Back in the early 1990s the satirist Chris Morris, in his Radio 4 parody of the Today programme, ‘On the hour’, announced that 'under new government reforms, school headteachers will have to fight each other in the playground for the right to teach the brightest children'.
Satire can often be uncomfortably close to reality and it gets close to the heart of the current education debate. The government have at the same time tried to claim that their education proposals are far reaching and that they are in keeping with Labour traditions. But as Martin Kettle pointed out in yesterday’s Guardian, both these things can’t be true.
Insofar as school admissions policies are concerned, it is hard to see why anyone would want to give schools more control over who they admitted if it isn’t an attempt to bring in selection by the back door. Schools will inevitably want more intelligent, well-behaved children who will get lots of A-Cs at GCSE and fewer who display challenging behaviour and who are likely to push up the truancy figures. In today’s target culture, this pretty much stands to reason.
Education in general, and secondary transfer in particular, is about the only policy area where I retain pretty unreconstructed left-wing attitudes. Hearing Tory John Redwood on Question Time last week reminded me why. Whatever he actually said, what he appeared to mean was that grammar schools are good because they get state school children into Oxford and Cambridge. For many on the right, elitist grammar schools are a feeder for elite universities and this is about the only education worthy of the name. Universities like the ones I went to (Leicester and Birkbeck, London, since you ask) should call themselves mechanics institutes and teach practical skills like woodwork and not get delusions of grandeur.
From such a viewpoint, although a return of the 11+ is not practical politics, anything that inches the school system back in that direction is a good thing. I suspect Labour go along with this as a kind of electoral calculation – those who take a real interest in school selection policies are likely to favour selection on ability and are the constituency worth courting.
To me, any progressive and liberal policy should regard it as important that local rather than central government should be responsible for education. We should strengthen not weaken LEAs. Of course, I am not totally unreconstructed. I do believe that comprehensives can become a bit monolithic, that diversity is a good thing, that parental choice, as far is it is possible, should be encouraged. It is right that schools should have OFSTED inspections so that there is some guarantee of standards and incentive to improve. But selection by the front or back door, NO!
My wife, who taught in comprehensive schools in Hertfordshire for many years, always says that no evidence is ever produced to show that comprehensives let down bright children – just flat assertion. I suspect that comprehensives find it harder to match the hothouse atmosphere of schools that get lots of students into Oxbridge, but leave more people equipped to go to the Leicesters or Birkbecks or to take educational opportunities in later life than was the case with secondary moderns.
How do we resolve the vexed selection question? Not by giving schools more control over admission policies. In south-west Hertfordshire, where the more popular schools have by hook or crook always kept a stranglehold on who they admit, the result is that schools lower down the pecking order struggle to get a balanced intake, no matter how good their facilities or teaching staff.
My former political colleague in Leicester, Robert Pritchard, used to argue mischievously that all children should be given their first choice of school. If that meant that the popular schools ended up teaching classes of 100 then so be it. Parents would soon get the message and the intense battle for places at the so-called 'best' schools would end.
In the absence of any other fair way of deciding school admissions, I have always thought a ballot is the answer to oversubscription. Since secondary transfer is so contoversial in my neck of the woods I have kept this view to myself – ‘Lib Dem councillor wants to make a lottery of your children’s education’ etc. Then a couple of years ago a writer in the New Statesman wrote an article promoting exactly this idea, making me think it was not as eccentric as all that. Perhaps I should try promoting it within the Lib Dems, I thought. But the following week I was brought down to earth when the first person to write in saying this was a stupid idea was a leading Lib Dem county councillor and education expert from the midlands.