Sunday, 14 October 2007

Dennis Hayes says there's a big hole in the Comprehensive Future

As Chair of the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teacher (SCETT), a body set up in 1981 by all the unions and professional associations with a direct interest in teacher education and training, I know how hard it is to get these organisations to produce any sort of joint statement.

This slight, 48 page pamphlet, from the pressure group Comprehensive Futures, Fair Enough? School admissions – the next steps, is impressive because it is supported by, and contains articles from the leaders of all the major teacher unions. In fact, almost everyone who is anyone campaigning for comprehensive schooling has a short piece in it. I counted over twenty contributions but the themes of all of them are well summarised in the title of Sarah Tough’s article ‘Selection, segregation, life chances and social mobility’.

The most entertaining and the most serious piece is Frances Beckett’ s article on ‘The Word Comp’ (pp 22-3). Becket reminds us of how nice words can cover up crap. You once had grammar schools along side ‘schools for thick working class kids’ called secondary modern schools that were quickly labelled ‘comprehensive schools’ to cover up the poor quality of education on offer.

What this pamphlet and the campaign covers up is something worse. In arguing for fair admissions and an end to selection, in order to bring about a comprehensive secondary school system, they cover up an important distinction, the distinction between comprehensive schooling and comprehensive education. What is missing here is any discussion of what sort of education would be on offer in the comprehensive future. Putting all kids in publicly funded secondary schools on some sort of equal footing is only a worthy aim if they get a decent education when they get there.

A decent education requires an educational curriculum with real subjects in it, science maths, English, history and not the contemporary offering of ‘themes’, ‘skills’, ‘citizenship’ and a dose of ‘personalisation’. If Beckett wanted to expose a contemporary linguistic cover-up it would be covering up with the word ‘personalised’ the sort of ‘curriculum’ that was offered to pupils with learning difficulties, that is, one that focuses on overcoming barriers to learning rather than concentrating on learning. In the case of students with learning difficulties this was the correct approach, but to give this curriculum to all is to treat children as if they all had special needs. With personalised learning all children and not just the working class kids are treated as if they were ‘thick’.

If the various writers happily co-operating here in liberal social engineering were asked to give their views of the content of comprehensive education the result would be friction and some heated debate. Uncomfortable as this may be, it would be a real step towards building a comprehensive future.

Fair Enough? School admissions – the next steps, was published by Comprehensive Futures in September 2007, and is available on line:

Details of SCETT can be found on its web site: