Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Comprehensive Ideal Should Live Another Day

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Comprehensive Ideal Should Live Another Day

Article excerpt

Far from being a throwback or a failure, all-ability education is yet to be realised in its truest form - so let's make the attempt, urges one headteacher

Where exactly is it supposed to have gone wrong for comprehensive schools? Having worked in state comprehensives for the whole of my (now meaningfully long) professional career, this is a question of some interest.

Perhaps most famously, Tony Blair, who was prime minister at the time, suggested in a Green Paper before the 2001 general election that it was time to move to a "post-comprehensive era". His chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as ever, had his own forthright way of putting it: "The day of the bog-standard comprehensive school is over".

Many a thinkpiece has been written on how comprehensive education has not worked. Often, television programmes have suggested that comprehensives are not associated with the highest of educational standards.

So where does that leave those of us who are associated with comprehensive schools? Not just professionals working in them, but also students studying in them and parents with children attending them.

At times, some of us toyed with skirting around the term "comprehensive" - by saying "I work in an all-ability school", for example. Now, rather further through my career in comprehensive schools, I think that I am fully reconciled to the reality.

Catering to all abilities

I love comprehensive schools. I love working in comprehensive schools. I use the term "comprehensive" as a great and a deliberate adjective for schools. For too long, the approach of many has been: "Let's face it, comprehensive education has been tried and it has failed." For me, that is just not true.

My belief is that comprehensive education in its truest sense has often not been tried properly. The essence of the word "comprehensive" implies two things: that all types and abilities of pupils attend the same school where they learn and achieve well; and that the education provided is full and rounded.

When it comes to it, the essence of the problem with comprehensive schools is that they have not been comprehensive enough. Often, owing to the systems in different areas, a proper representation of different abilities of pupils does not exist. Sadly, at times pupils of all abilities have been in the same school but the needs of all of them have not been met.

Occasionally, the most able are not challenged and stretched to achieve at the highest of standards. That is not comprehensive education. It is something far worse and lesser than that. …

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