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In England and Wales, a comprehensive school is a type of secondary school that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude or the wealth of the parents of the children it accepts.
There were 24,323 schools in England in 2018. There were 391 nurseries, 16,769 primary schools, 3,448 secondary schools, 2,319 independent schools, 1,044 special schools and 352 pupil referral units (PRUs). In Wales there were 1,569 schools. There were 9 nursery schools, 1,238 primary schools, 19 middle schools, 187 secondary schools, 75 independent schools and 41 special schools.
Before the Second World War, secondary education provision in Britain was both patchy and expensive. After the war, secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was provided free to at least the age of 14 under a policy introduced by Conservative Secretary of State for Education R.A. Butler. The Education Act 1944 made provision for primary, secondary and further education but did not mention the 11+ exam or the tripartite system (secondary modern, secondary technical and grammar school). Derek Gillard opined in 2011 that "the tripartite system was no more than the continuation of the 19th century class-based system of English education which had been promoted by the reports of Spens (1938) and Norwood (1943)". However, as a result of the flexibility of the Education Act 1944, many Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were free to choose how to establish the secondary school sector. Many LEAs chose to adopt the tripartite system described in Norwood's 1943 report.
Pupils sat the 11+ examination in their last year of primary education and were sent to one of a secondary modern, secondary technical or grammar school depending on their perceived ability. As it transpired, secondary technical schools were never widely implemented and for 20 years there was a virtual bipartite system which saw fierce competition for the available grammar school places, which varied between 15% and 25% of total secondary places, depending on location.
Comprehensive schooling was introduced in 1965 by the Labour Government of the time.
The first comprehensives were set up after the Second World War. In 1946, for example, Walworth School was one of five 'experimental' comprehensive schools set up by the London County Council Another early comprehensive school was Holyhead County School in Anglesey in 1949. Other places that experimented with comprehensives included Coventry, Sheffield, Leicestershire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire.
These early comprehensives mostly modelled themselves, in terms of ethos, on the grammar school, with gown-wearing teachers conducting lessons in a very formal style. Some comprehensive schools have continued to follow this model, especially those that were themselves grammar schools before becoming comprehensives. The opening of Risinghill School in Islington in 1960 offered an alternative to this model. Embracing the progressive ideals of sixties education, the school abandoned corporal punishment and brought in a much more liberal attitude to discipline and methods of study. However, this idea did not take hold in many places.
The largest expansion of comprehensive schools resulted from a policy decision taken in 1965 by Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for Education in the 1964–1970 Labour government, a fervent supporter of comprehensive education. This had been the party's policy for some time. The policy decision was implemented by Circular 10/65, an instruction to local education authorities to plan for conversion.
In 1970 the Conservative Party re-entered government. Margaret Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education, and ended the compulsion on local authorities to convert. However, many local authorities were so far down the path that it would have been prohibitively expensive to attempt to reverse the process, and more comprehensive schools were established under Mrs Thatcher than any other education secretary. However, she went on to be a ferocious critic of comprehensive education. By 1975 the majority of local authorities in England and Wales had abandoned the eleven-plus examination and moved to a comprehensive system.
Over that 10-year period many secondary modern schools and grammar schools were amalgamated to form large neighbourhood comprehensives, whilst a number of new schools were built to accommodate a growing school population. By 1968 around 20% of children had been in comprehensives, and by the mid-1970s the system had been almost fully implemented. Nearly all new schools were built as comprehensives, and existing grammar and modern schools had either been closed (see for example the Liverpool Institute) or amalgamated with neighbouring secondary moderns to produce comprehensive schools. A small number of local education authorities have held out against the trend, such as Kent. In those places, grammar schools, secondary modern schools and selection at 11 continue.
Note: Cumbria and Telford have one selective school.
In 1976 the future Labour prime minister James Callaghan gave a speech at Oxford's Ruskin College. He launched what became known as the 'great debate' on the education system. He went on to list the areas he felt needed closest scrutiny: the case for a core curriculum, the validity and use of informal teaching methods, the role of school inspection and the future of the examination system. Callaghan was not the first to raise these questions. A 'black paper' attacking liberal theories in education and poor standards in comprehensive schools had appeared in 1969, to be followed by a second in 1971. The authors were the academics Brian Cox and A.E. Dyson. They were supported by certain head teachers, notably Dr. Rhodes Boyson, who later became a Conservative MP. The black papers called for a return to traditional teaching methods and an end to the comprehensive experiment.
Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, parents have a right to choose which school their child should go to. This concept of "school choice" introduces the idea of competition between state schools, a fundamental change to the original "neighbourhood comprehensive" model, and is partly intended as a means by which schools that are perceived to be inferior are forced either to improve or, if hardly anyone wants to go there, to close down. Government policy is currently[when?] promoting 'specialisation' whereby parents choose a secondary school appropriate for their child's interests and skills. Most initiatives focus on parental choice and information, implementing a pseudo-market incentive to encourage better schools. This logic has underpinned the controversial league tables of school performance.
Comprehensive schools remained the most common type of state secondary school in England, and the only type in Wales. They accounted for around 90% of pupils, or 64% if one does not count schools with low-level selection. This figure varied by region. Both Conservative Party and Labour governments experimented with alternatives to the original neighbourhood comprehensive.
Experiments have included:
Following the advice of Sir Cyril Taylor—former businessman and Conservative politician, and chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT)—in the mid-1990s, both major parties have backed the creation of specialist schools, which focus on excellence in a particular subject and are theoretically allowed to select up to 10% of their intake. This policy consensus had brought to an end the notion that all children will go to their local school, and assumes parents will choose a school they feel most meets their child's needs.