Learn from the English experience in secondary schools

Interested parties would do well to examine battles over secondary school admission in England. The Northern Ireland debate, such as it is, is locked in parochialism and stand- off. Unwisely it seems to steer clear of the English experience – on political grounds?-  even though we have broadly the same schools system. The major difference is that in England, academic selection is prohibited in most areas but admissions policy still can be just as controversial. English secondary education, the argument runs, is badly underperforming, Thirty years of  “bog standard” comprehensives has widened, not narrowed education attainment. A familar story, although one that needs qualifying.          

The coalition’s Education Secretary Michael Gove has developed new Labour’s policy of allowing commercial firms and interest groups including “faiths” to set up “academies” or “free” schools outside  local council control. The idea is to introduce competition in an area to boost languishing standards. A leading light in the academies movement is Toby Young, a journalist who has started up an academy in West London in reaction to the beliefs of his late father Lord Michael Young, one of the theoreticians of comprehensive schools.  In the Daily Telegraph today, Toby Young  deplores what he sees as the self defeating egalitarian approach of the educational elite with whom Gove is struggling. The article concentrates on admissions rows in high performing comprehensive schools in mainly middle class areas not unlike parts of Northern Ireland where academic selection is kept going in defiance of the largely impotent will of the professional educationalists,  the unions and the Catholic establishment.    

 

For instance, there’s the now famous battle between the Diocese of Westminster and the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. Once a grammar school, Cardinal Vaughan was forced to become a comprehensive in 1977, but it managed to retain its high standards thanks to a succession of great headmasters. It is currently the highest-performing state school in Kensington and Chelsea, and 13 of its pupils were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge last year.

A similar thing happened to Drayton Manor High School in Ealing. Like Cardinal Vaughan, Drayton Manor was too successful for its own good, incurring the wrath of its local education authority. In 2008, Ealing Council referred the school to the adjudicator, accusing it of operating a “discriminatory” admissions policy. The complaint was initially upheld, but subsequently overturned in the High Court.

The rationale in both cases was that the success of these “comprehensive grammars” was harmful to neighbouring schools. Thanks to their reputations for academic excellence, they were attracting more than their fair share of above-average pupils, thereby relegating the surrounding schools to secondary modern status. In the eyes of the progressive elite that controls our educational establishment, the best is the enemy of the good. Mediocrity for all is preferable to excellence for some.

 

Academies or free schools may be exempt from local council control but not from the essential objections. The case against them is that they attract funding at the expense of existing schools and will become new citadels of middle class privilege as have some comprehensives located in leafy suburbs. If a school is located in the opulent southern end of  Kensington and Cheslea, it’s natural catchment area will be high earners and possibly almost as high achievers.

Will middle class Londoners who in more prosperous times managed to afford private school fees now flock to the free school standard? What new opportunities will open up for working class kids? Many parts of London are  a patchwork quilt of mixed race, faith and and class, like Acton where Young has started his free school. Will it attract a mixed intake by class or will its admission rules be able to restrict the numbers of pushy middle class parents? If it does, will that not defeat its main aim and object, to give ambition a freer rein? ? The test is on.

The evolving English experience offers two lessons. One, that academic standards do not need academic selection at 11 to flourish; and two, whatever system replaces it is unlikely to abolish heartache and controversy.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London