The great comprehensive debate: pass or fail?

Labour has denounced them. Others think they are doing a fine job. Judith Judd weighs the issues.
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Comprehensive schools have failed, according to David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman. Last week he angered teachers by saying so. But, as Tony Blair's son crosses London to a grant maintained school and Harriet Harman's prepares to take the train to a grammar school, how can the Labour Party pretend otherwise?

There is no convincing study showing whether comprehensives are better or worse than the grammar and secondary modern schools they replaced. Experience suggests that a return to grammar and secondary modern schools would not help to narrow the gap between the top and the bottom: in Northern Ireland, which has kept the 11-plus, the tail of underachieving pupils is even longer than it is in England and Wales. But in one sense comprehensives have certainly failed: they have not persuaded middle-class parents in the inner cities that they are good enough for their children. But are these parents right? Do comprehensive schools lower educational standards? Have they failed, as Mr Blunkett suggests, to narrow the gap between the children at the top and those at the bottom?

Comprehensive school defenders point to the statistics. During the past 30 years the proportion of 16-year-olds getting five or more good grades has risen to nearly half. At the beginning of the Fifties even grammar school pupils did not match this. The proportion of pupils staying on at school has risen sharply with nearly a third now entering higher education.

It is wrong, say the defenders, to denounce the whole system because some inner-city schools have found it impossible to surmount economic and social pressures. While comprehensives may appear to have failed from the London viewpoint of the Blairs and Harmans, in rural areas they usually work. If the local comprehensive has a reasonable balance of pupils from different social groups, most parents are very happy.

Professor Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, says: "Some inner-city comprehensives are really secondary moderns. You can't argue from them that comprehensives have failed. If you look at Scotland, where schools are much more truly comprehensive, they are doing rather well."

The difficulty is that the truly comprehensive school in England has proved elusive. Private and grammar schools cream off able pupils and the intake of neighbourhood comprehensives has been skewed by the social make-up of their surroundings: selection by house prices has replaced selection by entrance exam. Middle-class parents who have bought their way into the right catchment are leaving inner-city comprehen- sives struggling unsuccessfully against the odds.

Most experts agree that, although a blanket denunciation of the system is unfair, comprehensives need to do much better. Professor Mortimore says: "They are not good enough. There is underachievement in our average performance compared with that of the Germans or the Chinese." His colleague Professor Michael Barber goes further. "The real issue is in the metropolitan areas. The evidence is that comprehensive education as it has emerged in the Eighties has not worked. Or it has worked very unevenly." Mr Blunkett is right, he says. If we are to achieve the Government target of ensuring that all school leavers have five top GCSE grades by the end of the century, we need to rethink the system.

But how? Mr Blunkett blamed mixed-ability teaching, pursued in some schools with ideological fervour, for many of the comprehensives' failings. Schools say that mixed-ability classes are declining, but figures from the Office for Standards in Education show that in the first three years of secondary school, they are widespread. Just under half of all lessons are mixed ability. In the two years up to GCSE, the figure falls to around a quarter. There are big differences between subjects: in science and English around half the pupils are set or streamed in the first three years in comparison with nearly three-quarters in maths. More than a quarter of pupils on English GCSE courses are in mixed-ability classes compared with just 6 per cent in maths and 19 per cent in modern languages.

School inspectors say Mr Blunkett is right to pinpoint mixed-ability teaching as a cause of low standards. They have been saying for 20 years that there should be more setting in schools. Professor Ted Wragg, director of Exeter University's school of education, says: "Research shows that teachers have the biggest difficulty in teaching the most and the least able children. When faced with a fairly wide range of ability, they tend to teach to just below the middle."

It is, he adds, the most exacting form of teaching which only very talented teachers do well.

Professor Barber agrees that mixed-ability teaching can succeed but only in schools where expectations of pupils are high and the leadership and organisation good. "The trouble is that it has been, in some urban comprehensives, an ideology rather than a means to an end."

So more setting would help to raise standards and, perhaps, address the middle-class worry that comprehensives are not for able children. But is it enough?

Mr Blunkett thinks not. The search is on for ways of reforming comprehensive schools while keeping the comprehensive ideal. Mr Blunkett suggested specialist schools set up by agreement between "families of schools" with one concentrating on, say, technology, another on modern languages, and with pupils travelling between them. The idea is controversial. Professor Wragg supports it as a way of giving parents more choice, provided there is no selection on the basis of ability and students who wanted to go to the mathematics schools would be eligible even if they were not brilliant at maths.

Professor Mortimore opposes it. He says the idea that children should travel between schools was disastrous when tried in the former Inner London Education Authority because children did not want to attend several different schools. In practice, he argues, there will be a pecking order of subjects, with maths and science at the top and PE at the bottom, with everybody trying to get their children into the schools at the top.

Instead, he supports "banding", a scheme used in London in the Eighties. Pupils were tested at 11 and each secondary school was allocated a roughly equal proportion of average, below average and above average pupils. Schools had balanced intakes, he says, and, on the whole, parents were happy.

Professor Wragg says that would mean "bussing" children from one area to another. And parents who accepted their school allocation resignedly in the Eighties would be less biddable in the new world of parental choice and rights promoted by government policies in the past decade.

If there is agreement that the comprehensive system needs to change, there is none at all about how it should be done. No government can enforce mixed-ability teaching. The present hierarchy of comprehensive schools along class lines may contribute to the gulf in pupils' achievement, but Mr Blunkett's specialist schools may just succeed in exchanging one hierarchy of schools for another - with streetwise parents coming out, once more, on top.

Comprehensive schools - a brief history

The 1944 Education Act, cornerstone of the British education system, says all children should be educated in accordance with their age, aptitude and ability.

It envisages a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Few technical schools open. The first comprehensive opens in Windemere in 1945.

In 1950 it is Labour Party policy to introduce comprehensive schools. All-ability schools begin to appear in Labour-controlled areas. Among the first are in Coventry, which had first discussed what it then called multilateral schools 10 years earlier.

In 1966 the Labour government asks local education authorities to bring forward comprehensive proposals.

Mrs Thatcher, while Education Secretary in the early Seventies, presides over the closure of more grammar schools than any other politician before or since.

Battles carry on throughout the Seventies in areas where there was resistance to the introduction of comprehensive schools. By the end of the decade, mass comprehensivisation is complete. The vast majority of schools are comprehensive, with selective schools existing only in small pockets.