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Get into trouble in the old blackboard days, and there was a robust, inter-school support system ready to help. Photograph: Getty
The news that two Yorkshire free schools, Batley Grammar and the King's Science Academy in Bradford, are oversubscribed prompts memories of Friday afternoons at Leeds Education Office. In those far off days, members of the city council's education committee were on a rota for truant duty. Each of us would chair a group of inspectors, advisors and welfare officers all sat behind an imposing semicircular desk in an oak panelled room, like something out of the film Kes. The relevant head teachers would join us as persistent truants and their parents were summoned into our presence and placed on seats before us. However heinous the offences ,the child alwaysseemed cowed and vulnerable.
Curiously this imposing, almost Dickensian, process actually worked. In most cases the parents became supportive and the child returned to school. But, and this is the point, not always to the same school. Because we were part of a broad and varied local authority education service we were able to focus on the needs of the child and where beneficial, to seek an alternative school more suited to a difficult pupil.
What is more, a local authority had a team of sympathetic and professional advisors who could call on a wide range of special help for teachers and their schools. The atomisation of education into separate independent schools prevents all this happening. It deprives schools, staff and children of the huge benefits of being part of the wide range of local authority provisions.Billy Liar's creator Keith Waterhouse portrayed the talent in 'difficult' young people which also fired the West Riding's great Sir Alec Clegg. Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in the film version of Billy Liar. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
It was the Leeds education service that was rightly pressured into making an exception for Richard Hoggart's home circumstances to get him into high school and thence to university. It was chief education officers of the stature of Sir Alec Clegg in the West Riding and John Taylor in Leeds who were dedicated to maximising the opportunities for all their children, and particularly those from the tougher areas. The idea of schools even thinking they needed to opt out to provide 'good' education would have been completely alien to them.
All the pressures for academies, free schools and for the expansion of grammar schools are based on a very narrow definition of educational success, which over-emphasises academic values at the expense of a child acquiring and experiencing an awareness of the local community and the variety of individuals in it. These different perceptions are far from being mutually exclusive, but transporting children miles across our cities every day cuts them off from the broader life of the local school that relates to the community around it.
There are great risks to stability in society if we target so much at the top 20% of children and write off the rest who increasingly feel disaffected. There may be many who clamour for the return of grammar schools but there is no-one who campaigns for the return of the secondary modern.
Michael Meadowcroft was a Leeds city councillor for 15 years, a West Yorkshire metropolitan county councillor for six years and the Liberal MP for Leeds West from 1981 to 1987.