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Comprehensive education


Comprehensive education

A comprehensive school is a state school that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. This is in contrast to the selective school system, where admission is restricted on the basis of selection criteria. The term is commonly used in relation to England and Wales, where comprehensive schools were introduced in 1965. About 90% of British pupils attend comprehensive schools. Comprehensive schools correspond broadly to the German Gesamtschule and to the high school in the United States and Canada.

Comprehensive schools are primarily about providing an entitlement curriculum to all children without selection either due to financial considerations or attainment. A consequence of that is a wider ranging curriculum that includes practical subjects such as design and technology and vocational learning that was less common or non-existent in grammar schools. Providing economic post 16 provision becomes more challenging for comprehensive schools because of the number of courses needed to cover a broader curriculum with comparatively fewer students. This is why schools have tended to get larger and many local authorities organised secondary education into 11-16 schools with the post 16 provision provided by Sixth Form and Further Education Colleges. Comprehensive schools do not select their intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude but there are demographic reasons why the attainment profiles of different schools vary considerably. In addition, government initiatives such as the City Technology Colleges and Specialist schools programmes made the comprehensive ideal less certain.

In these schools children could be selected on the basis of curriculum aptitude related to the school's specialism even though the schools do take quotas from each quartile of the attainment range to ensure they were not selective by attainment. A problem with this is whether the quotas should be taken from a normal distribution or from the specific distribution of attainment in the immediate catchment area. In the selective school system admission is dependent on selection criteria, most commonly a cognitive test or tests. Although comprehensive schools were introduced to England and Wales, in 1965 164 selective grammar schools are still in operation. This is a very small number compared to approximately 3500 state secondary schools in England. Most comprehensives are secondary schools for children between the ages of 11 to 16, but in a few areas there are comprehensive middle schools, and in some places the secondary level is divided into two, for students aged 11 to 14 and those aged 14 to 18, roughly corresponding to the US middle school (or junior high school) and high school, respectively. With the advent of key stages in the National Curriculum some local authorities reverted from the Middle School system to 11-16 and 11-18 schools so that the transition between schools corresponds to the end of one key stage and the start of another.

In principle, comprehensive schools were conceived as "neighbourhood" schools for all students in a specified catchment area. Current education reforms with Academies Programme, Free Schools and University Technical Colleges will no doubt have some impact on the comprehensive ideal but it is too early to say to what degree.


Further information: Education in Finland

Finland has used comprehensive schools since the 1970s, in the sense that everyone is expected to complete the nine grades of peruskoulu, from the age 7 to 16. The division to lower comprehensive school (grades 1-6, ala-aste, alakoulu) and upper comprehensive school (grades 7-9, yläaste, yläkoulu) has been discontinued.


Further information: Education in Germany

Comprehensive schools that offer college preparatory classes

Germany has a comprehensive school known as the Gesamtschule. While some German schools such as the Gymnasium and the Realschule have rather strict entrance requirements, the Gesamtschule does not have such requirements. They offer college preparatory classes for the students who are doing well, general education classes for average students, and remedial courses for those who aren't doing that well. In most cases students attending a Gesamtschule may graduate with the Hauptschulabschluss, the Realschulabschluss or the Abitur depending on how well they did in school. The percentage of students attending a Gesamtschule varies by Bundesland. In the State of Brandenburg more than 50% of all students attended a Gesamtschule in 2007,[1] while in the State of Bavaria less than 1% did. Starting in 2010/2011, Hauptschulen were merged with Realschulen and Gesamtschulen to form a new type of comprehensive school in the German States of Berlin and Hamburg, called Stadtteilschule in Hamburg and Sekundarschule in Berlin (see: Education in Berlin, Education in Hamburg). Germany's most famous Gesamtschulen are the Helene-Lange-School in Wiesbaden and the Laborschule Bielefeld.

