Supporters of comprehensives are to meet in Oxford this month to combat what they see as a right-wing propaganda campaign to discredit a successful state system.
Lucy Hodges charts the history of the comprehensive idea and discovers that even its champions are divided over the future.
It is 30 years since Labour's education secretary Anthony Crosland issued his famous circular asking local authorities to submit plans for going comprehensive. And it is ten years and more since Conservative education secretaries began to light fuses under the comprehensive system with their assisted places scheme, city technology colleges, opt-out schools and the like.
The Government this week relaxed further the rules forbidding comprehensive schools from selecting their pupils. What, if anything, went wrong with the comprehensive idea? Are comprehensive schools - the schools most children attend - failing to educate these children to the standards required in the late 20th century? Are they turning out pupils inadequately prepared in the sciences and information technology, mathematics and use of English?
The answers to such questions depend on who you talk to. Most education experts in the universities believe the comprehensive system is an improvement on what went before because it is less narrowly academic and less wasteful of talent than the grammar/secondary modern schools. But some educationists paint a more glowing picture than others of the comprehensive achievement. "I would say comprehensive schools are a mixture of successes and failures," says Ted Wragg, Exeter University's professor of education.
Figures show increasing numbers of children passing exams and going on to higher education, but other statistics show the United Kingdom falling behind its economic competitors in the global standards league table. Parents strongly support their local schools - the ones their children attend - yet the press projects an image of failure. And some comprehensives are patently not successful in terms of truancy, behaviour or academic results.
In an attempt to rekindle the idealism that existed back in the 1960s and 1970s for the notion of educating children in a single school, the traditional supporters of comprehensive schools are holding a series of lectures at Oxford's University's department of educational studies. Under the heading "Affirming the comprehensive ideal", 14 speakers will examine education since the second world war and point to where comprehensives might go in the next century. They are hoping to spread some good news about comprehensive schools and influence the Labour party in its preparation for government.
"The assumption that things have gone wrong needs to be questioned and we will certainly question it," says Richard Pring, who runs Oxford's department of educational studies and has organised the conferences jointly with the Centre for the Study of Comprehensive Schools. "For many young people and for many schools comprehensive education has been highly successful.
"This blanket condemnation of comprehensive schools is not borne out by the empirical evidence. But that is not to say that we think everything is marvellous and good. There are lessons to be learnt where it has not worked as effectively as it should have done.'' Speakers in the series number education professors, including Denis Lawton, the curriculum expert from London's Institute of Education; two former headteachers and Bernard Clarke, head of Peers School, Oxford; Caroline Benn, a lecturer at Kensington and Chelsea college of further education; and Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer. These are the traditional cheerleaders for comprehensive schools, but Pring is hoping they will not be over complacent.
Conspicuously absent from the list of speakers is David Hargreaves, former chief inspector of the Inner London Education Authority who today runs Cambridge University's department of education. Can it be that Professor Hargreaves has not been invited because of his criticisms of comprehensive schooling? Although he supports the comprehensive ideal of not selecting pupils at age 11, Hargreaves wants to see more choice and diversity within the system.
Moreover, he believes teaching in comprehensives is not as good as it should or could be, and that pupils are not achieving their potential. To support this assertion he invokes the annual reports of school inspectors which have consistently found around one third of lessons to be unsatisfactory. When inspectors visit, teachers are trying their hardest and putting on a good show, he points out. Yet, even then, a substantial proportion of their lessons are found wanting. The answer is not to return to selection, but to be harder on schools, he says.
In a comment which echoes that of the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, he calls for bad teachers to be sacked, and standards for the remainder to be raised. Such sentiments do not endear Hargreaves to the traditional supporters of comprehensive schools.
That is because most educationists believe most schools are doing a decent job. Anyway, those who are worried about the quality of teaching and learning - the perennial problem of low expectations - favour a softer tone. Professor Wragg, another speaker in the series, says: "I have seen some appalling education going on in some schools in the country, but not in the vast majority.
"The vast majority of schools I go to are cheering places. Although I watch lessons and I think 'Maybe the expectations were too low, maybe this should have been done and that should have been done', on the whole the general climate is positive."
The problem is that there has been a massive propaganda campaign against comprehensives, says Wragg. "I think there has been a quite unscrupulous policy in some newspapers of not giving good news about comprehensive schools," he adds. "Don't ask me why because there have been plenty of good stories to tell ."
