purposes, bring back selection and turn the comprehensive system into a Potemkin village.
Officially, city academies and the rest are not allowed to select on academic grounds - and nor will the trust schools. Under the code of practice for admissions, even parental interviews are frowned upon. In his most important concession to the rebels, Blair has promised to make the code mandatory. There are, however, numerous other ways of selecting children. Secondary schools can seek reports from primary schools on a child's conduct, motivation and attendance, as well as on parental "attitude". Some schools emphasise requirements such as an expensive uniform or an "expected" contribution to school funds. Others invite parents to visit and then make a rough assessment of whether the parents are the right sort. Church schools can seek evidence of family religious commitment. As a last resort, a school with a surplus of applicants over places can remove a "difficult" pupil.
The nuclear weapon of expulsion (or "permanent exclusion", as it is now called), which is subject to appeal, is rarely necessary; it is usually enough gently to persuade parents to withdraw their child before sanctions go on his or her record. That child will often find his or her way to an undersubscribed school, which may already have an above-average number of poorly behaved children with little motivation for academic work.
Sharp practice of this sort may seem surprising in a profession that claims high ideals and standards. But when test results and truancy rates are so important to a school's reputation and its teachers' careers, and when fundraising may be crucial for a school's hopes of development, the temptation to cherry-pick children from "good" families, with supportive, reasonably affluent parents, is almost irresistible.
Some form of covert selection is nearly always behind the alleged success of Labour's new-style schools, such as the city academies. Researchers at the London School of Economics, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, looked at the country's 200 most successful comprehensives, as measured by exam results. They found that only a little over 5 per cent of the pupils were eligible for free school meals (the most convenient proxy for low family income), against a national average of 14.3 per cent. That would come as no surprise to those who criticise the "postcode lottery"; these must be schools situated in affluent neighbourhoods recruiting children from affluent homes. But the research shows that location is only part of the story, and not even the most important part.
In the successful council-controlled schools, the proportion of children eligible for free meals in the local neighbourhood was only slightly higher than in the school itself. In the successful schools that controlled their own admissions, the proportions were dramatically different: only 5.6 per cent of the children admitted were eligible for free meals; in the local neighbourhoods, the proportion was 11.5 per cent. The disparity was found to be greater in the surviving grammar schools, but not enormously so.
In other words, in Labour's new scheme of things, the system is almost as selective as the eleven-plus - but it is potentially far more iniquitous. The eleven-plus may have favoured the more advantaged child (as all schools tests do), but at least it allowed a few rough diamonds to slip through. The new style of selection is more akin to social selection. If it admits poor children to the most favoured schools at all, it admits the respectable or "deserving" poor, whose parents at least aspire to a middle-class lifestyle. But it is clearly more palatable to the middle classes than selection based on an exam that their children might fail.
This takes us to the profound contradiction in new Labour's schools policy, one that the bill wholly fails to resolve. On the one hand, new Labour is committed to the achievement of a pure meritocracy. On the other, it is determined to protect and strengthen the defining principle of public services such as education and health: that they should be free at the point of use.
At first sight, there may seem to be no conflict between these aims; they may even appear complementary, in so far as equal access to schooling depends on its being free of charge. But when new Labour took power in 1997, its leaders believed the biggest threat to free public services was desertion by the middle classes. If the middle classes abandoned the NHS and state schools for the private sector in large numbers, they would eventually resist paying taxes for services used only by other people. And the only way to persuade the middle classes to stay with the public sector, ministers reasoned, was to offer them the same quality of personal service and consumer choice as they might find in the private sector. The Tories, probably through voucher schemes, would assist the middle classes in opting out; Labour would make opting out unnecessary. That is why, at each re-election campaign, Labour has promised yet more "parental choice", culminating in the multiplicity of independently run trust schools proposed by the bill.
Yet this policy runs counter to the goal of developing meritocracy. Where schools are oversubscribed, it becomes the schools that exercise choice between families, not the other way round. In any case, the ambition to find the "best" school, the knowledge to make a judgement, the money to travel to distant schools, the confidence to tackle complex admission processes, the persistence to go through appeals, the willingness to "play" the system - all these are more likely to be found among the more affluent families.
