A comprehensive failure

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The true hypocrisy over selection in schools does not lie in Harriet Harman's torn maternal heart; it lies at the heart of Labour's education policy. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that the not-yet-modernised Blairite party professes to believe in an aspirational, meritocratic society, while remaining bound by its ankles to a discredited comprehensive ideal.

Comprehensive schooling is the ideal form in a liberal democracy. The benefits for mutual understanding, for social cohesion, for not splitting the community into antagonistic bands of privilege and resentment, are ringingly obvious. Moreover, comprehensive schools should in principle be more able to respond to the varied talents that make up every individual.

The problem is that in practice it doesn't work. It doesn't work widely and well enough for any modern political party to sell it as a panacea.

I am as emotionally bound up in the comprehensive ideal as anyone in my comprehensively educated generation. I was proud to belong to that first band of kids who were not artificially separated into a small group of academically able and the less able remainder. But what I actually learnt, academically, was disgracefully poorer than it should have been. I succeeded, in the end, in spite of it. And I was not failed by individual teachers - my teachers were, in several fondly remembered cases, superhuman. It was the ideal that failed because it expected them all to be superhuman.

My generation are today's parents of young children, for whom the Harman dilemma is an urgent, defining issue for the politics of the Nineties. And if new Labour does not tackle that, honestly and openly, it will not deserve the appellation "new".

The problem is that the long and divisive course of our 30-year comprehensive experiment has shown that most schools cannot live up to the egalitarian dream. The best do. Good comprehensives are wonderful, inspiring institutions; but they are in a minority, and we cannot rest our hopes for the future on the fantasy that somehow the rest can be brought up to that high standard by wishful thinking.

Why have comprehensives failed? The answer lies in the impossibility of their ambition. My father fought hard as a politician during the Sixties and Seventies to bring about the introduction of comprehensive schools because he (as a one-nation, grammar school-educated Tory) believed that the separation of children at the age of 11 into sheep and goats created a terrible social chasm. Moreover, he believed that less able children would gain from mixing with academically and socially aspirant children. But he never thought children should all be bundled together as one: he knew that comprehensives would not work unless teachers differentiated among pupils within them.

He was right. Comprehensive schooling does provide children with a broader social experience, and sometimes talent rubs off. But, face it, mostly it didn't work out like that. The parental and pupil culture in the overwhelming majority of state schools today is anti-aspirational. Instead of most pupils being lifted to the ambitions of the best, the best pupils come under heavy social pressure to scale their efforts down to the ambitions of the average.

If steering children with different aptitudes into different schools were as a matter of course socially divisive and educationally destructive, why is it that Germany is more socially cohesive, has a narrower range of wealth, is less politically divided and consistently outstrips Britain's educational performance? The Germans separate children (albeit at a later age), as do the French. But they don't separate them down one tunnel that says "Clever" and another that says "Stupid", on the basis of a one-off test. They separate them into academically able, and technically able, and able at all kinds of other things, by assessing them carefully throughout their schooling years. And children move between one school and another: they are not condemned, as many post-war Britons were, to a second-rate secondary modern.

Tragically, in Britain, the 11-plus still defines the argument because we are so desperate to escape its haunting apparition. But it does not have to be like that. Labour should stop incanting a flawed ideal and think radically about how to reinvent state schooling. In so doing, Tony Blair needs to win education professionals, as well as parents, to a new approach.

What is the real objective? Surely it must be to create a schooling system that can meet the diverse expectations of a diverse population. We need schools of many kinds, not just one comprehensive kind, or two selective kinds. In large urban areas, where children can easily travel to a variety of schools, it is surely good to encourage differences. One school might have a particular religious orientation; another might have a famous art department on which it lavishes resources; another might be superbly technically endowed. None of this undermines quality.

And in less densely populated areas, where parents in practice have a choice between one or two schools, selection is possible within schools: children can be grouped according to aptitude, enthusiasm, effort and commitment.

Some comprehensive schools do stream, by form, or subject, or both. But many more are too trapped in the mixed-ability mind-set to contemplate a different approach. They need to let go of their old verities and look at the inspectors' and academics' evidence that has mounted over many years in favour of grouping pupils by ability, or by their willingness to learn.

It is no accident that so much fuss has been made about Ms Harman's decision: education is the new Labour litmus test. Is Mr Blair going to create an ambitious, striving, achieving society, eager and enthusiastic to learn? Or is he going to retrench the pointless argument that has distracted us for far too long?