The media takes its cue from the small number of desperate schools in a limited number of areas, educationists believe, and many journalists live in London where comprehensive schools are faced with inner city problems - a combination of poverty, children not speaking English, and huge demographic shifts. These are not typical problems faced by comprehensives; they are the problems faced by urban schools around the world. And they require their own solutions.
One of the remedies sought by Hargreaves for pushing up the quality of teaching and learning is to have comprehensives specialising in, say, music or drama, or to allow religious groups, the Muslims or Buddhists, or other ideological groups, to set up their own comprehensives. That way, schools would have real commitment and provide more choice. "It would make schools far more successful," he says. "Where there is a common aim, people are much more motivated and committed."
Such views are attracting considerable support. Professor Wragg, for example, is in favour of specialist schools and thinks they are the way for comprehensives to develop in the 21st century and the new Labour party is also sympathetic. But others disagree. Geoffrey Walford, lecturer in educational studies at Oxford and another speaker in the lecture series, is antagonistic to that idea. He believes specialist schools would work in favour of middle-class children whose parents would be able to afford private lessons to prepare their offspring for music or drama or whatever subject the school chose for its specialism. His is the classic egalitarian view which is increasingly regarded as authoritarian today.
So what are the concerns of the traditional supporters of comprehensives about the way the schools have evolved? Like many education academics, Professor Lawton wants to see radical change in the curriculum. He says there was no, or very little, thinking about the curriculum after the war, so children continued to be fed a grammar school diet of narrow, over-academic lessons, dominated by exams. Some of the most important aspects of modern life were neglected, such as politics, an understanding of society, economics, and moral and health education.
The General Certificate of Secondary Education which replaced O levels in 1986 and was first examined in 1988 improved things a little, but mostly left them the same, according to Lawton. Ditto the national curriculum. In the short run - five years - one could do a patch-up job. In the long run in an ideal world Lawton would like to see, not a list of subjects, but a curriculum based on principles and values, an analysis of our society and how it is changing, and what is involved in living in a democratic, industrial, urban world.
Pring identifies another area of complaint about comprehensives: the emphasis on large schools - big enough to produce a decent-sized sixth form at a time when not many children are staying on at school after the age of 16.
It meant comprehensives became equated with very large schools, often containing 2,000 or more pupils. Pring is interested today in looking at schemes such as exist in New York where huge, factory-size high schools are giving way to an array of smaller ones.
Like other educationists, Pring believes schools learnt a great deal from the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, organized by the Department of Employment in the 1980s to give less academic pupils better vocational skills. The initiative pulled the wider community into supporting schools and introduced many pupils to a more practical style of learning. It points the way to how comprehensives might develop beyond the year 2000, says Pring.
Some local education authorities are producing innovative ideas. Birmingham's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, is developing what he calls a "university of the first age'' for children in his city, now in pilot phase. Under that scheme, pupils in the first three years of secondary schooling (when they are often switched off lessons) would be able to choose short courses in subjects they really enjoy. They would attend a variety of school "campuses" in the city, meeting other children similarly enthused by the subject. The course materials would be superbly produced on the Open University model and children would be encouraged to take GCSEs early in their chosen areas.
The trouble with some of the more abstract talk - particularly on the curriculum and learning styles - is that it does not percolate outside the narrow world of academic educationists, who tend to be in the political centre or left. If it did, many people might reject it anyway. Chris Woodhead, the controversial chief inspector of schools, is, for example, scathing about academic educationists' ideas on the curriculum and their emphasis on process rather than subject matter. The general public and other academics would reject it out of hand, he says.
Further to the right, Sheila Lawlor, who runs the new conservative think-tank called Politeia, views comprehensive education as a collectivist approach to education imposed by bureaucrats. It worked for people who could afford to live in the lush suburbs but left the rest educationally deprived, she says. What the nation needs is education vouchers to set the people free and to put pressure on failing schools.
It may be 30 years since the introduction of mass comprehensive schooling, but the old row about whether children should be divided up continues. The supporters of the comprehensive ideal are hoping a Labour victory at the next election will bring a new rhetoric about education. It may. But they may find themselves disappointed by new Labour's lack of ideological purity - its rejection of a single, uniform type of comprehensive - and by its pragmatism. New debates are bound to rage.