1970s >> 1974 >> no-837-may-1974

What’s Wrong With Education: Bursting of the ‘Comprehensive’ Bubble

So the cat is finally out of the education bag — at last. The cracks have finally broken through the paper!


The situation in the Inner London schools is now so disastrous that teachers are telling the papers how, in many of them, it is practically impossible to teach. Truancy has reached catastrophic proportions. According to Dr. Rhodes Boyson MP (late Head of Highbury Grove Comprehensive School) 500,000 children play truant every day; he says “it is creating a new criminal sub-class”. Nobody really knows how many truants there are, because without frequent spot-checks absence is uncontrollable. The kids are voting with their feet. Many of those who sit through the morning to get the school dinner vote with their eyes, glaring balefully at the monkey up front in silent vicious hatred.


All the millions in money, the shiny new glass and plastic buildings, the innumerable experts (there is no field of human endeavour with more bloody “experts” than education!) and “advisers”, the gimmicks and stunts to keep the kids at it till 16 — have, in about half the schools population, lamentably failed.


Above all, it is the dismal failure of the so-called comprehensive schools. These are the hot-beds, the fertile source of the troubles. For twenty-five years the love-child of every sentimental “Lefty”, eventually official Labour Party policy, “comprehensive” was to be the magic key to crack the education problem. It was to give “equality of opportunity” to all, including the academically backward.


Only those who are actually inside the school racket (sorry — “educational profession”!) know the full story of the incredible goings-on in the most notorious giant London comprehensives. The one in North London where the kids piled the desks and chairs in the middle of a class-room and set fire to them. The other one in South London where when the teacher shouted “Will you shut up?” thirty-three boys shouted back in unison “No, we will not!”


So bad has the situation become that the Inner London Authority now has special Truancy Centres (staffed by “experts”, of course) where the kids who just will not attend, any school do what they like. According to the London Evening News “what they like” is smashing things up.


The ILEA now wants to abandon “comprehensive” policy and build no more. Having scrapped the smaller, despised “Secondary Moderns” to set up vast comprehensives, small schools have become a desperate administration’s new ideal. Quite outside all the high-minded and noble educational sentiments and theories, the main motive for comprehensives was simply economy — as it was foolishly believed: saving money.


Your contributor was actually present at a meeting of several hundred London teachers in the early days when Mr. Houghton, Chief Education Officer, told them: “I don’t care whether you are for or against comprehensives — I’ve got to find a quarter of a million places on the ninth of September!” A comprehensive school saves at least three headmasters’ salaries (about £5-6,000 p.a. each) and makes many practical economies in buildings, power, heating, maintenance, catering, etc., by working on a large scale. With the result that, with the raising of the school-leaving age, 2,000 or even 2,500 children have been crammed into schools bursting at the seams.


After the war, the Labour Government set up a committee to enquire into education. It came up with the Hadow Report, which was the Bible of the teachers’ training colleges in those days. The old system of sorting elementary-school sheep and grammar-school goats was to be replaced by juniors up to 11; then Grammar, Technical and Secondary Modern up to 15. The now-notorious eleven-plus examination would decide that each child would receive education according to “his age, aptitude and ability”.


Almost as soon as this tri-partite system was introduced, the howls of protest started. True it is that the eleven-plus produced some fantastic results (like the boy whose card was sorted into the wrong box at the office — an eleven-plus failure — who went on to get a Ph.D.). The theory behind “comprehensivation” — yes, that’s what they call it! — was “equality”. Even if a boy couldn’t do differential equations, analyze a sentence, or speak German, he wore the same uniform and played football on the same pitch (although frequently he couldn’t play football either).


Faced with the fact that various kids have different aptitudes — and certainly Socialists have never thought otherwise — an elaborate system of “streaming” and “sets” was set up, to shove some through the university-animated exam, system. The teachers themselves got together and drafted a completely new examination, the Certificate of Secondary Education. Still only a few responded. A flood of learned books has poured out; teams of research sociologists have “proved” that a boy (or girl) in a “home” where money is tight, the telly never stops, there is no spare room and, above all, the parents can hardly read and despise learning—has little chance against a well-fed, contented child with ample room, warmth, light, and (most important of all) the practical example of a genuine delight and pleasure in books and learning.


Outside the school, the lure of money is compelling. A hefty well-built lad of sixteen can get a job as a hod-carrier at a man’s wage. Small wonder that the bait of examination passes fails to attract!


Thousands of teachers leave training colleges annually filled with a genuine vocational idealism and the intention to dedicate their lives to the education of our children: only to have “their hearts broken” (as they say) and leave to do anything — barmaid, petrol pump, shop — rather than “be driven mad” teaching. Four out of five girls leave in the first year.


The zealous educational reformer has now to swallow the bitter bread of humiliation. The old submissive obedience has gone. The kids are sceptical, intensely suspicious and inquisitive. To them we would say: “Why waste time and effort harassing and barracking the teacher? They are victims of the capitalist system no less (even more) than you. They are working men and women trying to do an extremely onerous and impossibly demanding job. There is something to be learned from even the worst teacher!” And: “Ignorance never helped anybody ’ (Marx).


To the teacher we say: You will never get educational equality in capitalist society. All you can do is maintain an efficient Union to protect you from abuses.


During the recent General Election the school debating society at a large north-west London comprehensive ran a mock election. The Socialist candidate, a sixteen-year-old boy, denounced the Labour Party and exposed nationalization. To cheers from the audience he declared : “We’ve got to learn, we’ve thought too much about Lenin; we’ve got to find out more about Karl Marx!” And they will, too. After all, they are finding out about practically everything else!