Analysis: The scope for comprehensive change is less than we think

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Thirty years after a Labour government circular asked local authorities to submit proposals for comprehensive schools to replace grammars and secondary moderns, Tony Blair and David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, argue that comprehensives in their present form have failed.

In one sense, they are right. Comprehensives have not persuaded some middle-class parents in inner cities, such as Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, that they are good enough for their children.

But a blanket denunciation of comprehensives is unwarranted. While they may appear to have failed from the London viewpoint of the Harmans and Blairs, in rural areas and where they have a balanced intake of different abilities, they are successful. Survey after survey has found most parents happy with their children's schools and around 90 per cent of secondary pupils are in comprehensives.

Only in places where the level of disadvantage is high is there discontent. One reason for recent concern may be a growing polarisation of schools. Research by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty, leading figures in the comprehensive movement, suggests that increasing numbers of such schools have an unfair share of either middle-class or working-class pupils.

The effect of comprehensives on standards has never been satisfactorily measured. With private and grammar schools creaming off more able pupils in some areas, comparisons are difficult to make. Ms Benn and Mr Chitty found that comprehensive school exam results in areas without private, grammar, or opted-out schools were much higher than in those with such schools.

Comprehensives under Labour would be better, Mr Blair says, as they would be encouraged to replace mixed-ability teaching with setting and grouping according to pupils' ability, subject by subject.

He is not advocating a return to the rigid streaming discredited in the Sixties for its failure to motivate lower-ability pupils. He is attacking the notion of an ideological pursuit of mixed-ability teaching to promote equality. Most experts agree with him. Professor Ted Wragg's research in the late Seventies and early Eighties, concluded that it was hard for the average teacher to cope with children of all abilities. The result was often "the sheepdog effect", with the teacher chivvying along those in the middle and neglecting the most and least able.

But Mr Blair is wrong if he believes mixed-ability teaching is prevalent throughout comprehensives. Even by the time the Wragg research was completed, schools were changing their tack on pupil groupings.

The Benn and Chitty study of more than 1,200 comprehensives found mixed- ability grouping for all pupils in all subjects was confined mainly to the first secondary year. By the following year, the figure is down to 17 per cent and a year later to 6.5 per cent. Figures from the Office for Standards in Education show most schools set pupils for academic subjects in the two years leading up to GCSE. Only 6 per cent of pupils are in mixed-ability classes for maths, 19 per cent for modern languages and a quarter for English.

The scope for improvement, by persuading schools to change their approach to grouping children, may be less than Mr Blair supposes. He will need a more imaginative programme to persuade parents and teachers to have confidence in inner-city comprehensives.