Rob's faceRob Blackhurst

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FT Magazine: A Comprehensive Rethink

FT Weekend

August 27, 2005

Was mixed-ability schooling a noble ideal or an educational disaster? A product of the system revisits his alma mater to test his belief in the much-maligned idea


Iam sitting in the passenger seat next to my mother and, 10 years on, she's driving me to school. The zig-zag of BMX bikes and huddles of young girls standing in the middle of two lanes of traffic are immediately familiar. As the stark, geometric roof of the hall looms into view, I feel a tightening in my stomach like on the first day of school. A familiar sign welcomes me to John Cleveland College in Hinckley, Leicestershire. "This feels very strange," says my mother as we draw to a halt next to three black- clad Marilyn Manson lookalikes sharing an iPod. "I never thought I'd be driving you to school again."

And I never thought I'd go back either. Since graduation, I have lived in London, working in politics and journalism. I was one of the few among my peer group who'd been to a "bog-standard comprehensive". I'd recently bumped into a young, privately- educated Labour researcher who tried to persuade me that "the left's biggest mistake in the 20th century was to abolish the grammar schools" - repeating the line given by Lord Adonis, the former No 10 education adviser and now education minister, that has ruffled so many feathers on the Labour back-benches. I disagreed and made the age-old case for comprehensives - that they gave opportunities to late developers who would be written off if they failed their 11-plus, and that it is healthy for everyone to be educated in the same place.

Yet since leaving, I had seen very clearly the disadvantages of going to a comp, and the practical opportunities that others had taken for granted at their private or selective school - from learning Latin and German to advice on applying to good universities. But what were the advantages? Was my claim that comprehensive education made a more equal society just sentimental guff? After all, in my school bright middle-class children dominated the top sets. The most disadvantaged children - as inexorably as in the days of secondary moderns - were in the lowest sets. Even the uniform that was supposed to cover up class difference only reinforced it. The richer kids wore stylishly-cut wool trousers from Next, cut-away-collar city slicker shirts and Timberland boots, while the poor kids made do with shiny synthetic drainpipe trousers and prickly nylon shirts.

I cast my mind back to those Wednesday afternoons in mixed-ability religious education classes where I kept my head down and eyes averted from the hyperactive swarm of "townies" on the other side of the room. I can still dimly recall three of them dangling one of their number out of a first-floor window by the feet as the teacher attempted to explain transubstantiation.

My going back to my old school was born of this unease - both over the milieu in which I moved, with its (even if guilty) assumption of comprehensive failure, and my own conflicted belief in the system that taught me. I thought that a school in the town where I grew up - neither rich nor poor, with low unemployment and few kids creamed off by private schools - should be a testbed for the ideal of educating pupils of all backgrounds and abilities together. So I called the new head, Andrew Harris - appointed months after a disastrous Ofsted inspection had branded the college "failed" - to ask if I could visit. Northern, practical, direct, he was healthily suspicious of my motives. "Comprehensive ideal? That's a bit outdated isn't it? I'm not sure if you're going to find a comprehensive ideal." He took some persuasion because, as he said, the school was at a "delicate stage", but eventually he agreed.

Arriving at the school, I immediately bump into Harris - who looks like a trimmer version of Charles Clarke with a salt-and-pepper beard and a monk's crown of white hair. As he marches to the front of the 1970s hall, I stand sheepishly behind the back row of chairs with the latecomers. On the stage I recognise the rugby coach and I'm assaulted by memories of bone-crushing scrums and freezing February rain. With panic, I realise that he appears to be shouting at me. "You three trying to hide there at the back… lateness will be mentioned in your references. And if you get a bad reference you'll be bounced from one job to another and have a miserable life." After 10 minutes of doom-laden warnings, Harris jumps on the stage and starts dispensing "merit certificates" to about half the room. Those who leave empty-handed are told they "should feel ashamed". Harris then switches to good-cop mode: "We are convinced that your year is going to be the best ever."

When I was at the school a decade ago, there was a far more laissez-faire attitude towards achievement. It often seemed that it was entirely up to you whether you worked hard - and most didn't. Leicestershire has a strange system in which we attended high school from the age of 11 before being moved to a huge comprehensive at 14 to take our GCSEs. With 1,800 students and a sprawling site resembling the Sketchley's dry-cleaning plant down the road, two years didn't give teachers the time to get to know their classes. Since absences weren't routinely followed up, a large tribe of pupils would take half the day off, walking home past the principal's office window.

Many of the lessons, particularly the mixed-ability groups, were quite dull - retreads of work we'd covered in high school or ruined by the demands of mixed-ability teaching. The teachers themselves were mostly fun, supportive and occasionally inspiring, but spent much of their time on crowd control. Articulate pupils worried about appearing intellectual and those of middle ability were torn between joining in the wisecracks or paying attention.

Looking back, there was never the group interaction that the comprehensive founding fathers dreamed of. Classes were divided into ability groups and handed work-sheets. I'd recently come across a frayed copy of a book by educationalist Robin Pedley, a leading proselytiser for comprehensive schooling in the 1950s. He believed that the "mixing of clever, average and backward children produces a general fizz, quite different from the flatness of the "C" stream, so pathetically conscious of their slowness. One such class included a future Phd and a top correspondent for The Guardian." Thirty years on, when I studied, this effervescence had fizzled out.

