Nothing More Divisive

Ross McKibbin laments the return of selection to secondary schools

The resignation of Estelle Morris surprised most people: not just because of its timing but because she resigned on grounds of incompetence – to outsiders she seemed more unlucky than incompetent. For any politician such an admission is amazing, and that, understandably, occupied everyone’s attention. What few noticed was that she had not resigned on a matter of principle. Yet, if press commentary is accurate, she had every reason to do so. It was widely suggested that she was worn down by constant interference from Number Ten, one consequence of which was that she failed to keep the new ‘faith’ schools under control. If that is true, she should have resigned, for the ‘faith’ schools are a blow to a democratic educational system – something which she knew or ought to have known. Indeed they are merely one of many forms of secondary school – most of which Ms Morris seems to have accepted – designed to destroy the comprehensive system as it now exists. Still, her resignation has at least focused attention on what the present Government is up to, and gives Labour MPs even less excuse to look the other way. For there is no doubt what the Government is doing: reintroducing selection, at a gathering pace, into the English secondary school system.

The Labour Party’s seeming determination to do away with comprehensive schools in their present form is doubly surprising. ‘Surprising’ because it is unhistorical: no serious evidence has been produced to suggest that comprehensive schools have ‘failed’ and no one now seems to remember the system they replaced. Nor do most parents, ‘customers’ in the new vocabulary, believe they have failed. On the contrary, compared with the schools they or their parents attended, the comprehensives have been a striking success. The extreme reluctance of the country’s elite to admit that improving A-level results might be the consequence of rising standards is thus not surprising: that would be to admit that the comprehensives have succeeded. ‘Surprising’ also because the view that the comprehensives ‘failed’ is a Thatcherite one based on the false assumption that education can function as a market (in other words, that the state sector should provide a free ‘choice’ to every customer) and on a determination to restore social hierarchies within state education. It is, of course, not put like that by anyone in the Government, least of all the Prime Minister: the post-comprehensive era will, he says, be one of marvellous ‘diversity’ whereby all will have exactly the education they want, talent will be rewarded and equality of opportunity made perfect. Yet the only attempt to provide evidence of ‘failure’ is the league tables, which are largely useless since they measure not failure but comparative poverty; and we already know about that. Nor do they measure what ‘failing’ schools often do well: for example, teach children of different ethnicities to live peacefully with each other. The fact that the case against the comprehensives is primarily Tory would once have made the Labour Party at least suspicious. No longer. The Government is critical of the case only because it apparently does not go far enough. The case for the bog-standards and the historical circumstances of their establishment have, as a result, now largely been forgotten. We need to remind ourselves what they were.

There were three arguments for the ending of selection in English state schools. The first drew on evidence that selection led to a huge waste of national potential. Failure in the eleven-plus, it was argued, immensely damaged children’s expectations and their possible achievement simply because they knew they had failed and didn’t have a way of concealing their failure. Mere attendance at a secondary modern (or its predecessors) told the world that you had failed. The harm done by selection made selection indefensible. This was not a ‘political’ argument; and it wasn’t an attack on the grammar schools as such. It was, rather, a calculation of net loss often driven by an economic imperative – a belief that the decanting of the majority of children into schools that everyone more or less despised was in the long run economically damaging. The virtues of the grammar schools were outweighed by the vices of the others.

The second argument was political. The constitution of democracy, it insisted, depends on the commonality of social experience. Even in a liberal democratic society, which is what England is, the social and cultural distances between people are very wide. Most of the time they just walk and talk past each other. If they are further divorced during the most formative period in their lives these distances will be widened. The case for comprehensive schools is rather like the one people used to make for National Service: that it forces those who would otherwise have no social or cultural relationships to know each other. The advocates of this argument never denied that in any liberal democracy the middle classes would always have natural social and cultural advantages (as they do), and that any attempt to do away with such advantages altogether would be politically unacceptable. Thus a common education by itself would not make the classes equal, but it would permit a mild redistribution downwards of cultural advantage – unlike a selective system, which mildly redistributes it upwards.

The 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education free and compulsory, didn’t specify any particular form of secondary education. Local authorities, in the circumstances, tended to fall back on what there was: a highly selective system with the grammar schools very much at the top. Such a system might – just might – have worked had certain conditions operated. One is that the system would have to have been genuinely tri- and not bipartite: that the secondary technical schools, which had real standing, would have remained an essential component. They were, however, allowed to die; they were expensive and the state preferred to spend the money elsewhere, or not at all. Another condition is that there would have to have been ‘parity of esteem’ between the secondary grammar and the secondary modern schools; that they would have had equal status. But, of course, everyone knew from the beginning that they did not have equal status. And inequality of status implied inequality of provision. The state spent more on the grammar schools than on the secondary moderns – just as the state will spend more on the selective schools it is now busily creating. Initially, the Labour Party had been prepared to give the bipartite system its chance. There were defenders of the grammar schools, like Attlee’s first education minister, Ellen Wilkinson, who believed they could create a working-class elite – a not indefensible argument. Success in the grammar schools demonstrated the working class’s competence: its fitness to govern. There was also a view – common in industrial England – that a secondary education did not matter all that much. A bright boy should get an apprenticeship – only dull boys stayed on – and a secondary education was of no use to a girl anyway. The unions, however, whatever individual members might have thought, never believed this, and Ellen Wilkinson was always in a minority in the Labour Party itself.

