Comprehensive education has not failed

Comprehensive education has failed – myth number 1 from The Truth About Our Schools

Reading today’s newspapers or listening to or watching our media, you could be forgiven for believing that comprehensive education has been a widespread and resounding failure in this country. Contemporary commentary, from the boldest headlines to the passing casual phrase, has a repetitive one-note quality: ‘Schoolchildren “being failed by comprehensive education”’; (1) ‘Comprehensive schools failing poor pupils’;(2) ‘Comprehensive schools have failed the working class’;(3) ‘What about the comprehensive failures?’;(4) ‘A choice in which the only option ends up being the failing local comprehensive is no choice at all’.(5) According to one recent critique, it is ‘generally regarded’ as a ‘disaster’.(6)

Even articles that purport to be sympathetic to non-selective education will nonetheless employ emotive language – ‘Kent boasts the highest number of grammar schools’(7) – or metaphors more appropriate to the battlefield as when referring to ‘grammar schools which survived the drive towards comprehensive education.’(8) One well-known memoir of a comprehensive education bears the rather worrying title, Comp: A Survivor’s Tale.(9) Even some Labour leaders have been tempted to use unhelpfully emotive imagery – former Prime Minister Tony Blair talked about the phasing out of selective education as an act ‘pretty close to academic vandalism.’(10) Other arguments verge on the patently ridiculous, such as columnist Peter Hitchen’s claim that ‘The comprehensive system is anti-education’ (11) or novelist Tony Parson’s bizarre assertion, taking the battlefield metaphor to its bloodiest extreme, that going to a comprehensive is ‘a start in life right up there with dying at the Somme.’(12)

But such assumptions and distortions simply don’t stand up to careful scrutiny. Worse, they obscure a sober assessment of everything from the history of our school system to the structural nature of the labour market, the relationship between economic and educational inequality and the reality of thousands of state schools today. (It is perhaps no coincidence that the majority of editors and prominent commentators who promote an anti-comprehensive rhetoric are privately educated or have chosen private or selective education for their own children.)

Meanwhile, almost every social problem, from the impact of poverty and rising inequality on educational outcomes to classrooms in poor repair is laid at the door of state education, particularly non-selective schools, and despite compelling expert evidence to the contrary, most commentators still recklessly assert that comprehensive reform is responsible for the stalling of ‘social mobility’ in the UK. But as Diane Ravitch writes in response to similar political assaults on public (state-funded) education in the United States, ‘public education is . . . not “broken”. Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only as far as this . . . narrative of crisis has destabilized it.’(13)

That is why, in place of the half-truths that pass for objective reporting, we need to draw on the wealth of evidence and human examples that tell a very different story. From this we will see that far from having bred educational failure, the (still unfinished) comprehensive revolution has laid the basis for the potential educational success of the vast majority of young people today.

The principle of comprehensive education is simple. Every child, whatever their social background or apparent intelligence or talents, should have equal access to a well-resourced, broad and balanced education from the earliest years to the age of 18 (from 2015, the legal age for participation in education or training). It is morally and practically wrong to decide a child’s potential, ability or direction in life before puberty. All young people should be well taught and wisely guided throughout adolescence so that they can (begin to) pursue their true passions and talents. Comprehensive education also sends out an important message about children being educated together: that regardless of class, faith, ethnic background, prior attainment, all children should walk through the same gates to school.

This interlinked set of simple but powerful ideas forms the basis of some of the most successful education systems in the world including Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. International studies confirm that comprehensive systems and all-ability schools are the most likely to narrow the educational attainment between social classes and that the more and the earlier that an education system divides its children by so-called ‘academic ability’, the greater the gap between the resultant achievements of children from different social backgrounds. The OECD found that ‘Early student selection has a negative impact on students assigned to lower tracks and exacerbates inequities, without raising average performance. Early student selection should be deferred to upper secondary education while reinforcing comprehensive schooling.’ (14)

Where the selective principle still operates within the UK – 15 local authorities still retain the 11+ and 164 grammars remain – the evidence strongly suggests that it largely benefits the affluent, widens the gulf between the better and less well-off and does long-term harm to the economic prospects of the poorer members of those communities in which selective systems exist.(15) Grammars increase social divides and harm the educational and economic chances of the majority of the population in the area where they are located: ‘Individuals who do not make it to the grammar school do worse than they would have done if they had grown up in an area with a comprehensive school system’.(16)

