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Tories won over by success in the suburbs

Talk of comprehensive schools failing pupils and producing drab uniformity is not to be heard in the south-west London borough of Richmond-upon-Thames.

Here, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council runs eight comprehensives which appear to have the support of local people and politicians of all parties. None of the borough's schools have been tempted by grant-maintained status.

Holly Champion, spokesperson for the minority Conservative group on the council, remembers when, as chair of the education committee in the early 1970s, she oversaw the move to comprehensive schooling with all-party support.

"Whenever there was a public meeting on the subject, the hall would be packed with parents," she says. "They wanted to do away with the 11-plus because they felt their children wouldn't have the chance to get ahead."

Now, more than 20 years later, local opinion seems unchanged. In one of the wealthiest boroughs in England, many parents send their children to private schools, but those who do not appear to back the local comprehensives. And despite her party's policies, Holly Champion remains a supporter of the comprehensive principle.

Shene school, a mixed comprehensive, prides itself on a thriving range of extra-curricular activities, close links with parents, and good examination results.

Parent Kay Edge, a book editor, looked at a couple of private schools and a selective school in the neighbouring borough of Kingston-upon-Thames before deciding to send her daughter to Shene. "I know lots of parents who send their children to private schools, but I think that produces a very narrow outlook, " she says. "Here, my daughter mixes with children from all sorts of backgrounds and I think that is good for her."

Shene's 1,100 pupils aged 11 to 16 - Richmond has a tertiary college system - are mixed intake, some coming from tower blocks and council estates, and some from relatively wealthy homes. Most make up what staff call "the terrace brigade", from upper-working-class and middle-class homes. Last year, 90 per cent gained five or more GCSE passes,and the year before one girl passed nine GCSEs with starred A grades.

Headteacher Simon Williams believes the move to comprehensive schooling has dramatically improved achievement, pointing to the fact that only 19 per cent of pupils in the borough gained five or more grades A-C at O-level in 1972.

But the benefits of comprehensive schooling, says Mr Williams, are social as well as academic. "There is a powerful social argument for educating a range of pupils from different backgrounds together. It breeds understanding and tolerance. But the overwhelming argument must be in terms of what the young people are achieving."

Like all the comprehensive schools in Richmond, Shene makes extensive use of setting by ability in most subjects. There may have been a time when arguments for across-the-board mixed-ability teaching held sway, but no longer. Shene also prides itself on its tutorial system in which a form tutor stays with a class as it goes up the school and takes a keen interest in pupils' progress.

David Cornwell, chair of the council's education committee, sees the emphasis on results, together with strong support from parents, as reasons for the success of the comprehensive system in Richmond.

"The parents can see that we are providing the kind of education they want for their children with setting and streaming. Headteachers realised many years ago that mixed-ability classes weren't delivering the goods."

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