The Blog

Britain's Comprehensive School Mistake

Britain had just gone decimal, T. Rex were riding high and I donned the over-long trousers of my shiny black uniform for the first time to attend my battered seventies Comprehensive school.
Marilyn Nieves via Getty Images

Britain had just gone decimal, T. Rex were riding high and I donned the over-long trousers of my shiny black uniform for the first time to attend my battered seventies Comprehensive school.

An old boys' flat-pack technical Grammar building had been welded to a former Girls' Technical Grammar school; a tiled annex was erected hurriedly up a muddy bank nearby; and an old brick Victorian infants school was commandeered as an annex. Home to over a thousand spotty random adolescents overall, this sprawling 'complex' was the start of the great comprehensive experiment.

It failed.

Throw everyone together, it was thought, and they'd all be gifted the same opportunity. Most classes, in this pure stage of the experiment were accordingly a motley mixture of pupils, from the truly gifted to those who would much rather be somewhere else and took every opportunity to express that view.

The DNA of the teachers was also comprehensively different. Candidates of various flavours had been sucked in from neighbouring secondary or grammar schools, distinguished by whether they preferred to glide round clad in dark cape or a threadbare corduroy jacket. The rebels were seemingly tolerated too, despite straggly beards, baggy jumpers and tight jeans.

Entrance to the school was governed by one of those yet-to-be-invented postcode lotteries. Offspring from one side of a village would be despatched in blue blazers to a much-sought after shiny converted Grammar school a mile away, whilst the unfortunates from the other side had to hop on an aged lop-sided bus to join me in our tatty complex.

I'd hoped for more. At my intimate primary school, I had been billed for greatness. Whilst others sat cross-legged in the hall being read to in whiney fashion, I was allowed into the library to read for myself. When others were weaned on the ITA, the puzzling Inishal Teeching Alferbet, I was allowed to devour proper books with proper words. I was given the purple maths text book, when everyone else appeared to have a red one. Whilst others were given the smelly class hamster to look after during the holidays, I was loaned a box of colourful Cuisenaire blocks to hone my mathematical instincts.

Milk monitorship was entrusted to me. The privilege of that lofty post meant I could avoid having to drink the foul lukewarm milk from its silly little bottle.

That early promise was not to be fulfilled. My quiet reputation faded to anonymity as I became just another name in an over-lengthy register, surrounded by a majority of noisy pupils with a lesser appetite for success.

English lessons had become progressive and creative. Spelling was not taught; and poor spelling in essays went uncorrected. When my mother queried why, she was told that youngsters needed encouragement not the pain of the red pen.

Grammar was not taught by nor, I fear, understood by, some teachers. I recall one of those delicious-smelling purple-inked Banda work sheets, being handed out by a curly-haired Chemistry teacher, replete with spelling errors. Fuelled by a blend of genuine annoyance and typical teenage awkwardness, I challenged his efforts. Before storming off to the fume cupboard, his haughty rebuke was that he was a chemistry teacher, not an English teacher, for goodness sake.

Our petite French teacher hailed from that great country, and was familiar with its more traditional approach to education. She was accordingly puzzled when her mentions of verbs, objects and nouns were met with blank stares from her bright pupils who had been introduced to no such concepts in their

native language.

CSEs and O Levels were the order of the day. Hard-working teachers were thus obliged in a single lesson, to attend to both syllabi and keep order amongst those who sought neither qualification.

As a fifteen year old, staring at the clock willing each lesson to end, I failed to understand why anyone could imagine the pure Comprehensive system would reap rewards.

As an English assignment one week, I chose to write angrily on the topic. Worried about my honesty, however, I struck out the most assertive critical comments in black felt tip prior to handing in the essay. The work was returned to me the following week with a smile, an A+ and a huge red, tacitly supportive, exclamation mark.

At a parents' evening some months later, I gather this discerning teacher remarked on my essay and suggested it had attracted wide support in the staff room. It transpired that a magnifying glass had been taken to the redacted comments to try to ascertain what lay under my paranoid black smudges.

Whilst my views on many things have softened through the last forty years, I suspect I would stand by that teenage appraisal were I able to find it in the loft. I gather my old school is now, thankfully and wisely, very different and enjoying success.

Treating everyone the same does not give equal opportunity. Each of us thrives in a different environment. It was wrong to think the 'one size fits all' Comprehensive philosophy would work, just as it is wrong to think that getting as many people as possible through the doors of universities is a worthy pursuit. As the percentage of debt-laden students armed with irrelevant degrees grows, it further diminishes the esteem in which the remainder of non-academic individuals are held. Yet here is a country crying out for those with practical and technical skills, hungry to get on with the job.

Each person has unique interests, abilities and gifts. Great secondary and tertiary education should identify those - and provide the specific environment where they can be nurtured. In some cases academic; in others practical. Whist I have done relatively well in life through my own toil and initiative, my education added little, and I remain angered by that.

As this first Valerie Singleton comprehensive generation filters through to senior government posts, let us hope that it reflects sufficiently to avoid repeating the mistakes of those concrete and Caramac days.