History lessons about comprehensive schools
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
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.
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.