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 TES Direct: 0208324 5119. 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 services and preach while continuing his 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 11.
Unfortunately, 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 It is an accurate but rather outdated picture of how schools were run during the 1970s and 1980s.
- Picture: Gunter Helft
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and was head of Durham Johnston comprehensive school, Durham, for 16 years
A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine