Shaking off the stigma of the C-word

The comprehensive has life in it yet, says Geoff Barton

I'm proud to say that as a teenager I went to Walton Comprehensive School in Stafford. The teachers there transformed me from a surly, over-opinionated teenager into a surly, over-opinionated grown-up. I owe them a lot.

If it had been an independent school, I suppose I would be writing that "I was educated at" the school rather than "I went to" it. I would perhaps exude rather more effusive and manly pride. But, in truth, I subscribe to Einstein's view that education is what is left when you have forgotten everything you learnt at school. The school set me up well to kickstart my real education beyond 18.

Anyhow, my mother didn't entirely approve of the place. She was embarrassed by its vaguely scatological initials, "WC", and was grateful when a new headteacher rebranded it Walton High School. This purged it, to my mother's relief, of the dreaded C-word: "comprehensive". But I have to say that I couldn't be more proud to have gone to a comprehensive, to have worked as a teacher in four of them, to have sent both my children to one, and now to be head of one. Anything else would have seemed second best.

When, the other day, I heard that David Cameron was heading to East Anglia to make what was billed as a keynote speech on education, I briefly wondered whether to ask the caretakers to sweep our school drive and spray Pledge around the trophy cabinet in case he dropped in. It transpired, as we obviously knew it would, that our esteemed leader was off to some free school from which to lambast the low expectations of the state sector. It was then that the notion dawned of how our psychosocial educational landscape has shifted in the past 18 months, and of just how far to the margins local comprehensive schools have been shunted in an act of deliberate mental decluttering. Comprehensives like ours are - to tweak Elvis Presley's memorable phrase - about as welcome these days as a turd in a punch bowl.

As we read in last week's TES, a new national curriculum is being stitched together with all the febrile secrecy of Dr Frankenstein's monster-making, and yet the academies and free schools won't be required to teach it. And of course the independent sector never has.

In the past 18 months, it feels to me that the volleys of criticism against comprehensives have become more strident and corrosive. This is partly because the Department for Education's press office seems to have fallen into the hands of an over-zealous intern who tweets breathless announcements about free schools and academy conversion rates.

But it's also our own fault. Too many state schools have been quick to scramble and implement a curriculum that would be familiar to the lost generation of Edwardian England. After all, for all their successes, you would hardly look to most independent schools for an innovative curriculum: it's not what parents are paying for. One of the few exceptions is Anthony Seldon's Wellington College, and we should salute his 2008 comments that the independent sector is "entrenched in the 20th century" and that it's the state sector that sets the pace in innovative educational practice.

Perhaps those of us in the state sector need to be prouder of what we're doing. Perhaps it's time to say that as comprehensives we're providing a curriculum of academic and vocational courses that doesn't assume that students doing hairdressing are somehow inferior to those studying for the English Baccalaureate.

Most importantly, perhaps we should remember that politicians come and go, but that good local schools exist not for league tables or Ofsted or for wacky curriculum whims. They are there to develop the skills and talents of the youngsters in our own communities. It's to them we should answer, and around them our educational provision should be shaped - not those whose attitude towards state education so often feels remote, subjective, nostalgic and frequently dismissive.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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