A Brief History of Education Part 3: The Rise of the Comprehensive

December 14, 2006

“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England,” he said. “And Wales, and Northern Ireland.”

“Why not Scotland?” I asked out of pure curiosity.
“Because their schools come under the Secretary of State for Scotland.”


The above sentiments were expressed by Education Secretary (1965-67) Tony Crosland and quoted by his wife after his death. The first sentence in particular is often quoted in books and articles about education, to suggest the abolition of grammar schools was one embittered individual’s personal crusade against grammar schools, rather than an inevitability

A number of pressures for change had gradually developed under the grammar school system. It became clear that some Secondary Modern children were able to pass GCSE O-levels. The Labour Party became converted to the idea that schools should not divide the social classes. Teachers became resentful that they were divided into two separate professions, complete with separate unions. It became clear that the technical schools were too scarce and underresourced to achieve their aims and they never really took off. Perhaps most importantly criticism developed of the methods used to sort the wheat from the chaff as middle class parents became resentful when their children failed to pass the 11+ exams, or lost out due to the many inconsistencies in how students were allocated to grammar schools.

The move from tripartite education to comprehensive education is often associated primarily with Wilson’s 1966 Labour government, and Crosland as education secretary. However, the process of comprehensive schools replacing grammars and secondary moderns had begun earlier and actually continued right up until the late 1970s. Even when Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary (from 1970 to 1974), and making herself unpopular by abolishing free school milk, the number of comprehensive schools doubled (Lawton 2005).

Years later the idea that all students should go to the same type of school is still controversial with comprehensives being seen as inferior and failing. Although there are some drawbacks – larger schools, a shortage of teachers capable of teaching to a high academic standard, the continuing division of schools by geography – this shouldn’t have had a major effect on academic standards. There is no reason that a single school shouldn’t be able to provide both a grammar school education and a secondary modern education on a single site. Indeed if schools had kept with the vision Crosland had outlined (Crosland 1956) it seems unlikely there would have been as much controversy:

“Both common sense and American experience suggest that [mixed ability teaching] would lead to a serious levelling-down of standards, and a quite excessive handicap to the clever child. Division into streams, according to ability, remains essential”


Many schools attempted to retain a distinct grammar stream, but mixed ability teaching became more and more common. The academic curriculum became less and less demanding in state schools. It is here that the comprehensive education became known for its failures rather than its successes. Comprehensive education became less and less the idea that students shouldn’t be separated into social classes and more and more the idea that they shouldn’t be separated at all, no matter what the consequences were for their academic achievement. As a result the education system never achieved the best of both worlds but began to head towards the worst of all possible worlds.

Crosland, C.A.R., The Future of Socialism, Jonathon Cape, 1956
Crosland, S , Tony Crosland, Cape, 1982
Lawton, Dennis, Education and Labour Party Ideology 1900-2001 and Beyond, RoutledgeFalmer, 2005

Note: a new edition of The Future of Socialism has just been released by Constable and Robinson (ISBN: 1845294858) with a foreword by Gordon Brown. There is discussion relating to this entry on INFET (Blog Update)


  1. Inclusion was the natural reductio ad absurdam of the destruction of the Grammar Schools. Acquiring a worthless degree from an ex Tech is another.

    I don’t understand why the plain fact that some people are blessed with an intellect and upbringing that enables them to undertake study that will lead to the better-paid and higher-status jobs, whilst others aren’t, has to be hidden away like a dubious stain or a mad aunt.

    I certainly don’t understand why they have to have their chances of exercising it taken away from them in case it be thought that Nature, Fate or God had been just a bit too generous and the balance redressed by diluting and adulterating the curriculum and qualifications to give the illusion that everyone is born equal in the Life Chances department.

  2. “I don’t understand why the plain fact that some people are blessed with an intellect and upbringing that enables them to undertake study that will lead to the better-paid and higher-status jobs, whilst others aren’t, has to be hidden away like a dubious stain or a mad aunt.”

    Your meaning is unapparent to me. Are you saying that stupid people are employed in positions in which they are clearly not capable to fulfil, because we are ignoring their stupidity? Yes, maybe if we returned to an elitist society that favoured the inheritance of worth, that would cease forthwith.

    Perhaps you are saying that, within schools, we should be more upfront that students are stupid. Perhaps we could change F grades to “you are going to be an unemployed alcoholic, and beat your children soundly every night” (harder to print on the results forms, though).

    Or perhaps you are saying that mixed-ability teaching deprives the cleverest students from doing well. Doing well at what, passing exams? They seem very good at that, and, after all, that is what we are teaching them to do.

    Maybe if we taught kids in ability groups, we’d find the time to teach them to think critically, to reason, to be educated and educate themselves. Yes, because self-evidently our syllabi are so jam-packed full of such ideals, and an infinity of practices with which to realise them, that we only need time to teach what we’re supposed to!

    The final reading I can offer of your statement is that I am at a total loss to understand it, and perhaps you, and the original author, are speaking of something so far from my own experience and philosophy that all I can do is mock you with sarcasm.

  3. Whatever makes you feel good.

  4. How informative of you to answer me in no way whatsoever.

  5. Surely the time has come to finally admit that mixed ability and comprehensives were as viable as communism?
    A generation or two of children have been deprived of a decent education.
    We have read how many children got a grammar school place- in the early 60s- that saved them from a poor background and got them into University. Often they were the first in their family to do so.
    We know that nowadays illiteracy,truancy,violence and delinquent behaviour are on the increase.
    Enough already.

  6. “We have read how many children got a grammar school place- in the early 60s- that saved them from a poor background and got them into University. Often they were the first in their family to do so.”

    I’m sure that, if you wanted to, you could read about an even greater volume of people who are going to University now. In fact, I was one of them recently. Hello!

    Also, you could read about people who feel that they could have gone to university, but due to the grammar school system could not.

    You are arguing that the previous system was good because it allowed some people to go to university – however it also helped to exclude some from going. The current system is allowing far more people to go, and with your current argument I can only assume you think this even better – unless too many people are now going?

  7. The initial idea was good. Grammars spilt unfairly and unevenly, making the assumption that ability was evenly distributed, or not, over all subjects.
    Comprehensives should offer the chance for students to be supported in one subject and stretched in another.

    Unfortunately not all comps chose to set or stream students, this in my view was their first big mistake. The second big mistake that Comps suffer from is Inclusion and having to try to teach students who would unsettle the bonobos with their erratic behaviour were they put in zoos in stead of classrooms.

  8. At my old comprehensive we were split into streams or ‘sets’ for various subjects (French, Mathematics, Science, English). There was still a huge amount of disruption though, and the classes with excess of 30 pupils and the teachers who seemed to be perenially off work and replaced by a succession of supply teachers led to a fairly poor educational experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: