For six years up to 1970 the expansion of comprehensive schools and the gradual weakening of the grammar schools was widely associated with Labour Party policy, at odds with Conservative opinion. Butj, in fact, the movement began long before Labour came into power and continued afterwards. The pressure for “comp- rehensivisation” often came more from local authorities, themselves responding to the pressure from parents, than from the Department of Education; and the Labour Government (1964—-70) was very cautious — many people believe excessively cautious — in not laying down instructions or legislation — for comprehensive schools.
The local pressure against the ‘eleven-plus’ has become much fiercer, and in the last decade the number of comprehensives of some kind in England and Wales has multiplied ninefold.
But the word “comprehensive” can name many different meanings, and some people estimate that in 1970 only twelve per cent of the schools were operating in anything like “fully comprehensive” circumstances. The others are unhappily co-existing with the grammar schools which separate many of the cleverest; and in large towns only a fraction of the cleverest pupils are in comprehensive schools. The co-existence, and the awkward mergers, have produced a great range of different kinds of reorganization bewildering to the lay parent, and often to the teacher; impending reorganization is often an excuse for inaction.
There are all-through comprehensives 11—18; tiered schools where all children transfer from the lower to the upper tier; “parallel” tiered schools where only some pupils choose or are selected to transfer; 11—16 schools, co-existing with 11—18 schools, co-existing with grammar schools. And then there are middle schools, of 9—13 and 8—12 which straddle the old transfer age of 11. Some lead to comprehensive upper tier schools, but others to a divided system of “long course” and “short course” upper schools. The ways in which schools may recruit their pupils are almost equally confusing: there are geographical catchment areas, zoned, catchment areas, feeder schools, balanced ability (a distributive selection), and choice; there are basically two types of choice — “free” and “guided”.
It is impossible to generalize about comprehensives because of the variety of schemes and attitudes of the local authorities, and the influences of parents and communities. Many of the schools are still too young to have acquired distinct characters. But strong headmasters or headmistresses, and dedicated teachers, have already stamped some of them with their personalities and theories. Dame Mary Green, headmistress of Kidbrooke since 1954 built up one of the first of the specially designed comprehensives — a spectacular place at Blackheath, with two thousand girls all in grey skirts.
Because of the huge numbers in the big comprehensives, often more than 1,500, there is much argument about the division of the pupils, which can affect the whole character of the . school. Highbury Grove Comprehensive has established house rooms to provide a kind of home for each boy, like a public school. But many other comprehensives divide pupils by years with a special “year mistress” who remains with her pupils as they go up the school.
Some counties are much more experimental in their conception of comprehensives than others. The most famous is Leicestershire which for much of this century has been knowTn for its educational innovations: their present Chief Education Officer, Stewart Mason, only the second since 1903, was the architect of the Leicestershire two-tier for secondary education. The most daring school in the county is the brand-new Countesthorpe, just outside Leicester city, which deserves brief inspection as the most avant-garde of them all: it has already become the prototype for others, including one in London. At present it is a junior high shool, for 11—14, but eventually it will become a proper (though quite untypical) comprehensive. Countesthorpe College rises from a sea of mud in the midst of a middle-class housing estate, and two miles from a working- class estate: the two form the main, catchment area. Local adults can use the school’s facilities, and their community association is part of the building. The school is built in the shape of a big circle, of one storey only; the grey brick and stained woods, the curved walls, and the skylights dispersing soft light give a background of peaceful zelaxation, and the windows look out on the greenhouses and fishponds. The school is made up not of rooms but of spaces and recesses — essential for the “project work” on which teaching is based. There are dramatic gyms, a huge art space, a black cube-shaped theatre workshop, and a stage. The lessons are equally unconventional: the courses have elaborate titles like “Creative Expression in Two and Three Dimensions”, or “The Individual and the Group”, reflecting the inter-disciplinary approach as in new universities. The children are only streamed for learning languages; the rest of the learning is through project work. There are special sessions for “non-involved” children who go into a remedial group to work on motorbikes to satisfy their aggression. The children are encouraged to express themselves by using tape recorders: “the spoken word is more important for most than the written word”.
There is no headmaster at Countesthorpe, only a “warden” called Tim: he has no proper office, but moves around, in a springy and speculative walk, from recess to recess. Tim McMullen is a genuine “anti-head”: he is a slim, complex man whose own shape and style seem experimental. He came from a public school, and hates the public-school system. He is a temperamental innovator whose history is part of the history of the growth of comprehensive education in this country. He was deputy head of Forest Hill, a London Comprehensive, and then head of the Thomas Bennett School in Crawby. Experiments can’t do worse than the existing schools, he maintains. As warden he wants each of the forty-five teachers to decide what and how they teach: though his friends know him as an authoritarian democrat, the Countesthorpe teachers were all drawn by the experiment, and they spend hours discussing methods in their “moots” (meetings). Most parents appear pleased bacause their children enjoy school, though some are withholding judgment until they see the academic results: a small but angry minority resent their children being guinea-pigs. McMullen admits that his life is made easier by the existence of independent schools, who take the children whose parents are most likely to be critical.
Countesthorpe is an extreme case of experiment; most comprehensives are much more conservative, and some are more like bilateral schools, divided into “grammar” and “modern” sides, with streams of less clever children kept very separate. As more schools go comprehensive, so the ‘arguments between “streaming” and “nonstreaming” take the place of the old argument between grammar schools and comprehensives. But increasingly comprehensives are going over to different forms of non-streaming — combinations of “banding” (wide ability streams); “setting” (with or without special remedial groups) and complete “mixed ability” groups. As the late Derek Morrel, the first secretary of the Schools Council put it: “To understand what is really going on in school we have to come to grips with extremely complex, constantly changing, and immensely particular system of personal inter-action, involving complex relationships between the experience language and values which the pupils bring into their schools from their neighbourhoods, and those which are imparted by the teacher.”
(From The New Anatomy of Britain by A. Sampson)