New Labour acknowledges that the attainment gap between children from different backgrounds has not narrowed - if anything, it has widened since the mid-1990s. Ministers also acknowledge, though more grudgingly, that this problem may be partly related to their policies on school admissions. Is there an answer? One, advocated by the Social Market Foundation, is to allocate all places in oversubscribed schools by lottery - or "ballot", to use a less contentious term. Selection would be banned (except in the remaining grammar schools), as would priority for parents who live near the school. This would bring all schools closer to "a balanced intake" and, according to research quoted by the foundation, would thus raise standards at all levels. Another idea is to give all children an ability test at 11 - not to select the most able for better treatment, but to place children in bands to ensure that each school took its "fair" share from each ability level.
The point of these proposals is to prevent schools having a preponderance of low-ability and unmotivated children who drag down the few bright classmates they have, as well as depressing their own ambitions. Research suggests that the peer group is at least as important as family background in determining attainment. In that sense, these proposals are consistent with new Labour's aspirations to meritocracy.
However, ministers' fears of alienating the middle classes have prevented them from embracing either solution. The Daily Mail seized upon the lottery idea as a wicked left-wing plot to deprive hard-working middle-class families, which had struggled to buy houses in "good" catchment areas, of their just deserts. The white paper put forward more modest proposals for improving poor families' access to the "best" schools. For example, subsidies may be offered for children from poor homes who have to travel long distances to "good" schools, and "choice advisers" will be available to encourage their parents to seek out such schools.
Ministers cling to the belief that the secret of getting better performance from deprived children is to persuade their parents to behave as middle-class parents do. That is quite contrary to the most deeply held beliefs of the Labour tribe. A quasi-market of competitive schools, patronised by parents striving to maximise individual advantage for their children, cannot add up to a comprehensive system. If comprehensive schools have failed to deliver the goods, the tribe would argue, it is because they have never been given the chance. Even in their heyday, comprehensives were "creamed" of the brightest children by the fee-charging and surviving grammar schools. The first generation of children had hardly passed through them before, from 1981, the Thatcher governments began to extend parental "choice" in ways that would lead to an increasingly complex pecking order of schools.
It is hard to see how the bill can ever be made palatable to the Labour tribe without ditching the thing entirely, but equally, it is hard to see how new Labour can ever realise its ambitions for meritocracy. Some critics blame the decline in social mobility on the decline of the grammar schools, others on the growth of selection within the comprehensive sector. A more plausible explanation is that the enormous postwar expansion of middle-class jobs has slowed. Once, a bright child from a poor family could move up without any need for a dull child from a rich family to move down and make way. Increasingly, that is not the case. Upward social mobility needs to be matched by downward mobility if we are to have a true meritocracy. It is hard to imagine new Labour selling that message to middle-class voters.
Half a century ago, in his futuristic satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, the late Michael Young predicted that only "a small wave" of comprehensives would ever be established. These, he thought, would soon wither, leaving behind a meritocracy that, because privilege begets privilege, would harden into the elite of a caste system. Comprehensives, wrote Young (from the standpoint of a fictional observer in 2033), were bound to fail. "To succeed . . . they needed a social revolution which would overthrow the established hierarchy, values and all. But with the masses dormant and their potential leaders diverted into self-advancement, what hope was there?" For a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, it looked as if Young was wrong. Now, if the Education Bill becomes law, his words will seem to many to be sadly prophetic.
Parts of this essay are adapted from Peter Wilby's contribution to The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy, edited by Geoff Dench and published by Blackwell later this year
The Bill - a rough guide
- All schools will be able to become "trust schools", governed by parents, businesses, faith groups and others, with control over budgets and admissions
- Local authorities will have a new role as "commissioner" of places, can apply to set up new schools, and must offer advice and assistance to parents on their choice of school
- Failing schools must turn around or be closed/replaced; good schools will expand
- Interviewing pupils and parents will be banned
- Staff will have a clear right to discipline pupils and provision for excluded pupils will be improved
- Significant reforms will be made to curriculum and qualifications, including new diplomas for 14-19s
- Nutrition in schools and transport for the disadvantaged will be improved, and inspectorates will be merged
See it all at www.newstatesman.com/educationbill