Blair Could Still Do Better on Comprehensives; as the Government Pledges to Transform Secondary Schools, Education Correspondent TIM MILES Looks at Its Record and Prospects

By Miles, Tim | The Evening Standard (London, England), February 13, 2001 | Go to article overview

Blair Could Still Do Better on Comprehensives; as the Government Pledges to Transform Secondary Schools, Education Correspondent TIM MILES Looks at Its Record and Prospects


Miles, Tim, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: TIM MILES

EDUCATION SECRETARY David Blunkett yesterday announced plans for the demise of what the Prime Minister's official spokesman described as the "bog-standard comprehensive".

The monolithic comprehensive does make an inviting target. Labour came to power in 1997 pledging to abolish it.

But the Tories had already done some ground work by attacking "grey uniformity" in state education a decade earlier.

In truth, comprehensive schools are already remarkably diverse - ranging from the London Oratory School, able to attract the brightest children from across London, to hundreds of schools up and down the country serving their whole communities.

But if both parties agreed in 1997 that the comprehensive system had "failed", they had different prescriptions for its future.

The Tories were clear on their vision; a grammar school in every town.

Labour too had clear ideas, in particular more "streaming" by ability.

With the next election approaching fast, and Labour threatening the same assault it first promised four years ago, what has changed?

Setting: no specific policy has been aimed at increasing setting. School inspectors found last year that more than seven out of 10 lessons in secondary schools were set or banded by ability in maths. But in science and modern foreign languages it was only just more than half. In most subjects it was far fewer.

Selection: Mr Blunkett famously promised Labour activists in 1995: "Read my lips, no selection". What he appears to have meant was "no more selection".

Parents were given the opportunity to vote on the future of the remaining 164 grammar schools in England. In the one ballot that took place, in Ripon, North Yorkshire, parents voted overwhelmingly for the status quo.

Specialist schools, introduced by the Tories, can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by "aptitude". Most do not.

The Tories allowed other state secondary schools to select up to 50 per cent of their intake by ability. Labour invited parents to object and created an adjudicator to make judgments. In most cases levels of selection have been roughly halved.

Grant-maintained schools: created by the Tories to break the control of local education authorities. Labour replaced the category by "foundation" schools, which give former "opt-out" schools virtually the same freedoms.

Heads of governing bodies of all schools have been given progressively more control of their own budgets.

Specialist schools: a Tory initiative seized by Labour as the means to introduce "diversity" into secondary education. …

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