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EDITIONS
Monday, 24 June, 2002, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Comprehensives under attack
Estelle Morris at the Social Market Foundation
Morris: Seeking to restore parental confidence
The education secretary says she wants to reform the failures of the comprehensive system in England.

Estelle Morris said that - speaking as a former teacher - there were some comprehensives she would not touch "with a barge pole".

Instead she wants to see greater diversity through more specialist schools - which get extra funding to develop expertise in a particular subject.


I go into some schools and think 'I would like to work here', but there are some I wouldn't touch with a barge pole

Estelle Morris

But teachers' leaders have said this was an "outrageous" phrase to use.

Speaking at the Social Market Foundation in London, Ms Morris said traditional comprehensives had failed to break the link between poverty and academic under-achievement.

Nor had they brought the numbers of teenagers staying on in education beyond the age of 16 up to the levels of other industrialised nations.

There was no question of going back to the days of selection, which had seen children from more deprived backgrounds denied opportunity, she said.

But it was time to break the "taboo" which saw any differences between schools as proof of elitism.

"I know that all secondary schools are not identical," she said.

Confusion

"As a teacher, I go into some schools and think 'I would like to work here', but there are some I wouldn't touch with a barge pole."

Ms Morris taught at Sydney Stringer School in Coventry before becoming a Labour MP and is still a member of the National Union of Teachers.

The phrase has already provoked anger akin to that which followed the use of the term "bog standard comprehensive" by the prime minister's official spokesman, at the time the government's plans for secondary schools were first announced last year.

Ms Morris said it was not the fault of teachers that since comprehensives were created 40 years ago, there had tended to be too much emphasis on "uniformity".

"We have emphasised too much equality and not put sufficient emphasis on opportunity," she said.

"We've confused excellence with elitism."

She called for an end to "ready-to-wear, off-the-shelf comprehensives".

Anger

The general secretary of the biggest teaching union, the NUT, Doug McAvoy, reacted with astonishment to the "barge pole" comment, which he said was "outrageous".

"Our teachers devote their energies to doing the utmost for their pupils.

"There will be many wondering whether they are in a school the education secretary wouldn't touch with a barge pole," he said.

"Her statement will leave many of them asking if she would not teach here, why should they."

'Mad dash'

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said Ms Morris should concentrate on supporting the schools serving Britain's poorest and most troubled neighbourhoods, which would be damaged by a "mad dash" towards specialisation.

The leader of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said he did not recognise the "one size fits all" model.

"With today's remarks, Estelle Morris has demonstrated that she is on message with Downing Street but miles off message with the teaching force, to which we expect her to give supportive leadership," he said.

Comprehensive schools, by definition, served the whole community - sometimes working in extremely difficult circumstances, he said.

"For far too long the comprehensive system has been expected to develop with one hand tied behind its back.

"Estelle Morris today made the task of some schools much more difficult."

'Impractical'

Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Rendel said: "Estelle Morris's plans for secondary education may be viable for metropolitan areas, but they are totally unsuitable for the rest of the country.

"What's missing from the comprehensive system is adequate investment and the freedom for schools to respond to their local needs.

"The problem with specialist schools is that many pupils have no real choice of school - especially in rural areas.

"The specialism offered by the local secondary school may well not be the one they need."

Shadow education secretary, Damian Green, said Ms Morris was acknowledging that the existing system had failed.

"If Estelle Morris means what she says then she has rejected 40 years of Labour education policy. She is now admitting at last that Britain's schools are failing our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children."

Click here for more reaction.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Sue Littlemore
"The education secretary says the comprehensive designed for all abilities has not delivered"
Education Secretary Estelle Morris
"The time is right for a new comprehensive school"
Conservative education spokesman Damian Green
"It is the most extraordinary U-turn"
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TALKING POINT

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 VOTE RESULTS
Is the comprehensive system failing?

Yes
 64.56% 

No
 35.44% 

917 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

24 Jun 02 | UK Education
24 Jun 02 | UK Education
01 May 02 | UK Education
17 Jul 01 | UK Education
21 Jun 01 | UK Education
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