1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 4

Up to the Schools

ARE-READING of the Robbins Report only serves to emphasise how much the effective implementation of its proposals is going to itipend on the performance of the schools. We are in the position of having a comprehensive report on higher education, a similar one on average children, mostly in secondary modern schools, but very _little on grammar and public schools, There is no guarantee that the present serious shortage of teachers will be made up, nor that the demands for even more lecturers will not weaken the school teaching profession still further, particularly as regards the sixth form. It is true also that the undoubted talent available among children of working-class backgrounds will not find its way to universities in any greatly increasing numbers simply because more• places will be available. What matters is that these child- ren should want university education and that their parents should want it for them. At present there is all too much evidence that they are quite happy to do without it and that the prevailing system is unable to persuade them otherwise.

We are, of course, in a transitional period where the results of schooling over a number of generations have yet to make themselves felt. But it must be recognised that, for a long time to come, there will be a built-in handicap for those children who do not receive encourage- ment in learning from their home environment. A strenuous effort to combat these disadvantages will be required from the schools.

Are the schools up to their task of equipping for higher education anyone who is likely to benefit from it? The Incorporated Association of Head Masters, the body which largely repre- sents the maintained grammar schools, has stated that within its experience there is no significant proportion of pupils with university entrance qualifications failing to find places. And cer- tainly the number of university and CAT- vacancies in engineering and technology seems to bear this out. What has been happening, in fact, is that university material is being selected and pruned in the schools very early on, and that the number of candidates for entrance has been adapted to the number of places likely to be available. The process may have made its con- tribution to rising university standards, but its lack of justice is demonstrated by the many children who failed eleven-plus who are now, against all the odds, finding their way to higher education.

Yet now that the number of places is likely to be so much greater, and that it is eventually to be not competition but a candidate's suitability that determines his admission to university, we must ask ourselves how equipped the schools are, with their shortage of staff and facilities, to face this new situation. In particular, if we are passing to the idea of a Comprehensive University, where does that put the eleven-plus? If a man with a third-class science or mathematics degree can get, as he frequently does for lack of competition, a sixth-form teaching post, are standards in these subjects likely to improve, either in the schools or ultimately the universities? The enthusiasm over Robbins and the official silence on Newsom and the grammar schools are in danger of leading to a confusion of priorities. In the end it is the schools that count most, both for more people and for higher standards.