Truly comprehensive education

(Cover of novel by Daniel Ken )

I wish to lay out my position on comprehensive education because it is one of those terms that everybody uses, but very few understand.

This comes about because most people think that just because a school is called a “Comprehensive School'”, it must have been delivering ‘comprehensive education’. On this basis, bad comprehensive schools are taken as evidence that comprehensive education does not work. My position comes from the realisation that we have never had truly comprehensive education in this country, and where it has been implemented it has benefitted EVERYBODY.

I lay this out in detail in my book, The Asylum of the Universe, and copy the relevant section at the end of this post.

People’s views get prejudiced by their own experiences and this leads to the unfortunate peddling of ignorant stereotypical views like these:

“My education took place before I reached the age of 10, at a small, overcrowded village school. From there I went to Grammar School, and a year later became a victim of the new comprehensive mode of non-education…I left school at 15.”

“a personal experience, born from a particularly disastrous change from grammar to comprehensive where none of the staff were prepared for a high intake of young people who had no intention of learning anything. “

Quotes taken from Pippa Bartlotti’s ‘Ask the Greens’ blog. With these bad experiences to draw on, what are her solutions:

“From the age of 2 all children would go to small neighbourhood pre schools at no charge – with no get-out clause for anyone rich or poor. They would get 3 meals a day plus a snack to take home. Parents would then be free to work, the resultant tax income contributing to the cost of extra schooling. If parents chose to fulfil the prophesy of multi generational laziness their benefits would be replaced by vouchers which could only be spent in one place. Training for parents would be available. Simultaneously, older children missing the initial introduction to greater equality and wider socialisation would be filtered into age groups, and at key teenage years boys and girls would be educated separately to save them from their own silliness. There would be a progressive and staged education system delivered by hands-on experienced trainers, quite possibly from the armed forces – who are exemplary trainers, but who currently train for the wrong thing – but also from all walks of life.

From her Huffington Post column, not from UKIP’s manifesto, where it would sit appropriately enough.

Thankfully, she has had no input into our Education Policy which is broadly in keeping with my views that truly comprehensive education is the way forward. We have some experienced people within Green Left that are working tirelessly to help refine and improve this vision of an education that truly offers equal opportunities for all and yields the highest possible attainments across the board.

I have spent just about all of my life in education in one form or another, including 20 years as a secondary school teacher. I have witnessed and experienced schools in France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Poland and Australia. Hopefully, this gives my views and bit more credibility and substance. They are laid out in more detail here:

EXTRACT from the ‘Education’ chapter of “Asylum of the UNIVERSE“:

Having just suggested that we need to go back to the drawing board and then to suggest that we need to embrace comprehensive education may seem perverse. Surely we have had comprehensive education – and it gets mixed reviews at best! But I do not think we have ever seen anything remotely resembling properly comprehensive education – certainly not in this country. If we had a genuinely comprehensive system, there would be very modest differences between differing schools attainment and the league tables I have just lambasted could then have some value in monitoring this.

Comprehensive education must surely provide all the essentials we want all our young people to know (see ‘Curriculum’ above). And then there is the issue of equal opportunities. Nothing but lip service has ever been paid to this in this country. I believe that this is due to a general feeling that the whole concept is woolly leftie nonsense that probably diminishes attainment rather than enhances it.

Equal opportunities are not achieved by making every school teach the same thing (the flawed surmise of the National Curriculum). Equal opportunities are not provided by giving parents any degree of choice over school places (kids have no opportunity to choose their parents!!).

Equal opportunities are all about providing every child with the avenues to optimise their potential. Even a moment’s cogitation on this should lead to the realisation that we need quite radical social engineering to achieve this. We have to do something to level the playing field. Everyone plays better on a level playing field. Why should its parents, and their address, dictate a child’s life chances? More kids make it to Oxbridge each year from the 300 kids at Eton than from the 300,000 kids on free school meals!60

Why should schools be set up to ‘serve’ neighbourhoods and thereby end up reflecting the aspirations, or lack of them, in that neighbourhood? Schools should be serving the interests of society in general – shouldn’t they? High levels of attainment are clearly in the interests of society. But doesn’t this all sound like naïve idealism? Maybe. Is there a viable alternative solution?

For years I have had vague notions of what an ideal education system should look like, but this was built more on negative notions of what I didn’t like in existing systems.

Coming up with workable models that offered more promising outcomes have been more challenging. I certainly never thought I would stumble upon an attractive solution in somewhere like North Carolina! Over the last few decades, the schools of Raleigh have gone out on a limb and proven (or at least provided compelling evidence) that my gut instincts are right – schools will succeed if they are genuinely comprehensive.61

Raleigh’s governors revisited extensive research evidence from the 1960s that had indicated that the single biggest factor determining individual attainment in school is not your parents, your genes, your teachers or your school buildings/environment. The most important factor by far, it would appear, is your classmates. If most of your classmates are demotivated, pissed off and disobedient, you won’t learn much. What a surprise! However, if a critical mass of them are hard-working, keen and stick to the rules, you have a good chance of learning. Wow!

Okay, okay – it might seem to be stating the obvious. It was all too obvious to me throughout my teaching career. What is not so straightforward is what to do about it. The answers the Raleigh School Board came up with seem obvious enough with hindsight, but it is in being bold enough to implement them that it really deserves immense credit. The main strands of what they did were as follows:

  • No school to be allowed more than 40% of its children on free school meals.
  • No school to be allowed more than 25% of its children to be grade or more below its expected reading or maths level.
  • Merger of the Raleigh City school district with the Wake County suburban school district.
  • A third of schools turned into specialist schools offering excellent music, drama, sport or language specialisms.

The results over the next decade showed the following:

  • Progression from one of the worst performing districts in the US to one of the best.
  • Test scores of poor kids doubled.
  • Test scores of wealthier kids improve slightly, but significantly.
  • Teenage pregnancies down.
  • Youth crime down.
  • High school dropout rates fell substantially.
  • 94% of parents were now satisfied with their child’s education.
  • A significant reduction in education spending per pupil achieved.
  • Huge savings in welfare payments and in the costs of crime prevented.

Everyone’s a winner!!

If you think it couldn’t work in this country, Johann Hari usefully points out that the Grampian Education Authority has the best overall results in the country and has the most comprehensive schools in the country. Meanwhile Kent, one of the last bastions of the grammar school (and just 1% of kids on free school meals), has the worst overall results in the country. Hari also says:

         Yes, some parents will scream that they don’t want their kids being taught alongside “chavs” and “pikeys”. This should be called out bluntly – it is bigotry.

Maybe a few of these bigots will seek the haven of a private school for their little darlings. In the long run, I would expect fewer and fewer to see any value in private education. I, for one, would prefer my kids to mix with the kids of chavs and pikeys than with the kids of bigots and fascists.

The Raleigh model simply has to be better than what we have managed to conjure up to date. We currently allow millions of children to fail purely on the basis of their parent’s bank accounts. Social apartheid is instigated at the age of five and reinforced throughout the child’s experience of the education system.

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