The utopian origins of comprehensive schools

The first in a weekly series of columns looking into the archives of education and using the past to make our readers smarter

History is not useful. Whatever else the past is, it’s gone.

Actually, that’s a lie. It’s the sort of thing I like to say to rile up historians, and watch as their heads explode while they insist that in order to understand anything I have to understand everything that has happened before. Which is also not true.

So, let me be straighter: history is sometimes useful. It gives new perspectives, illuminates facts, even helps a history-neanderthal like me to understand my own evolution.

But history can also be misleading. In the month since Theresa May’s spokesperson floated a return to grammar schools, MPs have regaled us with their schooling histories as if we should weigh their personal tales before coming to a national policy conclusion. Michael Portillo’s memory of grand swimming pools are pitted against those, like John Prescott, who lost out.

History is also tricky. First, because it’s huge, it’s hard even to know it well. And second, because it’s full of pedantry. That neanderthal joke I made earlier? I’m already expecting at least a few people to write in telling me how it doesn’t possibly work because some obscure piece of research proves that people with the name McInerney can’t possibly be related to an extinct species of human.

Still, this doesn’t mean history can’t be useful, or fun. So this is going to become a weekly column uncovering and exploring a fresh nugget from the history of education, written from my own layperson, non-historian perspective. And should the pedants write in and say lots of useful things, then they will contribute to my own education – and might even make for another column.

But where to begin? Perhaps the 1944 Education Act – the greatest piece of education legislation known to British-kind? Or perhaps the rules governing a parliamentary grant, made in 1833, which sent the first inspectors into schools? Or am I about to uncover the oldest school in England?

Nope. We’re actually going to start with the extracurricular timetable of school activities for Locleaze School in Bristol, in 1967.
The chart is a thing of beauty, spread on a double-page across Robin Pedley’s 1969 edition of The Comprehensive School. Written to describe how a newly envisaged comprehensive school system could overtake grammars and secondary moderns, it is a work of breath-taking optimism.

Pedley explains how the public is being told that comprehensives will need 2,000 pupils to work, and claims that  smaller numbers are possible (he was right, as it turned out). He shows how the trappings of “elitism” bound up in grammar schools – in particular, prefects, who seem to him the perfect example of exalting the few above the masses – are becoming less popular in comprehensives. He believes they will disappear altogether (he was wrong on that one).

But it is the “school evening activities” of Lockleaze, a large comprehensive in Bristol, which brings home how utopian these new schools seemed. Each day there were at least five after-school clubs for pupils, ranging from “Train Your Dog” on Tuesdays, to “Play Reading & Theatre Visits” on Mondays and “Solve Your Problems (Maths)” on Thursdays.  Friday only had one club: “Latin, 4pm”.

After 7pm the school expanded its offering to adults. Pottery, dressmaking, football, motor-engineering, typing.

From the perspective of the 1960s, this was super-exciting. Lockleaze served a huge housing estate and gave its residents access to a library, education and work experience. In this light, comprehensives were not fudged grammar schools; they were a whole new way of learning.

I looked up Lockleaze School to see if it still had such a comprehensive offer. Sadly, it closed in 2001. Reports from the time describe 350 pupils left in a failing school. Pictures show its 1960s buildings as a crumbling mess.

Another school, Lawrence Weston, just up the road from Lockleaze, also closed in 2001. The report reads: “It was classed as too expensive to run.”

Utopia costs more than dreams.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.