History lessons about comprehensive schools | Letters

Readers respond to Afua Hirsch’s article about the state of our education system

Afua Hirsch (Free education is disappearing before our eyes, 28 November) contrasts the current state of education with that ushered in by the 1944 Education Act, which she writes established comprehensive schools. Having been a schoolboy at the time and later a teacher I feel the need to put straight that part of the record.

Up to then the state system consisted of two very distinct parts: elementary, dating from 1870, and secondary (ie grammar schools), dating from 1902. For elementary pupils the leaving age was 14 and the curriculum was narrow, and many of the older grammar schools charged fees. The 1944 act introduced free secondary education for all, abolishing grammar school fees, raising the leaving age to 15, and turning elementary schools into secondary moderns, with a much wider curriculum. The idea of comprehensive schools came from local authorities such as the London county council soon afterwards, gradually spreading to most of England and Wales. Ms Hirsch might be surprised to learn that a handful of authorities, notably Kent and Buckinghamshire, still have no comprehensive schools.

I fully endorse the points she makes about parental contributions for things that should be free and expensive extras that are totally out of reach for many parents. The annual “school journey” at my grammar school was unaffordable, as was the school scout troop and its camp. It is no surprise that I chose the school cadet force – all free, including the camp. Having said that, I must give credit to our German teacher who in 1950 organised a cycling trip to Germany, on which the accommodation was in affordable youth hostels and the only transport cost was the Dover-Ostend ferry.
Les Masters
Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

• Afua Hirsch touches on the drift in state schools towards the creation of “top tiers”. In fact, setting in secondary comprehensive schools has been the norm for many years and the practice of mixed-ability teaching and learning are rarely seen. Yet, so-called “mixed ability” class organisation is surely the most effective way to provide pupils with equal learning opportunities.

When I became head of English, I introduced mixed-ability English teaching from years 7 to 11 in a comprehensive school serving a very diverse catchment. There are numerous types of “intelligence”; that intelligence can be stimulated and is not a static commodity and therefore a “good” teacher, with skill in motivating pupils, can help intelligences grow. Classes were organised to ensure as “comprehensive” a range of previous achievement as possible. The curriculum was planned to offer quality experiences, challenges, stimulus and interest. Learning was based on negotiation and choice, class, group and independent work, a lot of discussion, sharing of work, analysis and evaluation. It was demanding of teachers but fun. For pupils it meant that any member of class could, at times, shine; that all could learn from others and that none need feel a “failure”.

One treasured moment was when a pupil, who would have been conventionally termed “non-academic”, presented me with a folder of her poems; poems she had composed because she wanted, perhaps needed, to. By any standards they were outstanding: imaginative, memorable and very moving.
David Curtis
Solihull, West Midlands

• As one of the first of the “Butler boys”, who started at Shooters’ Hill grammar school in 1945, I will be forever grateful to my mother, who refused to accept the place I was given in a secondary modern upon returning, late, from evacuation out of London. There were no “comprehensive” alternatives. This “intellectual segregation” was the only reality then and it’s what selective systems are all about. The destruction of the comprehensive revolution of the 60s and 70s plus their deliberate underfunding has restored a largely covert, but nonetheless powerful selective system, which has never really gone away. In reality there have been very few truly comprehensive schools in our class-ridden and unequal society.
Tony Mitchell
Keynsham, Somerset

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