Battle of the giants

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Peter Newsam celebrates Eric Briault's commitment to levelling up Dr Eric Briault died, aged 85, on January 14. For 30 years, he was successively a London County Council schools inspector, a deputy education officer and, finally, education officer to the Inner London Education Authority between 1971 and 1976.

Eric Briault was a man of outstanding ability and wide-ranging achievements, including his forceful contribution to the development of comprehensive schools in London. As that development was and remains controversial, the thinking behind it is worth recalling.

The 1944 Education Act laid down that there should be secondary education for all, but left it to local education authorities to propose ways of achieving this.

Two main approaches were adopted. Most LEAs, encouraged by the then Ministry of Education, decided that 11-year-olds should be allocated, by some form of 11-plus examination, to one of three types of school: grammar, technical or secondary modern.

The LCC decided otherwise. Both to provide wider opportunities for more children and to encourage a degree of social cohesion that selective systems actively inhibited, it proposed to combine the three types of school into a single "comprehensive" one. "Put them all together," as Sir Graham Savage, main author of the LCC's 1947 London Plan put it, "and then stream like mad. "

Dr Briault joined the LCC in 1947 and shared the LCC's commitment to create comprehensives that would level up rather than down. As most grammar schools had entries of three forms (90 pupils) and as, in London, they selected about the top 25 per cent of the 11-plus year group, it follows that if "grammar" pupils in comprehensives were to have the same opportunities for sixth-form work as before, an entry of 12 forms (360 pupils a year) would be required. Before the school-leaving age was raised, that entailed a main school of 1,440 before the sixth form.

The "giant" comprehensive was a direct consequence of the LCC's commitment to preserve the position of pupils who would otherwise have been selected into grammar schools.

Dr Briault never wavered in this commitment. Yet the difficulties in creating comprehensive schools conforming to the prescribed criteria were formidable. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, for example, more than 60 LCC grammar schools continued to select and, in 1966, 19.8 per cent of London's 11-year-olds were still being selected into them.

Nevertheless, in that same year, Dr Briault and the LCC's chief inspector reported on the encouraging progress that had been made in creating a number of comprehensives that were achieving high standards for their able pupils but also opening up opportunities for an increasing proportion of others.

Yet, even as that report was being written, the hopes for the future it envisaged were being undermined by unprecedented demographic upheaval.

The extent of that upheaval cannot easily be summarised, but live births in inner London fell from 57,072 in 1966-67 to 38,319 in 1971-72, the year in which Dr Briault became ILEA's education officer.

The exodus from London was such that of every 100 children born in 1965, only 66 reached ILEA schools five years later. In a few years, half a million of the more stable elements of the inner city had been rehoused out of London, their number being only partially offset by immigration.

Falling numbers on this scale left open two possibilities. The first was to do nothing. The implications of that were clear. In 1972, it could be seen that, by 1980, the 11-plus age group would be down to 21,000 and still falling. That would mean the top, "grammar", 25 per cent would be down from 8,000 in 1976 to 5,250 in 1980.

If the grammar schools continued to take their entry of 3,000 in that year, there would be some 2,250 pupils of similar ability to be shared between the 150 other secondaries the ILEA would then be maintaining - an average of 15 such pupils a school. Though a few schools might be able to preserve a balanced intake and remain comprehensive, most would revert to or simply retain secondary modern status, whatever names might appear on their notepaper.

The second way forward was to deal with the selection issue. With strong political backing, in 1973 and 1974, with a small team in support, Dr Briault produced four Green Papers, dealing with alternative futures for every ILEA secondary school.

Bearing in mind the improved staying-on rates, Briault proposed that, by 1980, grammar and secondary modern schools alike would be combined to create comprehensives with between six and eight forms of entry (180 to 240 pupils a year).

Anything much smaller was taken to contravene the principle, established in the London Plan and rigorously upheld by Dr Briault, that nothing should be done to harm the prospects of able children.

The changes required of London's selective schools and, in particular, the suggestion that they should form part of much larger entities, proved too hard for most schools to accept.

Other ways had to be found to create or preserve at least some schools in inner London with comprehensive intakes. Such schools have been and remain successful academically and highly popular. But there are too few of them; and that is another story.

Sir Peter Newsam was deputy to Dr Briault, and education officer for ILEA 1977-82

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