From the Archive - The milkman's ignorance

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
20 May 1955 - As comprehensives go up across London, the man on the street is invited to share his thoughts

On several of London's post-war housing estates, monster scaffoldings are going up in noisy adumbration of the London County Council's plan to build 103 comprehensive-type schools. Only a tiny complement of these, like the upturned Corbusier-style matchbox at Tulse Hill (pictured, right), will be ready for opening in 1956. Three of them, however, will be open by September.

In homes which lie only a stone's throw away from these new nurseries of learning there has been a lively and sometimes acrimonious expression of viewpoints on the comprehensive idea. Parents are eager to give their likes and dislikes, however uninformed they might be.

Few were as candid as Mr M, a milkman, who leaned back on his electric trolley to declare: "Actually I don't know what the word 'comprehensive' is, though I know what a comprehensive school is because I've seen one." But his position would have been willingly accepted by many others. Even Mr C, a draughtsman peering over some blueprints on the building site for a new school, volunteered the laconic aside, "I don't know anything about a comprehensive school. I only build it. I only know that everything goes under one roof."

The physical layout of the new school at Kidbrooke attracts more admiration than the wide variety of subjects it brings within pupils' reach.

Where council houses begin to cluster thickly and windows tend to disappear under yellow posters urging passers-by to "Vote for Reeves", comments about the school's facilities are eulogistic. Several parents drew upon their own childhood experiences to recall the old fashioned gas-lamps. Mr A, a labourer, said he preferred neon. Asked to describe the purpose of a comprehensive school, working-class parents felt much more comfortable in talking about "no class differences", "no snobbish kids there", and "all mixed together" than in discussing the manifesto and ideas of changing the face of education in Britain. The proposal to abolish the 11-plus examination was greeted with a thankful chorus of approval.

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