I live in a county which went completely comprehensive many years ago. In each town, there is usually one large comprehensive school. Parents who cannot afford to pay private school fees have very little choice but to send their children there.
Political debate has often focused around city schools, and rural children are forgotten. In the country, where even an alternative bog-standard comprehensive is miles away, and with little public transport, choice is virtually non-existent. To those who support the concept of one common school serving the community, this must seem like an ideal scenario. Everyone must mix in together and rub shoulders with people of every background.
The reality is very different, of course. Where there does happen to be a slightly better comprehensive, property prices are sky-high. But for most parents who want something better than the bog-standard, they must scrape together private school fees. And many of them do: my county is liberally sprinkled with private schools of all shapes and sizes.
It’s astonishing to compare the number of private schools here compared to a neighbouring county, which has maintained the grammar school system. There are hardly any private schools there, and dozens here. The message is clear: segregation in the state school system cannot be removed simply by government fiat. It grows up in another form whenever the state tries to abolish it, because caring parents simply want the best for their children. Can they really be blamed for that?
Segregation can only be tackled by working to provide as many excellent non-selective state schools as possible. At the moment, the only game in town for non-selective excellence is the free schools, and the academy chains that are actually making a difference, such as ARK.
But the game is in town, not in the country. There is only one, very small, free school in my county. No ARK has made an appearance, and we’re drowning in a very polite and genteel way. Some of the bog standard comprehensives are converting to academies, but that is only a change of governance, not attitude. They are still cavernous, anonymous places, governed by local empire builders.
Of course, if you look at their GCSE results, these comprehensives appear to be not too dreadful. That is really part of the problem. There are enough middle class people round here who have convinced themselves that the local comprehensive is all right really. It doesn’t have the spectacular level of disorder and disrespect that is found in many urban schools. It’s only a bit rubbish, not horrifyingly disastrous. Such parents will often try to make up for their sense of uneasiness by organising extracurricular activities themselves, and paying for tutors.
And so the local monopoly continues unopposed. It’s the curse of not-too-dreadfulness. If things were more awful, we might have some chance of real reform round here. As it is, we have to put up or pay up.