Labour's big, bad idea

Today, Tony Blair's party unveils a new policy: the end of comprehensiv e education. It must not happen
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The Independent Online
Later today the Labour Party will, in effect, repudiate the principle of comprehensive education. Diversity and Excellence is the sort of soft- sell slogan that possesses all the meaningless charm of a detergent commercial. But as with soap powder so with policy statements. It is the content, not the package, that matters. Diversity and Excellence is so preoccupied with emollience that it accepts - perhaps even extends - the divisions which disfigure secondary education.

Diversity and Excellence is built around two myths. The first is the possibility of offering "parental choice" to anything more than a handful of fortunate families. In truth, the processes which are dignified by that description allow the articulate middle classes to talk their children's way into the "best" schools, and leave other people's sons and daughters to take the places which they have rejected.

The second illusion is the hope of creating "parity of esteem" between different types of school. That notion is less New Labour than Old Conservative. Fifty years ago RA Butler announced that grammar and secondary modern schools would be separate but equal. Nobody believed him. Now Labour intends to distinguish between "foundation" and "community" schools. The promise that they will enjoy identical funding and status is equally incredible. If foundation schools (with their ivy-clad name) are to be the same as the more humbly entitled community schools, why bother to create them?

Foundation schools will be grant maintained schools in disguise. And, according to Diversity and Excellence, the "inequity" of "more generous funding" will be "immediately removed". Unfortunately, that resounding declaration is qualified by the assurance that Labour will "develop transitional arrangements on delegation of funds which we will discuss with grant maintained schools".

The GM heads believe they will be invited to negotiate the size of their grant as well how it will be paid. They hope to maintain some extra income for a full decade. If they are denied that 10-year privilege, their goodwill - apparently so important to Labour - will be lost. The advantage seems likely to remain. Once a hierarchy of schools is established, those perceived as "best" always receive more than their proper share of national resources.

By building its policy around different classes of school, Labour is endorsing selection and, on the evidence of Diversity and Excellence, its authors know it. Six times the document solemnly asserts that there will be "no return to selection by the 11-plus examination". That promise has all the value of an assurance that Wackford Squeers will never become Her Majesty's Principal Inspector of Schools.

Nobody wants to bring back "the scholarship". It was especially unpopular among the middle classes, who resented four out of five of their children being branded as failures. That is why other forms of covert selection gradually evolved. The most popular and most pernicious were based on class. By maintaining the foundation (nee grant maintained) schools, Labour is certainly allowing and probably encouraging social selection.

It is easy enough to predict how the system will work. Grant maintained schools were (and foundation schools will be) regarded as superior institutions. Sometimes their reputation will be justified, at least in terms of academic achievement. Their extra funds and the careful screening of potential pupils should have placed them high in the published league tables of examination results. Even when performance does not match potential, the fact that they are different will give them special status.

Every summer there will be more demand for places than the GM/foundation schools can meet. Diversity and Excellence acknowledges the problems of schools being "oversubscribed". But it offers no prescription for ensuring that the articulate middle classes do not talk their way into an unfair advantage.

Diversity and Excellence promises that admissions policy will be "agreed locally". Schools - encouraged by Labour to develop a "distinct identity" - will discuss their method of selecting pupils with their local authorities. We know now what the GM/foundation Schools will propose. They will wish to interview parents - thus demonstrating that parents do not choose schools, heads choose pupils. There may, somewhere in England, be GM heads who spend the summer looking for girls with learning difficulties and boys with behaviour problems. But they are the exception. Usually, the search is for pupils who will push the school up the league table.

The headteachers of GM/foundation schools will propose admission policies which are based on social selection, and many local authorities will enthusiastically endorse their proposals. Sometimes there will be disagreement between an elitist head and an egalitarian local education authority. Then, the school will "have recourse to an appeals mechanism", and an unspecified arbitration procedure will resolve the dispute on the basis of "criteria laid down by the Department for Education". But in a total abdication of responsibility, Diversity and Excellence does not say what those criteria are.

Labour can redeem at least part of its policy failure by making plain that "social selection" will be forbidden. That requires admissions policy to be based on the simplest rule of all. First preference must be given to children from the school's locality, with exceptions made for siblings from families that have moved out of the area.

That would solve only part of the problem. Labour's policy should have been built around a unified system of secondary education - the abolition of grant maintained schools and an increase in every school's administrative autonomy through an extension of local management. Labour should have promised a grant system which gives more to the schools in greatest need. They may not believe it in the leafy suburbs, but it is the "failing" schools which deserve extra help. Some schools in this country are almost totally made up of pupils from the overcrowded homes of the unemployed, the sons and daughters of one-parent families and boys and girls who have learnt English as a second language. It is not surprising that they come low in the league tables. Diversity and Excellence offers them nothing. Indeed, their problems are too unpopular to rate a mention.

It is unusual for a party that is preparing for office to cannibalise one of the most discredited policies of the Government which it expects to sweep aside. Yet that is what Labour is doing. The grant maintained idea is one of the Government's major policy failures. Despite escalating bribes, less than one school in 20 has chosen to leave the maintained system. Yet Labour had chosen to breathe life into the corpse. The party's position is made all the more bizarre by its inability to advance the argument on which the Tory defence of social selection is based. Not even the authors of Diversity and Excellence could bring themselves to endorse competitive education - the best schools forcing the worst to improve. So Labour is left with a divided secondary system but without attempting any reason for the division. As a result, it will pay a high political price.

Grant maintained parents will continue to agitate for greater privilege. They will regard their reprieve as a victory in the battle against genuinely comprehensive education and will be encouraged to go on fighting. On the other hand, there will be general dismay within the Labour Party. Thousands of party members have campaigned for years against the creation of special status schools. Later today, their battles and their beliefs will be repudiated. That personal affront is less important than the renunciation of an idea that lies at the heart of modern socialism. It is not possible to have a semi-comprehensive education system. Outside Westminster, the Labour Party understands that schools have to be one thing or the other. Diversity And Excellence is a retreat from the comprehensive principle. The rearguard action has to begin now.

The writer is Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook.