The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Peter Housden 2013
Edinburgh: APS Group (Scotland) Limited
81pp., free (download), ISBN: 978-0-85759-034-3 (paperback)
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2015
In opposition, Conservative leader David Cameron had warned his party to drop its obsession with grammar schools. However, the coalition government's new School Admissions Code, published on 1 February 2012, stripped parents of the right to object to the expansion of the schools, and in February this year, under pressure from rightwing MPs, he gave his support to the proposal by the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to open another campus in Sevenoaks. Home Secretary Theresa May endorsed a similar proposal for a satellite grammar campus in her Maidenhead constituency (The Guardian 17 February 2015).
Selective versus comprehensive education, therefore, is still very much a live issue, and Peter Housden's book, The Passing of a Country Grammar School, is an interesting contribution to the debate. It tells the story of how Market Drayton Grammar School in Shropshire, which celebrated its 400th anniversary in November 1955, became The Grove Comprehensive School in 1965. Given that, in 1962, when the proposal to close the grammar school became a serious proposition, barely eight per cent of English pupils were educated in comprehensive schools, Housden seeks to answer the question 'How did such a change come to such a sleepy town, and so early, well before the main thrust of comprehensive reform in the 1970s and '80s?' (p.1).
He is well-qualified to undertake the task: he was educated at the schools concerned and has had an extensive career in both local and national government.
Housden begins by providing a history of Market Drayton Grammar School from its foundation in 1555. It struggled to survive in the nineteenth century when the town's population grew slowly and suffered poverty, and it was eventually closed in 1909. However, under the provisions of the 1902 Education Act, Shropshire County Council had become the local education authority and in 1910 decided to reopen the school, retaining its name despite opposition from the Board of Education in London. Inspections in 1912 and 1921 presented a mixed picture, with HMI particularly concerned about the number of boys leaving at age 14.
The school went through another difficult period in the aftermath of the second world war. Many of the staff were 'young and not well-qualified' (p.24); pupils were streamed on entry, creating 'an ethos of underachievement and sometimes disaffection' (p.27); and in 1956 HMI noted weaknesses 'in leadership, in organisation and in pedagogy' (p.28). The head retired.
Having outlined the early history of the school, Housden goes on to consider two key figures: Martin Wilson, who had been Secretary for Education in Shropshire since 1934, and Sir Offley Wakeman, Chairman of Shropshire County Council and its Education Committee. In the immediate post-war period these two were responsible for producing Shropshire's Development Plan, as required by the 1944 Education Act. Submitted to the Ministry in 1947, the plan proposed 'full comprehensive reorganisation' for some of the smaller market towns, including Market Drayton, where a single secondary school in a new building would replace the existing grammar and secondary modern schools. In most cases, this would require 'the closure of an established and more-or-less ancient grammar school' (p.41).
Housden notes that the idea of comprehensive education had become 'common currency in reforming circles in the inter-war years', but had 'by no means conquered the mainstream'. The Conservatives were 'almost universally opposed' and there was 'a strong strand of Labour-minded opinion' which wanted to preserve 'the ladder of opportunity' provided by grammar schools (p.41).
The Ministry was unhappy with Shropshire's proposals, preferring for Market Drayton 'a Grammar/Modern school with a technical bias' (p.43). Shropshire remained 'intransigent' and the matter was 'left in abeyance' until 1952 when, facing rising pupil numbers, the Education Committee proposed closing the town's grammar and secondary modern schools and opening a new comprehensive school for a thousand pupils. The local response was almost unanimously hostile so the authority withdrew its plans and instead proposed a new secondary modern school for 450 pupils.
