The comprehensive ideal should live another day

Far from being a throwback or a failure, all-ability education is yet to be realised in its truest form – so let’s make the attempt, urges one headteacher

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Where exactly is it supposed to have gone wrong for comprehensive schools? Having worked in state comprehensives for the whole of my (now meaningfully long) professional career, this is a question of some interest.

Perhaps most famously, Tony Blair, who was prime minister at the time, suggested in a Green Paper before the 2001 general election that it was time to move to a “post-comprehensive era”. His chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as ever, had his own forthright way of putting it: “The day of the bog-standard comprehensive school is over”.

Many a thinkpiece has been written on how comprehensive education has not worked. Often, television programmes have suggested that comprehensives are not associated with the highest of educational standards.

So where does that leave those of us who are associated with comprehensive schools? Not just professionals working in them, but also students studying in them and parents with children attending them.

At times, some of us toyed with skirting around the term “comprehensive” – by saying “I work in an all-ability school”, for example. Now, rather further through my career in comprehensive schools, I think that I am fully reconciled to the reality.

Catering to all abilities

I love comprehensive schools. I love working in comprehensive schools. I use the term “comprehensive” as a great and a deliberate adjective for schools. For too long, the approach of many has been: “Let’s face it, comprehensive education has been tried and it has failed.” For me, that is just not true.

My belief is that comprehensive education in its truest sense has often not been tried properly. The essence of the word “comprehensive” implies two things: that all types and abilities of pupils attend the same school where they learn and achieve well; and that the education provided is full and rounded.

When it comes to it, the essence of the problem with comprehensive schools is that they have not been comprehensive enough. Often, owing to the systems in different areas, a proper representation of different abilities of pupils does not exist. Sadly, at times pupils of all abilities have been in the same school but the needs of all of them have not been met.

Occasionally, the most able are not challenged and stretched to achieve at the highest of standards. That is not comprehensive education. It is something far worse and lesser than that. When the curriculum has become narrow, perhaps because of concerns over accountability frameworks, then it has not been comprehensive education.

So what should we do? Abandon hope and seek a post-comprehensive era? Well, if that were necessary, then perhaps we should. But it is not necessary. Surely, what all of us must do is to work to ensure that comprehensive schools are truly what they should and can be: great places where great education takes place for all pupils. This could involve the following sorts of things happening:

  • More than 40 per cent of all GCSE grades are an A* or A from a comprehensive intake.
  • High rates of progression to top universities, including those students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • A full and wide-ranging extra-curricular programme, which includes a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, in which most pupils participate.
  • Various international links, trips and exchanges that are available to all pupils.
  • A specialist centre on site for those pupils with autistic spectrum disorder who are eligible to receive education outside of mainstream schooling but who, with support, can attend mainstream lessons and make excellent progress.
  • On-site provision to oversee pupils in danger of exclusion, ensuring that there are no permanent exclusions from the school.
  • Many opportunities for all sorts of pupils to take on meaningful leadership roles inside and outside the school.

And so the list might go on. I am proud to say that these are just some of the characteristics of the comprehensive school where I am executive principal. The good news is that many reading this who work in comprehensive schools will recognise these as the sorts of characteristics they see daily in their own schools. And, of course, all of us always aim to improve further.

So I do not and will not shy away from the word “comprehensive”. On the contrary, I continue to celebrate the word in its true meaning. Comprehensive education can work and there are many fine examples across the country of it working.

Is it sometimes hard to make comprehensive education work in practice? Maybe, but what sort of argument is that for not trying? For the sake of our pupils, not to mention our nation, let’s all get on with making the system work wonderfully well – and let’s be sure to celebrate it when it does.

Stephen Munday is executive principal of Comberton Village College and chief executive of the Comberton Academy Trust

This is an article from the 1 April edition of TESThis week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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