The War over a Liberal Legend

By Dovkants, Keith | The Evening Standard (London, England), March 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

The War over a Liberal Legend


Dovkants, Keith, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: KEITH DOVKANTS

Holland Park School was once the template for modern state education, bringing together the rich and poor.

Now, with a new head, it is divided by two bitter factions, one that believes in the old ideals and the other chasing new standards HOLLAND Park School was once called the Eton of Comprehensives.

Angelica Huston, the Oscar-winning actress, went there - as did Hilary Benn the prisons minister.

The children of film director Ken Russell, musician John Mayall and writer Antonia Fraser were all pupils, along with many other famous names.

There was a time when the scions of some of the most distinguished families in London were sent to Holland Park to absorb its freewheeling, liberal and egalitarian spirit. Holland Park was hip, it was funky. It was more than a school, it was an idea.

Now reality has taken hold.

Concepts of progressive education are being shifted aside in favour of results. Moves are being made to propel the school into the upper league. It might be imagined that this would delight parents - but Holland Park is at war with itself.

A significant number of parents are angry over the way the school is changing, and a bitter conflict has broken out. In one camp, parents and teachers stand united in defence of what they believe is the school's distinctive ethos.

In the other, a young and ambitious headmaster, local councillors and school governors back the drive for change.

The struggle is more than a clash of views over how to run a school.

For many, Holland Park is an enduring symbol of the Comprehensive ideal.

Indeed, it was the first purpose-built Comprehensive, the flagship. If it founders through compromised principles, it is argued, the entire experiment will be judged a failure.

That, however, would not cause too much chagrin at Kensington and Chelsea council, the deeply Conservative local authority that has responsibility for the school.

Tory councillors have been in the forefront of the moves to bring in change.

"There is a Conservative caucus with an agenda that they intend to impose," the father of a 13-year-old pupil said. "They are not interested in what parents think. They seem determined to destroy everything the school stands for."

Holland Park was meant to stand for something rather fine, equality

of opportunity for all.

WHEN the Labour government condemned the 11-plus examination and brought in comprehensives in the Sixties, Holland Park was the model. It was built on a site surrounded by some of the most exclusive streets in London, where some residents complained about the pupils' Cockney accents - and John Betjeman expressed anxiety about the safety of the trees.

Plonking down a sprawling state school in the middle of Kensington was considered a bold experiment.

But more was to come.

In the Sixties, the school embraced laissez-faire ideas that saw the abolition of streaming by ability, an easingof discipline and a relaxed atmosphere in which pupils found few restrictions.

They embraced the new freedoms wholeheartedly. In his book Comp, former pupil John-Paul Flintoff documented the chaos, the violence, drug-taking and anarchy that characterised the place.

One pupil remembered "teachers sitting cross-legged on the table saying what a s*** Thatcher was . . ."

Hard drugs were everywhere.

Flintoff wrote of one contemporary who had been a crack addict but "cleaned himself up" and became a dealer. Another pupil recalled: "A guy jumped on the headmaster's back and got him in a half-nelson, and he wasn't even suspended. It made St Trinian's look like Lucie Clayton."

In one celebrated episode, pupils rioted when a favourite teacher left; in 1973 the school snubbed the wedding of Princess Anne by working through the national holiday given to schools and giving children the day off later. …

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