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Monday, October 10, 2005 

Education for all?

Away from the destruction of major parts of Pakistani Kashmir, two important stories about education are out in the open today. The main one confirms what many have suspected for a while: that the middle class is doing everything in its power to get into the top schools, at the expense of the deprived who actually live in the catchment areas.

The country's leading state schools are being colonised by the middle classes, educating significantly fewer poor pupils than other schools and excluding less affluent children who live nearby, according to a study obtained by the Guardian.

In one of the most significant reports of its kind, the leading education charity the Sutton Trust used the latest GCSE results to identify the top 200 state schools and examined the number of poor children they taught.

The study, based on data provided by the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that the schools are using increasingly complicated admissions procedures, which include aptitude tests and interviewing parents, to covertly select middle-class children in the expectation that they will boost their league table rankings. The "colonisation" of these schools is being accelerated by wealthy parents who are spending thousands of pounds moving into the catchment areas of the most successful schools rather than pay private school fees.

Last night, MPs and union leaders accused the government of introducing "socially selective" education since it came to power in 1997, and warned that the report's findings undermined the notion of a comprehensive school system.

"Any secretary of state or any schools minister who reads this and does not take it very seriously is being extremely foolish," said Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education select committee. "This pinpoints what is happening in our leading state schools and how the more socially disadvantaged pupils are being dramatically short changed, even if they live close to a good school, by a system that favours affluent families."

The research found that the average proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals - the standard measure of deprivation - at the top state secondaries is just 3%, compared with a national average of more than 14%. It also revealed that the schools are failing to admit many of the disadvantaged children in their own neighbourhoods.

Last night Sir Peter Lampl, of the Sutton Trust, said: "The best state schools in the country are effectively closed to the majority of less well-off families. We've replaced an education system which selected on ability with one that is socially selective: the best comprehensives serve the relatively affluent, while the remaining grammar schools attract far too few able students from poor backgrounds."

Last month Tony Blair told the Labour party conference that his priority was to offer an excellent education to all pupils, regardless of their social background.

But critics say today's report reveals that the top state schools are using admissions policies to skew their intake in favour of middle-class pupils.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "Parents' income as an indicator of how well a child will do in school has become even more pronounced now than under the Conservatives. Worse still, this study shows that Labour's false 'choice agenda' is being exploited by better-off parents and is widening that divide even further."

Last month, Sins of Admission, a report by Chris Waterman, executive director of The Confederation of Education & Children's Services Managers, which represents local education authority leaders, called on the government to stop "rogue" state schools admitting only the children of wealthier parents. He said the best-performing schools were using parental interviews, complicated procedures and specialist status to covertly select middle-class children. Yesterday, he said: "The Sutton Trust research proves there is a system of subtle selection going on in the leading state schools. We are seeing increasingly complicated admissions procedures which benefit middle-class parents who have the experience and wherewithal to play the system."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills insisted state schools were not socially selective, and said a high proportion of those in the study were grammar schools, which "select on the basis of high ability rather than ... a pupil's background".

Some may think that there's nothing wrong with the middle class getting the best education. After all, they pay the taxes, right? They deserve the best, and they should be able to do everything in their power to do it. Such a position is all very well, but it leaves many surface problems. It leaves certain schools underfunded and trapped in a cycle of constant failure, with no chance of getting better. They become marginalised, and so do the students in them. We are supposed to live, according to Mr Blair, in a meritocracy. How can those who have merit rise to what they deserve in such circumstances? This isn't even criticising meritocracy itself.

That grammar schools still exist is bad enough. That this government knows, and has done for a while that it's so-called comprehensives are becoming more and more selective, and has even encouraged it, beggars belief. Or does it? Blair himself sent his children to private schools. More recently, the Labour left winger Diane Abbott sent her son to a private school, supposedly because it was him that wanted to go. Others accused her, quite rightly, of champagne socialism. In other words, has what Labour itself experienced just repeating the cycle? John Prescott is perhaps one of the only main cabinet ministers who did attend a secondary modern. Has Labour forgotten about its past, or is it now so servile to the middle class that it can't do what it should?