Comprehensive reform was the result of growing dissatisfaction with the 1944 settlement which, while establishing the crucial right to universal free education, was structured around the separation of children, at puberty, according to their presumed talents and ability. The 11+ exam decided if a child was to be sent to an academically-oriented grammar school or a secondary modern where the curriculum was less demanding and few, if any, exams and qualifications were on offer. A third option – the technical schools – never really took off in this post-war period, although the idea is enjoying a kind of revival with the new studio schools and University Technical Colleges.

The 11+ divided young people before puberty but with lifetime consequences and largely along class lines. The long-term effect of failing the 11+ has been described by John Prescott: ‘The message was that suddenly you are less than they are. It tends to leave you with an inferiority complex’.(17) Recent research by a website offering learning for those aged 50+ found that this effect is common even 40 years on:
“Of those who failed the 11+, 36 per cent said they still ‘lacked the confidence’ to undertake further education and training courses, while 13 per cent insisted the experience ‘put them off learning for life’. Some 45 per cent of adults with poor 11+ results said they still carried ‘negative feelings with them into their fifties, sixties and beyond’, it was revealed.”(18)

We need to look much more closely, then, at the so-called ‘golden age’ of the grammar schools in the 1950s. Although a minority of lower middle class and an even smaller proportion of working-class children did gain entry to grammar schools, ‘places tended to go to the sons and daughters of professional business men/women’.(19) Not only were the majority of working-class children channeled into the less well-resourced and well regarded secondary moderns, but as former head Adrian Elliott recounts in his book on state education since the 1950s, academic results in the grammar schools themselves were under par. Those working-class children who did get into a grammar often gained fewer qualifications and left school much earlier.(20) As Elliott states,
“According to the Crowther report in the late 50s a staggering 38 per cent of grammar school pupils failed to achieve more than three passes at O-level . . . It is clear that of the entire cohort of 16-year-olds at this time, only about 9 per cent achieved five or more O-levels and that less than half of those who attended grammar schools reached this benchmark”.(21)

These figures, say Elliott, were national averages and so included some of the most high achieving grammars of the period.

Opposition to the 11+ grew during the 1950s as academics increasingly questioned the evidential basis of the exam itself and ever larger numbers of vocal middle-class parents became unhappy when their children were consigned to clearly ‘inferior schools’. The journalist Simon Jenkins has written about the ‘gilded myth’ of the grammars, and reminds us that

“At political meetings at the end of the 1960s, the—then education spokesman—Edward Boyle was torn limb from limb by conservative voters, infuriated that their children who had ‘failed’ the 11+ were being sent to secondary moderns, along with 70-80 per cent of each age group. They had regarded the grammars as ‘their schools’. The 11+, they said, lost them the 1964 election and would lose them every one until it was abolished. Margaret Thatcher recognised this as has every Tory party in practice ever since.”(22)

Simon Jenkins also reminds us of the bi-partisan nature of reform during the late 1960s and 1970s with both Conservative and Labour local authorities backing the move to ‘all-in’ schools. Across the political spectrum it was realised that, properly organised, and sufficiently resourced, ‘all-in’ schools could give many more children the chance to thrive, academically and socially.

Comprehensive reform was never fully achieved. Even today, in 2014, a significant number of grammars remain, together with a small but powerful private sector that educates 7 per cent of the population. Nevertheless, from the 60s onwards, comprehensive reform had a major impact on the chances of the majority. First, most children in this country were not told that they were failures before they had reached puberty and therefore were deliberately to be consigned to second-rate schools. Second, the advent of comprehensive education endowed those same young people, who would previously have been written off as wholly without skills or talents, with the chance to acquire a range of knowledge and qualifications and the confidence to continue enjoying learning. Coupled with a progressively higher school leaving age, it gave many more young people the chance to gain qualifications so that the percentage of young people gaining five O-levels (or GCSEs) rose from 23 per cent in 1976 to 81 per cent in 2008.(23)