In 1957, under a Tory council, Leicestershire was one of the first counties to announce that it would go comprehensive. The county education officer announced a "bold new experiment in secondary education", to end selection at 11 and set up upper schools to take pupils aged 14 to 16. Hinckley had been chosen to be the vanguard of the "Leicestershire Experiment", as it became known. In time a lavishly funded and unapologetically modern new building was fashioned in concrete, glass and plastic to reflect the frontier spirit of its mission - to create, in Harold Wilson's, words, a "grammar- school education for all". Soon, in the first flush of comprehensive idealism, it was renamed a "Community College" that would become a "centre of local culture, entertainment and recreation".

Such lofty ideals were distant when Harris was called in to take over, but in three years he has made changes for the better. The school is no longer on "special measures"- in large part because of a relentless focus on grades. Computer programmes are used to predict exam performance, just as supermarkets use past consumer patterns to restock their shelves. Predicted GCSE grades used to be based on a few essays and a teacher's hunch. Now, with testing at seven, 11 and 14, schools have a fund of data on each student's strengths and weaknesses from the week they arrive.

This year, Pupil Achievement Tracker software identified 120 GCSE students who are on the borderline of achieving five A-C grades. Parents were brought in and extra lessons and mentors arranged for the pupils. Harris says that maximising GCSE scores must now be the biggest priority. "I found out that almost a whole class had missed their deadline for home economics coursework. I didn't make myself popular, because I pulled those students out of their normal lessons for two days and put them in a room until they'd finished. We just couldn't afford to have our average GCSE points score fall - and us go back into special measures - because 30 students had automatically failed by not handing work in."

The school has now been awarded Specialist Science College status ("The fastest turnaround from Ofsted failure to specialist status in the country," says Harris). This allows it to choose 10 per cent of entrants on their scientific aptitude, but Harris isn't interested in becoming selective. The real motivation was a government cheque for Pounds 250,000 to refit the labs and revamp the scuffed maths block. Harris has also created two new units. One, called the Learning Support Unit, is a prefab bolthole for disruptive pupils. Harris also works hard to keep the loyalty of pupils and parents who might otherwise leave for the private sector: the talented students who were supposed to help lift up those with less ability. We walk into my old classroom, rebuilt after it was gutted by arson during my GCSEs. Half-expecting to see my old tutor, we're greeted instead by a twentysomething teacher with dark, puckish hair and boot-cut trousers who wouldn't look out of place in a boy band. He greets me with a smile and the kind of classless mid-Scots burr that advertisers favour in voice-overs.

This is Tom Campbell, the schools licensed experimenter, who runs its Gifted and Talented Programme - a government attempt to prop up the comprehensive ideal by giving extra attention to the most able 10 per cent. These are the type of students that comprehensives need to hold on to if they are to maintain public support across the income bands. They are often the children of middle-class parents who could go private if they felt that state schools weren't delivering for them. "Some of the most gifted get turned off at 14 if they're bored," says Campbell. "We're in danger of losing them altogether unless we give them extra attention then."

I shake off my handlers and visit the Sixth Form Centre, a squat building on two levels with an eyrie overlooking the whole school site, where I meet this year's clutch of eight Oxbridge candidates - up from three when I applied 10 years ago. The government's new Widening Participation Fund is responsible for some of them applying. A grant has funded visits to Oxbridge colleges and paid for rail tickets to interviews. Under pressure from the government's Office for Fair Access - commonly known as OfToff - Oxford sent a representative to visit the school, talk about experiences of college life and dispel the myth that candidates were likely to be thrown a rugby ball during their interview. A few applicants are astonishingly self-assured. One student, with an RAF scholarship, sporting laurels and high predicted grades, has an invincible confidence that will help him beat any system. Another is the embodiment of female overachievement - taking six A-levels, playing an orchestra of instruments and still appearing well adjusted.

But for those who don't stand out, I wonder how well comprehensive life will have prepared them for Oxbridge. The "oddity, extremity and flair" - in the words of Alan Bennett - required at the interview are the antithesis of comprehensive values. Bright children in comprehensive schools, after years of sharing classrooms with mixed-ability students, learn to keep their heads down and not to flaunt their cleverness. This is tacitly encouraged by teachers, who don't want the brightest discouraging those who are struggling. The ability to get on with those from different backgrounds - rather than stridency and copper-plated confidence - is encouraged. The high-octane contrariness imbibed at public schools would not win you friends, or the teacher's approval.

At the end of the day, Harris rocks back on his chair and says: "It's an untold story, but I think the education system in this country is on the point of burgeoning. And when I look at the potential of young people at John Cleveland it is phenomenal… all we need now is around a million to spend on a new school building."

