It’s 50 years since the birth of comprehensive education. Will it live for another 50?

10th July 2015 at 00:00
This system has brought us much closer to the dream of equal opportunities for all children, writes John David Blake. But it has woven a tangled web in the process and must now adapt to survive

The birth of comprehensive education, 50 years ago this month, was not accompanied by the grand ceremony and rhetoric that occasionally surrounds a defining point in English history. Nor was it greeted with jubilant street parties toasting the fact that, finally, all children would be guaranteed equality in the education system.

No, the dawn of this model of education – defended to this day with religious fervour – came in the form of a dry, understated government document: Department of Education and Science Circular 10/65. Generated within the department under the aegis of secretary of state Anthony Crosland, it stated simply: “It is the government’s declared objective to end selection at 11-plus and to eliminate separatism in secondary education.”

Such a muted introduction may seem less than this momentous change deserved, but to expect a fanfare would be to misunderstand the history of how comprehensive education came into being. It is the same misunderstanding that makes problematic the recurring claim that the ideals of comprehensive education have been betrayed; looking at the causes leading to Circular 10/65, it’s clear that the original vision behind it was neither prescriptive nor unified. So a practical realisation of that vision was never possible.

Divides, agendas and ulterior motives

Quite how myriad the factors leading to Circular 10/65 were may come as a surprise to many: the document was not born of a straightforward and universal desire for equal access to education for all.

Admittedly, it was in part a victory for forces within the Labour Party who did have that desire. This group had been driven to distraction by the failure of the post-war Attlee government to replicate in education its successes in building Nato and the NHS, two of the most significant institutions of the 20th century. Waves of ever more vociferous lobbying had demanded the imposition of common schooling for all children.

But this cause was by no means taken up by all. On the contrary, these appeals gained little traction. Herbert Morrison, Labour’s lead on matters domestic, could not be persuaded that anyone outside this small group was sufficiently interested in school policy to justify a change in approach. Later, one rising star of the party believed “it would be quite wrong to close down grammar schools of acknowledged academic quality. The result would simply be a decline in educational standards.”

Crosland – the author of that warning – and the Labour Party did appear to change their minds, yet it could be argued that this shift in view was not down to a sudden thirst for the ideal but more a result of political manoeuvring. The Labour movement was split on issues of unilateral disarmament and amending Clause Four (the element of its constitution that committed the party to a state-socialist economic model), as well as education. And education was deemed a less important matter for the leadership to concede on.

So, even within the party that introduced comprehensive education, there were splits and potential ulterior motives.

Other non-party-political factors had an impact, too. Post-war birth rates had risen faster than grammar school buildings, pushing children who a decade previously might have gained a grammar school place into secondary moderns, where they were routinely denied access to public examinations. This raised the ire of parents. At the same time, growing evidence pointed to the injustice of academic selection at 11, both in the distribution of resources and the shameful lack of access to qualifications. These factors created a practical as well as a broader political incentive for change.

On top of this, some local education authorities were already switching to comprehensive schools and, interestingly, many of these were not Labour councils. Oxfordshire County Council was nominally an independent-controlled authority, but it had a clear Conservative bent, and it had converted one grammar to a comprehensive in 1953 and a second in 1957. In the city of Oxford, Labour, Tory and Liberal groups joined together to commit to comprehensives. Meanwhile, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, some Tories had wanted full comprehensivisation since the 1940s. Even at national level, Conservative education spokesman Sir Edward Boyle (privileged product of Eton, Oxford University and the Foreign Office) was publicly warm about the ending of “market-town grammars”.

If it sounds as if the enactment of the comprehensive vision was a slightly chaotic one, that is because it was. Comprehensive schools clearly lacked universal support, and although there was a broad coalition for the change, the reasons for making that change and the structure chosen locally for it were driven by varied combinations of idealism, pragmatism and cold political calculation. Even among the people most committed to the new system, there was no uniformity of attitude and action.

A blurred vision

So, 50 years on, where does the comprehensive system find itself today?

Supporters of comprehensives often like to wail that the end is nigh for their favoured schools. Andy Burnham, a contender for the Labour Party leadership, recently went so far as to proclaim that we must “return to a comprehensive system”, implying that we don’t have one already. Is there any truth in this?