According to Brian Simon, an early advocate of comprehensive education,
“the concept of a common curriculum for all . . . was a major objective of the whole comprehensive reform movement of the 1960s and 1970s (and earlier). This movement was primarily concerned to prevent shutting off access to full life opportunities for considerable proportions of the nation’s youth”.(24)

This it did, in spectacular fashion. The number of students in education at age 17 grew from 31 per cent in 1977 to 76 per cent in 2011 and those achieving a degree rose from 68,000 in 1981 to 331,000 in 2010, an almost five-fold increase.(25) Both the percentage and absolute number of working-class men and women who went to university in the 1970s increased for the first time since the 1930s.(26)

Jenny Chapman, the Labour MP for Darlington, spoke of the human side of this expansion, in a debate on social mobility in the House of Commons in 2010:
“five or six years ago there were one or two wards where a young woman of eighteen or nineteen would be more likely to be a mother than to be a student in higher education. I can report with great pride that this is no longer the case. Teenage pregnancies are reducing, and participation in higher education in those wards [is] improving. That needs to be taken into account when we discuss social mobility”.

We hear too little of these stories. Even today, when relatively few grammars remain, and those that do overwhelmingly educate the affluent, we are constantly told (wrongly) that it is only selective education that changes working-class lives.

However, relatively recent research undertaken by Chris Cook, at the Financial Times confirms the evidence that selective education actually harms the vast majority of poorer children. Cook found that in selective areas, the most disadvantaged students were less likely to get the top scores and far more likely to get low scores than in areas of comprehensive education. Cook also found that, for the very richest in society, there was a definite benefit to attending grammar schools. Those in the top 5 per cent by income did better than those in non-selective areas. However those in the bottom 50 per cent for income did, overall, worse in selective areas.(27)

Unsurprisingly then, the stress associated with the 11+ seems greater than ever and success is arguably as much about the advantages conferred by family background, including parents’ ability to pay for tutoring, as any ‘innate ability’. There are reports of children attending 11+ coaching at 5am in the morning and parents paying as much as £5,000 in tuition to get their children through the 11+. More than six out of ten children receive some form of tutoring.(28) Of those parents using the web site, 63 per cent agreed that private tutoring ‘significantly enhanced’ their child’s chances in the 11+.

Recent attempts to ‘tutor-proof’ the test in order to boost the chances of poor and ethnic minority students have come under critical scrutiny from campaign groups. The Buckinghamshire based ‘Local, Equal, Excellent’ has uncovered data, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, which casts doubt on the claims of those who say the test boosts the chance of less advantaged students. According to a report of the campaign group’s findings in the TES:
“The data suggests that children of black Caribbean and mixed white/black Caribbean heritage in the town of High Wycombe did particularly badly in the first year the exams [were] sat, in September 2013. The combined success rate for these groups fell from 15 per cent to 5 per cent. Children of Pakistani heritage also appeared to do worse in the town: they made up 13 per cent of children gaining grammar school places in the year prior to the new test, but just 11 per cent under the first year of the new test.”(29)

In selective authorities, passing the 11+ can become the ‘be-all and end-all’ to anxious parents. Journalist Lucy Cavendish described her experience of coaching her son: ‘To be frank, it turned me into an obsessed loon. In fact, I became almost deranged.’ Continuing, she describes the effect on parents going into appeals:
“These women have already been through the wringer. They’ve probably coached their children to within an inch of their lives. They have worried themselves silly as their poor children went into that quiet room last October and took the tests. They’ve endured weeks of waiting for the results. This is their last chance. Their children failed the test – probably just by a few points. All they can do now is use every single plea they can muster to gain a much-coveted place at one of our local grammar schools. [They feel as if it] is their last chance saloon”.(30)

As we have argued, out-of-date perceptions of comprehensive education, fostered by an often hostile press, have projected an overall image of a mediocre, failing sector. There has been little discussion of the fact that the continuation of overtly or covertly selective education, in large parts of the country, has in some areas, at some periods of the recent past, rendered many local ‘comprehensives’ anything but – particularly those in areas of high deprivation, which have struggled to succeed in the face of multiple challenges, particularly in periods of economic hardship. And while some local authorities provide excellent support to local schools, others have not been so successful. All local authorities faced a particularly difficult time during the 1980s under a central government that neither believed in high quality comprehensive education nor was willing to invest in it. Since 1997 however governments, both Labour and Conservative led, have been more committed to improving non-selective education and parental confidence has increased accordingly. Combined with a number of creative locally based schemes for collaboration and improvement such as the London and National Challenge, many non-selective schools in deprived areas have become among the most successful state schools in the country.(31)

