Fifty years of comprehensive education...

Written by: Alex Wood | Published:
Photo: iStock

In 1965, local authorities were invited to put forward plans for ending selective education. Fifty years on and Alex Wood considers, from the Scottish point of view, how the comprehensive system has developed


Fifty years ago, in 1965, the Wilson government, published circular 600 in Scotland (and circular 10/65 in England and Wales) inviting local authorities to submit their plans to end selection and introduce comprehensive education.

The proposals for comprehensive education met substantial resistance, not least from sections of the teaching profession. Implementation was a gradual process. Although de facto comprehensives existed in many small Scottish towns and some local authorities had opened local secondaries catering for all students without academic selection (Glasgow in particular at Crookston Castle and St Augustine's), it was the early 1970s until all local authorities finally ended the educational apartheid of "senior" (i.e. selective) and "junior" secondary schools.

It is nonetheless fitting to celebrate this half century. The initial ideal was timely. It fitted with the optimistic mood of the epoch, a desire for a modernised country in which fixed social class structures were to be reformed and made fit for a more socially fluid world.

Danny Murphy and colleagues from Edinburgh University have published Everyone's Future (Murphy et al, Institute of Education Press). They seek both to celebrate and to analyse Scotland's very particular school system. It is also a timely reminder of how Scotland and England, which seemed in the heady 1960s, to have a similar urge to reform and modernisation, have drifted apart. The comprehensive system remains largely intact, and respected, in Scotland; in England it is being systematically demolished.

It is worth recalling the early days of comprehensive education in Scotland. A small number of formerly selective, grant-aided schools, Dollar Academy, Kelvinside Academy, Robert Gordon's School, became fully "independent" rather than enter the comprehensive world.

In the middle of this process one other reform, the 1972 raising of the school leaving age, had an immediate impact. A small number of teachers, in the wake of these changes, predicted Armageddon and fled to the private sector. The new comprehensives were often created by amalgamating several schools, often a formerly selective school and two or three neighbouring junior secondaries. In such cases, status within the new schools tended to be in the possession of the staff from the formerly selective school.

These were both hard and heady days. Administrative plans for the new system were not met with parallel plans for a new curriculum. The old Highers and O Grades continued and in most new comprehensives the old divisions were replicated with "certificate" and "non-certificate" streams.

Teachers, usually the young and enthusiastic, had to create a curriculum for this new age as they delivered it. Fortunately, this was the period of the baby-boom, rapidly increasing school rolls, and a consequent boom in teacher recruitment. A generation of young teachers committed to the changes arrived in staffrooms and sought to develop precisely such a curriculum.

That generation however also brought into the world of schools a view of teacher trade unionism which differed significantly from the cautious professionalism of previous generations. The result was that the early decades of the comprehensive system were also the first examples of industrial disruption in Scottish schools. Teachers manning picket lines was a concept foreign to the older professional generation.

With the introduction of a comprehensive system, two other shibboleths of the old system, corporal punishment and the external examination system, inevitably came under scrutiny. Again, many in the teaching profession were slow to recognise what was blowing in the wind. Belting had long been the simple (and only) source of discipline in countless Scottish schools. Court cases by parents were matched by panic-stricken teacher nightmares of a descent into anarchy. The practice was different. A few teachers, a few departments, a few schools moved to work without corporal punishment and the earth's foundations did not crumble. The law followed rather than led on this issue.

Examinations proved less contentious. By 1986, the O Grade system of S4 exams had gone and been replaced by Standard Grades, "certification for all". The move towards such a system in a few progressive comprehensives such as Edinburgh's Craigroyston, with the use of the English Certificate of Secondary Education, marked a brave attempt to ensure that the efforts and learning of every young person was acknowledged, valued and validated.

Perhaps the unintentional, and unforeseen, outcome of certification by all, however, was to make certification and exam results the one universal measure by which the quality of comprehensive schools is now measured.The Thatcher years were hard for Scottish comprehensives. Three major reforms, opting out, league tables and parental choice, instituted by the Conservatives south of the border, were also introduced in Scotland.

These were resisted by Scottish local authorities and the teacher unions, but were part of a process of imposition of unpopular measures from Westminster which changed Scottish politics in a way neither Mrs Thatcher nor her Scottish satrap, Michael Forsyth, could have imagined. Only two schools in Scotland, St Mary's Episcopal Primary in Dunblane and Dornoch Academy, opted out of the local authority system and both have now returned. Ninety-four per cent of Scottish children are educated within the comprehensive system.

League tables have been published and continue to have an impact on how individual comprehensives are perceived. Parental choice remains and, especially in the cities, particularly Edinburgh, continues seriously to undermine the comprehensive system.

It might have been thought that comprehensive schools in post-devolution Scotland, free from insensitive Westminster interference, might have sailed on a steady consensual sea: far from it. The introduction of Higher Still reviewed the upper school curriculum. Technical and vocational qualifications were introduced to provide relevance and a focus for the less academically inclined. Curriculum for Excellence has, again, revised the external examination system. It also sought to define the purposes of the curriculum, an exercise in which it failed entirely to achieve any consensus, among teachers let alone in the
wider community.

In the midst of this maelstrom of change some sense of perspective is essential. The once-and-for-all selection into academic sheep and non-academic goats at age 11 has ended. A much wider range of young people now gain meaningful external qualifications. Truancy has been reduced. Relationships between learners and teachers have improved enormously and are now seen as crucial to effective learning and teaching. More young people are remaining in school beyond the minimum leaving age.

Inequalities, however, remain. Although the proportion of working class young people gaining three or more Highers has increased, the proportion of young people from professional and managerial family backgrounds gaining the same level of qualification has increased even more. The proportion of young people from working class backgrounds entering higher education has increased, but so also has the proportion from more privileged classes and the gap remains almost as wide as ever. Overcoming that divide remains the most obvious challenge facing Scotland's comprehensive schools, and yet the focused pursuit of improved examination results is itself part of the problem.

There are deeper philosophical challenges. The increasing commodification of education has created a skewed view of success which is now seen exclusively in terms of such measurable outcomes as examination results or leaver destination outcomes. The result may the opposite of that intended. The relentless pursuit of examination success inevitably pressurises schools to overvalue those learners most likely to achieve such goals and to undervalue the rest.

With all its weaknesses and inconsistencies, however, Scotland's comprehensive system is worth, 50 years on, at least two hearty cheers and an optimistic perspective that a committed teaching profession can continue to improve it.

  • Alex Wood was a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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