Why are we afraid of comprehensive education?


Alex Wood asks why everyone is so frightened of comprehensive education.

I recently watched Dominic Sandbrook’s series, The 1970s. Sandbrook was right. Margaret Thatcher did not create the rampant, and continuing, individualism of the 1980s. Rather she articulated and made coherent a long-developing consumerist ethos.

Sandbrook’s glimpse into our recent past was perhaps at its most perceptive when he viewed social developments against contemporary culture.

Like many teachers I have always avoided fiction set in schools. Sandbrook’s use of Grange Hill as a leitmotif for late 1970s perceptions of education was therefore a revelation.

Riots, regular and serious assaults by pupils, incompetent teachers petrified by students and incapable of dealing with recurring crises, were, it seems, the staple of the series.  

In the 1970s I was a young teacher in a school serving one of Edinburgh’s three poorest areas, a demanding place in which to teach, requiring a combination of respect and empathy and a confident but determined core, an authority which came from within. I taught there for 14 years. I was later headteacher at a similar school in another of our divided capital’s areas of widespread poverty.

I never saw events such as those in Sandbrook’s Grange Hill extracts. Grange Hill was not deliberately creating a myth of “anarchy” but it articulated a profound fear among the middle class and the “respectable” layers of late-1970s society, when comprehensive education was being introduced.

I had a colleague whose daughter spoke of her comprehensive, in an affluent area, as “at least not having any schemies”. I knew parents, far from conservative, who sent their children to private schools. Their sons were “sensitive”. The local primary would not be able to cope with their “sensitivity”. They feared the Grange Hill factor: the chavs, the schemies, the uncultured. It was the Stephen Spender experience: My parents kept me from children who were rough. And who threw words like stones. And wore torn clothes.

That fear still exists. I live in a fairly affluent county town 20 miles from Edinburgh. Its comprehensive is among Scotland’s most academically successful schools. Teaching is excellent. Yet, even here there are working class children in our local comprehensive and, to avoid them, countless middle class families bus their children 20 miles to Edinburgh private schools.

There is of course another factor. Private schools operate a closed, mutually supporting society which creates a protective web for life – rugby clubs, former pupil associations, old school ties, routes into certain professions. It is therefore attractive to those who wish to conserve (or acquire) wealth and status over generations.

And yet I return to these Grange Hill images, the fear of chaos and indiscipline and the perceived insensitivities of the “schemies”. In Scotland’s cities that fear generally manifests itself through parental choice rather than opting into private education, except of course in Edinburgh where the private sector’s pervasive influence has shaped the popular view, ranking all schools by status and reinforcing parental choice as well as opting out.

It is surely time for our educational leaders, political as well as professional, to stop playing the league tables game and extolling the virtues of schools whose catchment areas predispose them to excellent outputs. Their task is to assert that comprehensive education is fair and right for all children; that the fears and insecurities are baseless; that our schools are well run by skilled, professionals; that discipline and purposeful learning are the norm across the system; that sensitivity among children is welcomed and encouraged in Scotland’s schools. Otherwise the old privileges are perpetuated and the government’s objective of a “Fairer Scotland” rings hollow.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his retirement he was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription