Comprehensive schools: the history

January 12, 1996

Richard Pring and Geoffrey Walford explain why they think comprehensives are worth fighting for.

The idea for the comprehensive school, where children of all backgrounds and abilities would be educated in a single school, goes back to the 1920s. "The idea was there before the war," says Brian Simon, emeritus professor of education at Leicester University. "It had strong proponents. For instance, the London County Council took a decision to go comprehensive when they could back in 1936.''

After the second world war momentum for change grew as parents increasingly revolted against the 11-plus examination. The new professionals had greater expectations for education than could be achieved under a system that divided children at the age of 11, sending one lot to grammar schools from which they could continue to university and beyond, and others to secondary moderns from whence opportunities were severely limited. There was particular concern about the reliability of the 11-plus as a mechanism for categorising children.

At the same time there was increasing criticism of the grammar schools. Working-class children and their parents were alienated by the ethos of such schools. Consciousness was growing about the enormous wastage of ability among working-class children, particularly girls, in the school system.

There were alternatives to comprehensive education, according to Simon, but the 1950s Conservative government could not see them. If they had expanded the grammar schools as the Germans did, they might have headed off the revolt. Similarly, if they had beefed up the secondary moderns, allowing their pupils to take exams, they might have spiked the reform movement. "But they did neither, and they let this frustration build up," says Simon.

So, when Labour got into power, and Education Secretary Anthony Crosland asked local authorities to submit plans for going comprehensive, the bulk of councils decided to do so.

The pace of change was rapid. In the ten years between 1965 and 1975, virtually all state secondary schools in Wales and Scotland went comprehensive. In England the figure was about 90 per cent. And the swing took place under Labour and Conservative governments, with the pace of change being quicker under the Tories.

Decisions by councils to end selection were often accompanied by furious debate. "All that discussion had quite a profound effect on people's thinking about the structure of education," says Simon. "That's why it's been impossible for any government since then to reverse the engines directly." Only a few authorities resisted change: Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Kent, among others, still have grammar schools and other schools that are secondary moderns in all but name.

Today most secondary school students are taught within a comprehensive school system. But it is increasingly threatened, if not directly, then by surreptitious selection and by fragmentation.

This, then, is the right time to address once again the principles which inspired comprehensive schools 30 years ago. Was the change worthwhile? What has been gained and lost? Above all, what are the lessons to be learnt from the experience so that schools might provide the right kind of education for all young people irrespective of ability or aptitude, social class or money, religion or race?

Comprehensive schools aimed to provide educational opportunities for all children, not to divide them at an early age into different "opportunity groups" on the basis of a questionable instrument of selection.

But the reforms were about much more than individual opportunity. They arose, too, from a concern about the link between schools and the wider community. There is much more to personal and social development than academic success. Can we have a cohesive society where the members of that society are separated at so early an age? Ought we not to recognise the wide range of talent and forms of intelligence, and organise education accordingly?

The arguments for a comprehensive system of schooling should not be lost on higher education; those arguments are now exerting an influence on the education and training system after 18 - the openness to a much wider range of talent, aspiration and approaches to learning.

A series of 14 lectures at Oxford, beginning later this month, will address these issues. What draws us together is a determination not to see the immense improvements of the past 30 years lost, as indeed they are in danger of being, but rather to show how the principles underpinning the comprehensive system can be reapplied in very different circumstances.

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Reader's comments (1)

I sat the 11+ test in Yorkshire in 1958, and failed it. I believe I did well on it as those who did pass and go on to grammar school were ' less bright' than I and certain others in the class. It was only some years later I knew why I and certain others failed the test. It was really a sorting out of working class children from middle class children. That's why we were all asked prior to the test: " What job does your father do?". Those that were classed as working class children were shunted off to a secondary modern school, and those deemed middle class went to a grammar school. I was sent to local secondary modern school. Luckily for me I left the UK and came to Australia. It was here I applied for entry into a university and sat the entrance test, which I passed, and became an academic. Had I have stayed in the UK, I know I would have been in menial work. Thank goodness I left! The class distinction in the UK (according to friends still there) is still healthy. However, the question of what job your father does is not asked, separation of working class and middle class still goes on. Now it is the school fees for better school being cost prohibited for working class children. You see the subtleties are still there, only the methodology has changed.