Countdown to the comprehensive

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
David Henderson reports on the schools shake-up that dominated the Scottish Office 30 years ago. Streaming, setting and the creation of the common course in the first two years of secondary school were exercising minds 30 years ago, Government records for 1966 have revealed.

As now, there was no agreement about the best way to organise teaching in the early stages of secondary as part of Labour's plans for introducing comprehensive education. The Government backed setting or grouping in the first two years of secondary school, as did the Educational Institute of Scotland. Others were not convinced and some questioned the whole reform package.

But Harold Wilson's Government, re-elected in March that year with an increased majority, was determined to end selection at 12-plus and the division of pupils into schools according to their "quali" marks. However, the records show that the administration of Scottish Secretary Willie Ross in the summer of 1966 had no clear plans for the internal organisation of teaching.

Norman Graham (later knighted), secretary of the Scottish Education Department, in a draft paper to Bruce Millan, Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for education, admitted on June 16: "We are at present concerned with getting the pattern of schools right. Much more, however, remains to be done to create the conditions in which the comprehensive principle can be put to work. At present, there is only very limited experience and knowledge of running purely comprehensive schools with an unselected entry."

The Secretary of State set out his proposals in the now famous Circular 600 on October 27, 1965, and invited local authorities to submit plans for implementing the policy by March 30, 1966 - the date of the general election.

Civil servants found backing for the broad thrust of policy in contrast to the situation in England where some councils refused to co-operate. Each Scottish council and city submitted detailed local plans for secondary education and Mr Millan went through them all.

But the content and organisation of the S1S2 curriculum appeared to be less significant when the focus was on structures, the amount of new building required and the pressure on staff when the school-leaving age was already due to rise to 16 in 1970. Labour politicians and senior civil servants backed grouping or setting during a "period of orientation lasting up to two years", Mr Graham confirmed.

This would enable pupils to find their level in each subject before embarking on "more specialised courses leading to Ordinary grade examinations or to the Brunton type vocational courses (or indeed to a mixture of both)". In early 1966, 34 per cent of secondaries were wholly comprehensive, 24 per cent partly comprehensive and 42 per cent were certificate or non-certificate schools. Replies to Labour's outline plans in summer 1965 show that arguments about streaming and setting were prominent. The Educational Institute of Scotland supported setting.

The union told the Scottish Office: "There are various ways in which flexible arrangements can be made within individual secondary schools to avoid rigid divisions and to take into account the great variation in children's individual abilities and aptitudes. Perhaps this can be done more effectively by the method of organisation known as 'setting' which virtually requires the school to adopt a system of parallel timetabling."

The Scottish Schoolmasters' Association supported the ending of separate schooling but urged that "there should be no attempt to abandon the arrangements for streaming of pupils". It continued: "Teaching problems are aggravated when pupils of various education levels are grouped together. Difficulties would be encountered even in relatively small classes and in large classes progress would be almost impossible."

In schools, too, the debate raged on. A Borders television script on the reform quotes Alexander Houston, headteacher of Portobello High in Edinburgh: "It seems to me that the range of ability which I have for example in my first year, with good university material at the top and very poor academic ability at the foot, there will be no course, no common course, which would be fair either to the very good or to the very poor."

John Low, head of Hawick High, added: "I think we must have a certain amount of streaming if we are to give all pupils a fair chance."

Mr Low predicted staffing problems and complained about the pace of change. "You see, over the last 20 years we've had, oh, just a series of changes in our secondary schools. I'm not saying that they have not been good, some of them have been very good, but nevertheless we have been in a constant state of change and I think we are looking for a period of consolidation and I think a lot of my colleagues would agree with me on that. We want consolidation now, not revolution."

Jimmy Docherty, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, in his evidence on the draft Circular 600, echoed similar sentiments. "Experiments with education of children," Mr Docherty declaimed, "should be undertaken only after the most careful internal investigation not involving gambles with the whole future of pupils and only after the most careful consideration of possible alternatives." The association did not feel preliminary investigations had gone far enough.

Local authorities were not convinced about the reforms, as the Association of County Councils in Scotland made clear. The association wanted a variety of experiments provided there was no segregation at 12 and no school doing only non-certificate courses. Too much stress was being placed on parental wishes, it advised.

Councils also remained sceptical about the common course in S1S2. "Evidence has still to be produced to prove the efficiency of such a scheme," the association stated. But by spring 1966 local authority plans were rolling into the Scottish Office, where Bruce Millan had replaced Judith Hart as education minister. Fife and Renfrew continued to back a two-tier system of comprehensive schools in some areas while Glasgow opted to retain grant-aided and fee-paying schools such as Glasgow High, Hillhead High, Notre Dame and Allan Glen's. Edinburgh did likewise with the Royal High, James Gillespie's and Trinity Academy.

The Scottish Office accepted that it would require legislation to remove councils' preferences. But Ayrshire drew the ire of officials for daring to continue selection at Kilmarnock and Ayr academies. "We propose to have further discussions with Ayr about this matter," a senior Government officer advised.

Meanwhile, a special investigation was continuing into the place of independent schools within the new comprehensive system. The Government deliberately avoided setting out its own thoughts, although it recommended partnerships at local level.

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