Why the comprehensive college?

When we talk about education, we are talking about both the personal and the social – the ‘small’ and the ‘big’. As individuals, what we know and can do goes to the very heart of our identity. We are engaged in a lifelong construction project of ‘making something’ of ourselves, of knowing ourselves and finding ourselves – something which is uniquely ours. At the same time, education is also about our relationship with others and our ability to work with others.

We learn from others, with others and through others. What we know and can do is expressed in relation to the social world. So, becoming educated is as much to do with society as with our own personal motives.

This means that when we discuss education we are always talking about both the small and the big; about ourselves and our own needs but also about the needs of the wider society. The debate about what kind of schools, colleges or universities we should have – comprehensive or selective – may seem to be purely at the ‘big’ system level but it has its roots at the ‘small’ personal level; in other words, what does this actually mean for me or my children? When talking about the need for a comprehensive education system we are addressing both the personal and the social, thinking small and thinking big, and trying to make sure that self-interest and social interest coincide.

I want to make 3 key points:

  1. Comprehensive education is as important as ever.
  2. It is as necessary post-16 as pre-16.
  3. It needs to be applied at the level of the whole system in order to really work.

When we make the comprehensive case, we can do it on the basis of:

  • Fundamental beliefs, principles and values: it’s the right thing to do to promote greater equality, democracy and fairness.
  • Evidence and data about student achievement, social research and international comparisons: we know that like-for-like comparative studies generally show that selection does not lead to better outcomes.
  • Experience, which is a kind of evidence: while we value research, we also need to trust in our own lived experience of teaching young people in schools and colleges. This experience should be heard and respected.

The comprehensive idea has a long history; we can go back to Horace Mann who campaigned for the common, non-sectarian, free, universal public school in 19th century Massachusetts. Or John Dewey who said: “The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of their personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gifts they have.” And Jane Addams: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

I’m going to draw on my own experience; over 35 years working in education, 22 of those in post-16 colleges, 16 as a principal and 10 years at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc). All of that time spent in comprehensive, diverse urban settings. I could add, as a parent of 4 children, all of whom attended comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges.

I’ll start with NewVIc. The college was created in the early 1990’s in a wise and brave decision by the London Borough of Newham. Wise, because it was informed by principles, evidence and experience – including the experience of creating 2 new sixth form colleges in neighbouring Waltham Forest in the late 1980’s when, incidentally, I chaired the Education Committee and saw through the implementation of that reorganisation. Brave, because it was controversial; school sixth forms had to be closed and there was inevitably some opposition. At a time when staying on rates, achievement rates and progression rates were very low, the project was motivated by a strong belief that young people in Newham could do at least as well post-16 as students anywhere else in England.

It took an elected, accountable local authority to have the debate and make the plans and see them through. There was no question of creating a selective sixth form to serve only the highest achieving students.

Like other similar projects elsewhere, the experiment worked. Participation, achievement and progression have all soared in Newham since NewVIc opened. What was created was a college which aims to meet the educational needs of the full 16-19 age cohort and it’s been a successful, ambitious learning community by any standards. For instance, the number of ‘disadvantaged’ students progressing to university is regularly the highest in the country, an increasing number of students progress to Russell Group universities every year, and high numbers of students who left school with low GCSE grades also make it to university after 3 or 4 years of further education. These are students who wouldn’t even get a look in at the selective sixth forms and would have been written off as ‘no hopers’.

So where are we now? Is this comprehensive project under threat? Yes it is. The proliferation of selective sixth forms in Newham and other areas has created a de-facto selective system, albeit without the public debate which preceded previous changes. What does this mean for the comprehensive provider? We know that the existence of a ‘grammar school’ necessarily makes other local schools look more like secondary moderns even if they aim to be comprehensive. Is it possible to remain comprehensive when you are surrounded by several highly selective providers? When the context has clearly changed, should a comprehensive college give up on its aspiration to serve the whole age cohort?

What are the arguments? First, we need to ask: what is the case for segregation by prior achievement? Why is it so important to separate young members of the same society who are going to live and work together?

Proponents of selection argue that:

  • “The post-16 curriculum is more specialised, students’ needs are more diverse at this stage and selection simply sorts and groups them by their interests, focusing better on different needs.”

In all the colleges where I have worked, the diversity of students, of curricula and of need made the case for offering everything in one college. In effect they were an Art school, a Business school, a Science and Engineering academy, a liberal studies sixth form, a retake college, a special needs provider snd kn some cases an adult education provider, all under one roof, with no incentive to push students into any route other that what is best for them.

  • “By 16 we know who the ‘academic’ students are, and they will do better if they are with other students like them”.

This kind of deterministic labelling only holds students back, denying them the possibility of growth or change. There’s no evidence that equally qualified students do any better in a selective setting.

  • “Structures don’t matter. All that counts is good teachers and good schools.”

This fails to recognise the social setting and the messages being sent to students and parents about who and what is and isn’t valued. By placing institutional walls between students, for whatever reason, we limit opportunities for achievement and social cohesion and we risk reproducing existing patterns of success and failure.

By providing new reasons to turn people away, selective provision feeds people’s wish to get into somewhere which might reject them. This defines aspiration in competitive terms; you have to beat someone else to get that place and where you get in becomes more important than what you might do there. Selection changes us, it shapes our view of ourselves and each other and our model of human potential and human progress.

Since the creation of these local selective providers, we started to hear promising and ambitious students telling us they were ‘not good enough’ or ‘too thick’ to get into a ‘good’ college because they’d been rejected by one of the selective providers. This is not how we chose to talk about aspiration and it’s certainly not the language of a comprehensive system.

In summary, comprehensive colleges are alive and well and they have a track record of success – the evidence can be seen across the country. But they are often surviving in a harsh climate, where the institutional environment, the qualification system and the education market all encourage sorting and ranking of institutions and the creation of hierarchies of students and programmes.

We’re living in a difficult period; a time of fracture and division. If we want to address the many challenges which face us; economic, social, democratic and environmental; inequality, injustice, violence and prejudice, we will need a modern, comprehensive, public education system which is fit for purpose and which can foster a democratic culture in which everyone has a stake. The ambitious, successful and inclusive comprehensive college will be an essential part of such a system.

Based on a talk given at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in June 2018.

See also:

Many colleges in one (April 2015)

The comprehensive college (Feb 2014)

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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