The new school opened in 1957 but was already short of space, so in 1962, with 152 comprehensive schools now open across England, the Education Committee pressed ahead with its earlier proposal to replace the town's grammar and secondary modern schools with a comprehensive school. The grammar school's governors raised a number of objections, including the fact that the new school would be 'scattered across four sites' (p.48). In his reply to them, Martin Wilson argued the case for comprehensivisation:
Comprehensive organisation removes the pressures of the selection examination; it avoids the cleavage that develops between work in grammar and secondary modern schools; the greater resources and flexibility of the larger organisation with the fact that all children of secondary age are in the same school makes easier the provision for individual needs in a variety of courses and options, and both the very able pupils and the average and less able benefit from this; in the larger school, the staff can be developed as a stronger and more diversified team; staff recruitment is good and benefits from higher posts of special responsibility (p.50).In the end, the school's governors voted 'decisively in favour of a comprehensive school for Market Drayton' (p.51).
Consultation meetings with parents, held in the spring of 1963, showed mixed views. The local newspaper (no doubt annoyed at being excluded from the meetings) reported that 'Market Drayton continues to withhold its full support for the Shropshire Education Committee project of using the town for its guinea-pig comprehensive school plan' (p.53). However, concerns about the eleven plus selection process were becoming widespread as 'its intellectual and scientific pretensions were progressively exposed' (p.55). So in Market Drayton, campaigners against comprehensivisation focused on the problems which would be caused by split sites and called for the scheme to be deferred until adequate accommodation was ready. This position, argues Housden, was 'a complete non-starter', but it was 'a useful proxy for argument about the merits and consequences of selection at 11 years of age' (p.56).
The local authority arranged for the governors of the two schools to visit comprehensives in Wolverhampton, and at a subsequent joint meeting they voted in favour of the reorganisation but called for it to be deferred until adequate accommodation had been made available. The Education Committee ignored this proviso and approved the Market Drayton scheme on 19 April 1963. Housden comments:
Thus far, from the point of view of Martin Wilson and the Education Committee, the proposal for Market Drayton had gone forward without undue alarums or excursions. Extensive consultations had been held and Governors given the opportunity to visit comprehensive schools - it was a model of a modern education authority at its work (p.57).There was, however, considerable local resentment over the proposals. With approval still to be sought from the Minister, Sir Edward Boyle, Old Grammarian Ron Farrell launched a campaign against the reorganisation. Boyle, however, was a 'radical conservative' who sought to 'preserve the essential character of British society not through stasis but through humane and rational reform' (p.63). He saw 'much to admire in the maintained system, and much requiring reform' (p.63). He summed up his approach in his foreword to the Newsom Report: 'The essential point is that all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence and developing their talents and abilities to the full' (p.64).
In July 1963 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sought Boyle's advice on what should be done about the eleven plus. In his reply, Boyle argued that 'a system of completely separate schools is unlikely to be the best answer either in a new housing area where one can plan from the beginning, or in a scattered country district' (p.65).
As this exchange took place, Shropshire's proposals were on Boyle's desk. They included comprehensive schools for Telford New Town - exactly the sort of 'new housing area' Boyle had mentioned in his minute to the prime minister, and for Market Drayton, which was at the centre of 'a scattered country district' (p.65).
Few were surprised, therefore, when Boyle announced his decision to approve the County Council's proposals. Market Drayton's new school would open on 1 September 1965. Farrell called for an inquiry, but others - including the head of the grammar school, AF ('Alf') Tongue, who now applied for the headship of the new school - were more positive. In the event, Donald Mackay, Senior Master at Monk's Park Comprehensive in Bristol, was appointed to the post.
At a meeting with parents in November 1964, Mackay said he would 'not stand any system which breeds educational failures'. Ron Farrell was generous in his attitude to the new head. 'I was one of the people opposed to comprehensive education coming to Market Drayton', he said. 'But now I feel it would be quite disloyal to continue my attitude until we have had results from the new scheme. ... In my view Mr Mackay, given the support of the parents and pupils, will undoubtedly make a success of the new school' (p.69).
It was the end of an era, says Housden: Tongue died in late 1964, Martin Wilson retired as Secretary for Education in June 1965, and Donald Mackay, 'having taken the reins of both schools after Mr Tongue's death, became the first Head Teacher of The Grove School at its opening in September 1965' (p.70).