The third argument, like the first, was a practical one. A selective educational system had created a social impasse. We tend to think of comprehensive schools as working-class affairs; but they are also middle-class affairs. A number of the earliest authorities to go comprehensive were Conservative-controlled, and Mrs Thatcher as education minister was a Stakhanovite in her creation of comprehensives. The old eleven-plus put tremendous strain on middle-class families: success was thought essential, but failure meant a public school which most could not afford or, worse, the secondary modern. There were two obvious ways out of this. One was to send everyone to grammar school, as some in the NUT wanted; the other was the creation of ‘multilateral’ schools – in effect, streamed comprehensives. The grammar-school alternative was ruled out largely on curricular grounds – what they taught could not be taught to all. The multilateral school, however, would eliminate middle-class fears about the eleven-plus (since multilaterals would include parts of the grammar-school curriculum and ethos) while diminishing the working-class sense of failure which allocation to a secondary modern almost automatically created. Throughout the 1930s the attractions of the multilateral school were increasingly recognised, but no one would grasp the nettle even though the idea of the multilateral – as long as the public schools were left untouched – was not politically contentious. Indeed, one of its leading Parliamentary proponents was A.A. Somerville, a former Eton master and Conservative MP for Windsor.

Although circumstances have changed, they have not changed enough to put paid to any of these three arguments. The case against selection remains almost as strong. Furthermore, the old bipartite system at least had coherence: grammar schools and secondary moderns had the same relationship to the state through the local education authorities. But the new system is as confused as it was in the days of the old ‘higher tops’: sixth-form colleges, foundation schools, city academies, technology schools, ‘faith’ schools, ‘specialist’ schools, bog-standard comprehensives; some funded directly by the state, others via LEAs. This is diversity of choice. Yet one does not have to be a genius to realise that it is physically, intellectually and arithmetically impossible for everyone to have a choice of secondary school should they choose to exercise it. The notion of diversity is simply an ideological dodge to conceal the fact that selection is being reintroduced to favour some at the expense of others.

The new system will certainly not be as unfair as the old bipartite one since selection (we hope) will not be as ruthless, and the differences in provision between schools not (we hope) so marked. Nor do I believe that the Government would wish to restore such a system. But there is no difference in principle: the unfairness is only a matter of degree. The ‘specialist’ comprehensive schools, for example, can select up to 10 per cent of their students and will receive extra funding from the state, though they are also required to find £50,000 locally (i.e. from business sponsorship). Selection by ability or ‘faith’ is now inbuilt – the voluntary-aided ‘faith’ schools can choose whom they wish, though up to 90 per cent of the capital costs of a new ‘faith’ school are provided by the state. More worrying is the future. The English secondary school system has always had a strong instinctive urge to grade and select; and since 1997, when we were assured that there would be ‘no selection’, there has been a steady and accelerating retreat from the comprehensive principle. Charles Clarke, the new Education Secretary, who wishes to expand the ‘specialist’ school system, says that comprehensive schools were a response to ‘selection and grammar schools’, and we are now beyond that. Yet selection is being openly restored; the remaining grammar schools are allowed to flourish; and it requires a trained eye to detect the difference between a new city academy and an old grammar school. Mr Clarke is also reported as having said that successful schools – as measured by Ofsted – might be allowed to opt out of the National Curriculum. This, if correctly reported, is an extraordinary suggestion given the absolute centrality of the National Curriculum to both the Conservative and Labour Parties. Normally such a suggestion would give pleasure. In the present context, however, it causes only foreboding. Unless the Government is very careful the likely result is that ‘failing’ schools will be reduced to teaching an increasingly drear and ossified National Curriculum, while ‘faith’ schools will teach what they want. The Government has argued, for example, that the question of whether ‘faith’ schools can teach Creationism is ‘hypothetical’ since all schools must teach the National Curriculum. Not for long it seems; unless Ofsted is particularly tough.

Furthermore, selection, even when unavoidable, is socially divisive and undermines commonality of experience. And nothing is more divisive than religious schools. The only consolation we can draw from the multiplying Christian ‘faith’ schools is that many parents will have faith only as long as it takes to get their children into the schools. The bog-standards will, of course, survive, and most children will probably go to them, but they will be harassed by league tables, targets, directives and ‘failure’; and then punished by the perverse negative incentives which operate throughout English education today. It is these new and refined forms of selection which make talk of the ‘state sector’ – as in ‘universities must take x per cent of their undergraduates from the state sector’ – so misleading. No one would quarrel with that if there were a state sector. But there is no state ‘sector’: instead, a finely graded system of selective schools is evolving – schools which are, directly or indirectly, wholly or partly, funded by the state but which have little in common with each other.

