Sunday, March 04, 2007

It Could Be You!

Brighton Council’s attempt to introduce a lottery system for secondary school transfer has produced howls of outrage with rival groups lobbying council meetings – cue children thrust to the fore by pushy parents holding banners and looking sad.

In large towns and cities the process of secondary school ‘choice’ has become traumatic with the numbers of appeals set to rocket. Where does the system work well? In the small towns and rural areas where there isn’t a vast choice and schools tend to have a balanced ‘comprehensive’ intake.

In Scandinavia social class has less influence on educational achievement, how do they do it? They have excellent nursery provision, high investment in education and teaching is a valued job. Also there aren’t the same extremes of wealth and housing ghettos that you find in Britain and America.

Ten years ago when my daughter was trying to find a school there was a child in her class who had the pick of six schools-

· The local school
· A single-sex secondary
· The parents sudden conversion opened up the Catholic sector
· A school that still selected by examination
· The grant maintained school
· An assisted place at a public school

Under New Labour the choice factor has become even more complex – faith schools, grammars, academies, trust schools, specialist ones and finally the “bog standard” comprehesives. For those without a car to transport their children, who aren’t prepared to push their children through countless exams, can’t fill in the bewildering array of forms, aren’t prepared to bake cakes for the local church, or haven’t got those sharp elbows that get you to the front of the queue, more choice for some does indeed mean less choice for the rest.

I’m not arguing for a return to rigid catchment areas, because that is just manna from heaven for the local estate agents. You have to give people some element of choice, schools will always specialise in some areas of the curriculum and if your only choice is a crumbling school run by a dictatorial head where you know your child will be miserable, that’s no choice either.

Predictably there’s been calls to ‘bring back the 11-plus’ - it was fairer because it was based on ability and gave a chance for ‘bright working class children’ to better themselves. There were some excellent grammar schools and many truly awful secondary moderns. As for social mobility in the 160 remaining grammar schools only 2% claim Free School Meals against a national average of 14%.

Schools reflect society. In America white flight from the cities and segregated housing policies left schools with an intake skewed towards one racial grouping (it’s not uncommon for inner city schools to be 95% black and suburban ones 95% white).

In Britain the booming property market and the sale of the best council housing stock has left some estates without any social balance, they’re mainly composed of the unemployed or the elderly. Walk round the peripheral council estates in the large cities and you can pick out the failing schools, 90% of schools in special measures are in areas of extreme social deprivation.

The process of selection by secondary schools creates a Darwinian game of natural selection, there are winners and losers. Ten years ago The Ridings in Halifax was Britain’s most extreme and well-publicised school failure. It’s now set to return to special measures, but it is competing against two grammar schools and a faith school.

Across the Pennines at the opposite end of the spectrum you have Canon Slade Church of England School in Bolton. In 2005 it admitted 268 children from 87 different primary schools, the eight primary schools within easy travelling distance sent just 39 children. Canon Slade is almost completely white in an area with a large black and Asian population. Only 6% of its children were SEN against a Bolton average of 27%. Parents at the nearest primary school admitted that they didn’t even bother to apply, “It’s not for the likes of us.”

The attempt to use a lottery for school places is a crude attempt at social engineering, bussing children didn’t work in America. We need to take a long look in the mirror and think about the type of winner takes all society we are creating. What the overwhelming majority want is the choice of a good local school. What we have at the moment is an unseemly scramble for the nearest lifeboat.

Thanks to MPN for this Janice Turner Times Online

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Janice Turner wrote a funny article in The Times about her attempts as a parent to cope with the transition to secondary school. You can find it on Times Online.

Also, going back to Freakonomics - I loved the chapter on names and how they impact upon your life. Now every time I teach little Shanice and Trae, I wonder if it'd be easier if they were called Sophie and Thomas...thinking about it though, probably not.
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