Maybe it's just trying to remember. According to Roy Hattersley, Labour might be about to introduce at last a solution.

Believe it or not, there is a real possibility that the government is about to announce plans that - at least in one particular - will make English comprehensive schools more comprehensive. The 168 grammar schools will retain the role of positional goods - as much in demand for the status they confer as for the education they provide. They will remain proof of Tony Blair's emotional attachment to the suburban middle classes. The proposal that specialist schools and city academies should select 10% of their pupils - largely rejected and therefore one of the few pieces of legislation that ministers boast about being ignored - comes in the same political category. But at least there are steps afoot to ensure that secondary schools have an all-ability intake.

Although the claim stretches credulity to breaking point, there is no doubt that Sir Cyril Taylor - private education entrepreneur, sometime deputy leader of the Tories on the now defunct Greater London Council and special adviser to successive secretaries of state - is entitled to take credit for the new and improved admission system. If the BBC's series on comprehensive schools was correct, Sir Cyril joined the ranks of Blair's confidants as a result of a fortuitous train journey to Newcastle during which they "hit it off". Never mind the example of government by whim, the unaccountable chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is offering the government welcome advice. Opponents of secondary selection must make sure that they take it.

Sir Cyril's plan requires all primary-school pupils to take a "non-verbal reasoning test", which he rightly described as "less biased by social, cultural and ethnic factors than other methods of assessment". The results will not be used to separate grammar-school sheep from secondary-modern goats. On the contrary. Having grouped 11-year-olds into nine "bands", local education authorities will be expected (perhaps even required) to allocate secondary-school places to pupils who represent the full range of ability within their area.

The idea of "banding" was pioneered by the ILEA during Sir Cyril's years in opposition. At the time it was derided as a futile socialist attempt to make non- selective secondary schools work. The new scheme goes far further than anything that the London Labour party ever dared to suggest. Banding, says Sir Cyril, should not be based on the various levels of ability to be found in one catchment area. That would result in schools in some districts being monopolised by middle-class parents and therefore being unrepresentative of society as a whole. Each school should be "banded" according to the ability pattern of a district wide enough to reflect a cross-section of a heterogeneous community.

The middle class would not like that. They would be even more opposed to Sir Cyril's idea for guarding the education system against exploitation by well-heeled families who manipulate the admissions policies of "good" schools by buying houses, at inflated prices, in their catchment areas. Perhaps, he says, the time has come to break down the rule of proximity by which over-subscribed schools admit those applicants who live nearest to their gates. He proposes two catchment areas - one immediately surrounding the school, to which half the places are allocated, and one further-flung to guarantee admission to students from different backgrounds.

Schemes to redistribute places in "good" schools are, by definition, based on the assumption that "bad schools" are always with us. Schools policy should be dynamic, not static. Bad schools should be made good. But until that happens, a policy that makes comprehensive schools more comprehensive is a matter for rejoicing. Let us hope that Sir Cyril's will prevails.

Fears that it may not were reinforced by an education department spokes- person whose comments on the scheme can best be described as dismissive. But doubts about its political acceptance have a more fundamental cause. A "banding" system diminishes prospects of parental choice. Even if there are empty places in a school, a pupil might be denied admission because a particular "band" is fully subscribed. Blair cannot honour his undertaking to extend choice and, at the same time, fulfil his pledge to promote comprehensive education. Let us hope that, for once, he breaks the right promise.

Such an idea would be a new dawn in British schooling. Not only would it help with the actual learning, it would introduce children to others from all different backgrounds. It's been shown that such schooling is the best way to make sure society becomes truly cohesive and integrated. It would help to tackle extremism and prejudice. Has this government finally found the necessary radicalism to carry out such a major reform? Let's hope so. If the government wanted to be even more radical, it would get rid of "faith" schools altogether. While that would be as likely as Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams dancing naked around a maypole, the first part would be the greatest change Labour could make in its third term.

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