When I ask the teachers whether standards have risen in comprehensives over the past 10 years, they look baffled. Whatever the media hand-wringing over exam results, they see it as an unremarkable fact that standards have risen exponentially. More than half of 16-year-olds now achieve results once believed to be naturally restricted to a small minority with grammar-school ability. One teacher tells me: "Given the extra money, given Ofsted, given testing and given new teaching techniques, it would be extraordinary if standards weren't higher than they were 10 years ago."

Back in London, I decide to call some educationalists to find out what's really going on with comprehensives, and whether all of the initiatives are closing the gap with selective and private schools. Their consensus is that, far from narrowing, the gap between the achievements of the bright in schools such as John Cleveland College and, say, Eton is widening. Last year, although "A" grades at A-level increased in state schools, in the private sector they increased at four times the rate. And this gap is not because of trendy teaching, a leftwing ethos or rampant indiscipline. A pupil- teacher ratio of 1:10 compared with 1:17 in state schools, a self- reinforcing culture of success, lavish resources and insulation from the less motivated are bound to show in the league tables. Lord Adonis wrote around the time that I was doing my A-levels that the "super-class of top professionals and managers" was "an almost entirely privately schooled elite". A decade on, this is even more true. Though the state sector is improving, it isn't slowing down the escalator of educational and social privilege.

The question on which the survival of comprehensives will hang is whether they penalise bright children. Research by David Jesson of York University suggests that in academic terms they don't. The top 20 per cent of students in counties with comprehensives perform as well as the top 20 per cent of students in Kent, which has kept its grammar schools. This is perhaps unsurprising - most classes in comprehensives are now divided into ability groups, with Ofsted applying pressure to schools still wedded to mixed-ability teaching. If a top 100 were compiled of state schools based on last year's exam results, 11 comprehensives would make the list, ahead of many grammar schools that select their intake.

But if there isn't a gap in exam grades, then there's certainly a gap in expectations and advice that determines future prospects. Comprehensives often give far less personal attention to students about the crucial decisions between 16 and 18 than either grammar schools or private sector exam factories. Selective institutions can devote all their energies to pushing the bright through the right A-level combination, university application and work experience hoops, while comprehensives are often understandably far more preoccupied with ensuring that the borderline candidates pass. The contrast is huge between the average comprehensive and Eton, which regularly sends a third of its sixth-form to Oxbridge, and where vast resources are devoted to ensuring that contacts are nurtured and that applications are spread between different colleges.

I call Sir Peter Lampl, a grammar school educated financier who left a successful business career in the US to establish the Sutton Trust - a charity promoting working-class entry into top universities. "I've found that comprehensive students can lack 'soft skills'," he says. "Try having a conversation with them. Most are completely tongue-tied… they're not learning to present themselves."

The trust has found that 3,000 state-educated pupils a year achieve the A-levels necessary to enter leading universities but do not end up there - usually because they have underestimated their likely results and not applied. The existence of this "missing 3,000" is unsurprising given that, according to research in state schools commissioned by the Sutton Trust from MORI, only two-thirds of state school sixth forms advise their students on the likely implications of different combinations of A-level subjects for higher education. Incredibly, fewer than three in 10 students identify their teachers as a source of useful information about university entry.

The government's Gifted and Talented Programme should help, but is hardly the proxy grammar school experience that ministers suggest: extra lessons and one-to-one help are just not regular enough. But it is at least a shift from the attitude that the bright can look after themselves. As Tom Campbell, John Cleveland's Gifted and Talented co-ordinator, told me: "Through-out comprehensive education, there's been a culture shift to think of gifted children as having special needs. Historically, they weren't given the priority they should have been because the big pressure on us in league tables was always to maximise their A to C grades." Consequently, the chances of getting into Oxbridge from state school are far lower than they were 30 years ago in the grammar- school era. Faced with this evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that comprehensives have failed the brightest.

But the dilemma for policy-makers is that there seems to be a zero- sum game between the needs of the brightest who would probably do better in grammar schools and the majority who have benefited from the abolition of the 11-plus. And, as I look up the fate of my former classmates on the Friends Reunited website, I sense that blanket claims of comprehensive failure don't tell the whole story. Almost all have spread far from their home town into "knowledge economy" jobs. There are only a few out of 200 who have entered professions such as law and medicine, where education, hierarchy and exams count. Perhaps it's a mark of globalisation and affluent times, but the school seems to have bred a generation of self- starters. There is an entrepreneur with a chain of guitar shops, a manager of a London recruitment agency and scores of website and graphic-designers. Even the class joker, who always seemed addled by the potent combination of marijuana and Morrissey lyrics, has a flourishing career in IT.

In 1967, as the comprehensive ideal neared its height, the Plowden report called for education that would nurture "curiosity, adaptability, and independence". It has since become a byword for educational ruin among "traditionalists" and few modern politicians would defend it, particularly those such as the prime minister who are looking forward to a "post-comprehensive era". But Plowden's emphasis on soft skills and "learning by doing" seems to be answering a very modern demand in the modern service economy. These are the lessons taken away from education by most of my class of '94. I wonder whether the comprehensive pioneers, surveying their dilapidated concrete dream in the middle of middle England, would have been proud?

Posted on 27th August 2005.

Last changed at 22:22 UTC, 12th May 2008.

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