The comprehensive college

Why do we persist in describing our sixth form college as comprehensive when the term has been unfashionable for some time and there is no requirement to have an inclusive admissions policy?

We’re proud to be comprehensive and, for us, using the “c-word” is the clearest way of defining one of our core values; the fact that we aim to provide for the educational needs of all young people in the age group we cater for, ie: 16-19 year olds.

Perhaps those schools and colleges which aren’t trying to be comprehensive should be asked: Why segregate? What is the case for exclusion? After all, a comprehensive intake is the norm for primary schools, why should things change at age 16 – or even age 11?

The idea of a comprehensive college does need more justification given that (a) there is such a wide range of potential courses available at different levels for this age group and (b) that 16 year olds have complete freedom of choice about where they study.

The range of courses and specialisation available post-16 do require a larger institution to provide them cost-effectively but there is no reason why all these courses can’t be offered within a single institution or even under one roof. And just because they operate in a market where students choose where to study this doesn’t mean that the available providers need to be “niche” or selective.

The comprehensive college improves social mobility by keeping students’ options open, allowing movement between different pathways and at different rates while also promoting social cohesion by creating a single community where everyone’s aspiration is nurtured and everyone’s contribution is valued.

When the headmaster of a fee-paying selective school, said a few years ago: “we must get away from the idea that we can successfully deliver both vocational and academic courses in the same school” he offered no evidence for this assertion. The achievements of thousands of students every year in the many successful colleges which offer both types of course make the eloquent case to the contrary.

When a new selective college was created in our area, it was described as a “lifeboat”, presumably because it was going to “save” poor bright students from drowning in mediocrity. Sticking with the analogy; by setting high entry requirements and offering a narrow curriculum the “lifeboat” in question was cherry-picking who to “save” very carefully, pushing most back into the water. Surely, a genuine “lifeboat” would aim to “save” everyone by providing appropriate routes for all students, including those who have achieved less well at school.

It’s time we saw our successful comprehensive schools and colleges as the benchmark even if they don’t top the performance tables for raw exam scores. By doing a great job for all students, they pose a daily challenge to more selective providers to justify themselves. It is the advocates of more selection at 16 who need to explain what their proposals are to educate all those students they keep out. Surely they should be aiming higher and raising their game?

We believe that a college for everyone is better placed to promote excellence for everyone. Students can and do achieve outstanding results in comprehensive settings and there is no evidence that institutional selection increases individual students’ chances of success or improves the performance of the system as a whole. When we show parents and potential students what being comprehensive means, in all its diversity and ambition, they respond very positively and enthusiastically support our aspiration to be a comprehensive college.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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