Comprehensive schools that do not offer college preparatory classes

The "Mittelschule" is a school in some States of Germany that offers regular classes and remedial classes but no college preparatory classes. In some States of Germany, the Hauptschule does not exist, and any student who has not been accepted by another school has to attend the Mittelschule. Students may be awarded the Hauptschulabschluss or the Mittlere Reife but not the Abitur.


There is some controversy about comprehensive schools. As a rule of thumb those supporting The Left Party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Alliance '90/The Greens are in favour of comprehensive schools, while those supporting the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party are opposed to them.

Grade inflation

Comprehensive schools have been accused of grade inflation after a study revealed that Gymnasium senior students of average mathematical ability[2] found themselves at the very bottom of their class and had an average grade of "Five", which means "Failed". Gesamtschule senior students of average mathematical ability found themselves in the upper half of their class and had an average grade of "Three Plus".[3] When a central Abitur examination was established in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, it was revealed that Gesamtschule students did worse than could be predicted by their grades or class rank. Barbara Sommer (Christian Democratic Union), Education Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, commented that: Looking at the performance gap between comprehensives and the Gymnasium [at the Abitur central examination] [...] it is difficult to understand why the Social Democratic Party of Germany wants to do away with the Gymnasium. [...] The comprehensives do not help students achieve [...] I am sick and tired of the comprehensive schools blaming their problems on the social class origins of their students. What kind of attitude is this to blame their own students? She also called the Abitur awarded by the Gymnasium the true Abitur and the Abitur awarded by the Gesamtschule "Abitur light".[4] As a reaction, Sigrid Beer (Alliance '90/The Greens) stated that comprehensives were structurally discriminated against by the government, which favoured the Gymnasiums. She also said that many of the students awarded the Abitur by the comprehensives came from "underprivileged groups" and sneering at their performance was a "piece of impudence".[5]


Gesamtschulen might put bright working class students at risk according to several studies. It could be shown that an achievement gap opens between working class students attending a comprehensive and their middle class peers. Also working class students attending a Gymnasium or a Realschule outperform students from similar backgrounds attending a comprehensive. However it is not students attending a comprehensive, but students attending a Hauptschule, who perform the poorest.

PISA points earned[6]
type school social class “very low” social class “low” social class “high” social class “very high”
Hauptschule 400 429 436 450
Gesamtschule 438 469 489 515
Realschule 482 504 528 526
Gymnasium 578 581 587 602

According to a study done by Helmut Fend (who had always been a fierce proponent of comprehensive schools) revealed that comprehensive schools do not help working class students. He compared alumni of the tripartite system to alumni of comprehensive schools. While working class alumni of comprehensive schools were awarded better school diplomas at age 35, they held similar occupational positions as working class alumni of the tripartite system and were as unlikely to graduate from college.[7]

According to Kurt A. Heller:

Social class divergences are exacerbated by comprehensive schools.

According to Ulrich Sprenger:

As the proponents of comprehensives invariably demand humanization of schools, it is very disappointing that socially disadvantaged students, who are most desperately in need of a process of humanization, obviously benefit the least from the structural innovations brought about by the integrated comprehensive system, the organisational and curricular changes of which were primarily aimed at promoting and providing special assistance to this very group of students.


Further information: Education in Gibraltar

Gibraltar opened its first comprehensive school in 1972. Between the ages of 12 and 16 two comprehensive schools cater for girls and boys separately. Students may also continue into the sixth form to complete their A-levels.


Comprehensive schools were introduced into Ireland in 1966 by an initiative by Patrick Hillery, Minister for Education, to give a broader range of education compared to that of the vocational school system, which was then the only system of schools completely controlled by the state. Until then, education in Ireland was largely dominated by religious persuasion, particularly the voluntary secondary school system was a particular realisation of this. The comprehensive school system is still relatively small and to an extent has been superseded by the community school concept. The Irish word for a comprehensive school is a 'scoil chuimsitheach.'

In Ireland comprehensive schools were an earlier model of state schools, introduced in the late 1960s and largely replaced by the secular community model of the 1970s. The comprehensive model generally incorporated older schools that were under Roman Catholic or Protestant ownership, and the various denominations still manage the school as patrons or trustees. The state owns the school property, which is vested in the trustees in perpetuity. The model was adopted to make state schools more acceptable to a largely conservative society of the time.

