Search Class

Comprehensive Schools Are Not Enough: The Challenge of Education Policy for the Left

Following on from discussions at our 2016 conference, we asked key thinkers to summarise their thoughts on some of the most important issues facing Britain today. Most of us are educated by state schools in the UK, and the quality of our education system is an issue that many feel passinately about, particularly as proposals to bring back grammar schools threaten to further entrench inequality. Professor Danny Dorling spoke in our education and schools session at the Class Conference on his vision for an overhaul of our education system, and we asked him to expand on his contribution here.


The education system in the UK is in crisis. However, the left needs to recognize that simply defending comprehensive education is not enough: our current system of allocation to state schools by area is deeply problematic. The publication of school league tables that started in the early 1990s led to small differences in outcome by schools being magnified into large differences by 2016. Many of those parents who could afford ‘school choice’ bought homes or rented in areas where schools were doing slightly better than average. Poorer families were subsequently priced out of the catchment areas of those schools, and what had started as a small difference in school outcomes grew into a chasm, dividing up many towns and cities.

One social problem led to another. Parents growing increasingly anxious about educational outcomes helped to fuel the speculative bubble in housing prices in the south east of England and further afield. Importantly, not publishing school league tables would be too little on its own to reverse the harm that has been done by the school choice that the comprehensive system allows for, and the spatial divides that have grown over time between our children.

Encouraging schools to compete with each other further exacerbated the problem, along with the foundation of academies and free schools. The left needs new ideas as radical as comprehensive education was when it was first envisaged. It needs to recognize how housing, growing economic inequality and education are linked, not just through who can live in each catchment area, but in the high turnover of young teachers in the south of England.

We need to begin to change how we govern our schools and amalgamate their management so that teachers can work on more than one school site, and economies of scale can be used to make it more rational for upper middle class parents not to use the private sector. We need our universities to compete less with one another, and work more closely with the communities in which they are based. So how can we begin to achieve this?

We need to look to models that could become the mainstream of the future. Long before the comprehensive movement was a movement, there were a few comprehensive schools. Similarly today, long before there is any movement for a co-operative ethos in the UK education system, there are already 800 co-operative state schools in the UK up and running. Notably, they are beginning to organise regionally, with more plans in place for extending this in 2017.

What we do not yet have is a co-operative model in a large town or small city in which all state schools work together in a way that it makes less and less sense for parents to worry about the school catchment area they live in, and less and less sense for those who could afford to go private not to use the state system.

A financial crisis is often a large part of the impetus for progressive social change. The National Health Service was introduced in part because the middle class could no longer afford a private doctor by the 1930s. Comprehensive schools were so popular in the 1970s in part because the middle class could increasingly not afford to use the private sector for their children who failed the 11 plus.

We too are in the middle of a financial crisis. State schools may, out of necessity, have to begin to share resources, science labs, language teachers, and sports fields. Why not then share the same senior management team too? And why not make our cities safer to cycle around, so that we are happier with the idea of secondary school children moving between different school sites or going to different sites on different days?

For all this to work, we need to adopt a more co-operative model of education. We need to realize that the school which achieves the best GCSE results in the city is not an ‘outstanding school’, but almost always the school with the most expensive catchment area. We need to understand that children who are very good at passing exams are not necessarily very good at anything other than passing exams. Britain needs a well-rounded workforce in the future, not a set of adults trained in exam technique, or made to feel inadequate because they were a problem for their school.