Early days when 'all things were possible'

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Fifty years ago two 'experimental' comprehensives opened their doors. Paul Rowinksi talks to two teachers who were there at the start of the adventure

PUPILS at Mellow Lane school in Uxbridge, Middlesex, found everything radically different when they returned for the 1948 autumn term.

Not only had two single-sex schools combined after 10 years of separate existence, there was also a strange new sign at the entrance: Mellow Lane comprehensive school. Nobody knew quite what that meant.

It took a few years before the new educational ethos was commonly understood. In those early days it was all an experiment and the Labour government had not yet thrown its weight behind comprehensives.

Jean Farrall who was an English teacher at the school, remembers those first days: "We had the feeling that all things were possible. We all believed in comprehensive education. The staff were united behind it."

Mellow Lane was the only comprehensive in the area then. It was surrounded by grammar and secondary-modern schools.

Ms Farrall is still proud of how they took on the grammars: "They were still creaming off the best pupils and we would get the next lot down - yet we still prospered.

"We did as well as the grammar schools. There was a sense of solidarity and the kids were very proud of their school. Many did remarkably well. The intake was made up mainly of children from the area which, at the time, was defined as lower middle class."

Ms Farrall remembered how some boys began to enjoy technical drawing: "We used to say that they were not born with silver spoons in their mouths but with t-squares."

The comprehensive revolution was also beginning just outside London - in an area of Hertfordshire surrounded by grammars.

John Boden, a geography teacher, started at Mount Grace comprehensive at about the same time as Ms Farrall at Mellow Lane.

Parkfield secondary modern school in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, had been granted comprehensive status in 1948 and on moving to a new site was re-named Mount Grace.

Mr Boden recalled its heyday. Progressive parents from Islington, north London, would make a point of sending their children all the way to Mount Grace, hoping they would be part of a new educational dawn.

But that dawn meant a real challenge for teachers. Mr Boden recalled: "It was an adventure, to a lot of staff. It was a testing time. A lot of the teachers were not graduates and some of them found it hard to cope with difficult papers. They had not been trained for it. Many went away and took external degrees."

Mr Boden is this year celebrating a 40-year long association with Mount Grace. It was his only school - he retired as deputy head in 1990 and is working part-time in an administrative role.

He has seen the now grant-maintained school through turbulent times. Twice in recent history it faced closure due to very low pupil numbers and twice it received a last-minute reprieve, the last in 1989 - it came as a present for Mr Boden, who was retiring from teaching.

COMPREHENSIVE HISTORY

1944 Education Act. Tripartite secondary education system more firmly established - grammar, technical and modern schools. The system was based on Plato's idea that society is composed of men of gold, silver and brass.

1945 Labour government comes to power, committed to social reform. Tripartite system continues.

1945 Ancient grammar school at Windermere, reorganised to serve whole community. Believed to be the first and smallest comprehensive, with only 200 boys.

1946-48 Middlesex, London, Coventry, Oldham and Yorkshire local education authorities challenge government complacency and initiate the drive to comprehensive education.

1947 North Riding proposes foundation of five comprehensive schools. Rejected by the Ministry of Education for two main reasons: schools proposed too small; logical way of dealing with different types of children was by providing different types of school.

1948. Middlesex plan submitted to the Ministry of Education amid great public interest. Rejected in January 1949 with government demanding a complete review, citing the same two reasons as in the North Riding case.

1948 Two experimental comprehensives in the South-east permitted - Mellow Lane and Mount Grace.

1948 West Riding challenges government's position. West Riding Development Plan said: "The committee...has been unable to accept certain suggestions which have been made or implied in various reports or Ministerial circulars. They cannot, for instance, agree that at the age of 11 children can be classified into three recognised mental types and should be allocated to grammar, modern, and technical schools accordingly..."

1949-52 Anglesey and the Isle of Man developed complete systems of comprehensive education.

1965 Government decides English state education should be comprehensive. Ministers ask LEAs to prepare for comprehensives, with or without sixth forms. By January 1977 80 per cent of all secondary children are educated in 3, 000 comprehensives. Forty-six of the 105 authorities are entirely comprehensive.

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