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Development of comprehensive schools

Development of comprehensive schools.

Between 1944 and 1970 England operated a system of selective secondary schooling. Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of this system. How far does the evidence from this period persuade you that the country should return to a more selective system in the twenty-first century?

A brief history of education in England. Strengths and weaknesses of the selective system of secondary education.

The history of organized education in England and Wales begins with the bringing of Christianity to Kent in A.D. 597. As Christianity spread across England a system of 'grammar', or general education, and the simpler 'song' school was set up in many cathedrals, churches and monasteries. During the Middle Ages the song schools disappeared and were replaced with the reading and writing schools which were preparatory departments for the grammar schools, and were the equivalent of the modern elementary or primary schools. With the rise of the Universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries one of the most important functions of the grammar schools became the preparation of its pupils for entry into University. During that time the grammar schools provided education for the able sons of parents of relatively modest means. Almost all grammar schools had free places for 'poor and indigent' pupils. Nevertheless education provision for the vast majority of children was very limited. By the end of the eighteenth century the best education available for most of the children were one-day-a-week schools. Such a system was quite inadequate to meet the needs of a country that was fast becoming a great industrial power.

The first advance towards a statutory system of public education was only made in 1870, in the Elementary Education Act. But only the Education Act of 1902 laid the basis for a national system of secondary education, although this was very limited. The system of elementary schools did not lead into secondary schools but formed a parallel system for the majority of children. info

Only the 1944 Educational Act made a provision for statutory secondary education for all. One of the main changes it made was that the system of public education was reorganised in three progressive stages: primary, secondary and further education. The school leaving age was raised to fifteen and later to sixteen. The educational system created by this Act had three main features:

1. that there should be a division between primary and secondary education at the age of 11;

  1. that there should be three types of secondary schools designed to meet three different types of children, namely the grammar schools, the secondary technical and the secondary modern schools;
  2. the appropriate school for a child should be determined by tests at 11 years.

In his study 'Education in the Post-War Years' (1988) Lowe comments that politicians who were in favour of the tripartite system genuinely believed that such a differentiated secondary system offered the best education to disadvantaged children. They saw the establishment of a universal secondary school system and the raising of the school leaving age as the key to removing class distinctions. It was hoped that the 1944 Act would lead to a greater flow of working class children to grammar schools.!

The main achievement of the 1944 Act was the attempt to relate the level of secondary education received by children to levels of their intelligence by excluding the fee-paying pupils from the grammar schools. In this way access to grammar schools would be limited to those who could pass the 11+ and those who failed would not be able to buy their way into the grammar schools. As was shown by M Sanderson in his study 'Educational opportunity and social change in England' (1987), the distribution of opportunities was in a much closer relationship to that of ability than ever before. Yet the difference in chances of getting to grammar school remained very wide across the spectrum of social class. Children from the working classes had only a third of the likelihood of selective secondary education of the children from the professional classes.

The major problem encountered by the tripartite system was the problem of the correct selection of the children according to their 'age, aptitude and ability' at the age of 11 years old. Precisely why 11 and not 9 or 13 was chosen as the age at which the future of the child was decided is not clear. Performance in the 11+ test was shown to be highly dependent on the environment provided at home. It was impossible to devise a culture free test. In particular, the English part of the test gave considerable advantage to the children from the more cultural middle class homes. Some children gained an advantage simply by the timing of the test. Autumn born children would have been older and spent more time at school before the test than summer born children. 11 year old girls tended to be more mature in physical and mental development than boys of the same age. Furthermore, the 11+test did not test mechanical aptitude and therefore was accused of being good at selecting future clerks, civil servants and schoolteachers but bad at finding future engineers and businessmen.

There was not a uniform national test which led to differences and unfairness between different educational authorities. A study by Lowe (1988) shows that selection criteria varied considerably between different educational authorities and were always determined by the availability and not the demand for the grammar school places. The distribution of the grammar schools was irregular, it varied from 9 to 42 percent selective places available in the different parts of the country. In addition to this there was a different number of selective places available for boys and girls. In some cities such as Birmingham there were almost twice as many selective places available for boys as for girls. work info

The whole primary curriculum was distorted by coaching for the 11+test. In reality the process of dividing children into more and less able was taking place not at 11 but at much earlier age of 8 or even 7. The more intensive teaching was invested in the upper stream and less able children were often neglected

The selection did not give a desirable result. By 1949 it began to emerge that about 20-25 percent of the apparently carefully selected grammar school pupils could not cope with an academic education and were leaving schools early. Some modern secondary schools were more successful in terms of the examination results than some grammar schools. Ample evidence was emerging that many very able children whose ability developed strongly after the age of 10 were being misallocated by 11+ tests. This dissertation from

Another unfortunate result of selection was that some 70 percent of all 11-year-old children who went to the secondary modern schools started their secondary education with the stigma of having failed the 11+. There was no clear concept of the secondary modern schools which were just what was left after selecting the more able children to the grammar and technical schools. Young people were leaving their schools at 16 without any recognised qualifications.

