Shirley Williams: The Tories throttled it, and now Labour's killing it

'Far from being bog standard, the comprehensive school transformed education by combating privilege and inequality'

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It was not just sad, but shocking, to watch the New Labour government join in the attacks on comprehensive schools last week. It was appalling to hear the Prime Minister's Press Secretary talk about "bog standard comprehensives". Of course, there are some dreadful schools in all categories; there are some marvellous ones too. But when did he last praise teachers in hard-pressed inner-city schools for the job that they are doing?

It was not just sad, but shocking, to watch the New Labour government join in the attacks on comprehensive schools last week. It was appalling to hear the Prime Minister's Press Secretary talk about "bog standard comprehensives". Of course, there are some dreadful schools in all categories; there are some marvellous ones too. But when did he last praise teachers in hard-pressed inner-city schools for the job that they are doing?

Comprehensive schools in England and Wales have been traduced, misrepresented, undermined, under-financed and creamed of some of their brightest pupils by such schemes as assisted school places in independent schools. Yet their achievement has been substantial. Hundreds of thousands of boys and girls in the past 30 years have gone on to higher education, and to professional and technical training, who would never have passed the cruel and wasteful 11-plus selection system.

Let's go back to 1964, to remind people of what education used to be like. Then, more than four children in five were sent, at the end of the primary stage, to secondary modern schools. They started their secondary education knowing they had failed the 11-plus examination. For most of them, that meant abandoning whatever ambitions they or their parents might have cherished for a career in the professions. Only a handful of secondary moderns had a sixth form. Selection at 11 for most children determined their future, and consigned them to semi-skilled or unskilled jobs.

By the mid-Sixties there was a broad consensus in favour of comprehensive education, extending from solid Conservative education authorities such as Devon to solid Labour authorities such as those in South Wales. As comprehensive schools became widely adopted, more pupils stayed on beyond the compulsory school-leaving age. From a tiny minority of graduates, the UK saw more than a third of its children move on to higher education in the space of a generation. This increase was rooted in the com- prehensives, which in 1998-99 produced 87,000 pupils with two or more A-levels, to which should be added another 3,000 in the sixth-form colleges. From the remaining secondary moderns came just over 1,000, from the grammars 9,000, and from the independents 33,500. I remain immensely proud of that achievement by the comprehensive schools.

Opponents of comprehensive education always close their eyes to the waste of talent inherent in selection. They invariably compare the comprehensives not, as they should, to the whole output of schools, but to the grammar schools. The four-fifths who went to the secondary moderns are not part of their calculations. For the great crime of the comprehensive school was to break down the barriers of class that underpinned a system based more on social background than on merit.

The comprehensive system was - and is - compatible with different rates of learning and with an element of specialisation among schools. It was not comprehensives but the National Curriculum imposed by the former Tory education secretary, Kenneth Baker, that stopped schools from offering advanced work in subjects in which they were strong. This not only squeezed out teachers' creativity and the space schools needed to develop their own contribution to education, but also forced music, the arts and field sports to the margins of the school day.

The Government now proposes to introduce even earlier specialisation. I am all for a less rigid curriculum, and for schools being able to build on their strengths, providing children get a broad and balanced education. I agree, too, that work experience can be valuable for 13- and 14-year-olds who are bored by school. But they should remain school-based, and their school years should be extended to allow them to complete the general secondary course alongside their practical work.

More worrying, the Government proposes a plethora of routes into secondary education. Don't be fooled: we will see parents and teachers using every avenue to get their children into whichever seem to be the élite schools. And who can blame them? But those without influence, information or a sense of how to work the system will lose out once again. There will be devastating consequences for teachers' morale in those schools that can't specialise, because they don't have teachers qualified to do so. It will become even harder to recruit good staff.

So, yes, I'm angry. Angry because the comprehensive system was undermined by the Conservative governments of the Eighties and Nineties. Angry because teaching has become a miserable profession, assailed by instructions from central government, by demands for tests and assessments beyond what is needed to encourage children, and by league tables that take no notice of the children teachers have to educate.

David Blunkett told the House of Commons last week that the Government proposals were in the great tradition of Tony Crosland. I can only say that the Tony Crosland I knew and worked with in creating comprehensive schools must be turning in his grave.

 

Baroness Williams of Crosby was a member of the Labour government that introduced comprehensive education, and was Secretary of State for Education 1976-79.

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