Most depressing is the sheer dilettantism of all this. The apparent determination to involve business in the funding and administration of schools and the belief in a particular business-managerial model is just silly, and comes from a credulous belief in the universal wisdom of businessmen. It also ignores the plentiful evidence that the Stalinist CEOs, the ‘superheads’ who might run consortia of schools, represent an administrative structure that has failed almost everywhere, not least in Britain. In any case, the business of business is business, not the running of schools, for which we should expect businessmen to have no particular aptitude. Nor should comprehensive-school principals have to waste time trying to cadge money from outsiders in order to teach subjects to the level at which they should be taught anyway. There is no justification for the demand that the specialist schools find £50,000 from the private sector – other than the view that any contact with business must be pedagogically uplifting. What is taught in the secondary schools and how it is taught is a legitimate matter of debate – that is unarguable. What is, or should be, illegitimate is a policy which, deliberately or accidentally (it is hard to tell which it is), sets out to create a hierarchy of secondary schools of varying status and provision. There is also the wilful refusal to admit, other than sotto voce, that ‘failing’ schools draw their students from ‘failed’ cultures, almost all of whose failure is determined by relative poverty. The notorious problems of London’s secondary schooling, for instance, are the result of an urban culture almost guaranteed to bring down a secondary school. One part of the present Government knows this; the other part, which runs education, seemingly does not. Unfortunately the part that does is disproportionately Scottish, and it is the English secondary schools which are at issue.

The political dimension to all this is hardly less depressing. The continuing attack on Local Education Authorities, the determination to further limit their power, continues the Conservative policy of attacking relatively powerful intermediate institutions (LEAs) while promoting relatively weak ones (the schools themselves). One effect, which was the intention, is to tighten Whitehall’s grip on the educational system as a whole. The other, which was probably unintended though wholly predictable, has been to create a bureaucratic apparatus which has brought many strong men and women to their knees. This is the regime of targets and directives where, despite everyone’s best intentions, things all too easily go wrong – as the recent A-level fiasco demonstrated. Labour MPs, possibly a majority of them, are very unhappy with what is happening, but have neither the will nor the power to do much about it. The historically feeble Parliamentary Labour Party, many of whose members are also members of the Government and thus silenced, has little control over the actions of the executive and is quickly brought into line by the whips. But backbenchers could and should have tried harder.

To want to preserve the comprehensives as they are is not to want or expect much: merely to minimise rather than maximise educational loss. The comprehensives can never function quite as their earlier advocates hoped, since they can never be fully comprehensive. One obvious reason for this is the existence of independent schools. Although only some 7 per cent of parents send their children to them, they are a highly placed 7 per cent. It was always recognised that the public schools were a formidable obstacle to educational comprehensiveness. They kept children out of the state sector and deprived it of a powerful and self-confident vested interest: the parents of those who go to public schools. Old Labour never had the courage to touch the independent schools even when it might have done so. Now it couldn’t be done anyway since human rights legislation and EU law probably give independent schools almost unconditional protection. In fact, New Labour is also more ambivalent about these schools than Old Labour was. For much of its history the Labour Party had no special view of public schools. There was, for instance, no feeling that an aspiring leader should not send his children to one of them. Today no Labour MP could send his or her children to a public school and realistically aspire to the Party’s leadership. Yet the public schools undoubtedly deliver, and for a Party which believes delivery is all, that trumps everything else. The public schools are not failing comprehensives, and that makes them irresistible.

The other obvious reason is geographical differentiation (the middle class living in middle-class suburbs, the working class in working-class suburbs). This means that many comprehensives are not socially mixed. This can – though it doesn’t necessarily – deprive them both of children from educationally ambitious families and of parents who are willing and able to act in the interests of the school. Under the new arrangements those schools with the most active parents, the most sympathetic businessman, the most educationally acute neighbourhoods – in other words, the most naturally endowed schools – are to be even more lavishly funded at the expense of schools with the fewest natural endowments. We might argue, however, that those schools least socially endowed – the ones able to call upon the fewest active parents or sympathetic businessmen – should be funded at higher levels than socially well endowed schools. Such an argument, of course, carries no weight with the present Government. For the rest there is probably little that we can do. To force a social mix via drastic social engineering – bussing was one example – is not politically feasible. On the other hand, comprehensives would not have been so successful had many of them not been socially mixed. In any case, simply because the system is inherently unequal provides no excuse for making it even more unequal. Indeed (for those who admire league tables) the countries whose secondary school achievement is superior to England’s tend to have fully comprehensive rather than selective schooling. In 1940, as England’s education almost collapsed, R.H. Tawney wrote that the country ‘was witnessing . . . the nemesis of a plutocratic educational system’. Should the secondary school structure now emerging ever crack up, it will be the nemesis not just of a plutocratic system, but one which is also bureaucratic, pedantic and fundamentally undemocratic.