Friday, December 23, 2005


School Reform, Prescott and Selection

John Prescott is taken to task today in The Guardian by Martin Kettle for saying: 'If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone will want to go there.' Kettle ridicules the idea and indeed it would be foolish if a headteacher consciously held back from making his school any better in case he contributed to more social inequality or used such an excuse for any continuing low standards. Kettle makes the point that all schools need to be high quality and that in Hull, Prescott's home town, the worst GCSE results in the country are produced. Moreover, 43% of 11 year olds fail to reach required levels of literacy and numeracy and only 57% of Labour supporters think our schools are improving. One third now think the comprehensive idea was bad.

Education is more personal to those under 60- as I just am- as they ex-perience it through their children; it is only later on that the NHS becomes crucial as frailty begins to invade. My own recent experience of education is via my son- still at university- and my own work as a teacher of undergraduates. I generally think my son has been well taught at Keele and is now contributing his bit to- I hope- end up with a decent degree. No real complaints here; he would have done better if educated privately- as most beneficiaries of that system tend to - but not being able to afford £15K plus a year was one hurdle; a disinclination to support a system which is manifestly and fundamentally unfair, was another.

My own teaching suggests to me that standards of literacy are somewhat in decline. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are legion in essays and awkward, stilted style seems to be the norm for far too many students. By the time they get to university it's far too late to correct and remove such lacunae so I can only conclude that literacy levels now are not as good as when I was lucky enough to attend a good grammar school. It's hard to make generalised judgements but probably education is in need of further reform. Will giving schools more freedom do the trick? Critics- and there are many more than just the Deputy Prime Minister- believe schools once given their freedom will use it to select the more able pupils.

Given that middle class homes are the nursery of positive attitudes towards education, it is a reasonable fear that selection will increase inequality and take us lurching back to the time when the stream of children, facing the future, bifurcated at age eleven with 'success' written above the route taken by those who passed the 11 plus and 'failure' over the other. Incidentally I was interested to read that as well as Precott, Polly Toynbee also failed her 11 plus as well as a friend of mine who is now one of the leading political scientists in the country.

The worry is obvious but not necessarily concomitant with more freedom. The education bill can entrench non selection by statute or schools be given incentives to maintain it. The problem for Blair is that the leftwing of his party are so convinced of his perfidy that many now believe he is a secret dedicated elitist who favours advantaging the rich in the same way as he was advantaged. He will face a huge task to disabuse them of such beliefs and this difficulty will be- to an extent, his own fault for exhausting his capital by following Bush's lead over Iraq.

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