Bathetic excuses

June 28, 1996

Yes it's working - but the Government is oddly reluctant to claim the credit. Were Lord Robbins alive today he would be amazed that we have a higher education system with a 30 per cent age participation rate and schools turning out would-be university students in unprecedented numbers able to fulfil his test of "ability to benefit". It is a remarkable achievement, not only for the universities and their staff, but for our much-maligned schools system and the teachers.

The problems, and problems there are, are not that schools are failing those who aspire to higher education but that they are failing those threatening to consolidate into an underclass.

The Government, however, instead of taking credit where it can and addressing the real problems of those who do not achieve to higher education entry level, is confecting a bogus problem and, in this week's White Paper, proposing the wrong solution by supporting a return to selection, to the system under which higher education participation rates barely struggled into double figures. The policy sits ill with concepts of opportunity and lifelong learning that are loudly advocated elsewhere.

What it looks like is a bit of ugly electoral opportunism. Choices made by Labour frontbench spokeswoman, Harriet Harman, and to a lesser extent the Labour leader, Tony Blair, make the issue potentially embarrassing for Labour. The way Labour spindoctors contrived to turn an anti-selection speech by David Blunkett into an apparent criticism of comprehensive schools suggests private polls are telling both parties that discontent with comprehensives is a matter of concern with voters. Government advisors clearly believe the slogan "A grammar school in every town" is a winner. Maybe they are right. But it is more likely that visceral dislike of comprehensive schools in some parts of the Conservative party has led them to misjudge public enthusiasm for selection.

Most parents support their children's schools though they may whinge over this or that. Dislike of comprehensives among conservative middle-class supporters can have as much to do with snobbery, fear of downward social mobility, fear of eroded differentials as with education. It may be dressed in arguments about "stretching", as if children were so much elastic, and "standards", as if these can only be defined and underpinned by selecting the best and rejecting the rest, but underneath is an urgent desire to see their children get ahead of the rest as early as possible in the race for the prizes which bring wealth in our society - places in "good" universities.

Grammar schools are paraded as widening choice. The choice they widen is for schools, not pupils or parents. Those who wish to choose a comprehensive are denied their choice if there is a grammar school in town. Who would choose secondary modern - which is where the vast majority of children went in the past and would go again? Opinion polls seldom ask that question. The most likely result of John Major's initiative is that those who currently pay for private education would thankfully opt for the grammar school if their children could get in.

To create a grammar school in every town would be to create a monument to exclusion, denial of opportunity and rationing by class. It would also be grossly inefficient. We cannot expect to run a modern technological society with only, say, 15 per cent educated to advanced levels.

A more sensible and attainable ambition is to make sure there is a college in every sizeable community, offering both vocational and academic courses, providing at least bridges to higher education and probably also higher education courses to at least Higher NationalDiploma level. That is the appropriate way to create real opportunities for learning and relearning throughout life. Harking back to the age of grammar schools is a cheap - and dangerous - exercise in bathos.

The sad thing is that Mrs Shephard probably knows this, but is not allowed to say so.

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