Is the future comprehensive?

Schools for One Nation.

A fringe meeting organized by Comprehensive Future with the support of ACCORD, CASE and the SEA was held at the Labour party conference in Manchester on September 21st 2014.  The meeting arose from the concern of these organizations that many English children face the 11 plus and more and more schools are setting their own admissions and that even more segregation and division between schools and pupils will result.

 Melissa Benn, a Vice chair of the SEA and member of the Comprehensive Future steering group, chaired the packed meeting.  Melissa encouraged delegates and Labour party members present to take back to their Constituency Labour Parties the need for Labour to end selection and support comprehensive education when returned to power.  She pointed out that it had been claimed that Michael Gove had convinced the Conservative Party of the importance of comprehensive education so surely the way was now open for Labour to take it forward.

The speakers were –

Patsy Kane – Executive head of multi academy co-operative trust including Whalley Range 11-18 high school and Levenshulme high school Manchester

Simon Barrow – co-Director of Ekklesia, on behalf of the Accord Coalition

Owen Jones – Guardian journalist, author and campaigner

Fiona Millar – Comprehensive Future and Guardian journalist

Patsy Kane

From all we now know from research on the brain and learning, we know intelligence isn’t fixed, we know people develop at different stages and a growth mindset can transform an individual’s ability to achieve. We also know that the best leaders and the best teachers are values driven. They care about all young people and they care about their future development and well being. They want to make the biggest difference.

There can be no educational, moral, social or political reason for not ensuring the future of education is comprehensive. We need a strong and positive sense of identity as a community and as a country. The cost of social exclusion is too high.

The idea of assessing a child’s intelligence on a particular day has never been justifiable. There is a huge industry in an area like Trafford, where those parents who can afford it, spend vast sums of money on private tuition and coaching so their children are prepared and rehearsed for the 11 plus exam. This can’t be fair competition and undermines the idea of an objective assessment of intelligence.  The pressure on young children from the age of 9 and 10 to prepare for these exams is phenomenal and many days are lost as individual exams are taken for each grammar school.

Selection leads to an over representation of children who are from more privileged backgrounds. We need them modelling the social assurance and confidence to children coming from less affluent homes. This is needed at 11-6 but also post16 where young people who simply expect to go to university and have a good job can have a very positive influence on those for whom it is still a step into the unknown.

Pupil premium students , who often have more limited cultural experiences which helps learning and progress may not shine at 11 but continue to make progress and achieve well at 16.

Children who are from more difficult and less supportive backgrounds may feel they have failed something important at an early age and never develop the self belief they can excel.

Secondary modern Schools have to spend enormous amounts of energy building this poor self image back up to the point where a child can achieve academically. Many of these schools do achieve good outcomes but it is a harder challenge.

Staff expectations can be artificially low for some students who have failed to pass this test. In a school where progress is expected and it is recognised students progress at different stages and at different times, staff are constantly looking for signs that they are capable of more.

A child may be ill on the day and the whole scope of their future may be altered for ever.  Siblings will be labelled and possibly split up according to their performance on a particular day.

Children arrive in our cities at all different times and may not be able to understand exams taken at one age. Somali students used to be an under performing group at my school. Not only did we work really hard at encouraging the girls in school. We also invited parents in to discuss our mutual aspirations, often via translators. One parent worked from being a TA to getting a degree to being a qualified teacher and Head of House. Her own mother had had no education in war torn Somalia. Her daughter won a place at Cambridge.

The outcomes for high ability students can match those of any grammar school. In my trust whole classfulls of girls achieve a string of A* and A grades. The head girl last year achieved 11A* and a starred distinction In Her further maths GCSE. She also wrote a school pledge, led assemblies and encouraged every girl to have the courage to lead and take a step into something new. Her ambition is to go to Cambridge to study Chemical Engineering. They will be lucky to have her in their college.

What they have gained is a rich mingling of students from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Friendships based on the kind of person you are, not based on what you happened to score on a particular day. Seeing students support each other during lessons, giving their time at lunchtimes to help younger and weaker students with their maths or reading, promotes a great sense of a caring community where achievement definitely matters.

We need every young person to be valued for who they are and for their unique talents and skills. Some young people have significant challenges and barriers to overcome. They need to grow resilience and self belief, which good schools will nurture and celebrate. Being the best you can be is an inclusive approach which still fosters excellent standards. Students can be stretched and challenged as they mature and achieve levels beyond any expectation at the start of Year 7.

Economically, we need people who understand they need to keep learning throughout their lives if we are to sustain a healthy economy. Some students, the majority, would feel they were not capable of achieving as much if they were not in a comprehensive and free to keep growing.