Housden argues that a number of factors led to the decision to reorganise Market Drayton's schools, including:
Housden argues that this 'significant increase in opportunity' for the young people of Market Drayton is what Martin Wilson had hoped and planned for. Its achievement required 'the end of selective education and the closure of the Grammar School'. While acknowledging that the passing of an institution with such a long history is always sad, Housden argues that
Market Drayton County Grammar School was ... a creature of its age, and its passing was a necessary precondition for the establishment of a common school in Market Drayton. Its closure was achieved with openness and dignity, and enabled the comprehensive to get off to a flying start. The process has enabled The Grove, which proudly celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 2015, to provide not for some part of the youth of the realm, but for all (p.78).Comment
The Passing of a Country Grammar School is a very enjoyable read for a number of reasons and at several levels.
Housden says his book is 'not an academic treatise' so he has 'avoided an excess of footnotes' (p.2). He has, however, researched his subject extensively, as his list of 'Sources consulted' demonstrates. 'I was stimulated as much as frustrated', he says, 'by the fact that the Ministry's file on the reorganisation has been "weeded out" and is lost' (p.2).
It is certainly not a dry factual account. The characters involved - notably Alf Tongue, Martin Wilson, Ron Farrell and Donald Mackay - are brought to life, their actions discussed in relation to their motives and beliefs.
It is enlivened by personal memories and anecdotes. Housden draws on the memoir of Gwyn Lewis, who attended the grammar school from 1942 to 1947. 'The school had the trappings of the traditional grammar school', with a good library and an annual Founders' Day service in the local church 'at which staff wore their caps and gowns and the proceedings were brought to a close with the school song' (p.22).
And there are Housden's own recollections, as a pupil. He joined the grammar school as a twelve year old in May 1963, six years after Tongue had been appointed head. He remembers it as 'small and friendly ... with a settled routine and good discipline'. It still had 'All the accoutrements of the Grammar School' (p.31), though the streaming of new entrants had been abolished. Like many other grammar schools, it went through 'cycles of mediocrity and found it difficult to generate rigour and momentum' (p.35).
He moved to the Grove, which opened on 1 September 1965 with 1,096 pupils, and paints a vivid picture of life in his new school. There was little trouble between former grammar and secondary modern school pupils, he says. 'We had our share of silliness and posturing and the very occasional nasty incident, as any school will. But order and discipline were good. Students mixed as freely in the comprehensive as they had in their primary schools' (p.75).
The Grove benefitted from some able staff including Roy Nevitt, who
established drama as a major force in the curriculum and life of the school, staging plays by Brecht and Arthur Miller, and involving us in a joint production with Newport Girls Grammar of Hugo Cole's opera, Jonah and the Whale, with the young Benjamin Luxom in the title role (p.75-6).'There was a sense of energy and purpose in the school, and attention to individual progress' (p.76).
When Mackay left in 1968, the governors appointed as his successor HA Behenna, who 'positioned himself at arm's length from the Main School', moving his office to Grove House and taking the carpet from the Sixth Form Common Room to furnish it. 'Fuelled slightly by student protests in the wider world', Housden recalls, 'we took umbrage at this and other restrictions. Frictions continued'. Behenna left in 1972 'after much acrimony' (p.77).
The book works at both a local and a national level. It will appeal to Market Draytonians and others interested in the history of the area, but also to education historians more generally. The correspondence between Minister Edward Boyle and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is particularly interesting.
Finally, Housden is a passionate believer in comprehensive schools and says he wants to 'add my voice to those willing to speak up for comprehensive education', which he describes as 'without doubt the most significant reform in our schooling system in the post-war period, and a huge success by any standards' (p.1-2). Again, the book addresses the issue at both a local and national level.
The Passing of a Country Grammar School is available to download in a variety of formats. I hope it will be widely read, not just because it is free but because it is enjoyable, informative and important. At a time when few politicians seem to have anything positive to say about comprehensive schools and when selection is still very much on the agenda, Housden's message - that comprehensive education is about providing 'not for some part of the youth of the realm, but for all' (p.78) - is one which needs to be heard.