by Paula Davies
COMPREHENSIVE schools ‘--41 are the current bee in the Government's bonnet, and to hear Mr. Anthony Crosland, the Secretary of State for Education, talking about sweeping education reform one would think the system was new. In fact the idea is based on the American practice of a large, neighbourhood school which takes children of all levels of ability, provided they live in that particular neighbourhood. In theory there is nothing wrong with such an idea. The standard of the school, however, will depend in practice upon the particular neighbourhood, thus heightening the social distinctions of different neighbourhoods. Ask most parents what they think a comprehensive school means and the majority will say it is something to do with not having an 11-plus examination. According to the Oxford Dictionary it means a secondary school offering courses of various kinds and lengths. Ask an emotional left-winger what a comprehensive school means and he will tell you what it does not mean.
First, he will say that it could never be fee-paying as this would be, to his way of thinking, a great social evil— forgetting, of course, that there is nothing to stop the local authority doing the fee-paying. Then he will say that it will not be academically exclusive and that it will not be socially divisive, whatever that may mean. Children of all social and academic levels will mix together in one huge happy family—an attractive if impractical theory.
The political performance over comprehensive education is another example of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Comprehensive schools are a good idea. Why not build new schools as comprehensive? Why is it suddenly necessary to turn existing schools into cornprehensives when they are totally unsuited to it?
One school I heard about was going to be separated by a main road as a result of joining two secondary schools into one "grand design". Why is it necessary to threaten local authorities that unless they toe the comprehensive line they
will not get their grants for secondary schools? Why shouldn't there be a variety of schools?
All this "mucking about" with education seems so pointless. There will always be people who are brighter than others. A genuine education is one that stimulates the imagination. Some children need more stimulation, others less. Slower minds need more teaching than quicker ones. Quick minds need more stretching than slow ones.
A variety of minds needs a variety of education. Ideally one would get this in a comprehensive school. But, in a large and amorphous institution, the ethos and standards of the school are likely to be established by the average rather than the best. Mediocrity is easily substituted for excellence. The standard of the school will reflect the standards of the neighbourhood.
At present we have the public schools, the grammar, secondary modem, direct grant and comprehensive. There is a wide choice for some people even if one's personal choice is not so wide. Just because some children can enjoy the benefits and suffer the horrors of Eton is no reason why other children shouldn't do so.
Why shouldn't there be an elite of grammar schools like Manchester or King Edward's, Birmingham? Why not have the advantage of first-class Catholic schools, both public and direct grant? What is so wrong about a variety of schools, provided the education is acceptable to parents, and children, politics apart. Nothing, of course; but this is where the kernel of the whole matter lies. It appears that it is not education that counts but social inequality. If the best is not available for all then nobody should have it at all. The fact that only a few children do profit from the best available education means nothing.
This kind of education can be found in the best public and grammar schools. The Government can wait for the Public Schools Commission to report before having to cope with the problem of getting rid of them. The State grammar schools have little option about changing their tune since the piper is paid by the Government.
The direct grant grammar schools are a much greater problem here and now. Sixty of them are Catholic. What is going to happen to them? Independent but not too expensive, they have traditionally provided a bridge between the crushingly expensive public school and the state school. In return for a grant from the Government they offer a quarter of their places to the local authority or their own nominees.
When Mr. Crosland stops the grant, which seems more than likely, will they go "independent"? Or will they go supposedly comprehensive or even genuinely so? Or will it come to the point where feepaying schools have to be sacrificed on the altar of the comprehensive doctrine? Mr. Crosland is reported to have told some parents that they will want to send their children to comprehensive schools in a few years time. By then it won't be a question of choice but force of necessity.