The third part of the tripartite structure, the secondary technical schools, failed to materialise. Secondary technical schools took about 4 per cent of the children compared with 70 percent for the secondary modern and 20 percent for the grammar schools. There were simply very few of them. The grammar schools with their academic values had a disproportional prestige compared with their technical counterparts. work info

The only solution to this entire problem seemed to be abolishing selection at 11 and sending all the children to the same school. In 1965 Circular 10/65 was issued requesting LEAs to organise a system of comprehensive schools. By 1979 comprehensive schools become the predominant state sector form. Nevertheless perfect equality of opportunity has not been achieved. Firstly the remaining grammar and independent schools still creamed off high ability middle class children reducing comprehensive schools to secondary modern. Secondly, the comprehensive schools could not remove those characteristics of disadvantage in society, which affected children's response to education. Comprehensives did not widen cross-class friendships nor did they widen the career aspirations of working class children. 'The notion that social structures can be changed through educational reform is a liberal myth'. (Sanderson, 1987:64). The present comprehensive system made educational opportunities of working class children even worse. In theory all comprehensive schools are equal, but in reality schools situated in the more affluent catchment areas became more academically orientated as more parents expected their children to continue their education at University. As a result bright children from the deprived areas are forced to attend schools that are inadequate for their needs and unable to fulfil their potential. The only way for them to be accepted to more academically oriented school is to move to the 'leafy lane' area which is much more difficult for a child to do than to pass a 11+ test. There is an opinion that such children would have benefited from returning to the selective system.

Should the country return to the selective system?

Clearly, present comprehensive system needs reforming, but on the other hand there is a body of evidence against the tripartite system. There are arguments in favour and against either of these systems. The selective system provided a better education but only for the minority. The comprehensive system seems to offer equal opportunities but has been accused of holding back development of more able children. In my opinion the solution lays in developing a system which would accumulate strengths of the both selective and comprehensive ideas.

Educational system should provide all children with knowledge and skills, should help them develop their potential, should prepare them for the adult life. I believe that the best way to achieve it is not to come back to the old selective system, nor would it be wise to keep the present 'non selective' system. In my opinion children should be selected into different groups but selection should not be made on the basis of different abilities or aptitudes, which has been proved difficult if not impossible to measure, but on basis of achievement. One could imagine a system where pupils are transferred along the educational ladder not in accordance with their age but in accordance with what they have learned. The examination system should be designed in such a way that it does not put unnecessary stress on the children but it should be clear that one could not move along before being able to show solid knowledge of the curriculum. Such a system would give a reward and encouragement to the children that are actually learning at school. It would allow the more able pupils not to repeat time after time what they know already but to study with the older children. In my opinion children that have not passed the standard test for 11 years old at the end of the primary school should not be automatically transferred into secondary school but should stay in primary school for another year. The aim of the test should be not selecting the most able pupils but checking that every child going to a secondary school acquired a basic knowledge without which he or she would not be able to study further. At the same time provision should be made for the children with special educational needs. One of the advantages of the tripartite system was the attempt, if not successful, to establish a system of the technical schools. It would be very important to continue expansion in this direction and to develop different types of secondary schools. One type of school should have more academic orientation and another one is more technical or vocational. Both of them could be a part of one comprehensive school. Admittance to either of them would require passing a 'primary test'. The decision on which school each particular child is going to attend should be left to the parents and the children. I believe that such system would be more just and would give a better chance of quality education for all children regardless of their social status.


Dent, H.C. (1977) Education in England and Wales ,Hodder and Stoughton.

Gosden, P. (1983) The Education System since 1944, Robertson.

Lowe, R. (1988) Education in the Post-War Years, Routlege.

Reynolds, D. and M. Sullivan, M (1987) The Comprehensive Experiment , The Falmer Press.

Rubinstein, D. and Simon, B. (1973) The Evolution of the Comprehensive School, 1926-1972 ,Routlege & Kegan Paul.

Sanderson, M. (1987) Educational Opportunity , Faber and Faber.

Turner,P.W. (1997) Second Class Ticket , Sheffield Hallam University.

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