Comprehensive schools

An analysis and critique of the state comprehensive school system in the UK in the early 1960s by the Anarchy editorial team.

A correspondent in The Observer a short time ago concluded his letter thus: 'The Fairy Tale of Education runs as follows: Once upon a time God made three types of children. The Norwood Report discovered what they were. The Ministry put them neatly in different schools. And they all lived unhappily ever after.' We in the comprehensive school believe that there are as many different types of child as there are children, and that it is not our job in education to iron out the differences and produce one standard product or three standard products just because it is administratively convenient and suits the haphazard historical development of our educational system.
—G.A.ROGERS Headmaster of Walworth School, London.

THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITYOF CHILDREN IN THIS COUNTRY attend (compulsorily between the ages of five and fifteen, voluntarily after that age) schools maintained at the public expense, under the control of local authorities (county councils or county borough councils). To call them public schools as is done in America, would be misleading since that term is used here for those schools of high social prestige (usually residential and fee-paying) which have traditionally provided this country with a governing elite. To call them state schools is also a misnomer, since although the state, via the Ministry of Education, supplies local education authorities with more than half their funds, it does not run the schools itself, nor employ teachers itself, nor lay down a curriculum. In many important respects the local education authorities are autonomous, though they maintain schools by virtue of a series of Acts of Parliament, from the Act of 1870 which set up the old school boards (which lasted until 1902) to provide universal compulsory elementary education, to the Act of 1944 with the promise of "secondary education for all".

The 1944 Education Act has been implemented by different local authorities in many different ways, which have been the centre of social, educational and political controversy ever since. As Professor Ben Morris, then Secretary of the National Foundation for Educational Research put it a few years after the Act came into force:

"In Britain, we have only recently replied to the question, 'Who is to be educated?' with the answer, 'All the children of all the people'. We are now forced to ask ourselves, 'What kind of education have we in mind?' Some suppose that, after the English Education Act of 1944, the era of equality of educational opportunity has already arrived. But it seems to me that the educational system now finds itself the victim of its own two major traditions, the one of a liberal culture originally intended for a professional and governing class, the other of an essentially utilitarian training designed for the masses engaged in the production and distribution of goods and services. The official solution of course is to stress the need for what is called 'diversity of educational provision' and for 'parity of esteem' as between different types of school. The urbanity of such phrases, however, serves only to conceal a social conflict; it does nothing to solve it. Such a conflict exists. It is revealed in the bitter struggle to obtain entry to the grammar school, which is regarded primarily as the road to the most desirable occupations. Indeed, the demand for equality of educational opportunity seems to have produced a widespread phantasy that professional jobs can be found for all. But between these catchwords, 'equality', diversity', 'parity', lurks a genuine problem, for which the English secondary school system will have to provide a solution. How? My own view is that we shall have to create alternatives to the present forms of grammar schools … The most dangerous solution to my mind appears to be the one at present in greatest favour, the tripartite system of grammar, technical, and modern schools — the latter a euphemism for a school designed for the pupils of average and sub-average intelligence. Such a policy favours the increase of social segregation. It separates from each other in early puberty, and more or less permanently, those who will later become administrators, technicians, and skilled and semi-skilled and unskilled workers. This solution seems to me to misconceive the needs of the type of society we are at present building up by other means, and it appears to be based on a grossly over-simplified psychological theory of development."

He was writing more than a decade ago, and we can see that he was over-sanguine about the "type of society we are at present building up". We are building up exactly the kind of society which the tripartite system of secondary education is designed to perpetuate. (It is actually a dual, not a tripartite system, since less than 4 per cent of English children attend technical schools). See for instance the article Education, Equality, Opportunity in ANARCHY 1, or Towards a Lumpen- proletariat in ANARCHY 17, where it was pointed out that "The educational system subserves the concept of a society based upon differential rewards in the occupational structure. The rightness of this concept is unquestioned by all brands of political parties, right and left; the anarchists alone question the rightness of the fundamental principle of the wages system."

Social influences on the educational system are always stronger than educational influences on society, and it would be naive to expect modifications to the structure of secondary education to have any radical effect on the structure of society as such. "Institutions like schools," writes the headmaster of one comprehensive school, "cannot be manipulated into a pattern that conflicts with social realities … Conscious social purpose is apt to produce contrary results from those intended, and social engineering to defeat itself". Nevertheless, the strongest challenge to the educational assumptions of our hierarchical society in the last ten years has come from the experience of the comprehensive school.

