Be Thankful for Comprehensives: The Latest School Survey Is a Blow to Advocates of Selection; Mixing Up Social Classes Reduces Inequality without Harming Overall Results

By Hirsch, Donald | New Statesman (1996), December 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Be Thankful for Comprehensives: The Latest School Survey Is a Blow to Advocates of Selection; Mixing Up Social Classes Reduces Inequality without Harming Overall Results


Hirsch, Donald, New Statesman (1996)


Over the past decade or so, British schools have been transformed. On the one hand, parents have greater choice, and local councils have lost many of their powers to direct children to particular schools through the use of catchment areas. On the other, central government and its agencies have taken greater control, imposing a national curriculum, tests and inspections. The aim has been to raise standards. Have the reforms worked?

At first sight, the results of the latest international survey, carried outlast year and published on 4 December, suggest they have. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment puts UK 15-year-olds between third and tenth out of 28 industrialised countries on tests of reading, mathematics and science. We used only to dream of such placements in the international education league.

The improvement may be linked not just to higher standards, but to a new way of measuring performance. This latest survey looks at how well 15-year-olds are prepared for life and for future learning, not through curriculum-based tests, but through written tasks that invite them to apply knowledge and understanding in the real world. This gives us more helpful results than the rather crude surveys that were around in the 1980s, which showed mainly that Japanese students were better than everyone else at calculating simultaneous equations.

Might Brits be good appliers of knowledge, living up to their reputation, along with other "Anglo-Saxons", of being pragmatists rather than theorisers? Possibly. Five primarily English-speaking countries-Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK-have done particularly well in this survey, while Germany was below average. And UK students scored highly on reading tasks that asked them to evaluate and reflect on texts, rather than on more technical tasks that asked them, say, to retrieve information. Here, they scored second only to Canadian pupils, and that by a statistically insignificant amount.

Thus the survey suggests that the incessant drive for "standards" hasn't quashed all imaginative thought. Today's teachers are given targets in the same way that Soviet farmers had wheat quotas, and the new survey found UK pupils more likely than any others to report that teachers pressure them to do well academically. The pupils, however, are still able to step back and reflect.

Yet the old Achilles heel of British education - class difference - is still there. The difference that social background made to pupil performance in this survey was greater in the UK than in all but four other countries. Britain's least privileged students managed to do respectably by international standards-only 13 per cent of UK pupils had poor reading skills, for example, compared to 18 per cent overall. But it is the middle classes who have really been pulling our results up. The quarter of UK students whose parents have the best jobs score higher on reading than their equivalents in any other country.

Free-market enthusiasts imagined that school choice could change all that. Allow parents to choose schools, they argued, and standards will rise, particularly for the disadvantaged, who will no longer have to accept inferior services. It didn't work out like that. School choice, along with league tables of test and exam results, did put more pressure on schools to perform well, but the big winners have been the schools with the most advantaged pupil intakes, not those with the best teachers. …

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