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

February 15, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

“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


One comment

  1. […] discussed previously the rise of comprehensive schooling and the deteriorating position of the teaching profession. I didn’t explain the phenomena that […]

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