For all this, we still hear too little of the achievements of state education in general and non- selective education in particular year nearly half of the intake of MPs following the 2015 election were educated at comprehensive schools. In particular, there is no established public narrative concerning the role of comprehensive education over the last few decades in significantly improving the life chances of thousands of working-class women and men. As Selina Todd, author, history lecturer and Vice Principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, argues, ‘It wasn’t grammar schools that assisted working-class people to get to university, but the introduction of comprehensive schools’.(32) Todd, herself from a working-class background and educated at a comprehensive, has written elsewhere that comprehensives show students that
“academic success is founded on hard work and effort, not on family background and wealth—the criteria for entry to private schools—or the innate ‘talent’ that selective schools claim to identify. Most importantly, comprehensives still provide far more students with the opportunity to do A-levels and apply to university than do private or state selective schools.”

Despite the lack of unified comprehensive system, public support for the idea of local ‘all-in’ schools, and the performance of the vast majority of these schools, remained resilient from the 1960s to 2010, particularly after a sustained period of investment. Ofsted’s 2011 Annual Report noted that 94 per cent of parents completing their questionnaire agreed that they were happy with their children’s education, up from 93 per cent the previous year.(33)

Politicians over time have recognised the de facto popularity with parents of a good local school, open to all, even if many cannot bring themselves to endorse the non-selective principle or use the ‘c’ word. The Education Act of 2002 declared that one of the key characteristics of the new academies should be that they provide ‘education for pupils of different abilities who are wholly and mainly drawn from the area in which the school is situated’.(34)

On coming to power in 2010, it was clear that the Tory-led coalition recognised the potential popular appeal of comprehensive education. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove frequently declared his belief in the idea of ‘non-selective excellence’ and the current head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of a highly successful comprehensive in East London, has frequently declared his implacable opposition to grammar schools ‘stuffed full of middle class kids.’(35) The coalition’s flagship policy of free schools and academies draws directly on the comprehensive legacy with its commitment to a ‘good local school for all’, founded on all-ability entry, and improving the education of the children from the poorest backgrounds.
As Sam Freedman, former adviser to Michael Gove wrote, on the day of Gove’s (dramatic) departure from the Department for Education in July 2014,
“perhaps his greatest achievement has been to normalise comprehensive education for the kids through grammar schools or assisted places to creating a genuinely world class system for all. In time I suspect that will be more widely recognised than it is now.”(36)

However, during the period of Coalition government from 2010–2015, pressure was building up in support of expansion of the grammar school estate, both from small groups of parents within selective areas and Tory backbenchers who have made it clear that they want to see a return to academic selection. It remains to be seen how responsive the Conservative government, elected in May 2015, will be to these varied pressures and how much it will hold to the Cameron/Gove vision of a high quality school for all.

Let us briefly puncture a related myth: the charge persistently levelled at modern comprehensive education that it is a key driver in the demise of ‘social mobility’ and prime cause of growing economic inequality.

Several reports and commissions, set up since the turn of the twenty-first century, have focused on this issue, creating ‘a political consensus . . . in which stalling social mobility is seen as a distinct problem [from which it] then follows, in every political account, that the solution to the problem is education’.(37) Such a ‘consensus’ is then endlessly used to argue for the return of grammar schools and the separation of children into vocational and academic streams (if not at 11, then at 14).

But what if such a consensus is just plain wrong? The first of the series of papers to put the argument on the link between social mobility and education was the Aldridge report, a discussion document published by the Policy and Evaluation Unit in 2001 under Tony Blair’s premiership.(38) This suggested that social mobility, as defined in terms of earnings, had fallen between the late 1950s and 1970, and that Britain had become a less class-fluid society. For Conservative party; to shift the argument from ‘saving’ a few bright poor many Labour politicians this confirmed the importance of New Labour’s commitment to ‘education, education, education’ while Conservatives latched onto the Aldridge findings to argue the slow-down was caused by the closure of grammar schools.

