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Request proves resilient

In the first of an occasional series, Christopher Price recalls a landmark for comprehensives

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the coming of age of the English comprehensive secondary school. The (ugly) word "comprehensive" developed in reaction to increasingly mechanistic systems of selection for grammar schools.

These systems, generically known as the 11-plus, were driven by an almost eugenic belief among educationists in the accuracy of new psychological selection processes, and by an equally strong belief among aspirant working-class parents that their bright offspring should be freed from factories and mines to become upwardly mobile.

Slowly, plans for comprehensive schools began in the Thirties and were widespread during the Fifties; the old orthodoxy was officially broken in July 1965, with Circular 1065.

While the document was issued by Anthony Crosland, the new Labour Secretary of State, much of it was based on a draft prepared by Sir Edward Boyle, the previous Conservative Education Minister, who was about to bring out rules for new comprehensive schools in particular circumstances when he lost office. Crosland wanted to go much further and tell all local councils to abolish the 11-plus. He was warned off by Sir William Alexander, the secretary of the Association of Education Committees, then at the height of his influence in the education establishment; in the end, Crosland simply requested local councils to produce plans to go comprehensive.

The request was an astonishing success, lubricated by capital expenditure, dispensed by Crosland, for new secondary schools to house the post-war baby boomers. Plans for new comprehensive schools flooded in and continued under Mrs Thatcher's regime in the Seventies. Deftly manipulated by her mandarins, she approved virtually all of them. Mr Crosland's "request" turned out to be far more influential than all his party's subsequent attempts to legislate.

The fightback, however, started almost immediately. Conservatives in the newly-created outer London boroughs were sceptical of the whole idea and had not yet been co-opted into Alexander's educational establishment.

Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan cut their legal teeth going to court (and winning) on behalf of Enfield Grammar School. Kingston on Thames flatly refused even lip service to the idea.

The anti-comprehensive movement gathered strength through the Black Papers and the Freedom Association of the McWhirter brothers, who had helped to initiate the legal action in Enfield. Ten years later, the judges were still leaning towards grammar schools, when the judicial committee of the House of Lords sat in August for the first time this century to save the Tameside 11-plus in Greater Manchester.

Thirty years on, a national 11-plus has never been restored and the vast majority of English secondary schools still define themselves as comprehensive, though many are starved of aspirant, achieving pupils and others are little more than selective pseudo-grammar schools. While the professional classes live cheek by jowl with the poor in parts of our inner cities, especially London, this will probably always be so. But the ugly adjective has turned into a surprisingly resilient educational principle which, over their 16-year reign, the Conservatives have only eroded at the edges, never attacked head-on.

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