The introduction of the community school model in the 1970s controversially removed the denominational basis of the schools, but religious interests were invited to be represented on the Boards of Management. Community schools are divided into two models, the community school vested in the Minister for Education and the community college vested in the local Education and Training Board. Community colleges tended to be amalgamations of unviable local schools under the umbrella of a new community school model, but community schools have tended to be entirely new foundations.


Sweden had used mixed-ability schools for some years before they were introduced into England and Wales, and was chosen as one of the models.

United Kingdom

England and Wales


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). '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)' (D. Gillard, 2011). 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.

Comprehensive school was introduced in 1965 by the Labour Government of the time (Chitty 2009). Students 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.

Early comprehensives

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[10] Another early comprehensive school was Holyhead County School in Anglesey in 1949.[11][12] 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.

Nationwide implementation

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 11-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.

Timetable of implementation (by LEA or district)

Note: Cumbria and Telford have one selective school.

Callaghan's Great Debate

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.

Current status

Comprehensive schools remain the most common type of state secondary school in England, and the only type in Wales. They account for around 90% of pupils, or 64% if one does not count schools with low-level selection. This figure varies by region.

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 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.

Both Conservative Party and Labour governments have been experimenting with alternatives to the original neighbourhood comprehensive since the mid-1980s.[11]

Experiments have included:

  • partnerships where successful schools share knowledge and best practice with nearby schools
  • federations of schools, where a partnership is formalised through joint governance arrangements
  • closing and reopening 'failing schools'
  • city technology colleges
  • city academies

Currently, 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 send their child to the school they feel they are most suited to.

These new school types mean that it is open to debate whether the comprehensive system is still in operation; but it could be argued that the new forms of school are best characterised as developments from, rather than challenges to, comprehensive education.

Debate and issues

Supporters of comprehensive education argue that it is unacceptable on both moral and practical grounds to select or reject children on the basis of their academic ability. They also argue that comprehensive schools in the UK have allowed millions of children to gain access to further and higher education after the age of 16, and that the previous selective system relegated children who failed the eleven-plus examination to a second-class, inferior education and hence to worse employment prospects.

Critics of comprehensive schools argue that the reality has been a levelling-down of provision and a denial of opportunity to bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might once have expected to pass the eleven-plus exam and have the advantage of a grammar school education. The most straightforward way for parents to ensure that their children attend what is perceived to be a "good" school now is to buy a house within its catchment area. This, critics claim, has led to de facto selection according to parents' financial means rather than their children's ability at passing exams.

During the late 1960s there was heated debate about the merits of streaming pupils. In grammar schools pupils were taught in different classes according to their perceived ability. At first the comprehensives copied this structure, but the failings of streaming, principally that it failed to reflect the spread of abilities in different subjects, led to experiments with other methods. One controversial method, mixed ability teaching, was widely adopted. Over time, however, it was supplanted in many schools by 'setting', whereby children are grouped by ability in different subjects, allowing the possibility of being, for example, in the 'top' set for mathematics, but the 'bottom' set for history.


Further information: Education in Scotland

Scotland has a very different educational system from England and Wales, though also based on comprehensive education. It has different ages of transfer, different examinations and a different philosophy of choice and provision. All publicly funded primary and secondary schools are comprehensive. The Scottish Government has rejected plans for specialist schools as of 2005.

Northern Ireland

Further information: Education in Northern Ireland

Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly from systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but it is more similar to that used in England and Wales than it is to Scotland.


External links

  • Comprehensive Future - the campaign for fair admissions
  • Centre for the Support of Comprehensive Schools
  • Campaign for State Education in the UK).
  • Campaign for State Education
  • Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly on comprehensive education
  • BBC Radio 4 documentary about the creation of comprehensive schools
  • Discussions in 2002 about the future of comprehensives


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