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For a definition of what a comprehensive school is, we may turn to a Parliamentary answer by a Minister of Education a few years ago, who explained that "secondary schools are classified as comprehensive where they are intended to provide all the secondary education facilities needed by the children of a given area, but without being organised in clearly-defined sides." A closer general description than that cannot be given, since no two comprehensive schools are alike. "There is no typical comprehensive school!" declares Mr. A. E. Howard of Forest Hill School, in his chapter in the symposium Inside the Comprehensive School, and another contributor, Mr. Raymond King of Wandsworth School (who also contributes to this issue of ANARCHY) observes that

In the decentralised English educational system, in which there is relatively little direction and still less specific prescription from the Ministry of Education, trends in educational organisation have tended to reflect unformulated social and educational pressures and have often adapted their provision to local needs or shown local initiative in meeting changed conditions and trying out new ideas.

Comprehensive schools are in fact operated by little more than a dozen of the 146 local education authorities in England and Wales. Thus in the County of London 36 per cent of 13-year-old children attend them, while in Essex none do. In the City of Coventry 35 per cent of 19-year-olds are in comprehensive schools, but in the City of Bradford none are. In the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, all secondary education is comprehensive.

The case for the comprehensive school may be put briefly thus: It is absurd to imagine that there are three types of child to match the three different systems of secondary education. The attempt to sort them out (which means in practice the selection of children to fill an arbitrarily limited number of grammar school places) at the age of 10 or 11, has been shown to be unscientific and inaccurate. It distorts the curriculum of the primary school ("the rat-race begins at seven"), it gives the unselected 75 to 80 per cent a damaging sense of "failure". The effect of "streaming" is that of a self-fulfilling prophesy — you separate the bright from the dull and proceed to make the bright brighter and the dull duller. Subsequent transfer of misfits between separate schools is very difficult and so distressing to parents and children that in practice it seldom happens, but in the comprehensive school on the contrary it is possible, in Mr. King's words "to fit the educational curriculum to the pupil — and not create misfits by attempting the opposite."

The case against the comprehensive school is more difficult to put, because no-one in these mealy-mouthed days likes to go on record as an elitist or an anti-democrat. At its weakest it can be expressed in this quotation from a Conservative electoral announcement published in the Sunday papers before the last general election:

Education should bring out the best in your children. It should encourage them to go forward, not force them to hang back. It should make them want to make the most of their brains and not be ashamed of it.

Equality not quality, is the Socialist idea. How would they work it out of practice? The grammar schools, for a start, would have a rough time. So would the modern and technical schools. The Socialists want to put all our eggs in one basket.

The comprehensive school is their answer to everything. Yet these schools — all still experimental — have only been in existence five minutes. Some of our grammar schools have been working successfully for many hundreds of years.

It sounds frightening? It is frightening. Parents have always treasured the right to give their children the education of their choice, etc., etc.

Most of the criticisms of the idea of comprehensive education are on this level. Perhaps we shall hear fewer of them as the fact emerges that the comprehensive schools are extending the academic success associated with the grammar schools to a wider group of children. This is certainly the striking experience of Anglesey whose four comprehensive schools were developed out of what had previously been grammar schools. At Wandsworth School in London, also a former grammar school, Mr. King has shown that

'self-selection by response' within a flexibly organised curriculum enables many pupils who were below 'grammar' category at eleven to reach the sixth form and the university. The only 'loss' to the grammar school is that of its 'C' Form. But this is no loss to the pupils who have been able to find their fulfilment elsewhere in a school that is equipped to aim at high standards in other departments. These pupils are less likely to leave prematurely than the frustrated and the apathetic.

Mr. P. G. Squibb of the same school noted recently in an article in The Guardian that "over half of our academic successes are achieved by boys who, at eleven, were deemed unsuited to academic

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There are two criticisms of the comprehensive idea which need to be taken much more seriously. The first is that in a school for children of all levels of ability, the non-academic pupils, who leave earlier, are denied the chance of ever being "top people" in the school world. Mr. Harry Rée, a well-known critic of comprehensive schools remarks that "In a Modern school, the child who works for and achieves, for instance, his three or four O-level subjects gets an immense stimulus from the glory and honour he knows he will receive. In the Comprehensive schools, for the average child this stimulus is removed: he knows that those who win the applause are achieving results far beyond his reach." And he cites this observation by a teacher with a long experience of a comprehensive school:

All our prefects have come from the academic streams … that is true also of house captains … as do the majority of the teams … Violin classes, and consequently the orchestra, are attended mainly by academic children. The choirs contain few non-academics; although great efforts are made to include them in plays (as in all school and house activities), it is rare for even one to be willing to take a part. I have also taught in a Secondary Modern school and recognise in my present school many who, in a different setting, would have been responsible and successful leaders.