Well, that question is very difficult to answer, because of the rather haphazard birth of comprehensive schools. Critics tend to ignore the extent to which the original model of comprehensivisation was insufficiently specific to guide an entire school system.

Take, for example, Labour’s introduction of academies. The modern appearance of academies – non-selective schools, independent of local government, either newly built or converted from local authority schools – is often a cause of bitter protest. Campaigners decry the government’s refusal to give parents the right to veto these projects in their communities. But the extent to which any generation of parents deserves to control the institutional future of education in a given area is an open question – one to which the comprehensive ideal provides no easy answer.

How would modern anti-academy campaigners respond to the local residents who, in 1957, vociferously objected to the establishment of Holland Park, one of London’s first purpose-built comprehensives? Could they avoid hypocrisy?

Discussions of “comprehensive intakes” can also lead to accusations of the ideal being betrayed. Yet intake remains a contentious question because of the lack of specific guidance in Circular 10/65. The document offered no fewer than six potential schemes of what schooling after the end of the 11-plus might look like. It preferred schools catering for all pupils from 11-18, although reorganisations involving middle schools, initially less enthusiastically received, were later endorsed. Two possible versions of Circular 10/65 even permitted division by aptitude (by parental choice, not tests) at 13 or 14, as part of interim arrangements of unspecified length.

The reason for such a plethora of reorganisation options was that achieving a comprehensive intake was by no means straightforward. As the differing schemes for reorganisation illustrate, alternatives to academic selection did not automatically produce “balanced” school intakes. In Oxford, the cross-party unity collapsed in the face of actually building a workable system of comprehensive schooling.

Even today, we still haven’t found a solution that works. Mossbourne Community Academy in East London, for example, is chastised for welcoming in each Year 7 cohort a “banded” intake of children of mixed prior attainment, which is often also a more mixed social intake than a basic catchment area might produce. Does this meet the standards of a comprehensive intake or not? Ultimately, the ideal in theory or practice offers no definitive answer.

On curriculum there was a bit more agreement over what should be aimed for, at least among the idealists, but whether the end result as we see it today is “betrayal” of the comprehensive vision is a matter of debate.

Although Harold Wilson (prime minister when Circular 10/65 was introduced) promised “a grammar school education for all”, this was often explicitly not what school reformers in the 1960s were seeking – the destruction of an “elitist” curriculum was seemingly as much the object of the exercise as the end of the 11-plus. The hostility towards the curriculum of grammar schools was often driven by sub-Marxist theories, which argued that the dominant classes had organised knowledge into subject disciplines to maintain an illegitimate distribution of power. As such, experimental comprehensives fatally conflated structure with standards and dispensed with the grammar school curriculum, replacing it with schemes of learning in which the boundaries between subjects were hazy, even permeable.

Although superficially appealing, the conviction that academic disciplines are nothing but a ruling-class ruse has been meticulously debunked (by theorists such as sociologist Michael Young). The result of such deeply flawed curricula was to deprive children of powerful knowledge with which to interpret and challenge the world they found themselves in.

Even today, schools that forcefully endorse the value of academic work, such as Michaela Community School in North London, face accusations of elitism because of their pedagogy and curriculum. But such efforts to ensure that all students can access powerful knowledge would be a plausible representation of the “equal education” that idealists sought.

In a new landscape

Clearly, the comprehensive aims have been pretty successfully met in one sense: 90 per cent of England’s children now attend non-selective schools and in no school are children routinely denied access to qualifications.

But, in other senses, the shape and form of the system are far different from that which the most ardent comprehensive campaigners dreamed of. In large part, this is because the flaws and inconsistencies of the ideal have often caused problems as deep as those the system sought to solve.

So what of the future? Calls for a “return to the comprehensive system” provide little guidance for dealing with the issues in England’s schools today. We need to step out of the ideological furrow of a 1960s comprehensive school ideal and reassess with a clear mind. The modern comprehensive movement validates itself by its past, but it doesn’t actually understand that past very well. The fact that this system has not delivered a definitive solution to England’s educational needs suggests that although remembering Circular 10/65 and its associated struggles is a worthwhile exercise, re-enacting them is no panacea.

Fifty years on, for the comprehensive vision of an equal chance at education for all children to mean anything, dogma should give way to the understanding that, in the end, what matters for those children is what works.

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