The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 7th, 2007

Only a dirty word can improve schools

For some time it has been widely believed that the prime minister is often away with the fairies. Increasingly in flight from nasty reality, Tony Blair flits from one messianic fantasy to another, wafted by hot gusts of his own rhetoric. The prime minister in waiting, by contrast, is said to be quite different. Gordon Brown, allegedly, is not a man to be inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity; he is prudent, practical and principled, not to mention spiritually abstemious. I was almost beginning to think so myself until Thursday when he put out a statement so vaingloriously, globally silly that I was reminded of the early Blair.

In a carefully placed article in The Guardian, and in briefings, Brown announced that free education for every child in the world would be one of the two central pillars of his foreign policy if he becomes prime minister, along with fighting climate change. He is aiming for “truly a world classroom”, as he puts it, “in time backed up by the world’s biggest petition”, which will involve abolishing child labour everywhere to mark the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. What’s more, he aims to achieve all this within 10 years. Poor man. He has taken leave of his senses and he is not yet in office. It is clearly not only power and glory that corrupt; it is the anguished manoeuvring for them.

Every halfway decent person would like to see an end to child labour and the beginning of universal education. But the idea that a British prime minister, or anyone or any country or any international organisation could begin to achieve such a thing, and in a mere 10 years, can be described only as a dangerous delusion. It sounds like Blair’s megalomaniacal aspirations in his Labour party conference in 2001, when he spoke of “healing the scar” of Africa, and of “our side” ending corruption, human rights abuse and bad governance practically everywhere.

Given what has happened in the intervening years, what “our side” has achieved, what the United Nations gets up to and what happens to charity money, you might imagine that Brown would have the wit to speak more modestly. How dare he grandstand about educating the children of the Third World when his government cannot educate our own children? Brown cannot claim that the failure of Britain’s schools is nothing to do with him; he came to power on Labour’s now notorious education mantra, he has been chancellor for 10 years and he is every bit as responsible as Blair for the squandering of our money and of our children’s prospects.

By a comic irony, on the same day that Brown announced his grandiose plans the head of the Office for Standards in Education published a review of schools recommending radical changes if hundreds of thousands of children were not to be failed by our system. That is proof enough, although the proof is already overwhelming, that education is not working. “It seems clear to us,” Ofsted’s 2020 review says, “that the education system will not achieve the next ‘step change’ in raising standards simply by doing more of the same; a new approach is required.” How true.

The report makes recommendations about testing, syllabuses, single-sex classes, different teaching styles for boys and some edu-babble called “personalised learning”. And so on. But the one radical and essential change is the one that the review does not mention. That is, to bring back selection.

For politicians selection is a dirty word. Some think it is divisive and wrong. All think it is electoral suicide, convinced as they are that the nation, particularly the middle classes, has not yet recovered from the trauma of the 11-plus exam. It was traumatic; I remember the tense faces and the tears when the results were announced and children were officially consigned either to white-collar or to blue-collar lives. But that does not mean that selection was wrong; what was wrong was how crudely and insensitively it was handled.

The point of selection, or at least its only acceptable point, is to be able to teach children of similar ability together and that can be done without traumatising or belittling them or writing them off. It cannot be done without revealing, however discreetly, that some children are better at some things than others, but children know that; there is evidence that in schools which avoid competitive positioning, children can nonetheless accurately rank each child in their class according to ability.

After the long failure of the egalitarian comprehensive experiment, it has become apparent that all children — not just the brightest or the most disabled — do best when taught with others who progress at a similar speed; it’s also easier to teach large classes when the children are of similar ability, whether low, medium or high. That ought to have been obvious long ago. And it is beginning to be obvious to most parents.

The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) published a pamphlet last week called Three Cheers for Selection which included an ICM survey from last June. According to this, 76% of people believe “more academic” children should be taught separately to stretch their abilities. Perhaps even more importantly, nearly as many people (73%) said weaker children also benefited from streaming or attending selective schools and 51% were in favour of schools setting their own admissions policy. What this means is that most parents want more selection, either in mixed schools or in separate schools.

What it also means is that politicians can relax about selection. It’s not toxic any more. It doesn’t mean “creaming off”. They should now be able to consider it on its merits, as central to educational reform, without fearing for their seats.

One of the many interesting findings of the CPS study is that poorer pupils benefit most from selective education; selection contributes to social mobility, which has declined in this country since it was largely abolished. What politicians need to do is take on the teaching unions, which are still entrenched in old-fashioned egalitarianism. Will Brown be bold enough to do that? I think it unlikely; he, too, is in the grip of old-fashioned egalitarianism, with its cruel inefficiencies, and has seen Blair fail. Like Lucifer, Milton’s thwarted hero, and like Blair himself, Brown seems to prefer hatching vain empires