His­tory lessons about com­pre­hen­sive schools

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

Afua Hirsch (Free ed­u­ca­tion is dis­ap­pear­ing be­fore our eyes, 28 Novem­ber) con­trasts the cur­rent state of ed­u­ca­tion with that ush­ered in by the 1944 Ed­u­ca­tion Act, which she writes es­tab­lished com­pre­hen­sive schools. Hav­ing been a school­boy at the time and later a teacher I feel the need to put straight that part of the record.

Up to then the state sys­tem con­sisted of two very dis­tinct parts: el­e­men­tary, and sec­ondary (ie gram­mar schools). For el­e­men­tary pupils the leav­ing age was 14 and the cur­ricu­lum was nar­row, and many of the older gram­mar schools charged fees. The 1944 act in­tro­duced free sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion for all, abol­ish­ing gram­mar school fees, rais­ing the leav­ing age to 15, and turn­ing el­e­men­tary schools into sec­ondary mod­erns, with a much wider cur­ricu­lum. The idea of com­pre­hen­sive schools came from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties soon af­ter­wards, grad­u­ally spread­ing to most of Eng­land and Wales.

I fully en­dorse the points she makes about parental con­tri­bu­tions for things that should be free and ex­pen­sive ex­tras that are out of reach for many par­ents. The an­nual “school jour­ney” at my gram­mar school was un­af­ford­able, as was the school scout troop. I chose the school cadet force – all free, in­clud­ing the camp. Hav­ing said that, I must give credit to our Ger­man teacher who in 1950 or­gan­ised a cy­cling trip to Ger­many, on which the ac­com­mo­da­tion was in af­ford­able youth hos­tels. Les Masters

Weston-su­per-Mare, Somerset

Afua Hirsch touches on the drift in state schools to­wards the cre­ation of “top tiers”. In fact, set­ting in sec­ondary com­pre­hen­sive schools has been the norm for many years and the prac­tice of mixed-abil­ity teach­ing and learn­ing are rarely seen. Yet, so-called “mixed abil­ity” class or­gan­i­sa­tion is surely the most ef­fec­tive way to pro­vide pupils with equal learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

When I be­came head of English, I in­tro­duced mixed-abil­ity English teach­ing from years 7 to 11 in a com­pre­hen­sive school serv­ing a di­verse catch­ment. There are nu­mer­ous types of “in­tel­li­gence”; that in­tel­li­gence can be stim­u­lated and is not a static com­mod­ity and there­fore a “good” teacher can help in­tel­li­gences grow. Learn­ing was based on ne­go­ti­a­tion and choice, class, group and in­de­pen­dent work, a lot of dis­cus­sion, shar­ing of work and eval­u­a­tion. For pupils it meant that any mem­ber of class could, at times, shine; that all could learn from oth­ers and that none need feel a “fail­ure”.

One trea­sured mo­ment was when a pupil, who would have been con­ven­tion­ally termed “non-aca­demic”, pre­sented me with a folder of her po­ems; po­ems she had com­posed be­cause she wanted, per­haps needed, to. By any stan­dards they were out­stand­ing.

David Cur­tis

Soli­hull, West Mid­lands

As one of the first of the “But­ler boys”, who started at Shoot­ers’ Hill gram­mar school in 1945, I will be for­ever grate­ful to my mother, who re­fused to ac­cept the place I was given in a sec­ondary mod­ern upon re­turn­ing, late, from evac­u­a­tion out of Lon­don. There were no “com­pre­hen­sive” al­ter­na­tives.

This “in­tel­lec­tual seg­re­ga­tion” was the only re­al­ity then and it’s what se­lec­tive sys­tems are all about. The de­struc­tion of the com­pre­hen­sive rev­o­lu­tion of the 60s and 70s plus their de­lib­er­ate un­der­fund­ing has re­stored a largely covert, but nonethe­less pow­er­ful se­lec­tive sys­tem, which has never re­ally gone away. In re­al­ity there have been very few truly com­pre­hen­sive schools in our class-rid­den and un­equal so­ci­ety.

Tony Mitchell

Keyn­sham, Somerset

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