Along with the National Health Service, inclusive comprehensive schooling is arguably the most significant socialist achievement of any post-War Labour Government. Circular 10/65 set out to remove the pernicious practice of selection and put equality of educational opportunity at the heart of secondary schooling. While an ideological battle waged in England and Wales, the transition was smoother in Scotland. Not only were omnibus schools the norm in many parts Scotland, but the 1947 Advisory Council Report, though never implemented, had proposed a model of comprehensive schooling.
So, where are we now? Are our educational establishments as inclusive as they could be and, if not, what needs to be done?
It is important to state that primary schools have always been comprehensive in their intake and inclusive in their philosophy. But secondary schools struggled from the outset to remove the practice of selection. Far from being abolished, it simply moved from external to internal. The use of setting (by “ability” in individual subject) or streaming (by general “ability”) has become the norm, notwithstanding the absence of any research evidence to support it. It militates against inclusivity.
So, what can be done? Within this 500 word piece I can offer only some headlines which might be returned to later:
- All pupils in a catchment area should have their schooling in the local cluster. The impact of placing requests and private schools on local communities should be reviewed as a matter of urgency.
- The focus within the secondary school has become attainment, as measured by test scores and exam results. This leads to teaching-to-the-test and an emphasis on “academic” subjects to the detriment of vocational. This needs to change. The present Scottish Government should abandon its plans to introduce National Standardised Testing. Its desire to close the gap and tackle child poverty is admirable, but it refuses to listen to any advice which challenges its misguided policies.
- Early years and primary should be equal partners in the inclusive comprehensive project and the cluster (or family) of schools should be seen as the core provider of schooling. Decision-making and budgets should be devolved to the cluster.
- Pedagogy, not structures, should be at the heart of improving wider achievement, not just narrow attainment.
- Positive action should be taken to support clusters in areas of social and economic disadvantage, including incentivising the best teachers to work there.
Research over the last 50 years shows that schools matter, but we need to recognise that education takes place in many contexts. The role of parents is crucial, and higher and further education, along with business, must play their part.
If we are looking for models, Finland is a good starting point. The comprehensive school, a focus on creativity, partnership with business, intelligent accountability and a trust in teachers are among its key strengths. Curriculum for Excellence sought to embed these principles.
But, we also need the same level of political will which brought us comprehensive schools in the first place.