Educating Britain: Race and the Comprehensive School in Children’s Literature and Media

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Will the kids like what you’re serving up, George?

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How do you thank someone who has taken you from comprehensives to the streets? It isn’t easy, but I’ll try . . .

This week, George Osborne announced that by 2020, all British schools would have to become academies. In his speech, he framed this decision as one that would primarily benefit disadvantaged students: “Providing schooling is the single most important thing we can do to help children from a disadvantaged background to succeed” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35815023). Moving schools from local control to academy status, he said, would “set them free” from bureaucracy (including, perhaps, the government’s own “bureaucracy” of the National Curriculum, which academies are not compelled to follow). Although most of the media focus has been on the ability of academies to deliver for all children what they have delivered for a few (and indeed, on whether they HAVE delivered for those few), I want to take a look at the claim that this new plan would help the disadvantaged youth, and compare it to a similar battle nearly fifty years ago over the comprehensive school.

Comprehensive schools were first introduced after World War II in the UK as a way to provide a general liberal arts education to students who were not necessarily going to continue on to university. The original design of the system was that students would take an exam at the age of 11 (the “eleven plus” exam) and based on the results of the exam would be sent either to a grammar school (basically a preparation for university), a technical/vocational school, or a comprehensive. In reality, the technical/vocational schools never really developed, and most students attended either a grammar or a comprehensive, based on their exam results. The system was purposely inequitable, but the government argued that it was fair and provided students with the education that they needed for the life that they would live. But by 1962, the Newsom Report argued that the 11+ was biased, particularly against “disadvantaged” students (who included New Commonwealth immigrants and white working-class students)—and the bias extended to school buildings as well as to the content of the education. The much-larger comprehensives were housed in crumbling, sometimes bomb-damaged buildings, with few resources. But the general sense was that the comprehensive, not the grammar school, was the model for the future and the Labour government, which took over in 1964, ran on a promise to “get rid of the segregation of children into separate schools caused by 11-plus selection: secondary education will be reorganised on comprehensive lines” (http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter06.html). Circular 10/65 proposed that all secondary schools should become comprehensives. Although the change was never mandated, most secondary schools in England are, in fact, comprehensives.

But the change did not bring about the hoped-for equality between students, especially for non-white students, and the late 1960s and early 1970s produced not only a flowering of comprehensives, but also an increase in children’s literature that pointed out the problems of the comprehensive school for the Black, white working-class or Asian student. This sort of book was often modeled after E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, or at least after the 1967 film made out of the book. In the film, Black teacher Sidney Poitier is faced with the unruly students in an East End comprehensive. But the film (and book) are largely from the teacher’s perspective. Books that appeared in the years following Circular 10/65 focused on the student’s perspective.

Some of these books were even written by students themselves. Leslie Mildiner and Bill House, for example, wrote The Gates in an after-school writing program; it was published by Centreprise in 1975, who described it as “a funny, bitter, deeply perceptive look at how . . . the education system almost completely fails to respond to the needs and abilities of the inner city children it is supposed to cater for” (back cover blurb). The book is about kids who “can’t keep up” with grammar school study, and who are thus dumped in “massive Comprehensive School[s] with one thousand, nine hundred” students (18). At one point, there is a disturbance during morning registration; a “coloured girl” starts screaming, and has to be held down by a teacher; the main character is told by one of the teachers that it is just “one of Sheila’s moods” (75). There’s never any further explanation, but the chaotic nature of the schools at this time makes Geoff play truant more often than not.

Prudence Andrew’s Goodbye to the Rat (1974) is part of Heinemann’s Pyramid imprint, a series designed for reluctant teen readers. Several of the books (advertised on the back cover of Andrews’ book) are about the failure of schools; Glyn Frewer’s Crossroad “deals with a misunderstood secondary modern schoolboy”; This Could be the Start of Something by Audrey Coppard is about a boy “who has failed his ‘O’ levels”. Goodbye to the Rat is about three boys who can’t wait to leave school because “They were hopeless at school work. They never passed exams. They had been written off. And they knew it” (21). This failure at school is worse for Louie Kam, who is black: “Many employers wouldn’t employ black people” (61) and he had to take what work he could find if he left school, where his white friend Tony gets a position as a veterinary assistant.

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Even though he’s a main character, Louie is behind the two white characters on the cover–and in life.

Perhaps the best-known writers of the genre were found in Aidan Chambers’ Topliners series, Farrukh Dhondy (who himself has taught at one of the new comprehensives and who used the experiences in his book Come to Mecca (1978), particularly the story “Two Kinda Truth” where the main character, Bonny, is a well-known Black poet in the community but his teacher thinks he doesn’t understand poetry at all. And in Petronella Breinburg’s Us Boys of Westcroft, the boys team up together because they are the school’s academic failures—but Walter, who is Black, must decide whether his allegiance lies with the rest of the boys, who are white, or with a Black teacher. The school as a whole, the system, has already failed all of these boys.

 

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Petronella Breinburg’s complicated vision of the Comprehensive still is least successful for the Black student.

So, George Osborne, take note: one-size-fits-all schools have been tried before, and have not succeeded in reaching the “disadvantaged”. Perhaps Osborne has a better plan than the one that put the comprehensives into place. Or perhaps we can look forward to a new wave of school stories detailing the failure of the academies to reach those that need help most.

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