In 2007 Comprehensive Future published Fair Enough, its first pamphlet on school admissions. It included contributions from Tory and Liberal Shadow Ministers highlighting the damaging effects of premature academic selection. I was honoured to write the preface which concluded, in a rather naive outburst of middle aged optimism, that ‘there should now be no turning back from a policy of fair admissions”.
Nine years on and Government policy has generated unprecedented chaos in English secondary schools unparalleled in any other British public service. Almost every mechanism designed to encourage fairness and equality of opportunity within our school admissions system has been downgraded or eliminated. Irrational dogma has paved the way for the wholesale privatisation of many of our most successful secondary schools.
It’s worth recalling that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the much celebrated Circular 10/66, the launch of the Wilson Government’s programme of comprehensive reorganisation. Fifty years on and England now has what is arguably the most stratified and segregated system of secondary schools in the European Union. In England today a child’s life chances depend, more than almost anywhere else in the world, on which secondary school they attend.
Where did it all go so horribly wrong?
Quite simply it is this. Since 1979, successive governments have parroted the mantra of parental choice whilst simultaneously pursuing policies that entrenched institutional choice. All parents now have the right to express a preference for a school. They do not have a right to choose. The majority of secondary schools (and the numbers are growing monthly) have been given the power to choose which children they wish to admit.
Many parents are denied even the possibility of attending their nearest school if it selects on the basis of religious affiliation, or on academic ability, or on alleged aptitude or on the basis of any one of a growing number of ever more devious proxy criteria designed to select the most able children from the nicest families.
The Government’s antipathy to sensible planning, hostility to local democracy and obsession with so-called free schools and academies has led directly to the grotesque imbalance between the growing numbers of children and the available school places in many parts of the country. However, the frustration and anxiety of parents is made many times worse by allowing individual schools to set their own admissions criteria.
Allowing schools to select which children to teach should be as unthinkable as allowing local health centres to choose which patients to treat.
So the fallacy of parental choice, and the insidious extension of selective entry criteria to secondary schools, remains the elephant in the room of national education policy. No front bench politicians want to talk about it. But it must be confronted.
Is there any sign that Her Majesty’s Opposition might actually oppose the fundamentals of current Government policy on school admissions? Not yet. The legacy of the poisonous ambiguity of David Blunkett’s 1996 pledge ‘ No more selection under a Labour Government” contaminated Labour education policy for twenty years. Labour ministers and shadow ministers have been paralysed with fear and devoid of imagination. Many of those who looked to Labour as the party of progressive change became gradually disconnected from political life.
However, remarkably, there is now an opportunity to fight back. The most unlikely person ever to lead the Labour Party is an unswerving supporter of comprehensive schools. He has already proposed the creation of a National Education Service. The concept remains sketchy and, therefore, open for discussion. Love him or loathe him, Jeremy Corbyn has shown himself prepared to lead national campaigns on controversial issues. He is in a unique position to open up a new national debate on all aspects of comprehensive education and fair admissions, within the framework of his National Educational Service.
All Comprehensive Future supporters should get to work on persuading Jeremy Corbyn to do this now. No ifs. No buts. No more prevarication under the next Labour Government.