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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Comps - here to stay?
By Phil Tinline
Producer, Comp, BBC Radio 4

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly
The government is pushing ahead with city academies
Earlier this summer, the Professional Association of Teachers called for comprehensive schools to be scrapped.

The grammar schools, one teacher told the PAT conference, had been "the most successful type of school Britain has ever seen."

A flurry of articles, many in favour, followed - and not just from the usual suspects.

"Long live grammars," declared the Observer's avowedly left-wing columnist Nick Cohen, arguing that comps are a boon for the wealthy.

"If you are rich and have a dunce, you select by house price and move into the catchment area of a good school..."

As the new school year begins, the decades-old debate persists.

Has the comprehensive idea - admitting a large group of secondary school pupils to a single school, without selecting by ability - worked?

Has it ever really been properly introduced?

Endangered species

In July 1965, Labour Education Secretary Tony Crosland made comprehensives official government policy for the first time.

He issued a circular to local education authorities, numbered 10/65, requesting them to prepare plans to introduce them. But this summer, 40 years on, the number of "specialist" schools reached 2382 - a sizeable majority of all secondary schools in England.

In the wake of Tony Blair's 2002 declaration of a "post-comprehensive era", with the spread of faith schools and the burgeoning city academy programme, the comp seems to be an endangered species.

It's certainly true, as Tim Brighouse, Chief Advisor to London Schools, has noted, that in big cities and the south, most of the school name boards bearing the word "comprehensive" have long been uprooted.

In their place are nicely-designed new signs announcing a "High School", or even smarter, the words "...and Language College" added after the school name to celebrate their specialist status.

But does this mean that the basic comprehensive idea - of not selecting pupils by ability - has been thrown away with those old name boards?

What is comprehensive?

Critics of the specialist schools and city academies have tended to attack them as heralding a return to selection.

They point out that some specialist schools are allowed to select 10% of pupils by aptitude, even if relatively few actually do so.

It has been widely accepted that comprehensives work well in rural areas where each local area has a mix of incomes and abilities
So it's perhaps a surprise that Sir Cyril Taylor, Chair of the Specialist Schools Trust, who has been championing the idea for two decades, argues that specialist schools are actually more comprehensive than many comps.

"We think specialist schools are now genuine comprehensives, unlike many so-called comprehensives which recruit only from their local area - be that either privileged or disadvantaged."

This reflects a long-standing divide over what makes a school comprehensive.

Should it simply take pupils from its local area? Or should it make sure it selects a range of abilities?

The answer seems to be that it depends on the area.

When Holyhead County School on the island of Anglesey became the first properly comprehensive school in England and Wales, way back in 1949, it simply took pupils from its neighbourhood.

And ever since, it has been widely accepted that comprehensives work well in rural areas where each local area has a mix of incomes and abilities.

The criticism long levelled by opponents of the comprehensive system, such as the psychologist Richard Lynn, is that in "impoverished areas with high unemployment and unskilled workers," you would end up with "what Alastair Campbell later called bog-standard comprehensives."

Ever since the 1960s, Lynn has argued that the bright hope that comps would create a situation where everyone went to equally good schools was "doomed to failure."

Fade away?

This is where the other way of making a comp comes in.

If you have a selection process designed not to cream off the top 20% of pupils, as the grammars did, but to select a cross-section of the whole range of abilities - isn't that as "comprehensive" as you can be?

Ann Jones is principal of Kingshurst City Technology College in Solihull.

This was set up in 1987 as the first of the "CTCs" - the then Education Secretary Kenneth Baker's alternative to the comps.

But Jones argues that her school is a true comprehensive.

And this is in large part because of the way CTCs now have to run their admission process.

They have a system called 'fair banding' which, as she confirms, is selective only in the sense that its job is to admit a cross-section of pupils across the entire ability range. And it's not only CTCs that can organise admissions like this - other schools can do the same.

Former education secretary Kenneth Baker
Kenneth Baker pioneered the city technology college
If the comprehensive ideal is to survive, and thrive, it will have to allow the name itself, to fade away.

At the height of the arguments over comprehensives and grammar schools in the 1970s, many began to argue that it was time to stop fighting over how schools were structured and to spend more time worrying about what went on the classroom.

But somehow the name at the gate still has an impact.

So it is doubtful that the crop of names that have emerged in recent years will be the last.

Comp, presented by Evan Davis, and produced by Phil Tinline and Matthew Dodd, started on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 1 September at 0900. It's repeated at 21.30 and will then be available via www.bbc.co.uk/radio4. The series continues every Thursday until 22 September.

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