Economically, we need well managed firms and businesses so leaders need to be able to relate to employees and customers from a wide range of backgrounds.

Politically, we need people who understand there is a range of needs in society as well as a range of strengths. We can’t afford to write anybody off, especially at such a young age.

We need all young people to believe they can achieve and have something of value to offer to society.

We need a whole system of consistently good schools where  whatever your age, gender, ability or background whatever the subject, stage or set, a child will be well taught and challenged to make the best possible progress.

I believe we are better together and stronger together.

Simon Barrow

Right now, we live in the fourth most unequal country in the developed world. The driving force of that inequality is economic, but its underpinning is in the social order – most particularly education. Perhaps the least understood aspect of this is the issue of religious selection in schooling.

My own engagement with this subject is as co-director of Ekklesia, a progressive Christian think-tank that takes equality and social justice as the key to transforming the convictions (whether religious or non-religious) that motivate us in the quest for a better, shared society.

From that background, I am also a co-founder of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education, which brings together people of different faiths with Humanists and others to put the practical, educational and moral case for ending selection and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief in all publicly-funded schooling.

Research from the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC), of which both Ekklesia and Accord are members, is now showing conclusively that religious selection leads to greater socio-economic selection in our schools, and that it has a greater overall impact on making the state-funded system at the secondary level more exclusive on socio-economic grounds than the total impact of grammar schools.

FAC will be making a statement about that today. Let me unpack it a little. First, it is important to understand that 16% of places at mainstream state-funded schools (primary and secondary) in this country are now religiously selected. This is more than the number of places at grammar schools, single-sex schools and private schools combined.

The FAC research finds is that each individual place at a grammar school causes almost twice as much socio-economic selection as each individual religiously selected place. But as there are more religiously selective secondary school places, it remains the case that overall religious selection causes more socio-economic selection at the secondary level than grammars do. Meanwhile, at the primary level there is even more religious selection but no grammars. So it is probable that across both phases of the English state system, religious selection causes over twice as much socio-economic selection as grammars.

Of the course the impact of both grammars and religiously selective schools in different areas differ widely. For example, while 15% of pupils nationally are eligible for free school meals in Hammersmith and Fulham – to take one example – the segregation between the religiously selective schools and other schools is almost double that (27 percentage points). If you live in London, then, selection on grounds of religion or belief is a big problem. But so is the huge unevenness between different areas.

These enormous discrepancies are why campaigning against grammar schools and campaigning against selection on grounds of religion or belief in schooling are both important and belong together, in my view. The case for genuinely equal educational opportunity should unite parents, teachers and all who care for our children’s future. Religious selection is inherently discriminatory. I fundamentally object to children’s life chances being damaged on the basis of whether they are from a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Humanist or any other belief background. It’s scandalous. My objection comes from my Christian conviction about the equality and dignity of all. Yours may arise from a different life stance. The important thing is that we stand together.

Along with the Campaign for State Education (CASE) and the Socialist Education Association (SEA), Accord has asked for three priorities in this area for the 2015 Labour manifesto. These are: phasing out the selection of pupils in admissions on belief grounds at religious foundation schools; having state funded schools re-inspected on how they promote community cohesion (a requirement introduced by Labour in 2007 and removed by the 2011 Education Act); and adding RE (which should be understood as fair, critical education about the whole spectrum of beliefs and values) as a curriculum entitlement.

These are policies that begin to ensure that publicly funded schooling is open to all, not a domain of privilege for those with most resources and influence. I would urge Comprehensive Future to embrace this agenda for change, alongside reform of assemblies to make them truly inclusive, and universal standards for Personal Health and Social Education. People of different faiths and none want and need schooling appropriate to a diverse, mixed society. Labour can and should grasp the opportunity to make sure that this is what they get.

Fiona Millar

My involvement with Comprehensive Future started when Margaret Tulloch and David Chaytor, then chair, asked to see me and gave me a pamphlet which the campaign had produced about the impact of academic selection.  It was an eye opener. I was already quite involved in London education issues but in my little bubble most Inner London schools largely comprehensive.

This is not to say there aren’t issues in London and indeed most large urban areas there is covert selection, house price selection and all the other fiddles so some schools are more comprehensive than others. But we were fairly shielded from direct effects of academic selection.

In fact I mostly only thought about it in relation to my own education and my own children.  Educated in their local comprehensive schools in the same borough in which I went to school 40 years ago in a selective system.  And as they progressed through school I realised in every way they and their friends were getting a better education than my peers and I did.

