'The future is bright, the future is selective'

Tony Blair has read the last rites of comprehensive education as we know it. Can he deliver the alternative?
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The Independent Online

Comprehensive secondary schooling is clinically dead. Teaching unions and educationalists do not know it yet. The system itself is still displaying cosmetic evidence of life. But the game is up. The Prime Minister read the last rites in his speech in Bedfordshire last week. True progressives throughout the UK should put the champagne on ice. The cruel myth that equality of opportunity demands uniformity of opportunity has been laid to rest. May it rot in squalor.

Comprehensive secondary schooling is clinically dead. Teaching unions and educationalists do not know it yet. The system itself is still displaying cosmetic evidence of life. But the game is up. The Prime Minister read the last rites in his speech in Bedfordshire last week. True progressives throughout the UK should put the champagne on ice. The cruel myth that equality of opportunity demands uniformity of opportunity has been laid to rest. May it rot in squalor.

For those not in attendance at the meeting at which Mr Blair spoke on Friday, a few key quotes should suffice: "Comprehensive should cease meaning the same for all and instead mean equal opportunity for all to develop their intelligence to the full." "Too often comprehensives adopted [note the deliberate use of the past tense] a one-size-fits-all mentality - no setting, uniform provision for all, hostile to the notion of specialisation and centres of excellence within areas of the curriculum." And then, to clinch it, his killer blow: "We expect every secondary school to do as well for high-ability pupils, through first-rate teaching and facilities, rigorous setting and personalised provision. Comprehensives should be as dedicated as any private school or old grammar school to high achievement for the most able."

In one widely overlooked speech, released too late for many Saturday newspapers and studiously ignored by others, the Prime Minister outlined an educational philosophy which may turn his rhetoric about education into meaningful reality. The moral fissure between Blair the father and Blair the politician has been closed. Suddenly it is obvious why Tony Blair has backed Chris Woodhead through difficult times.

At last we have honest confirmation of what we thought we knew. Tony Blair does not believe in comprehensivisation. In one bold step he has rejected the malicious lunacies imposed upon us by Anthony Crosland, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. He has returned to the proud principles of 1945. He has declared that ability is evenly spread across income groups and that excellence must not be rationed by parental income. It used to be called socialism.The future is bright and the future is selective.

How the British left was ever persuaded to abandon the meritocratic principles which liberated so many Labour ministers, trade union leaders and entrepreneurs from the narrow horizons of poverty-stricken homes must remain a question for moral philosophy. The facts are obvious. If Blair has the courage to match his words with deeds then he has returned to the path of righteousness. He deserves support and encouragement.

It has never been remotely fair that comprehensivisation restricted educational choice to the very affluent. It has always been obscene that education targeted at the aptitudes of individual students has been stigmatised as cruel, conservative and wrong when socialists in the rest of the democratic world regard it as enlightened common sense. Having made the leap of faith can New Labour now deliver? Thiswill depend on the extent to which they are prepared to go to war with the educational establishment and with elements of their own rank and file.

Teachers will require support if they are to implement a return to real excellence. Mandatory streaming (as Blair has delicately decided to call his version of selection) must deliver for all pupils, not just for the academically gifted. The Government must go back to the 1944 Education Act.

It must recognise that grammar schools did not succeed because secondary moderns failed but that the two phenomena were separate. Grammars worked because they were good schools and secondary moderns failed because they were not. Blair's modernised reversion to selection must ensure that excellence is not reserved for the brightest alone.

Are there flaws? The obvious one is in the attempt to present streaming as a complete solution. The 11-plus is still considered evil in Labour circles (selection by mortgage good, selection by ability bad they cry - then whinge when others call them reactionaries). Blair could not bring himself to insist upon separate schools on separate sites (although David Blunkett's new city academies will be precisely that).

Fear not. Thinking is taking place among New Labour's advisers on education policy. There is awareness that streaming on single sites may not work. It has, after all, been employed throughout the Scottish comprehensive sector for several decades. Streaming does not deliver as effectively as geographic separation of different ability groups. It does not overcome the peer group pressure to under-achieve which is so deadly to excellence. That, as New Labour knows well, is one of the reasons that the Scottish system now lags so far behind Northern Ireland's unreformed grammar schools and underperforms even English and Welsh schools in the teaching of maths, science and modern languages. Streaming can make successful children targets for abuse by those who insist on indolence.

But the process has started and progressives must pray that the good minds behind Blair's speech will make sure it does not end in compromise. We must have selection again. The independent sector must be undermined by excellence in state provision.

There will be no 11-plus but there may be rigorous selection by testing. Behind the scenes in New Labour ranks, muttered conversations are beginning between like-minded idealists who recognise the scale of the disaster wrought by comprehensivisation. If Labour wins a second term, we may hear candid discussion of how a tripartite system of modernised selective schooling might recreate the ideals of 1945 in a context appropriate to the twenty-first century. There will be transferability between sets and streams, and mobility between sites, sharing between public and private sectors and second chances for those who fail. But the good socialist principle that success is only meaningful when failure is also recognised will return to schools. And then New Labour will have to address the identical problems created in higher education since Margaret Thatcher sought to undermine the nasty establishment which had denied her an honorary degree by pretending that diplomas in automotive retailing technology are degree-level qualifications.

Our universities require some socialism too. After all, bright children from poor homes had no difficulty winning Oxbridge places when selection was mandatory. For many years they outnumbered and outperformed pupils from the private sector. That will be possible again if New Labour's education revolution takes off. Then we can stop pretending that the University of Wolverhampton is the equivalent of the LSE. We can allow students to take pride in their achievements. Selection gives them the chance, no matter how little their parents earn.

The hypocrisy of New Labour ministers who chose selective schools for their own children while denying the opportunity to the masses had come very close to persuading me that, on education, William Hague might have a point. Blair's speech in Bedford has given new hope. If this is what he means by confronting the forces of conservatism, then a second term is worth winning. Chris Woodhead knows selection delivers social justice and educational achievement. It is why he could never be a Conservative.

Every British child is entitled to hope Messrs Blair, Blunkett and Woodhead will now enforce it without fear or hesitation. And that means in Scotland too, Prime Minister. Comprehensives have failed here as well.

 

Tim Luckhurst was editor of 'The Scotsman' until June this year. From 1985-1988 he worked as an adviser to Donald Dewar and the Labour Shadow Cabinet. At the 1987 general election he was Labour candidate in the Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency

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