Clarke kills off what Crosland started and Campbell condemned

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke is quite right when he says that his five-year blueprint for schools is one of the most significant events in education since the 1944 Education Act paved the way for the present system.

He says the only change that could rank alongside that was the introduction of the national curriculum for schools in the late 1980s.

I can think of another event - Anthony Crosland's ushering in, in 1965, of comprehensive education.

Yesterday in effect buried Labour's erstwhile dream of comprehensives for all - a "one-size-fits-all" type of school for every pupil. By the end of the decade, there is unlikely to be a state secondary school in the country that will be solely a comprehensive. Schools will either be specialist or independently-run city academies.

Of course, Crosland's dream never came to fruition despite growing cross-party support for the idea of comprehensive education. Conservative-controlled councils such as Devon and Hertfordshire willingly switched to the new system as a result of Crosland's Sixties legislation. In Hertfordshire, their mood was, if we are going to have this system we will show Labour we can run it better than they can.

Margaret Thatcher, when she was Education Secretary under Edward Heath's government of 1970-74, presided over the closure of more grammar schools than any other secretary of state. Yet there were still pockets of resistance, with a significant minority of education authorities sticking with a selective system. Shirley, now Baroness, Williams sought to change that by introducing legislation compelling them to change - but it never happened.

The Kents and Birminghams of this world still have selective schools. In fact, there are 164 grammar schools in Britain today - the same number as there were when Labour returned to power in 1997.

There are those who will say Labour has deserted its roots and is returning to the days of selection.

Not so. Its new specialist schools, it is true, can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on aptitude in the particular subject they specialise in - a measure introduced by the Tories before they left office which Labour did not remove from the statute book. A mistake, if ministers wanted to retain the support of many of their backbenchers.

Yet, in practice, only 6 per cent of those set up actually do select pupils.

There are also those who argue that Labour's decision to abandon its original concept of comprehensive education means the whole experiment has been a failure. Again, not so. Comprehensive schooling has broadened educational opportunities for a large number of pupils. It used to be the case that your chances of getting to a university from a grammar school were one in eight. In secondary moderns, that figure was one in 22,000.

Comprehensive schools have still not done enough to reduce the class divide in education, but at least greater numbers from the most deprived communities - nearly 10 per cent of all pupils living there - can obtain a university place.

In truth, yesterday's document hardly comes as a surprise. The death of the comprehensive system as we know it was broached by Alastair Campbell, when he was Tony Blair's "spin doctor". He hailed the announcement of an expansion to the specialist schools programme as "the death of the bog-standard comprehensive".

That could have led to a two-tier system and given rise to claims that Labour was introducing a new élite form of schooling credibility had not Mr Clarke announced that every school could apply to become specialists.

He deserves credit for having won over the policy wonks at Downing Street to this way of thinking.

I can see merit in the new specialist school system. So I can raise a glass - not to the death of the comprehensive system, but to its moving on.

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