The strange death of the comprehensive school in England and Wales, 1965-2002

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The past 25 years have seen an accelerating erosion of the comprehensive ‘ideal’ in England and Wales. Parental choice has replaced centralized LEA allocation of pupils, systems for engineering a balanced social mix in schools have been largely abandoned, and the introduction of ‘league tables’ to measure the comparative effectiveness of individual schools has led to a polarization of secondary school intakes—the very opposite of what the original comprehensive system was intended to achieve. The current Labour government has created a range of differing ‘types’ of secondary schools, including ‘beacon’, ‘specialist’, and ‘training’ schools, as well as planning to increase the provision of ‘faith’ schools. Prominent government spokespersons have disparaged the ‘bogstandard’ comprehensive school, and called for an end to the ‘one size fits all’ rationale for secondary education. The paper examines the reasons behind the erosion of the comprehensive ideal in England and Wales. There is no simple party political division to explain the abandonment of the comprehensive school; no single vote, debate, or act of parliament to mark its end, and no commission of enquiry, report, or unequivocal body of research evidence to justify the policy moves away from ‘the common school’. The study of the strange death of the comprehensive ideal in England and Wales provides interesting insights into the ways in which educational policy is made and unmade in modern democratic societies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-433
Number of pages19
JournalResearch Papers in Education
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2004

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