One way of coping with this problem is to ignore its existence, and in fact to emphasise it by concentrating on proving by exam results how wrong were the academic jeremiads on the comprehensive school. Another is to spread prefectorial responsibilities down to the fourth form as at Elliott School, or to diligently seek alternative fields in which the least academic pupils can achieve success as at Wandsworth. A different approach, which is probably closest to the point of view of our readers, is to question the whole ideology of "success" and "leadership". Dr. Robin Pedley in his pamphlet Comprehensive Schools today remarks that

Prizes are a rather obvious and ineffective carrot. I taught for several years in a Quaker school which lived happily and successfully without them. The panoply of cups, shields and medals also seems, if not very pernicious, not very elevating either. We need to encourage effort for the sake of the pursuit itself, rather than for material rewards. Though the gleaming trophy is not intended to do so, it may cloud these principles in the minds of both the delighted recipient and the disappointed loser.

He criticises the traditional prefect system which was developed in the "public" and voluntary grammar schools when they were preparing boys for the aristocratic leadership of society, and has been borrowed in this century by the maintained grammar schools, more recently by the modern schools, and now by the comprehensive schools. He suggests instead a much wider spread of responsibility:

In other words, the members of a school community — as of any other community — need not elect "leaders" or "prefects" as such (though hardly any schools have got even thus far) — pupils elevated to permanently superior status, a new aristocracy; but rather to give to the natural social groups within the school — the form, the department, the various clubs and societies, including both pupils and teachers — much more opportunity of discussing adolescents are capable of exercising sensible judgment on far more matters, which affect others, there should be joint committees or lower school and upper school councils, upon which representatives elected for a limited term could serve. No one who has studied the early growth of responsible behaviour in our nursery-infant schools, or its later stages in the high schools of U.S.A. and in progressive schools in this country, can doubt that adolescents are capable of exercising sensible judgment on far more matters, and matters more serious, than the trivial things they are usually allowed to decide.
Why do so many heads hesitate, or reject outright this vitally important aspect of the social education of their pupils? In some cases it may be due to sheer lack of originality and knowledge; some, perhaps, are not well informed of experiments elsewhere, and it does not occur to them to adopt any system other than that to which they have become accustomed. There may be an element of caution: it is easier and safer to appoint your own agents than to risk having to work with individuals appointed by others, and of whom you may not approve. Moreover, it greatly strengthens a headmaster's hand to wield this power of patronage. "All power corrupts …" and where is the tyrant who has voluntarily become a constitutional monarch? It is easier and more efficient to take decisions quickly than to await the laborious processes of committees — especially when you know the answer much better than they …

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The second of the criticisms of comprehensive schools which needs to be taken seriously is that of size. It is a question, as the I.A.A.M. pamphlet Teaching in Comprehensive Schools puts it, of "how to prevent a school from becoming like a vast factory in which the individual child and the individual teacher feel lost and insignificant." The first thing to say about this is that it is as impossible to say what is the "right" size for a school as to say what is the right size for a town, and that many of the people who view the comprehensive schools as "vast impersonal teaching machines" would not dream of saying the same of Eton for example, or Manchester Grammar School, or the French Lycée at South Kensington, which are all as large as most comprehensive schools. Yet size is a problem as can be seen from the painstaking ways in which many of the comprehensive schools set about subdivision into smaller groups and units. It is also an irritant if it implies a whole host of petty rules and procedures which would be unnecessary in smaller schools.

One London comprehensive headmaster, Mr. Eugene McCarthy of Malory School, asked by the Sunday Times if he was worried by the size of his school, replied that he saw it as an advantage in that it gives far more life and variety in school activities than any smaller school can ever manage. "I know about half the children myself by name, and we have a very successful tutorial system that allows senior teachers to get to know children on every level throughout the school." The interviewer noted, significantly enough, that "One of the unique things about Mr. McCarthy's headship is that he never seems to punish anyone."

