Education: Selling out on ideals to attract a better class: Bottom-of-the-grade schools are making tough decisions in order to stay open, writes Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
Northwark Park in London is a working-class school struggling for survival. It cannot attract enough pupils, and the majority of those it has are from ethnic minorities.

The school's governors and teachers know the answer: it must learn to compete for pupils in a marketplace set up by a government that funds schools according to the number of pupils they recruit, and fosters competition by the publication of exam league tables.

Northwark (not its real name) is committed to the comprehensive ideal, to opening its doors to all pupils whatever their needs, to co-operating with other schools and to teaching mixed-ability classes. Under sentence of death, however, it is rethinking its philosophy.

The story of Northwark is told in a study for the Economic Research Council by Sharon Gerwitz, Stephen Ball and Richard Bowe, researchers at King's College, London. They say the school is typical of those at the bottom of the league tables. Professor Ball suggests that their response is not, as the Government hopes, to start a programme of educational improvement, but to try to increase the intake of middle- class children and to reduce the proportion of problem pupils.

The decision to enter the market divides teachers and governors. At Northwark, the governing body, whose chair is an active socialist politician and which has a majority of left-wing members, is strongly opposed to abandoning the comprehensive ideal. The head and her deputy, however, appear to be toying with the idea of a grammar- school ethos and hinting at the attractions of selection.

The head comments: 'I'm not saying we're looking for middle- class parents, but we're looking for motivated parents. Ideally, every school wants to be oversubscribed, so it does have some control over who comes in.' Her deputy speaks admiringly of a nearby school: 'I'm not saying it has lost its comprehensive ideals, but the head has set it up, as near as dammit, to a traditional girls' grammar school . . . it's obviously attracted a lot of people.'

In the drive for more pupils, the school's tradition of welcoming children with learning difficulties and teaching them in ordinary classes is thrown into doubt. The deputy head thinks special needs should be questioned: 'That sort of provision is expensive, and if you're being asked to produce a good set of examination results, then you want as much of your resourcing as possible to be directed in that way.'

The head of special needs feels educational considerations are already being subordinated to commercial ones. Staff, she suggests, are worried by the school's reputation for teaching special-needs children because of its effect on parents of more able children.

Much the same is happening over the exclusion of difficult children. The head and deputies are not discussing the educational merits of exclusions but the financial implications and whether or not they bring good publicity. Meanwhile, the school is attracting a large number of excluded 15-year-olds who depress its exam results.

'Each child now is worth money, and you've got to be pretty desperate actually to suggest that a parent changes school,' says the head of Year Seven. Other teachers disagree, arguing that disruptive pupils must go because they wreck the chances of the rest.

The decision to review the policy of teaching children in mixed-ability classes has also divided staff. The science department has begun to 'set' children, and modern languages and maths may follow. The head of special needs is resisting the decision: 'It may have the upshot of attracting some parents, but there is clearly a downside - encouraging a label of failure and the D-stream culture.'

Researchers believe changes brought about by the marketplace in Northwark Park have implications for all British schools. They reflect a shift to a system that 'rewards shrewdness rather than principles, and encourages commercial rather than educational decision-making. Concern for social justice is replaced by concern for institutional survival, collectivism with individualism, co-operation with suspicion and need with expediency.'