i took my first post in a comprehensive school because I believed that the majority of our children deserve more than our educational system gives them and possess more gifts than we are normally prepared to allow them. I did this in spite of the advice of my university. It was assumed at the university that you would enter either a grammar school or a public school. There were two of us who wanted to do otherwise. One, I think, now teaches at a primary school. The university was very helpful in fixing me up with a comprehensive school in which to spend my term’s practice, but they were generally rather puzzled. I knew, of course, that grammar schools had opened their doors—if ever so slightly —to the working class child as a result of the 1944 Education Act. Yet this step was by a pacifying gesture: it marked no change of direction. I still found it hard to be complacent about the crude, prevailing assumptions that there existed such creatures as “Secondary Modern Children” and “Grammar School Children”, even though I was a product of that very system. Moreover, in many subtle ways the selection principle seemed to cheapen the quality of education at all stages. Primary schools pushed into prominence a type of mind that was bright, quick, but often merely accommodating. Competition for places further up the system forced most schools to cultivate in the child the flair for those modes of activity which could be marked right or wrong, which shone under the stress of examination—but which offered no guarantee of a capacity for responsive living. Education, thus conceived, grew less a proper and sensitive concern with the growth of a mature, individual personality. It was a sacrifice of all that literature and psychology had taught us about human identity.
With thoughts like these in mind, I welcomed the creation of comprehensive schools. Though there may be very real differences of ability between one child and the next, these were matters that couldn’t always be measured. A comprehensive school would recognise qualities too potentially rich to be forced into the tripartite mould. Educational inequality often begins at the age of seven and is endorsed five years later. I didn’t think that the multilateral school could effect an overnight revolution, but at least it might check this wastage and encourage different, though valuable styles of learning from those currently sponsored by our divided schools. There are, as we know, many instruments for quickening to life the centres of growth within the mind: art, music, drama, the life of the feelings. In the new school these can thrive, whereas they have often been neglected. Here the teacher might find himself outside the race for certificates. He will be able to provide a second chance for the rejects of the junior schools without losing the resources of the secondary school at its best.
To a large extent my surmise was correct. Many children whom you or I would classify as “secondary modern” stayed at school beyond the leaving age. They proved beyond a doubt that talent was not confined to the grammar school. In their third year they were given the option of one of a number of courses in art, science, handicrafts and so on. At least they felt they were getting somewhere and often did. The school did a lot to soften their former violent resentment at being made to sit in desks at all. Art teaching, for example was of the finest kind—quite different from the usual conception of the subject. It was a refining, civilising process and embraced pottery, sculpture, mosaic work and oil painting. It had some status, for once, as an educating medium in its own right. I saw inspired art teaching lift more than one child from the depression of repeated failure to the heights of “A” Level. Others found their feet in a variety of ways, as they couldn’t have done in a secondary modern school because there simply would not have been the opportunities. In general, the staff cared about the children as human beings and were able to guide them to some measure of self-fulfilment.
Then there was the huge advantage of having new buildings and light, well-planned classrooms. Many urban grammar schools would have envied
More striking than these tangible improvements was the enthusiasm of the staff, their sense of commitment. It must be remembered that like most comprehensive schools we were receiving and dealing with a largely secondary modern intake. The local grammar school had declined to merge at the time of our creation and it still creamed what were supposed to be the “best” pupils. Yet that didn’t deter us and we made the most of the children allowed us, forgetting as far as possible the old labels of the tri-partite scheme. The examination results were impressive, and so too was the mixing of all social classes, though this important fact is not easy to catch in figures. In short, there was a sense that for once society had been willing to forget the customary myth about training an élite, pushing forward its leaders, and had decided to give all its children a fair start in secondary education.
I found it refreshing to work in conditions less inbred than those which our selection system forces on grammar or modern schools. What a difference, for instance, to see six or seven skilled artists or musicians or craftsmen, each with his own approach to the subject, instead of the usual solitary figure fighting against the assumption that his specialism is only a minority subject for the duffers. Putting together graduate and nongraduate teachers also helped to increase our mutual respect. Letters after your name are no confirmation that you have the skill or art of teaching at your command. The graduate in a comprehensive school is soon forced to come to grips with his subject and its relation to the needs of the children, many of whom are conditioned after years of failure to regard school as nothing but a pointless grind. This does him a great deal of good and might help to rid some of us of the notion that the teacher is a kind of lecturer, an outlook impossible to maintain in such a challenging environment.
Thus the comprehensive school can help to educate the teacher himself as to what should be his job. To acquire a healthy, democratic respect for difference and distinction of mind in fellow teachers is a first step towards understanding and nourishing the talents of children. Freed from the cycle of selection and rejection, we are less likely to take for granted such complex problems as backwardness, and we can bring fresh minds to the vast task of solving them. After being with the dullest of classes for a few weeks the teacher knows how often their retardments are due to blockages ignored at an earlier stage in their schooling, or stem from difficulties of growth and environment, and how rarely he can with confidence pinpoint backwardness as sheer lack of ability. His most pressing problem, however, is time; there seems so little left and so much to be done. Such a sense of urgency exists in the comprehensive school. It sharpens our teaching until it is something finer and more sensitive. And, of course, releasing teachers from the falsifying tenets of 11+ selection means in the end a better deal for the children.