Not just academically but because they walked through the same school gates every morning as such a wide range of children from different backgrounds.

However to get back to 2003.

I was quite shocked to be faced with the evidence of –

1. What a painfully partial revolution comprehensive education has been in England

2. How many people didn’t realise this.

Ten years on – comprehensive schools continue their unstoppable improvement but the revolution is still not finished. The growth in schools with more freedom to control their admissions has increased the risks of more covert selection.

The RSA Academies Commission’s recent report was clear on this. And the situation in the fully selective authorities is ever more shocking. The 164 grammar schools are not an irrelevantly small number (this is of course the no 1 political argument in favour of keeping them).

But –

  •  They skew  the intakes of schools around them
  •  They continue to brand thousands of children every year as failures at the age of 10 – and many are waiting for the results right now
  •  They divide communities and families – and
  •  They load unbearable pressure and anxiety on children in those areas

I recently researched a piece for the Guardian on the ludicrously named Bucks “tutor proof “test.  In Bucks, as in many other selective authorities coaching is more rampant than ever. There is pre-testing at the ages of 7 or 8 for the most exclusive tutors. There are Coaching summer camps.  Some families spend up to £3000 a year on tuition and children whose parents can afford it commute huge distances to take up places in grammar schools, further disadvantaging local children

It is clear that the tutor proof test has been nothing of the sort.

The grammars contribute to widening not narrowing gaps – Bucks is a county which has almost the biggest gap in outcomes between pupils eligible for FSM and the rest in the whole of England.

So selection at 11 is not a One Nation education policy.

So what are we going to do about it?

Labour has a complex and multi headed task picking up the pieces from Gove and his silent successor.  And I do understand that there are many pressing priorities for a future Labour government, many of which may seem more important than dealing with selection, or rejection as I prefer to call it.

Labour must create coherence at a local level, out of the fragmented market we have now. It must rebuild confidence in qualifications, curriculum and accountability and restore gradually the broad and balanced curriculum that is another vital part of a REAL comprehensive system

But addressing fair admissions and selection is a critical part of this reform package if, as I assume it will, a future Labour government wants continue the aspiration of narrowing gaps and creating a fairer society.

So we have a moral responsibility to continue reminding people of the arguments on our side which means –

First : busting the myth that comps have failed. Comprehensive education has transformed the life chances of generations of children. Every one of us on this panel has experience of that.  Thousands of young people have had opportunities they would never have had under the old grammar secondary modern divide. The evidence on this is completely clear.  So never let that sloppy line “ comprehensive schools have failed” pass anyone’s lips without being challenged.

Second: We now have so much evidence showing how young people’s brains continue to develop throughout teenage years. This makes a total nonsense of the idea that ability is fixed.

Third: We must turn the evidence that is used against us on its head.  Take PISA. PISA results often used to beat English schools for their poor performance against that of other countries   but I prefer to look at PISA in terms of what it can tell us about the success of those other countries. What we learn is that:

  •  autonomy is good but must be allied to trust and strong systems of local accountability
  •  a relentless focus on teacher quality and ongoing teacher education is vital
  •  schools work best when they have balanced intakes and a critical mass of able motivated pupils

So to achieve good outcomes for ALL children – in other words quality and equality the message is don’t segregate or stratify children into different institutions or streams at a young age.  These are powerful arguments for the politician who has the courage to make them.

Finally – we need to be clear about simple practical solutions –

  •  In the case of the grammars – It isn’t about abolishing schools – which conjures up images of razing their buildings to the ground – it is about changing the way they admit their pupils. It is about phasing out the 11 plus test gradually over a ten year period – little direct impact on the pupils currently in those schools as the CF pamphlet says.
  •  It is about abolishing much of the divisive stress and anxiety that hangs over the primary years in those areas.
  •  And it is about reassuring parents in those areas that the comprehensive system that will emerge in its place will be high quality, aspirational and fairer
  •  More broadly it is about tightening up the admissions code
  •  It is it about giving local authorities power and responsibility for ensuring schools can’t flout that code
  •  And it is about reinforcing the message that fair admissions and real all ability schools will help to create a more socially just and cohesive society.

I started of by recounting how I first got involved in this campaign. Over the years it has sometimes felt like a hopeless task.  But I remind myself of the

Ulysses S Grant quote.

“There comes a time in every battle when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins”.

I don’t like to see this as a war, though there have been times when it has felt like that   but I think the other side does consider us beaten. This means they feel safe in promoting the status quo.

Which is why we must never give up.