Page 10, 18th April 2003

18th April 2003
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Page 10, 18th April 2003 — Helping the many, not the few
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Helping the many, not the few

Education Mike Ion

This Government's desire to tackle the roots of social exclusion and Tony Blair's personal pledge to improve the lot of the poorest in our society is both admirable and encouraging. I also applaud, both as a teacher and as a practising Catholic, Blair's determination to break the cycle of deprivation and low expectations that are all too often symptomatic of urban, inner-city Britain. The mission of the Church is to challenge injustice and inequality. The reality though is that, apart from raising benefits, the most effective means of lifting people out of poverty is to raise their educational aspirations and standards. Evidence would strongly suggest that a comprehensive system of schooling is More effective than any other in raising standards overall. The support of the Catholic Church in England and Wales for selective education is surely at odds with its commitment to social justice and perhaps the time is now right that as a community we ask what is the point of selective Catholic schools'?

There is no doubt that Catholic comprehensive schools work. Recent surveys have shown that there is only one factor more powerful than a pupil's social background as a predictor of her/his academic performance at 16 and that is the average social background of other pupils in the school. Catholic comprehensives help to level up. The predominantly comprehensive system in British produces better overall results than mainly segregated and selective Germany. It is interesting to note that Finland, which has almost no differences between schools and some of the lowest social inequalities in the developed world, has by far the best reading results of any country. Twenty-five per cent of Finnish 16-year -olds whose parents have the lowest-status jobs have literacy levels as high as the average British pupil. The logic, therefore, would be to extend the comprehensive system by removing selection in the public sector altogether. The Catholic grammar schools that still exist in England have very low numbers of socially disadvantaged children. The prominence of highly selective Catholic schools at the

top of local league tables, or in annual lists of the country's "hest" schools, proves nothing except that academically able children usually do well in examinations. It is not true that selective local systems push tip standards in all schools. A value-added analysis comparing selective and non-selective LEAs shows that where schools in an area are organised on selective lines (as in 15 of the 150 local authorities) the overall impact is to depress the educational performance of these communities as a whole: Grammar schools may do well for the able children they select, but the evidence indicates that the performance of the other 75 per cent is lower than in a non-selective system. As the Times Education Supplement recently reported, concerns have been expressed about the quality of provision in Kent (which has the most grammar schools in the country) where schools are "substantially" more likely to require special measures or to have serious weaknesses.

• It is widely assumed that academically able children do better in selective schools, while children of average and below average ability do better in non-selective schools. In short, a trade-off may have to be made, one which will reflect the priority given to the few or the many. Nevertheless, the Department for Education and Skills statistical comparison of the GCSE and GNVQ results of all grammar school pupils with those of the top 25 per cent (of "grammar school ability") in comprehensive schools indicated that the comprehensive schools had done slightly better overall. There is also evidence that fully comprehensive systems reduce the gaps in attainment between children of different abilities and between children from different social class backgrounds.

In 2002 almost half of all 15-16 year olds in maintained schools achieved five or more "higher passes" at the end of compulsory schooling. Given that expenditure on education did not increase in real terms between the mid1970s and the late-1990s this remarkable increase in productivity as measured by qualifications is attributable, in large part, to the removal of the bather of the I I-plus for some four-fifths of the population. The surviving grammar schools are in the main schools for the middle-classes. In England in 2002, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals (an imperfect but commonly used indicator of social disadvantage) was much lower in selective than in non-selective schools in every one of the 36 Local Authorities which retain at least some grammar schools. In the 15 LEAs with around 20 per cent or more of their pupils in grammar schools, the average percentage of children eligible for free school meals in those schools was 2.3 per cent compared with an English average of 16.1 per cent.

Since comprehensive education was introduced, bathers to achievement for many young people have been removed. The annual government statistics of school attainment, examination results, and participation in further and higher education offer clear evidence of a "levelling-up" over the last 25 years. Catholic grammar schools have played an insignificant part in this "levelling-up". Such schools do not serve the poor and the marginalised in our society (if anything they create division and resentment). What is needed is an honest and mature debate about the type of educational system our Church should support and help shape in the twenty-first century. Should it be an inclusive, comprehensive system that caters for all young people regardless of their economic or social capital? Or should it be a two tier, elitist system that perpetuates privilege?

Mike Ion is a deputy headteacher at a Catholic comprehensive school.




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