by Harry on September 6, 2005

I was lucky enough to attend part of the Kidbrooke School celebrations in July, though mainly in order to have my children see my dad speak while he is in his prime. Now BBC Radio 4 has come up with what promises to be a brilliant history of the Comprehensive School. Highlights from the first, rivetting, show include the story of how London County Council officials were impressed by comprehensive schooling in the States (see, European leftists do learn things from the US), the story of Stewart Mason’s experiment in Tory Leicestershire (he had the sneaky idea of calling all the comprehensive schools Grammar Schools, though his reform had the undesirable side-effect of inventing the middle school) and an exemplary media performance by my esteemed former colleague David Crook. They get the history just about right, but more impressively the show really gives the texture of the debates and the experience of people whose lives were affected by the reforms. Radio at its best. Future episodes promise interviews with Kenneth Baker, Roy Hattersley, John O Farrell and one Tim Brighouse (wonder what he’ll say).



P ONeill 09.06.05 at 2:18 pm

Yes this series looks really promising. One thing I wish I was keeping better track of is the education reforms in Northern Ireland. As I (very weakly) understand it, NI has stayed with the grammar system longer than England and Wales, but is now phasing it out to align with England — and yet the NI system has delivered quite high levels of educational attainment. And I’m sure education researchers would like to have two separate systems running within the UK for as long as possible to study their impact. Of course analysis of the NI system is probably impossible to detach from sectarian issues. So it would probably need its own R4 series, of many, many installments.


Cryptic Ned 09.06.05 at 2:19 pm

What’s a comprehensive school?

What’s a grammar school?


harry b 09.06.05 at 2:59 pm


Grammar = children selected at age 11 or 12 on basis of IQ test (about 20-30 percent of cohort — all others go to non-academic track “Secondary Modern” school)

Comprehensive = all children in cohort attend school except those with serious education related disabilities and those whose parents pay for them to go private

Comprehensive schools frequently not “truly” comprehensive because they are (or were in the old days, pre-1981/1988) neighbourhood schools, with all the attendant problems.


Matt Daws 09.06.05 at 4:52 pm

I think Harry B means by “neighbourhood schools” that these schools had a limited area where they took kids from. Hence wealthy areas end up with good schools (as they get, by and large, well-off, motivated kids), and you have the phenomenon in the UK of house prices being much higher near good schools, as parents will pay a premium for the school (this then, of course, becomes a feedback loop). I guess I then went to a true comprehensive, as it was an all-boys school, and took boys from the whole region: however, I think single-sex was pretty much out of fashion by then, and it was in reality a somewhat better school than many of the truly local ones.


dsquared 09.06.05 at 5:17 pm

phenomenon in the UK

To be honest this is almost entirely a phenomenon of London, a fact that’s not often emphasised in the UK media.


Bob B 09.06.05 at 5:26 pm

“[Mason’s] reform [in Leicestershire] had the undesirable side-effect of inventing the middle school”

Why are Leicestershire plan “middle schools” undesirable?

My understanding is that the most frequent structure of comprehensive education in Britain is separate schools for the age groups of 5 – 11 year-olds and 11 – 16 year-olds, with Sixth-form or Further Education Colleges for post 16 year-olds who want to stay on in full-time education to gain A-levels for university entry or vocational qualifications.

For comparison, the structure of the Leicestershire plan was schools for 5 – 11 year-olds and 11 – 14 year-olds (the so-called “middle schools”) with high schools for all over the age of 14 regardless of whether they intend opting out of full-time education at the age of 16 (the minimum school leaving age) or staying on to take A-levels or vocational qualifications.

I am unsure how widely appreciated it is that historically Britain has had and still has a problem of a relatively low stay-on rate in full-time education after 16 or 17 compared with its peer group of other affluent countries. As David Miliband put it a few years back when he was minister for schools standards:

“It must be one of the most stunning statistics that we are 20th out of 24 OECD countries for staying-on rates [in education] at 17”

It seems to me that the big advantage of the Leicestershire plan high schools is that the senior pupils in the final year(s) of high schools are all committed to staying on in full-time education. This is in marked contrast to to the more usual structure of comprehensive schools where in the 11 – 16 schools a high proportion of the pupils in the final year of the school have no commitment to staying on in education. If anything, that is apt to encourage low stay-on rates in education at the age of 16 and it is also apt to promote an anti-education ethos in such schools.

Btw it is worth recapping that the Mason plan was approved by a Tory council in Leicestershire in 1957 – so much for the popular but mistaken notion that Conservatives naturally oppose comprehensive education.


Cryptic Ned 09.06.05 at 7:16 pm

phenomenon in the UK

To be honest this is almost entirely a phenomenon of London, a fact that’s not often emphasised in the UK media.

However, it’s a phenomenon of the entire United States.


harry b 09.06.05 at 7:36 pm

cryptic ned,

Your general point is right (hence my derogatory use of “neighbourhood schools”. But the specific phenonmenon of feedback loops between house prices and school “quality”, while it may exist in the States, is something I haven’t seen documented.

Daniel is right that it has been documented in London (but, I think, by journalists rather than scholars) — I imagine that if it does exist in London it also does in other large-ish towns in the South East, and the other big cities. Anyone who knows more about this should pitch in.


Slocum 09.06.05 at 7:52 pm

But the specific phenonmenon of feedback loops between house prices and school “quality”, while it may exist in the States, is something I haven’t seen documented.

Oh, there’s NO doubt that it exists in the U.S.–especially because in most states, the schools in well-off areas not only get students from wealthier families but also get more (sometimes a LOT more) money to spend on those students (because most public education is financed by local property taxes).

