Comprehensive schools at 50: 'My life chances were determined by one test, a summer birthday and a weird gender issue'
I attended a secondary modern, my brother a grammar. I did typing and childcare, while my brother studied more academic subjects.
We were both born in the summer months and we both had borderline scores in the 11-plus exam. Our fates were decided by the headteacher of our primary school, who thought my brother needed pushing and I needed nurturing. What rubbish. So our life chances were determined by one test, a summer birthday and, for me, some weird gender issue around my resilience to competition.
I went on to be successful without qualifications, working in marketing at the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, but I started to grow bored. I went skiing, and it was during a stint in a kids’ camp that I met people of a similar age to me who had been to university yet were educated in comprehensives. I realised that the only difference between them and me was that they had an inner confidence I lacked. My secondary modern had given me a mystical illusion of clever people – mainly that they went to grammars or private schools.
I began teaching in a large, rural comprehensive and I immediately knew that, had I attended a similar school, I would have thrived rather than wilted.
I was proud of my mixed-ability English classes: children who ended up at Oxford University were sitting next to children with statements of special educational needs. To me, this was the best chance we had of communities mixing – children learning tolerance as well as Shakespeare.
I enjoyed the bands playing at breaktimes and the eclectic mix of students. I loved the differences and the similarities, the extraordinary and the mediocre, but most
of all I delighted in seeing younger versions of me succeeding.
Comprehensive education brings equity, but have we really achieved it? No. There are still grammar schools creaming off the top slice and private schools taking away the privileged few.
And now, rather than being proud of our comprehensives and seeing them as vehicles for social mobility, they’re a dirty word. We have free schools, federations, academy chains – a smorgasbord of schools run by the wealthy and the privately educated that are trying to pigeonhole children too early.
“Be like our schools,” they chorus at comprehensives. “No,” I reply. “Understand us, don’t change us.”
Comprehensives work better than any other system, in my opinion, but they’ve never been allowed to prove it.
Find a full analysis of the past 50 years of comprehensive education by teacher John David Blake in the 10 July issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.