A more publicly influential LSE-Sutton Trust report, published in 2005, also argued that children born to poor families were less likely to break free of their background and fulfil their potential than they were in the past.(39) Comparing two boys from different backgrounds – both born in 1958, both of whom left school in the 1970s – it found the boy from the richer family born in 1958 earned in adulthood on average 17.5 per cent more; by the 1970’s, the difference had leapt to 25 per cent. The report also confirmed that the relationship between family income and children’s higher education attainment had grown stronger between cohorts completing their education in the 1970s and that ‘the expansion in higher education in Britain has benefited those from richer backgrounds far more than poorer young people’.

However, few seemed to notice that the Sutton Trust report focused on the birth dates of the two respective cohorts – 1958 and 1970 – and that both sets of boys (and it was only boys) came to puberty and the start of their all-important secondary career, at a time when comprehensive education was well entrenched. Also, no-one seemed to notice that rates of social mobility were much higher in other countries, like Canada and the Nordic states, where comprehensive education was well established, suggesting that the problem may lie elsewhere. For some commentators, such as Tim Luckhurst writing in The Times, the Sutton Trust report confirmed ‘only a blend of ideological zeal and intellectual dishonesty could now defend the comprehensive system’.(40)

Experts now argue that there is a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of the concept of social mobility and the role that education plays in it. In his seminal 2012 paper, ‘Understanding—and misunderstanding—social mobility in Britain’, Professor John Goldthorpe argues that increased social mobility in the post-war period was more a case of more room being found at the top of the economy, than a tale of a (now defunct) education system powering individuals to its summit.(41) The structure of the labour market changed markedly during the 20th century with a rapid growth of professional employment after the Second World War which then slowed down. Professional and managerial jobs stopped expanding and, at the same time, women with greater educational qualifications began to enter the labour market.

According to Goldthorpe, ‘no decline in mobility, either absolute or relative, occurred in the late 20th century’. Moreover, the rate of relative social mobility, which measures the chances of a given person escaping their class origins, has not changed for a century. After reviewing all the evidence, Philip Collins of The Times observed that “This argument often finds its way into public debate in a fractious and unenlightening exchange about grammar schools. It is true that absolute social mobility started to decline about the time that comprehensive schools replaced grammar schools . . .’ But the really interesting thing, he goes on to say, is that neither a selective nor comprehensive system had any real impact on rates of social mobility.”(42)

Bernard Barker and Kate Hoskins came to a similar conclusion in their recent, more qualitative, study of 88 students in two high achieving state schools. Despite excellent teaching, good results and high expectations for all pupils (from both the school, and the children themselves) class inequalities and destinations appeared to remain largely unchanged. Barker and Hoskins attribute this to a complex set of factors including the way that school organisation, from primary school onwards, reproduces class position, to individual students’ wish for personal happiness as much as material success, commitment to their families, including areas of work associated with particular family histories. Official explanations, from across the political spectrum, of education’s role in promoting social mobility fall far short of the complex reality of human lives.(43) Furthermore, as Selina Todd argued in the 2014 Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture, excessive concentration on the questionable goal of social mobility takes social inequality for granted and risks re-enforcing it.(44)

In short, to regard education as the main way in which disadvantaged pupils can become rise economically is profoundly flawed. These changes will not happen unless other social and economic policies are in place. One reason for this, as Goldthorpe argues, is that ‘when education standards generally improve, the more advantaged parents will still use their wealth to maintain their children’s competitive edge.’ At the same time, lack of educational success is less of a handicap for advantaged children because they can access support networks unavailable to disadvantaged children who don’t succeed. These strategies prevent ‘downward mobility’, the logical consequence of a genuinely fluid and open society, but an aspect of the process that no politician dare even contemplate, let alone publicly advocate. Of course, if downward mobility were to be considered allowable – even as a subject for serious discussion – then selective and private education would surely be identified as one of the key props used to shore up privileges of the children of the already affluent, whatever their so-called ‘natural ability.’

