Tony Edwards enjoys a study of the often complex and convoluted comprehensive reform in England and Wales
This is an intriguing, highly informative, book. Ideally read alongside Thirty Years On (David Fulton 1996), which reports an investigation by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty of where comprehensive education has got to, it describes the complex conditions and often convoluted processes which marked the progress of that reform. The narrative style is unexciting, but the story is important.
Two opening chapters locate comprehensive reorganisation in England and Wales first in its European context, and then in its own history of spasmodic and contested change. The international perspective highlights how much countries differed in how far their organisational model extended to rethinking what a common secondary curriculum should be.
In the relatively decentralised and pluralist English system, governments were inclined to encourage and request rather than to require. So, although the momentum of reform was too strong to be reversed by the early 1970s, as Margaret Thatcher later complained, it was resisted by some local authorities and tamed by many more. Labelling it as "socialist doctrine", however, is inaccurate. Some Labour politicians and councils held fast to grammar schools as a ladder for the aspiring working class, while some Conservative politicians and councils were persuaded on principle that early selection was invidious and wasted talent.
Detailed case studies of how 10 local authorities "broke out" from selection make the book especially valuable. The cases are well chosen. Beginning with London, with its many typical and unique problems, they continue with Manchester, Leeds and Bristol. Stoke is included as a tightly planned (or "calculated") reorganisation, which included the country's first proposal for middle schools and its first purpose-built sixth-form college.
The "innovative" counties of Leicestershire and the West Riding are then balanced by the "cautious" counties of West Sussex, Northumberland and Glamorgan. Among the rich details in these "historical reconstructions" is the fact that the son of Leicestershire's Stewart Mason failed the 11-plus, which may have reinforced his view that "a sense of success in a few was being paid for by a sense of failure in many", and the confidence with which the Northumberland LEA asserted in 1963 that children could be identified with "reasonable accuracy" as suitable for an academic or a practical track.
Taken together in all their variety of purposes, circumstances and priorities, the case studies explain why so many different comprehensive, quasi-comprehensive and pseudo-comprehensive arrangements emerged. They show how influential amid uncertainty a decisive education chief or chair of an education committee could be. They also show how opponents could be pacified if grammar school "escape routes" were retained, and why - for that reason as well as to use existing buildings and avoid large schools - tiered arrangements became so popular.
The rest of the analysis is based on data drawn from the National Child Development Study and involving a cohort who were aged 11 in l969. They received their secondary education during a period of rapid organisational change. This large sample enables more general conclusions to be drawn about, for example, the relationship between political control in LEAs and the timing, form and completeness of comprehensive reorganisation.
The main political and ideological momentum behind reform was to reduce the effects of social tags on educational attainment, and the analysis focuses on how far that objective was being achieved. It indicates the better performance, and presumably more socially advantaged intakes, of former grammar schools and of comprehensives with sixth forms.
In 1974, when the cohort were taking O-levels or CSE, most comprehensive schools were in areas which retained some selective schools. Cautious conclusions about the relative merits of selective and non-selective systems take this into account, as they do the fact that the remaining grammar schools were mostly well-established while many comprehensives were new or newly amalgamated. These complications partly explain why such comparisons have been rare, as does "the usual lack of enthusiasm among politicians for assessing the effects of action to which they are committed".
The authors note that their main conclusion is open to different and value-based interpretation. High-ability students did better in selective systems and low-ability students in non- (or less) selective systems. The explanation offered for that finding is that selective systems distribute disproportionally more resources to the ablest students who might reasonably be seen as not needing such discrimination, thereby producing an avoidably wide spread of attainment.
The book ends with a denial that a properly resourced comprehensive system could raise general attainment levels without putting the ablest at a disadvantage, and a warning that the main effect of current policies designed to reward "successful" schools is likely to be a heightening of inequalities.
Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle