Alan Parker – Next steps towards a genuinely successful comprehensive system

Alan Parker is a former Director of Education and Schools Adjudicator. At our recent AGM event he spoke about fair admissions and phasing out selection. Here he shares his ideas for the next steps towards a genuinely successful comprehensive system.

 Although the arguments in favour of “a genuinely successful comprehensive system” remain as strong as ever – and are evidentially established – progress stalled in the 1980s and things have actually gone backwards since.  Two components: catching a political tide, and a different tack; could restart it.

Might the tide be changing?

  • Government has recently retreated from:
    • plans to create new grammar schools; and
    • forcing all schools to be to become academies.
  • Growing public disillusion with contradictions, confusions, ‘market failure’ and corruption in the academy sector.
  • The possibility that the opposition might see a ‘planned’ rather than ‘market led’ approach to public services as a vote winner.

What should we do differently?

Firstly we should shift the focus away from the status of individual schools and towards “the system” as a whole. Too much educational debate (on both sides) is sterile and anecdotally based merely pointing at examples of either successful or failed institutions.  In fact any human institution can be good, bad or indifferent.  The point about systemic change is to identify structures that are more likely, notwithstanding the variability of fallible human agency, to deliver the outcomes that you want.

There is actually a lot of consensus over what the public education system should deliver.  The slogan used by Justine Greening to relaunch government policy in 2016 – “a 21st-century school system that works for everyone” is unexceptionable.  And – she would be hard pressed to disagree with the objective of a ‘successful comprehensive system’ if formulated, say, as “a system where all professionals and institutions work together for the best outcomes irrespective of children’s background.”

However the various proposed means to those ends – a coherently structured system of genuinely non-selective comprehensive schools on the one hand; and, market based selection and blurred boundaries with the private sector on the other – are highly contested.

A better way to make progress is to side-step sterile arguments about the various labels applied to schools, and to promote systemic changes on their merits that will arrive at widely supported outcomes by other means.  There are many ways that might be done. Here, I suggest just two:

Firstly: Genuinely “Fair Admissions”. 

All politicians agree that school admissions should be “operated in the interest of parents and children”; but tend to collude with arrangements that allow, indeed encourage, many schools to manipulate their intake for institutional advantage. A simple expedient, which could shift all nominally ‘non-selective’ schools towards a coherent comprehensive system, would be as follows:

  • Give all schools the right to identify their preferred admissions policy; but
  • Create independent local admissions authorities – with a responsibility to determine, and then administer, the detailed arrangements for all schools in their area that would be both compliant with the Admissions Code and locally coherent; and
  • Strengthen the powers of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) to resolve disputes between schools and admissions authorities.

Presentationally, this would be a minimal change – indeed giving the right to decide their admissions policy to all schools, would actually extend ‘school autonomy’.  However by shifting responsibility for drafting the “detailed arrangements” to an independent agency – charged with applying the Code so that the system really did “work in the interest of parents and children” – abuses could be prevented at source.

Most existing arrangements are Code compliant and would remain the same. But, instead of using the OSA in a war of attrition against the minority of schools which game the system; they would be forced firstly to declare their intentions and then get them past both the local admissions authority and OSA.   It would also become a lot easier to implement further progressive changes – e.g. removing academic and ‘aptitude’ selection.

Secondly: Restructure the System to make Selection Irrelevant

Only the fact of a near universal transfer to a different institution at Y7 makes any sort of selection feasible.  But, apart from historical accident, there is no particular reason for such a dramatic change in the shape and style of education at age 11.  Indeed there is a good educational case to be made for something different.

A high stakes external assessment system at 16 is not well suited to our present national needs; and would not be missed (at least by parents children and educationists) if it were abolished. Such a move would also remove the main obstacle to the development of a more integrated 14 – 19 phase of education that almost, but didn’t quite, follow the Tomlinson report.  There are many strong voices arguing for reform in this area.  Similarly widely supported reforms in early years’ education and childcare could very easily be linked to a ‘first school’ phase.

So, my second suggestion would be to argue for curricular and assessment reforms that would lead to a three phase system: early years & KS1; KS2 and KS3; and, KS4 & post compulsory up to 19.  The consequential changes that would go with this would necessarily require the reconfiguration of the entire secondary sector.  There would be no transition at 11.  Changing institution after KS3 may, or may not, be necessary; but, if it was, would tend to be linked to guided choice of different kinds of institution according to developmental pathway.

Alan Parker: November 2017. 

N.B. longer papers developing these two themes are available from Comprehensive Future.