Abbeydale Grange - The Whole Story

Part 6

The article in The Guardian provoked a response from a columnist in The Times but unfortunately this piece of reporting merely demonstrates the fact that the author has never even been to the area. "He (Nick Davies) compared Abbeydale Grange, formerly a successful grammar school in a working-class part of Sheffield,..." Well I don't think that by any stretch of the imagination can you call Millhouses, Whirlowdale and Beauchief  "working class" and Abbeydale Grange was NEVER a Grammar School. It was and always has been a state comprehensive school. Abbeydale Grange was never "successful" for the reasons I outlined earlier but to state that "Schools tend not to succeed without a critical mass of aspirational middle-class pupils.." is clearly an savage indictment of post war state education and the policies successive goverments have pursued

Making our schools work again

The class divide in the system is starker than 30 years ago,  says Mary Ann Sieghart  in  The Times  17th September 1999

Britain has the best schools in the world. They produce well-rounded school-leavers with excellent qualifications. They are so internationally renowned that they attract pupils from scores of countries who would rather be taught here than at home. The trouble is, they are fee-paying.

And what of the state sector? Apart from a handful of first-rate grammar schools, it all but denies its brightest children access to Britain's best universities. A pupil from a comprehensive is 30 times less likely to get into Oxford or Cambridge than one from a private school.

But aren't comprehensives fair, at least? Surely they offer a broad social mix? Hardly.

A fascinating report by Nick Davies in The Guardian this week showed how disillusioned advocates of the comprehensive ideal should now be. He compared Abbeydale Grange, formerly a successful grammar school in a working-class part of Sheffield, with Silverdale, formerly a secondary modern in the suburbs.

In the old days, bright children of any background could go to Abbeydale Grange, get good results and a university place: a passport to success in later life. It did not matter where they lived or how much their parents earned. Since turning comprehensive, Abbeydale Grange has become a sink school, abandoned by the affluent, from which bright working-class children have no escape. Its results are appalling. The middle classes have bought their way into Silverdale because they can afford to live nearby. Working-class children from the wrong end of town cannot win a place there. Its GCSE results are more than three times better than Abbeydale's.

And this is fair? Can it be counted a broad social mix that the poor outnumber the rich by three to one at Abbeydale, while the opposite ratio holds at Silverdale? As Mr Davies admits: "Neither school now is comprehensive in anything but name. Neither school now is any more comprehensive than it was 30 years ago. In those days, the children were selected by examiners. Now, they are selected by estate agents."

But 30 years ago, children were at least selected on their own merits. Now, if their family is poor, they are written off at birth. In other words, the class divide inside the state system is as stark as it is between the state and the private sector, and much starker than it was 30 years ago.

The problem is middle-class flight. Schools tend not to succeed without a critical mass of aspirational middle-class pupils. But the middle classes flee bad state schools for good ones, or the state sector for the private. There is a solution, but it is radical, and Tony Blair would have to challenge Labour's old taboos.

Three things must be done. The country's best schools should be opened up to all. The state system should become far more specialised. And more should be done for the least academic children.

Take the private schools first. The top 100 independent day schools account for about a quarter of Oxbridge entry. Many of them used to be direct-grant schools, open to all on the basis of ability alone. Now only those whose parents can afford the fees can go to them. In other words, Britain has gone backwards.

Peter Lampl, an admirable philanthropist, is single-handedly opening the best girls' day school in Liverpool to all who are bright enough to get in. His charity, the Sutton Trust, will pay all or part of the fees of any pupil whose parents need help. He reckons that 70 to 80 per cent of them will have some assistance. So the school will have a genuine social mix.

He also wants to ensure that the scheme does not just benefit the impoverished middle classes, as assisted places tended to do. He has funded an outreach officer to go into the most deprived local primary schools and talent-spot the cleverest children.

But why should a private individual have to fund such an experiment? The Sutton Trust estimates that to open up the top 200 day schools would cost the Government a mere 200 million.Yet it would give opportunities to the brightest 130,000 children, regardless of wealth.

What about the rest? The lesson of Sheffield is that schools should admit pupils on the basis of aptitude, not catchment area. By the time children are 11 - or better still, 14 - it is clear what talents they have. Ministers are already encouraging schools to specialise; why not ask some to specialise in being academic, while others specialise in, say, technology or sport? They may have to select their pupils. But they can do so in a much more civilised way than the 11-plus, with teacher reports and parental consultation over the last years of primary school, instead of a one-off exam.

Finally, the least academic children need much more money and attention to help them become employable. But they are more likely to thrive at school, and stay on, if they are taught suitable subjects at a suitable level, rather than being thrown into mixed-ability academic classes in which they cannot keep up.

The result would be a much broader social mix in all schools. More rigorous selection for the open-access schools and the academic state schools would mean that middle-class children would no longer be able to buy their way into middle-class schools. Unless they could afford a boarding school, they would simply join other children with similar talents at the appropriate state school. Backgrounds would no longer count.

That is the beauty of this scheme. It helps to break down class barriers, the bane of this country. It genuinely offers equal opportunity for all. And it creates a bridge between the private and state sectors, a third way if you like. Isn't that quintessentially new Labour?

Three years on nothing has changed. Will it ever???.

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