25th May 2001 at 01:00
FROM THE HEAD UPWARDS: comprehensive schools yesterday, today and tomorrow. By Gunter Helft. Jon Carpenter. pound;11.99 inc pamp;p from Alder House, Market Street, Charlbury OX7 3PQ. Available from TESDirect 10 copies pound;115.

Gunter Helft is a remarkable man. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he began teaching at the end of the Second World War in an elementary school in north-west London with a class of 50. The "successful but more than slightly eccentric" head told him that "the block nearest the window are the ones on probation, the timetable is on your cupboard door and there's a cane in your desk - but don't use it without writing up the punishment book".

Helft retired prematurely from his second comprehensive school headship when he contracted throat cancer. An ordained Anglican priest, he then learnt oesophageal speech well enough to conduct church services and preach sermons while continuing his educational career as a consultant and chair of governors in Worcester.

The blurb to his book claims it is "a passionate and compelling defence of the comprehensive school", and Tony Benn is quoted as endorsing it as "a brilliant account of what is wrong and what is needed". The author writes in his introduction that he has tried to restate the ideas and ideals of the leaders of comprehensive schools.

The book is at its best when it remains close to this aim, capturing successfully Helft's own idealism and that of his fellow comprehensive school leaders, striving to level the educational playing field and create opportunities for young people of all abilities. Helft reminds us that comprehensive schools were formed in response to a widespread feeling that many children were wrongly branded as failures at the age of 11.

He acknowledges that comprehensive schools have not always been successful, but believes they have often been judged on the wrong criteria and criticises the meaningless comparisons of raw league tables. He argues persuasively for greater collaboration between schools, and for competition only where it is beneficial, such as in sport or debating. As he points out, the successful education systems of Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Kore depend not on competition but on a refusal to contemplate individual failure and a striving for individual and corporate success.

Unfortunately, Helft's advocacy of comprehensive schools is confined to short sections. There is little in-depth analysis of the successes and failures of the comprehensive system. Too much of the text is an account of the organisation and management of the schools where Helft was head. We are told about his favoured pastoral care system, how to run a senior management team meeting, how to organise middle management structures, the organisation of a student council and school assembly. It is an accurate but rather outdated picture of how schools were run during the 1970s and 1980s. Helft's rationale for his inverted pyramid management structure, with the head at the base supporting those above, is more interesting and represents the spirit of the age in a positive way.

He describes how, at the start of his first headship in 1969, at Archbishop Temple's school in London, the students staged a walkout after assembly and sat in the park in protest against a change in the school day. "I found it organisationally irritating and politically very impressive," he comments. But the book contains few such anecdotes from his long experience. The style is laboured and cries out for a lightness of touch.

Helft is very much in favour of local education authorities, but there is a long list of things he opposes - independent schools, grammar schools, grant-maintained schools, performance pay, fast track, and Investors in People in the school context. He strongly criticises the confrontational climate in which schools have to work and echoes the belief of many that schools will not succeed until they receive from government and from society the support they deserve.

The head may be at the base of Helft's inverted pyramid, but the pyramid itself needs to be supported by those who are responsible for our school system. Too often in recent years, this has not been the case.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and was head of Durham Johnston comprehensive school, Durham, for 16 years

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