Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1964
I love the list we get in March of our next year sevens. I see the names and picture keen bright eleven-year-olds grinning as they find their way around the big school. I love it that our admissions are handled calmly, fairly and by the Local Authority.
I once worked in a school where admissions resembled the Schleswig-Holstein question. You needed a map, a compass and a Bismarck’s understanding of county bus routes to get a toe-hold in the discussion. There were years when revised admissions criteria might as well have been in Babylonian Cuneiform. Two years running we had public meetings with that Great Panjandrum, The Schools Adjudicator: beat that for complexity.
It was just an oversubscribed LA school in a city where a vengeful providence had put all the schools in one corner. We didn’t go in for aptitude tests, priest’s references, pricy uniforms or parental interviews. We had no choice about and no view on which 11-year olds joined us in September. Admissions were County Hall’s problem. If the LA had sent us 240 penguins to educate, we’d have got with the fish and the ice skating.
In London admissions are different. Children take a test in year 5 and are allocated one of 4 ability bands: this combines with parental preference to give schools a balanced basketful of children. This wise process is reinforced by the Sutton Trust’s latest characteristically sensible publication. Last month’s report on Banding and Ballots recommends banding to achieve a comprehensive intake, especially in urban areas. It meets the Trust’s laudable aim of improving social mobility through education.
Why is this important? Why is it right to divide children up and then spread them out? Is this not social engineering of the worst sort? Why not make every child go to its local school and let the devil take the hindmost? Why not leave year 7 to the market and the pointy elbows of the argumentative classes?
A good comprehensive school like Tallis is a work of art and a force of nature. It contains within its warm and cheerful walls the raw materials of the good society. Children of all kinds thrown together make friends across the divides and learn something about how to bear one another’s foibles and burdens and how to respect one another. They reject snobbery and develop an immense pride in diversity, community, fairness and justice.
A Head I worked with had a leaving speech for his upper sixth which I’ve plagiarised shamelessly ever since. He would warn those heading off to university to be understanding towards people who had not enjoyed their advantages. He spoke pityingly of young people from dull schools where everyone was alike, who then might find it hard to get along in real life. He said that being an alumnus of a comprehensive school was the best possible preparation for life, and that such young people had a responsibility to keep to the values that formed them, to make the world a better place.
We have to be organised about what we believe is right for our society and our young people. Parents are individually and collectively wonderful, but they need a structure to relax against, where what is right for their children is also right for other peoples. A proper, balanced comprehensive school gives us a glimpse of a just society in which no-one is disadvantaged by money.
It’s not easy to balance all schools and is almost impossible in rural and post-industrial places. Children in some areas would have to spend hours on buses to be part of banded intakes, and that wouldn’t be right either. School buses are at the mercy of the Lord of the Flies at the best of times. Heads in London have little idea of the time it can take to resolve a bus disagreement including soup and chewing gum. But a good is a good, and just because something’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it. If we thought that, who would understand A level Economics, surds or the offside rule? We need banded and balanced intakes in all our schools for the common good. Time to try harder.