The right wing press heaped praise on Tony Blair last week for his plans to attack comprehensive education. The Sun said, 'We take our hat off to the prime minister.' It applauded Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell for labelling comprehensive schools 'bog-standard'. The Tories boasted that New Labour had copied their policies. The right wing are cheering the end of working class children getting the right to a decent education.
The government will turn nearly half of all secondary schools in England and Wales into specialist schools. This will be on top of the 536 specialist schools that already exist. These schools will get extra money and will officially be able to select up to 10 percent of their pupils. In fact, the schools will select many more children than that as parents rush to get their children into the few well funded schools. A small number of 'gifted and talented' children will also be creamed off for the new National Academy.
This is modelled on a US centre for talented youth in Baltimore where a few children get individually tailored courses. Children will be under more and more pressure, with a tougher regime of tests in schools. The 11 year olds will face higher targets, and 13 year olds will be tested for the first time. New Labour's plans are about dumping a central plank of 'Old Labour' policies. In the 1960s and 70s the Labour Party promoted comprehensive education as a limited way of addressing the gap between rich and poor. It said, 'Never again can part of the population be hidden away in the backstreet sink schools.'
The school leaving age was raised, class sizes were reduced and the 11-plus exam that aimed to fail 80 percent of children was scrapped. The gains in education were so massive even Tory education secretary Margaret Thatcher went along with them.
The opening up of new universities and polytechnics increased access to higher education. The proportion of adults leaving school without qualifications fell during the years when comprehensive education was introduced, according to the 1988 General Household Survey.
The children who gained most were from poor, working class families. The improvements in education for working class women were even greater. Now New Labour is rubbishing all of these achievements and doesn't even pretend to aspire to equality in education.
'Stop the market in schools'
'I sat the 11-plus in 1959. Three children in my class passed and left to go to grammar school. The rest of the class, 33 children, failed the test and went to the secondary modern school. I remember some children broke down and cried as they heard the results. Our school, like many others, would identify the children it believed had the potential to pass and coached them.
Now we have the threat of this two tier education returning. I am standing as the Socialist Alliance candidate in Bristol to give a voice to everyone who wants to make sure New Labour does not push us back to the kind of education which failed the majority of working people. Now schools are expelling pupils from working class backgrounds because of their behaviour. The real issue is that the children are disaffected and uninspired by a restricted national curriculum. I want to see a different set of priorities which put people first. We need an end to the market in our schools.'
BRIAN DRUMMOND, Socialist Alliance candidate in Bristol
Head is sick with disappointment
Paul Patrick is the head of Cardinal Wiseman High School, the largest school in Ealing, west London. He spoke to Socialist Worker about his reactions to Blair's announcement last week:
'I was shocked. Blair's speech was like listening to a Tory party broadcast. We survived 18 years of attacks, underfunding and over-inspection from the Tories. This government has carried on the Tories' agenda. It seemed to be easing up in recent months. There was a lot of press commentary about the government returning to traditional Labour values to inspire its core voters. Then we get this insult-comprehensive schools described as 'bog-standard' by a Labour prime minister.
Well, I am proud to be head of a 'bog-standard' school. Our school went for specialist status to get the extra money. The system now means you only get extra funds by applying for one of the government's schemes. But we do not select.
My school could test for maths and technology to select 10 percent of pupils. That would distort the admissions in other schools in the area. The pressure is on us constantly to move in that direction. People in many areas already cannot get their children into local schools. Many schools in areas of multiple deprivation such as Southall do face problems. They are where extra resources should be targeted.
Instead the government is ignoring the social and economic pressures on children and their families. I saw a clip last week of David Blunkett's speech to the Labour Party conference in 1995 when he said, 'Read my lips-no selection by examination or interview under a Labour government.'
It made me sick with disappointment. I feel totally betrayed. Most of the people I know are core Labour voters. They feel so angry. Of course they do not want the Tories back. But many are thinking of not voting, and some may vote to the left of Labour to teach the government a lesson.'
'Comprehensive education gave working class children like me a second chance. I failed my 11-plus. I am totally opposed to selection of children at the end of their primary education. This just limits the opportunities available to vast numbers of children. Children from disadvantaged homes often do not do well in the early years of school.
What Blair is doing is a total desertion of progressive education. Most people I know reject Blair's ideas for more selection. In Leeds the government has pushed for privatisation of all our schools. We have had major demonstrations against the scheme. Local councillors, MPs, parents, teachers and pupils are all against it. Blair's plan to turn half the comprehensive schools into specialist schools is completely against what the Labour Party say they stand for.'
JOE WALSH, Leeds teacher
Schools run for profit
Tony Blair also announced a sharp increase in privatisation of schools last week. The government wants to create privately-run 'city academies' in every area. It is an idea taken straight from the Tories.
In 1986 the Tories' education secretary, Kenneth Baker called for the creation of 'city technology colleges'-which were to be financed and run by business. The experiment failed because the Tories could not guarantee business would make sufficient profit, and only 15 of the colleges were set up. New Labour's first big idea for schools, Education Action Zones, has run into the same problem.
The scheme was supposed to attract private sponsorship for groupings of schools. But a report last month by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that companies' contributions have largely been 'in kind' and 'overvalued'. For example, in Blackburn local businesses agreed to sit on the zones' management committee. That went down as a contribution of £80,000 a year.
The government is following the lead of Tory-controlled Surrey council, which was the first to hand over a school wholly to a private company. The company running school services in Labour-controlled Southwark council, south London, is construction firm W S Atkins. It told Thames Trains to save money by not introducing the best safety system on the train which subsequently crashed at Southall.