That said, the inequalities tend not to be quite as bad for high schools as they are for elementary schools because high schools are much larger and draw from a broader area which tends to mean a somewhat more heterogeneous population than elementary schools.


Simstim 09.07.05 at 4:07 am

Only anecdotal evidence here, but certainly in Cardiff (a small-to-medium sized British city) I’ve heard (predominantly middle class) people justify their house-buying choices on the basis of school catchment areas. However, you do have the complication of Welsh-language schools as well.


Bob B 09.07.05 at 4:18 am

Having lived and worked in several (very) different regions in Britain – including Leicestershire and London – I think I can say with some confidence that it would be a mistake to believe that the problems connected with neighbourhood comprehensive schools are mostly confined to London. Moreover, it is somewhat easier to overcome those problems in London – unlike elsewhere – because of long-established practices in London of travelling to school on the unusually well-developed public transport system.

It happens that in London, I now live in one of the few local education authorities (LEA) in Britain where grammar schools have survived. One outcome is that for the last decade and more, this particular LEA has consistently been at, or close to, the top of the LEA league table in England based on the average points scored in the GCSE school examinations normally taken at 16. On the evidence, grammar schools are hugely and indisputably successful in maintaining high average attainment in school examinations.

In Leicestershire, the general practice in the roll-out of the plan for comprehensive education of 1957 was to turn previous secondary modern (or non-grammar) schools into the (supposedly controversial) “middle schools” for 11 – 14 year-olds while the previous grammar schools became the high schools for 14 – 18 year-olds. The outcome was that in the course of normal school careers, all pupils would naturally progress through schools that had previously been secondary modern (or non-grammar) schools and then go on to grammar schools to take their A-levels (for university entry) or vocational qualifications. One of the (intended) consequences of this structure was to substantially diminish, if not entirely remove, neighbourhood effects because whole age groups would mostly attend both kinds of school.

Arguably, the problem of neighbourhood effects in schooling is a consequence of (notoriously) persisting differences in social class cultures in Britain and the differential values therein attributed to education. These differences were perhaps most aptly characterised by George Orwell in: The Road to Wigan Pier, a book written prior to WW2, although his account of class attitudes to educations is recognisable today:

“And again, take the working-class attitude towards ‘education’.
How different it is from ours, and how immensely sounder! Working people
often have a vague reverence for learning in others, but where ‘education’
touches their own lives they see through it and reject it by a healthy
instinct. The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures
of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work
at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a ‘job’ should
descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one
working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will
leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on
ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the
notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely
contemptible and unmanly.”


Matt McGrattan 09.07.05 at 7:35 am

Of course Scotland has a fully comprehensive system with no grammar schools and has done for decades.

Ironically, Scotland has significantly HIGHER rates of participation in tertiary education than the rest of the UK and has already passed the 50% target the government is aiming for in England and Wales. Scotland also has the highest rate of graduation from first degrees of *any* OECD country.

A fully functioning education system can work in the absence of selection at high-school entry level.


harry b 09.07.05 at 9:01 am

Matt’s right about this. Conjecturing wildly, one of the factors might be the exam system, which is quite different in Scotland (and which, until the emergence of GCSE, and even after, was designed to rule out a large percentage of kids from entering higher education at age 14). In addition, as Halsey points out in the show, selection at age 11 is notoriously inaccurate — if you rule out 75% at age 11 from HE, and then, among the 25% selected about half should have been in the 75% you ruled out, you are severely restricting the pool of potential HE users.

Of course, some Secondary Moderns, especially in the latter years (and on a much increased basis in place like Bucks that still have Grammar Schools), established an academic track fro the kids who they believed should have gone to Grammars, and, again in recent years, I presume Universities do not discriminate against these kids.


Bob B 09.07.05 at 9:35 am

“Scotland also has the highest rate of graduation from first degrees of any OECD country.”

What percentage of Scottish graduates are with the three-year “ordinary” degrees, and what with the four-year “honours” degrees?

“as Halsey points out in the show, selection at age 11 is notoriously inaccurate”

At various times, I have encountered university professors who almost boast that they failed their respective 11-plus examinations.


Matt McGrattan 09.07.05 at 9:56 am

Bob B:

I’m afraid I don’t know re: the percentage with 3 year ordinary and 4 year honours degrees. The figures I was referring to are the ones cited here:
and as far as I can tell they don’t distinguish between them.

Looking at Glasgow University’s web-site it seems about 80% of students take the four year honours degree, with the remaining 20% doing the three year ordinary. That certainly accords with my own memories of actually studying there myself. I#’d imagine that’s fairly typical for the universities that offer the 3 year ordinary versus 4 year honours split.


Yeah, re: the exam system. The Scottish system seems to me to be quite a bit better at turning out people with proper educations and is a great deal more inclusive, I think.

That is, in the sense that you don’t get the option of ‘hiding’ from the (anecdotally) harder subjects like Maths or the sciences and in the sense that a much broader subject base is assumed.

Every undergraduate coming from the Scottish school system will probably have done at least one science and one humanities subject plus maths and english to Higher level.

The more ‘generalist’ nature of the Scottish system probably puts them at a disadvantage in subjects like Physics or Maths where the greater depth of the two year A-level (over the 1 year Higher) definitely shows. However, for just about everything else the Higher system seems, from my own personal experience, to work well.


Bob B 09.07.05 at 5:48 pm

Possibly of related interest, this fascinating research coming from Warwick University a few years ago suggests that sending children to private fee-paying schools is apt to spoil their chances in higher education:

“The UK’s most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates’ results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree. . . . ”

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