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May 22, 2015
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Current Concerns  >  2007  >  No 16, 2007  >  “The Gross Academic Inferiority of Comprehensive Schools” [printversion]

“The Gross Academic Inferiority of Comprehensive Schools”

by Fred Naylor, Educational Consultant, United Kingdom

rh. Ever and again media news sound with statements by so-called experts from international organisations conveying the message that the differentiated (tripartite) school system, – as it is still common e.g. in Germany and Switzerland – is academically inferior as well as socially unjust and needs to be replaced by a comprehensive system. Regularly PISA findings are used as alleged evidence for this false claim. Since Great Britain has had its full share of Comprehensive Schools for the last four decades it is vital for the European public to be aware of what has really happened in British school education. Fred Naylor (FN) and Roger Peach (RP) – co-founders and vice-presidents of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA) in England – wrote a booklet with the above title, the contents of which are summarised below. 1

England’s history with Comprehensive Schools started in the mid sixties when they were pushed vehemently by the Labour party accompanied by a campaign against grammar schools. In 1965 Secretary of State Anthony Crosland stated that “the tripartite and bipartite system was educationally and socially unjust, inefficient, wasteful and divisive”. He is on record as saying in the same year (to his wife) “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England. And Wales. And N.Ireland”.
He had of course no evidence in support of his statements. Prof Brian Simons, writing in his Comprehensive Education: Internal Structure 1975, correctly characterised the conflict: “These two philosophies are, as it were, powered by opposite ideas as to the nature of the child, his learning and the good society – yet all existing concurrently”. Although he was a Marxist who strongly supported the comprehensive principle, this was an excellent description of the ideologies and their role in modern education.

First evidence pointing to the academic inferiority of comprehensives

As early as in the 1960s, but also in the 1970s and early 1980s there was augmenting evidence that comprehensive schools were grossly academically failing: The superiority of schools in the non-comprehensive state sector, i.e. in the traditional grammar schools and secondary modern schools – in relation to gaining 2 or more A-levels – averaged 52% from 1962 to 1978.2 Times Educational Supplement editor, Stuart Maclure correctly named as one reason for this failure that the sixth form teaching groups in the comprehensives “are too small, and this is inefficient.” In 1978 only 10 of Manchester’s 26 comprehensive schools succeeded in gaining a total of 30 or more A-level passes! And this in spite of the fact that most A-level teaching groups contained very few pupils. In all of Inner London comprehensives 35% of the A-level teaching groups contained no more than 4 pupils, as was revealed by the HM Inspectors on the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in 1980.

Grade Inflation caused by the introduction of the GCSE

In 1988 the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) was introduced which wrongly made it appear that academic standards were rising. In reality the introduction of this exam caused a serious grade inflation. The examination that all pupils had to take at the end of secondary school was a quick merger of several formerly existing exams of very different standards and it was introduced without any public discussion. Alistair Pollitt, Research Director of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate asserted that the corresponding changes to the curriculum were likely to lead to a consistent downward drift of standards. But in spite of these reforms British grammar schools and secondary modern schools went on to prove their superiority: Between 1967 and 1999 secondary modern schools achieving 5+ grades A*-C or equivalent rose from 2.1% to 32.8% (a percentage increase of 1,462), whereas for the comprehensives it was 13.6% to 45.0% (a percentage increase of 231).

Ideology interferes with evidence

But the failure of politicians and civil servants to prevent their ideologies from interfering with their examination of evidence went on: In 2000 the Conservative Baroness Blatch introduced a PQ (Parlamentary Question) demanding to know what evidence there was to justify the Labour Minister’s claim that comprehensive schools outperformed grammar schools in their GCSE attainments. The written answer was that the 1999 examination results showed that, whereas 96.4 % of fifth year pupils in grammar schools gained 5+ GCSE grades A*-C. the success rate of the top 25% of fifth year pupils in comprehensives was 100%! It was obvious that this answer was based on a statistic error: They had failed to compare the GCSE performances of the top 25% of 11 year olds entering both grammar schools and comprehensive schools. If you correctly compared the two corresponding groups the results were quite different: The actual percentages of fifth year pupils gaining 5+ GCSE grades A*-C were: grammar schools – 96.4%; comprehensives – 45.0%; secondary moderns – 32.8 Fred Naylor convinced the Education Permanent Secretaries with the help of the nation’s Statistics Commission that they had made a mistake. They wrote back agreeing with this, but refused to make it public!

More evidence pointing into the same direction

In 2005 there was more evidence provided by the Labour Party officials themselves that the nation’s comprehensive schools were grossly academically inferior to British grammar and secondary modern schools.
Shadow Schools Minister, Mark Hoban, asked a PQ. Labour responded, stating that in respect of A and B grades at A-level in each of the following academic subjects (maths, physics, chemistry, and 3 modern languages) the 164 state grammar schools achieved approx. half the number of successes of the whole country’s about 3,000 comprehensives! The effect of comprehensivisation is catastrophic!

Tony Blair’s mistake

In the new Schools Standard and Framework Act, 1988, the former Labour Prime Minister introduced ballot regulations to allow parents to get rid of grammar schools – but not of the much lower standard comprehensive schools! Thus the legal rights of all parents were rejected. At his two successive Party Conferences he utterly condemned the existing comprehensives, but supported the comprehensive principle – wrongly describing it as ‘equality of opportunity’. He spoke of setting up new schools, which he described as ‘specialist schools’ and ‘city academies’. The former had to introduce non-academic subjects and the latter had to take pupils right across the ability range and were of course misnamed comprehensive schools. At the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Annual Conference (30 November 2006) Blair stated: “Across Academies, 40% of pupils this year achieved five good GCSEs in Academies compared to 30% in 2004”. The falsely named academies were therefore academically inferior to the secondary modern schools, which had been stated by Lord Adonis to have achieved 42.3% in 2004.

Changes needed in our state education system

What needs to be done to deal with the situation?
In 1981 there was an attack by Labour on our Independent Schools (Private Schools). Their closure was prevented by Anthony Lester and David Pannick, who affirmed the legal rights of parents to have education for their children “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” (The European Convention on Human Rights). They also cited the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, which had been ratified by the UK Labour Government in 1976!: “Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”3 David Pannick told parents that they would be able to deal with grammar schools in the same way.
So the best way to preserve grammar schools and secondary modern schools is to enforce the legal rights of parents.

1 The booklet by Fred Naylor and Roger Peach published in September 2007is available to the public from the NGSA’s Specialist Business Services Ltd, 6 Banbury Road, Brackley, Northamptonshire NN13 6AU Tel 01280 705682. It contains 16 pages and can be obtained for £2-50.   
2 See FN’s Crisis in the Sixth Form, published by the CPS in June 1981 with a contribution  by the TES editor, Stuart Maclure.
3 Section 2(b) of Article 13 of the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966