Comprehensive schools were conceived as a beautiful dream by ardent educationalists; they were frequently delivered in confusion, and developed for the most part in a mêlée of indifference, during which many of those who should have been fully engaged looked instead only for sectional advantage.
The relationship of school to community is inevitably convoluted; communities set standards and aspirations for the schools, while the schools themselves by developing youngsters who can think for themselves, may well subsequently reverse what the community had earlier expected the schools to achieve. The changes of 1870, of 1902 and again of 1944 were largely imposed by the political expectations of the day; they became the things ‘done to’ the schools. The 1950s and ‘60s started to change all that. No longer were parents prepared to accept being told what was best for their children, while ever better qualified teachers were more willing to defy what they saw as the over-simplistic assumptions of policy makers.
So, as the tripartite system began to unravel, political tensions erupted1. To those aspiring to traditional values, the grammar school offered the best chance of social progression, while to those who aspired to a more equitable society, the comprehensive schools seemed the surest way of keeping the door to progress open for as long as possible. Some of the most ardent supporters of grammar schools were those very Labour M.P.s whose early lives had gained so much from being treated as the rising elite. Conversely, some of the most strident supporters of egalitarian comprehensive education in their youth became, years later, just as ardent in their support of their ‘rights’ to send their own children to grammar schools, or public schools.
The choice represented a bitter pill for many to swallow. If a person believed in grammar schools, then they had to accept that an inevitable consequence was that three-quarters of the population would be assigned to Modern schools. Selection split families apart. There was no comfortable half-way house. If a comprehensive school existed in the same locality as a grammar school, given English pretensions being as they were, the comprehensive would inevitably lose out on those brighter children who would probably accept a place in the grammar school, in which case the comprehensive became in practice little more than a Modern school. For comprehensive schools to work it seemed that grammar schools had to be abolished2.
The best opportunity England had to recover Milton’s dream for open-entry secondary academies was in 1944, but Butler missed that opportunity. Consequently for the next twenty-one years England invested vast sums of money in building schools designed to support a segregated system of education. A quarter of these schools had been built to grammar school specification, while three-quarters had been built to the lower standards thought appropriate for Modern schools, with smaller class rooms, narrower corridors and fewer playing fields. Because the 11+ was skewed towards middle-class culture, most of the grammar schools were built in the better residential areas, while the Modern schools were all too often on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. You could literally see the difference both in the buildings and in the attitudes of pupils and staff — one was a symbol of pride, the other of functionality and economy3.
A few authorities back in the mid 1940s, especially those in large rural areas like Anglesey in North Wales, found a loop hole in the regulations and created on a single site secondary schools that contained all three strands, grammar, technical and modern, under one roof. There weren’t many of these — a mere 134 out of a total of more than 5,300, and they weren’t very large, frequently with fewer than 800 pupils and rarely more than 1,200. With encouragement from Circular 10/65 a new generation of administrators took these ideas, and combined them with the assumption that maximum choice of subjects was key to a pupil’s ultimate success4. They urged that schools should be designed for 1,500 or more pupils. At this point the general public started to get worried — wouldn’t our children be lost in such schools? — and the political consensus between the Conservatives and Labour began to unravel.
Nonetheless, by the late ‘60s most authorities were well advanced with plans for comprehensive reorganisation, even though many of these plans were unpopular, and involved amalgamating three or four schools on different sites. Many grammar schools were closed, nearly always after fierce local resistance. The Conservatives under Edward Heath won the 1970 election and appointed the young Margaret Thatcher as Minister of Education. She did not, however, reverse the policy of comprehensive education, even though she did slow it down5. Labour won the 1974 election, and by that stage the difference between the two main parties had become bitter; Labour would allow nothing more to get in the way of achieving a fully comprehensive system6. The direct grant schools were to be the target. In early 1975 government announced that the Direct Grant would cease as from September 1976. Seventy of these schools agreed to accept the control of the local authority, while 100 more opted to become fee-paying independent schools7. As an American author wrote “It is both bizarre and tragic to me to see you now attacking and threatening to destroy your best schools in the name of comprehensivisation. These unique institutions… must be amongst the best the world offers… for the English people now, with forethought and deliberation, to set about destroying the flower of their education system seems to me, if I may put it candidly, sheer masochism. It is the triumph of pure blind political dogma over educational common sense”8.
Thesis 69: 27th August 2006