The reason why many of the comprehensive schools are so big — apart from questions of administrative convenience or the economics of school building in dense urban areas — is the need to have sixth forms of a certain size in order to make possible a wide range of advanced subjects and specialist teachers. (The Ministry of Education's Circular 144 back in 1947 argued that in a secondary school taking all children, only 20 per cent would be capable of sitting for the GCE, of whom in turn only 10 per cent would remain at school beyond the age of 16, and that it would thus be necessary to have a school of over 1,500 to get a large enough sixth form). There is plenty of evidence however, that with a much larger percentage of children staying longer at school — particularly in the comprehensive schools — the estimates are out of date.

One of the advocates of comprehensive education who at the same time wants small schools is Dr. Pedley, who has been canvassing for years the idea of "two-tier" secondary education: a common high school for the first three years of secondary education and a common grammar school — Dr. Pedley would like the name "County College" to be used, for the remaining years, also open to all children, irrespective of academic ability, whose parents undertake to keep them there. In his book Comprehensive Education, he has set out the arguments for an arrangement of this sort, not the least of them being the practical one that it would get the best use out of existing school premises, and improve existing low-grade grammar schools, since schools at either level would not need to be large in order to offer a wide variety of courses. A scheme of this kind is already working in certain areas of Leicestershire, where one of the results which the education authority has noted has been that the ending of the 11-plus bogy has transformed the primary schools where the work generally "is reaching standards hitherto thought to be beyond their reach."

Dr. Pedley wants small-scale organisation because "we need the ferment of individual ideas and the possibility of wayward initiative by the small group or the individual alone". And this, he fears is likely to be ruled out by the "over-riding importance of efficient organisation". A "potential Neill or Bloom running one house on unorthodox lines would undermine the whole foundation of the formal discipline favoured by the others, and could not be tolerated. Even moderate divergence would soon be regarded as peculiar, and be unlikely to survive — for even wider divergence would ultimately create an impossible situation." He goes on:

Conversely, it would seem more difficult for the head of a school with over 1,000 pupils effectively to carry out a radically progressive policy. Such a policy depends for success upon the faith of the teachers that it is right: preferably the faith of all the teachers, and certainly the great majority. A head can only work through his staff. He can inspire them, encourage them, set them his own example — but he cannot expect always to convert them, even if he can afford the years of divergence and dissension which must often precede conversion. Is it likely that fifty teachers could be found to staff one local school who believed — for example — in more self-government for the pupils; who were prepared to abjure the convenience of routine control of young children by prefects, prepared to share in those chores themselves and to share out the sense of power which comes from taking decisions that really matter; who were prepared to renounce the aids of orthodox rewards and punishments? And even if it were likely, would not such a large team of individualists tend always to diverge? It is significant that all our really "progressive" schools are small schools.

One answer to Dr. Pedley comes from Professor H. C. Dent, who says, "Let the comprehensive school justify itself, if it can — that has yet to be proved — for the reasons for which it has been established, educational diversity, and social homogeneity, not as a new kind of Bedales or Summerhill." But from our point of view of course, that is exactly what we would like the comprehensive schools to be!

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The contributors to this issue of ANARCHY (most of whom would probably not wish to be identified with the aims of this journal), look from different angles at the comprehensive school; as it happens they are all writing about London schools. A headmaster writes on what his school tries to do for the twenty per cent or so of boys who have shown "little or no capacity for scholastic objectives". A devoted teacher of "less able" children writes on why she felt unable to work successfully in the highly organised atmosphere of a London school. A first-former tells us his prosaic first impressions of his new school, a boy who left at the first possible opportunity tells us why, and a sixth-former with a very successful academic career gives a cool backward glance. Finally a parent gives us a disturbing and entirely factual account of social attitudes to the comprehensive school and the "eleven-plus" in her district of London.

Further Reading

Comprehensive Schools Today: an interim survey, by Robin Pedley (Councils and Education Press, n.d. 1955)
Comprehensive Education: a new approach, by Robin Pedley (Gollancz, 1956)
Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School, by Brian Simon (Lawrence & Wishart, 1953)
Inside the Comprehensive School, A Symposium edited by the N.U.T. (Schoolmaster Publishing Co., 1958)
Values in the Comprehensive School, by T. W. G. Miller (Oliver and Boyd,1961)
Teaching in Comprehensive Schools, by I.A.A.M. (Cambridge University Press, 1960)
London Comprehensive Schools: a survey of sixteen schools (London County Council, 1961)