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It is worth recalling that, in the 1950s, comprehensivisation was often regarded as the future that would deliver secondary education from the failures of selection and tripartism/bipartism (in many cases, the failure to successfully establish secondary technical schools meant a simple ‘choice’, if indeed that term be apposite, between grammar schools and secondary moderns). In those days the introduction of comprehensive schools might still be associated with progress and the erosion of class differences. It is worth recalling also that, following the Second World War, tripartism/bipartism had been imposed by a Labour government that effectively protected grammar schools from competition, just as nothing was done about private education; and grammar schools were, through the 1950s, certainly alert to the threat comprehensivisation might offer to their own well-being. (For summaries see Aldrich, A Century of Education, Routledge/Falmer, 2002; Benn & Chitty, Thirty Years On, David Fulton, 1996; Simon, The State and Educational Change: Essays in the History of Education and Pedagogy, 1994; Tomlinson, Education in a Welfare Society, OUP, 2005; and, as always, educationengland.org.uk). We have come a long way since then insofar as successive governments have promoted the idea that comprehensive schools are an ‘experiment’ that has failed. We should not, for example, be too surprised that it was the last Labour government’s disdain for the comprehensive model that so effectively prepared the way for Michael Gove’s more recent assault on state education as a whole.

And so to a new article in The Observer, in which Andrew Anthony describes his experience of life in a comprehensive in the 1970s:

As the son of a milkman, I never enjoyed the social equality with teachers that some of my friends took for granted. For while the school prided itself on its egalitarian ideals, I noticed that most teachers were more comfortable dispensing their enthusiasm on children with whom they could more readily identify, while offering kids like myself little more than well-intentioned condescension.

Anthony then recalls ‘the school’s careers adviser who suggested that my best bet was to become a panel beater’. This is nothing new, and the Observer journalist is one of those fortunate enough not to have been condemned by such lazy attitudes. Research since the 1960s has shown that many comprehensives, from the outset, simply reproduced the class-based assumptions of tripartism. That is, they simply reproduced the class-based assumptions of the wider society (see, for example, the relationship between class and selection in Lacey, Hightown Grammar, MUP, 1970; Ball, Beachside Comprehensive, CUP, 1981; and Gillborn & Youdell, The New IQism (in Demaine ed, Sociology of Education Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

However, this is where Anthony’s argument becomes confused. For example, he blames comprehensives for wanting to attract middle-class pupils because this will improve the school’s league table position. This might well be the case since 1988 (on the ability of middle-class parents to select and be selected, see Gewirtz, Ball & Bowe, Markets, Choice and Equity in Education, OUP, 1995; or Ball, Class Strategies and the Education Market, Routledge, 2003), but it can hardly be relevant to the autobiographical account he has thus far offered. In the first instance, the idealism of comprehensivisation insisted that such schools rejected selection and recruited students from all backgrounds, an aim that should be distinguished from what has happened since the introduction of a market in education trained both schools and parents to be competitive. I would suggest that Anthony’s account of his own schooldays refers, not to a failure of comprehensivisation as such, but to a failure of schools to be fully comprehensive. Anthony concludes that ‘[i]t’s high time the education system ended its preoccupation with social class’, an attractive notion if only we could somehow transform our class society, one in which education is directed related to occupational status. The continuing success of middle-class students might have something to do with the prejudices of teachers; it might also have something to do with the hegemony enjoyed by middle-class values.

Should we conclude, then, that the comprehensive ideal is doomed? More than 40 years ago Basil Bernstein said schools cannot compensate for society, but Stephen Gorard’s recent response is worth considering. Having discussed the continuing importance of social class background Gorard suggests:

 … schools can compensate for society – a bit. As mini-societies in themselves, schools and colleges can be shaped as the kind of wider society we would like, rather than left to represent only the society we have. (60)

Down the same page Gorard says ‘[s]tate-funded schools need to be as similar in character, intake and process as possible’ – what passes for diversity (a misnomer if ever there was one) in the education market is, therefore, not part of the equation. Here, I would suggest that a more flexible curriculum is vital if we are to improve educational provision for all. The hook for Anthony’s Observer article is a recent speech by Ed Miliband in which the Labour leader promotes the interests of those who do not advance to university, the so‑called ‘forgotten 50%’. We might ignore the conference rhetoric and remind ourselves that, in 2005, it was a Labour white paper that rejected the Tomlinson Report’s proposals for precisely the kind of curriculum I have in mind here, one that attempts to do away with the academic/vocational divide. Can Miliband’s Labour devise a response to the narrowing of the curriculum that will result from Gove’s English Baccalaureate, an exercise in rigour-by-exclusion?