Towards the end of last summer term, I visited a London comprehensive rated 'Excellent' by Ofsted. It's not a specialist school, or a faith school, or a city academy. It is, however, slightly unusual in being comprehensive in more than just name. Almost a third speak a language other than English at home. Twenty per cent are entitled to free school meals (shorthand for children whose parents receive income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, or financial help in accordance with the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act). Another 20 per cent are from well-off households. And because of this diversity, the school is thriving. Most of the teachers I spoke to agreed that the school's success was to some extent dependent on the presence of a significant proportion of pupils who've been brought up to believe in the importance of education, whose parents support the school and have high expectations of what their children can achieve. Such children are more likely to be found among the better off. A study that Edinburgh University carried out in Grampian in 1996 found that 'the attainment of all pupils is enhanced if the school has many pupils from advantaged backgrounds. Conversely, the attainment of all pupils in a school is depressed if a school has few pupils from advantaged backgrounds.' The importance of this cannot be stressed enough: too many 'failing' schools are in difficulty because too many parents who not only care about their children's education but can afford to do something about it will go private, or move to the catchment area of a better school, forcing up house prices, and leading to further social segregation. A free-market model doesn't - and can't - work for the education system: there isn't the clear distinction between 'consumer' and 'product' that proponents of the market would have us believe there is, since parental wealth is such an important factor in what makes a successful school.
LRB 28 November 2002 | PDF Download