'The last thing English secondary education needs to be is more specialist'

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The Independent Online

This is a tale of two comprehensive education revolutions - one now faltering; the other unchallenged still. And it is a parable of government because, however "joined up" in the real world, these two revolutions exist on entirely separate planes of the policy world.

This is a tale of two comprehensive education revolutions - one now faltering; the other unchallenged still. And it is a parable of government because, however "joined up" in the real world, these two revolutions exist on entirely separate planes of the policy world.

The first revolution began in earnest in the Sixties and reached its climax in the first half of the Seventies under a Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher. It was, of course, the comprehensive reorganisation of secondary education. Grammar schools, those agents of social inequality and/or avenues of social mobility, were consigned to the dustbin of history. Secondary modern schools, too, were abolished. In both their places, comprehensive schools for all were established, as beacons of a confident and classless modernity.

How long ago that was. During the Thatcher-Major years, comprehensive education was remorselessly eroded. Some rose up to become grant-maintained schools (Surely the initial 'gr' was no coincidence). Others sank to become... well, "sink" comprehensives (although the latest cruder epithet is "bog standard"). Assisted places, in private schools of course, were provided and City Technology Colleges (CTC) founded.

Instead of rescuing the comprehensive experiment, New Labour now seems determined to bury it. Under the Government's plans, many will be encouraged to specialise, an extension of the grant-maintained principle even if the old Tory label has been abolished and the status of GM schools tweaked. New church schools are to be started. Even "business" is to get its hands on some schools, in an extension of the CTC principle.

The last thing English secondary education needs to be is more specialist. It is far too specialist already, as education ministers (wearing their curriculum hats) recognise in their reform of examinations and qualifications. Are more and more specialist schools really likely to produce the more adaptable labour force that everyone seems to agree Britain needs?

The proposal to encourage more church schools seems a perverse enterprise in what is, for better or worse, one of the most secular countries in the world. Unless, of course, the Government plans to encourage the vigorous alternative (and fundamentalist) forms of Christianity or non-Christian religions to found their own schools with public money. Maybe Tony Blair plans to lead a personal crusade to re-Christianise Britain.

In fact, the Government is talking in code. Specialist schools are code for higher standards, and church schools are code for "polite" schools. Neither happens to be true. Eton or Winchester, or the state schools with the best examination results, do not specialise. Church schools are often far from being middle-class enclaves - to their sponsors' credit.

However, irony is an ineffective weapon with which to oppose the Government's policies for secondary education. More substantial arguments are needed. One is to contrast the almost identical language used by politicians, Labour then as now, to describe the challenges facing Britain in the Sixties and the 2000s, with their very different policy prescriptions 40 years apart.

Harold Wilson's rhetoric about "the white heat of the technological revolution" is virtually interchangeable with New Labour's fascination with the internet revolution and global competitiveness. But then, comprehensive schools represented modernity and meritocracy. Today they are part of the problem, un-modern and mediocre.

Of course, comprehensive schools have sometimes fallen short of their most faithful supporters' hopes. But, by and large, standards have continued to rise - as even Ofsted under Chris Woodhead grudgingly recorded. Maybe this puzzling contrast is to be explained less in terms of disappointed hopes than of a grand, and sad, decay of social solidarity and disintegration of civil society.

The second argument comes from the example of the other comprehensive revolution I mentioned at the start. Ten years ago, the division of higher education into universities and polytechnics was dropped. Since then, although not everything has gone right, remarkable advances have been made. Participation has doubled and student numbers have more than doubled. But teaching standards are higher than ever. The quality and quantity of research have both increased.

Who provided the millions of recruits to this higher education system which now has the largest annual output of graduates in Europe and, according to citation indices, is also Europe's most scientifically creative and productive? A very high proportion, of course, came from "bog standard" comprehensive schools. Sufficient, surely, to make ministers pause in their destruction.

The writer is Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University

education@independent.co.uk

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