Destroying comprehensive education – killing off a political idea not an actual reality

I’ve been reading a really crucial (and beautifully short) article by Peter Newsam[1] which provides a categorization of secondary schools by their intake. It makes it abundantly clear that:

A/ Comprehensivization of the school system in England never really happened.

B/ The schools that were, and are still (though less and less with Academization), truly comprehensive are a small minority.

The second statement relies on a simplified ideal of the comprehensive school as a mixed ability and socially mixed, non-selective school. These schools mostly only ever existed in market towns and rural areas or in places which got rid of both secondary modern schools and grammar schools at the time of comprehensivization (from the late 1960s through the 1970s). One of the main reasons comprehensive schools never got off the ground properly in larger towns and cities is that the status, results and reputations of grammar schools and secondary moderns generally did not change when they all technically became comprehensive schools. Of course, this process was more complicated than that and there are many interesting exceptions to these generalizations. The point is though there was never a level playing field for all comprehensives: all comprehensives were equal, but some were more equal than others.

It might seem odd to be talking about the history of establishing comprehensives when the real political issue in school organization now is Academization. Clearly, given the pace of Gove’s reforms, the next great wave of school reform is already upon us.  However, it matters because although comprehensive schooling might be the most democratic and socially progressive ideal in the history of British education policy, it was never truly fulfilled. This might seem overly negative, and I don’t want to undermine comprehensivization as a political and educational project. The old adage though that you can’t change schooling without changing society rings true. If we want a leftist, radical politics of education then we have to start by recognizing that school reform is implanted on urban, social divisions which are very persistent and hard to break down.

The Academy school reform is far from the first public attack on comprehensives but it shows just how right-wing public discourse around schooling is and how weak the left is. From the late 1980s Tory and New Labour governments backed up by the media, have persistently attacked comprehensive schools as mediocre, failing institutions which let children down. This is not often the case, but serves to demonize working class and certain ethnic minority dominated schools. The slow death of the comprehensive school is not the end of a truly socially progressive schooling set-up (though it may prove to have been the best we ever had), but rather the death of a left-wing, reformist ideology which used to find its support in the Labour party but has since been abandoned.

In mainstream politics the comprehensive as a political idea is all but dead. Labour laid the ground work for what Gove is doing and has no real intention to turn the clock back. Defending comprehensive schools matters, because the alternative, a system of chain schools being run eventually for profit with no democratic accountability, is so grim. As so often in our campaigns to defend the welfare state on the Left, we find ourselves fighting a rear-guard action to defend institutions which were never really what we wanted. The only way to begin a positive fight in education is to start asking critical questions about comprehensive schooling whilst doing our best to avoid Academization where we can. Understanding the historical sociology of local education systems can contribute something here. As a PhD student studying education and not someone who works in schools directly, I’d be the first to admit though, that without an awareness of what happens within the school, a radical leftist programme for education will clearly escape us.

[1] It comes from a speech he made to the Conference of the Secondary Heads Association back in 2002 and was re-printed the following year in 2002. You can get it here ( but if you don’t have a university log in then  let me know.