Far from comprehensive education hindering the chances of poorer children, our long-established and deeply hierarchical education system appears, even now, to exacerbate inequality. In 2010, Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, found that sophisticated admissions policies within the state sector led to marked social and economic segregation and prevented the entry of poorer children into higher attaining schools.(45) An OECD adult skills survey recently found the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children in the UK to be very wide—wider than in most other OECD countries, and clearly associated with inequality in income distribution. ‘In England/Northern Ireland (UK) . . . social background has a major impact on literacy skills’.(46)

According to Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL),
“Schools simply cannot compensate for the serious and lasting effects of child poverty . . . If politicians are to do more than preach about social mobility or wring their hands about the educational attainment of poor children, they need to address the root cause of educational inequality: poverty . . . School teachers and support staff work every day to alleviate the burden that poverty places on the life chances of poor children. They do not need lectures on social mobility from politicians whose policies increase child poverty and blight poor children’s futures.”(47)

Professor Goldthorpe agrees. He argues that ‘equality of opportunity’ is unlikely to be effective unless ‘class-linked inequalities of condition’ are significantly reduced. Social mobility is more marked in Scandinavian countries where policies are directed at reducing income differences through taxation and welfare policies combined with ‘strong trade unionism and employment protection.’ According to OECD head, Andreas Schleicher – once described by former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, as the ‘most important man’ in UK education – results from the triennial PISA tests found education systems are more likely to succeed if education policy is aligned with other public policies—if they they are coherent, sustained and consistently implemented.(48)

A wide range of voices across the political spectrum now agree that not only is comprehensive education consistent with excellence but as a school system it forms the best basis for more equal and cohesive social relations. Writing to the Guardian in 2010, Selina Todd, vice principal of St Hilda’s Oxford, spoke of how her college welcomes
“applications from comprehensive school students, not because these candidates can do well in spite of their school, but because their education offers them an excellent foundation for university. Many comprehensives offer imaginative lessons, encourage independent study, and provide an unparalleled social education. Being educated alongside pupils from a wide range of backgrounds gives these candidates the ability to negotiate cultural and social difference in debate, and the confidence to relate abstract or scholarly theory to the wider society in which they live”.

Todd’s argument is supported by Daily Mail journalist Sarah Vine, wife of the former education secretary, Michael Gove – the first ever Conservative education secretary to choose a state school for his child. Writing about her own comprehensive education Vine said that unlike private schools,
“they provided me with a broad education . . . in life. And in the realisation that you shouldn’t judge people by their clothes, or where they live, but by who they really are regardless of circumstances; that kids studying to be hairdressers deserve as much respect as those wanting to be rocket scientists.”(49)

For all the myth-making about comprehensive education, few public figures would seriously suggest – or at least, not publicly – the return of the once highly unpopular secondary moderns, or dare imply some children are simply not worth educating properly. No mainstream political grouping, bar UKIP, argues for the return of the grammars. The shared educational credo of most political parties in the early 21st century is that every child, regardless of background, should be given access to the widest range of knowledge to the highest standard. That credo is a testament to the success of comprehensive education.

The challenge for the immediate future, then, is of a different order. It is not to reverse the comprehensive revolution but to consolidate, and further improve upon it. The battleground has shifted, and many of the fresh threats and barriers to a high quality comprehensive system lie elsewhere. Some argue that the real problem with state schools lies not in the non-selective principle but with the notion of ‘progressive education’. Others aver that only privatisation and the creation of a market-based system of schooling will bring about a good state system. New myths have sprung up as part of these new campaigns – fresh worries planted in the public mind, in order to further chip away at confidence in state education. It is to one of these most enduring and unfounded of these untruths that we must now turn.

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20 See the Gurney-Dixon Report (1954) Early Leaving Central Advisory Council for Education. To understand the human story behind such statistics, see also Alan Johnson, This boy: A memoir of a childhood, Corgi, 2014.
21 Adrian Elliott, State schools in the 1950s: The good news, London: Trentham Books, 2007, p. 50.
22 Simon Jenkins, ‘Cameron’s historic victory over the gilded myth of grammars’, Sunday Times, 27 May 2007.
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This is an extract from The Truth About Our Schools: Exploding the Myths, Exploring the Evidence, by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs, recently published by Routledge It is reproduced with the permission of the publishers and the authors. Owen Jones says of the book – ‘A superb, crucial blistering expose of all the myths about our education system’