Friday, February 10, 2012

Comprehensives: Is the "Leicestershire experiment" unravelling?

The Old Grammar School, Market Harborough. Iconic
Read the histories of comprehensive education and you will find widespread praise for the "Leicestershire Experiment". Because the version of comprehensive secondary education pioneered in this county was certainly influential.

Leicestershire Experiment? It is explained in Derek Gillard's The History of Education in England:
In 1957 Conservative-controlled Leicestershire began what became known as the 'Leicestershire experiment' in which all the children in a locality transferred at age 11 to a three-year 'junior high' school. The brightest went on at 14 to grammar schools, the rest did a final year in the junior high and then left school.
By the time I had moved to Leicestershire the school leaving age had been raised from 15 to 16, so all pupils transferred to what, by then, were called "upper schools" at 14.

The quotation above gives the game away. The Leicestershire experiment was originally less an exercise in comprehensive education than away of keeping grammar schools staffs and the grammar school ethos together. It was just that bright children could access them at 14 rather than 11.

What was it like to be educated under this system? Rob Blackhurst described his experiences (which were similar to my own) in an FT Magazine article in 2005:
Leicestershire has a strange system in which we attended high school from the age of 11 before being moved to a huge comprehensive at 14 to take our GCSEs. With 1,800 students and a sprawling site resembling the Sketchley's dry-cleaning plant down the road, two years didn't give teachers the time to get to know their classes. Since absences weren't routinely followed up, a large tribe of pupils would take half the day off, walking home past the principal's office window. 
Many of the lessons, particularly the mixed-ability groups, were quite dull - retreads of work we'd covered in high school or ruined by the demands of mixed-ability teaching. The teachers themselves were mostly fun, supportive and occasionally inspiring, but spent much of their time on crowd control. Articulate pupils worried about appearing intellectual and those of middle ability were torn between joining in the wisecracks or paying attention. 
Looking back, there was never the group interaction that the comprehensive founding fathers dreamed of. Classes were divided into ability groups and handed work-sheets. I'd recently come across a frayed copy of a book by educationalist Robin Pedley, a leading proselytiser for comprehensive schooling in the 1950s. He believed that the "mixing of clever, average and backward children produces a general fizz, quite different from the flatness of the "C" stream, so pathetically conscious of their slowness. One such class included a future Phd and a top correspondent for The Guardian." Thirty years on, when I studied, this effervescence had fizzled out.
This is a little unfair: you were in a middle school for three years not two. But it was an odd way of organising things: the advantage that other counties with an 9-13 intake could (like prep schools in the private sector) offer in middle schools - specialist teaching from an earlier age - were not achieved under the Leicestershire system.

And though the upper school has less of a grammar school feel about it by the time I got there in 1976, it was rigorously streamed. I was in the top stream of four and hardly met most of the other pupils in my year.

Those who support comprehensives today on the grounds that less able pupils are poorly treated by a selective system should also make a study of how they fare today.

All this is by way of a prelude to introducing a news item from the Harborough Mail. The town's middle and upper school are to merge and become The Market Harborough Academy:
In a joint statement, Welland Park principle Pascale Powell and her counterpart at Robert Smyth, Colin Dean said: 
“We both think this is a very exciting proposal, which is entirely for the benefit of present and future students in Market Harborough. 
“It makes absolute sense that two academies, which already have strong links and are geographically so close, should wish to unify more formally. 
“This does not alter any existing arrangements we have with either our primary or secondary partners, which are already strong and will continue to be so. 
“At this stage, no exact details have been worked out, but the Governors and staff of both academies are clear: a joint 11-19 educational provision in Market Harborough will be to everyone’s benefit.”
Well, they are not as close as all that, so there is a danger that this merger will mirror the combining of different schools on separate sites that did much to discredit the introduction of comprehensives in the 1960s and 1970s.

But I wish the new school well. I don't know if the new school will be more or less comprehensive than the current arrangements, but one thing is clear.

In Market Harborough at least, the Leicestershire Experiment is over.

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