A tale of revolution in a sleepy town

26th August 2015 at 10:45
Grammar schools
How comprehensive education won out in Market Drayton

During the 1960s, the small town of Market Drayton in Shropshire became an unlikely microcosm of England’s comprehensive schooling revolution. Its story is a timely reminder of why so many people backed the end of the 11-plus system.

Peter Housden’s terrific book, So the New Could be Born: the passing of a country grammar school, tells the story of how and why Market Drayton Grammar School was replaced on 1 September 1965 by the comprehensive Grove School. Sir Peter was one of its pupils; he later became a teacher, director of education in Nottinghamshire, director general of schools in the Department for Education and permanent secretary to the Scottish government.

At a time when many schools have dropped the word “comprehensive” from their name, those of us who were – and are – proud to fly the flag will find encouragement and inspiration in this book.

The first comprehensive in England was founded in 1945. Martin Wilson, secretary for education in Shropshire for 30 years, put forward plans for comprehensive reorganisation in Market Drayton in 1947, keeping the flame alive through years of opposition. He is the hero of this book.

The change came about for a number of reasons. For one, Market Drayton Grammar School provided poor-quality education. In 1959, for example, the O-level pass rate was 59 per cent; at A-level it was just 42 per cent. For another, the local secondary modern urgently needed additional accommodation and its pupils took no public examinations. By contrast, Housden paints a vibrant picture of his school years after the change. Nationally, too, the tide was turning well before Circular 10/65 (education secretary Tony Crosland’s famous call to local authorities to begin converting schools). In 1963, when the Market Drayton proposal was submitted to government, the minister of education was Sir Edward Boyle and the prime minister was Harold Macmillan, both of whom recognised the growing public opposition to the 11-plus. As Boyle wrote in his foreword to the Newsom report of 1963: “The essential point is that all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence and developing their talents to the full.”

In setting Market Drayton’s changes in the national context, Sir Peter has written a book that will be of interest to people inside and outside Shropshire. In reminding us of the improvements that comprehensive schools brought to education in England and to the life chances of young people, he has made an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the structure of schooling.

John Dunford was headteacher of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School from 1982 to 1998. So the New Could be Born: the passing of a country grammar school is available to download for free at bit.ly/CountryGrammarSchool

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