End this taboo about selection in schools

Labour and the Tories are offering everything except schools that select by academic ability
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The Independent Online

This week - the Tories; next week - an ageing New Labour: both desperately seeking a school system that will please all parents equally and cost them nothing beyond the income and council taxes they already pay. The dilemma is entirely of the Government's own making. It led parents to believe that they would be offered not just better schools, but a choice of better schools. With standardised tests and published performance tables, it also gave them the means to make their choice informed. When the inevitable happened, and too many people picked too few schools, parents felt betrayed. Politicians must now find a way of looking as though they can honour Labour's extravagant promise.

This week - the Tories; next week - an ageing New Labour: both desperately seeking a school system that will please all parents equally and cost them nothing beyond the income and council taxes they already pay. The dilemma is entirely of the Government's own making. It led parents to believe that they would be offered not just better schools, but a choice of better schools. With standardised tests and published performance tables, it also gave them the means to make their choice informed. When the inevitable happened, and too many people picked too few schools, parents felt betrayed. Politicians must now find a way of looking as though they can honour Labour's extravagant promise.

Neither party can now abandon "choice" - even though many parents say they would prefer to have one really good school in the neighbourhood rather than search through the tables, join a rat-race for places and pile the children in the car for the school-run. Having fixed on choice, though, the parties still need to differentiate themselves, so they are falling over each other to offer more public money, more new schools, more specialised schools, more competition among schools, a wider selection for parents, including, from the Tories, a £5,000 voucher that is not quite enough to buy a private school place, and something special for inner cities in the form of city academies or technology colleges.

They are offering everything, in fact, except schools that select according to academic ability. They come tantalisingly close. The Tories say that schools would be able to select their pupils - according to criteria undefined - even as parents would also select schools. Labour increasingly favours specialised schools for pupils with sporting, musical, mathematical or linguistic potential. All-round academic selection, though - the very simplest form of selection - is taboo.

Yet this one change would eliminate a great many of the reasons why so many parents are currently dissatisfied, rendering unnecessary most of the elaborate schemes now being proposed. For the central purpose of these schemes is to undo the most malign effects of the 30-year experiment in comprehensive education for (almost) all. Specialised schools are designed to "stretch" those with special aptitude - because these same pupils are not being "stretched" when they attend the same school as everyone else. City academies, or whatever you choose to call them, are a device to attract middle-class children to schools their parents would otherwise have ruled out because they are in poor districts where test results remain stubbornly low.

Above all, the proposed changes are an effort to overcome the diktat of the ever-shrinking catchment area around the most sought-after schools. The most perverse long-term effect of comprehensivisation has been to segregate schools along social and wealth lines far more rigidly than before - and the divergence only grows. As a school becomes more popular, the better off and better connected find ways to press their advantage. For a family with two children, the cash or credit rating and the determination, it is still cheaper to pay a £40,000 premium to move to a desirable school area than it is to pay school fees. Increasingly, good school catchment areas and expensive parts of town are one and the same - just as they are in the United States. For families at the other end of the scale, comprehensives have only exacerbated their disadvantages. Once upon a time, the grammar schools offered - as well as a good, often excellent, education - an escape route from disadvantage. That has gone.

There; I have mentioned the dread word: grammar schools. Let me try another: the 11-plus. Now that the Government is scaling back formal testing for seven-year-olds, the first external test comes at 11; the second at 14. Either, or both, of these could be used to determine what sort of secondary school a child would go on to. Parents could exercise choice within that category.

Oh, I know all the arguments that damned the grammar schools at the time. It was said that 11-plus was an intolerable trauma for children and their families - but what about today's tests? It was said that children should not be "written off" as failures at 11 - but what is the effect of rejection by a chosen school? Bigger schools, we were told, would widen curriculum choices (have they, really?) and equalise opportunities - except that pupils are now rigidly "banded". The intention was also that comprehensives would foster social mobility - but just look at today's catchment areas for contrary evidence.

Comprehensive education has not only closed opportunities for some bright children; it has driven some middle-class parents to pay private school fees, and others to engage private tutors to supplement the education their children are not receiving at school. The gulf between standards and opportunities at the best public schools and state schools is wider now than it has ever been - which is why it is so hard for universities to recruit a representative proportion of state pupils. Why should the universities engage in social engineering to disguise the failure of the comprehensive experiment?

When all is said and done, the same tribute could be paid to grammar schools as has been paid to democracy. It is the worst system of education - were it not for all the others.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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