Favour the many instead of the few
Undoubtedly, many were very good, with a dedicated staff and an A stream that outstripped the "sink" element in most grammar schools. I taught for 12 years in two highly selective grammar schools before being appointed director of English studies at a Wiltshire school that was in the process of changing from an excellent secondary modern into an even more successful comprehensive. Its A stream regularly took eight CSEs and five O-levels.
But there were also far too many pupils who left before taking public exams. I remember the astonishment when my new English department drafted a limited-range CSE (levels 3-5), then rapidly implemented it with the then South Western Examinations Board. From that moment, almost all pupils had the opportunity to gain a qualification, something that was revolutionary in the late Sixties.
When government ministers dismiss comprehensives as failures, they forget that most of them have increased opportunities for most pupils. Our experience was that perceived success in examinations did motivate most children. The abolition of the passfail concept atO-level led us to enter many more for O-level than for CSE. We regularly had more than 100 in the A-C range for English language.
In secondary moderns, there were no sixth forms and thus no opportunities for A-level work. There was no tradition of large numbers of teenagers departing to universities throughout the country. In the early days of comprehensives, it was not easy to convince pupils and parents to set their sights far beyond their locality.
In the normal run of things, I and most of my colleagues would have continued in the selective sector, working with highly motivated pupils. Looking back, it was probably a good thing that the arrival of comprehensives took us out of that cocooned environment. I am now worried that many will be tempted away from dealing with the majority of pupils to working only with those in a selective environment. Local communities and their children will be the losers.
My first A-level sixth-form comprehensive group consisted of seven students, all 11-plus failures but all eventually successful atA-level. I remember my delight at their success - but I also remember what one of them asked me early on in the course: "In what way are we not as good as the grammar-school girls you previously taught?" I don't want a return to a system that might lead other supposed "failures" to ask that question or a return to family divisions, with a grammar school at one end of the town and secondary modern failures at the other.
Why should I accept that my 21 years of effort in a comprehensive were in vain? Similarly, though I know secondary moderns achieved many fine things, they had some severe limitations. Comprehensives have opened up opportunities; let us be wary of a return to a system that favours the few.
Peter King is a retired English teacher.