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A study in failure? The development of comprehensive education in Bristol

24 September 2008

The current state of Bristol’s secondary schools is notoriously poor, with exam results in the city’s maintained schools continuing to be amongst the worst in the UK. Katherine Rich, an M.A. student in the Department of Historical Studies, suggests a historical explanation for this current malaise.

The poor condition of many of Bristol’s maintained secondary schools today is a subject which attracts constant attention from the local press and from parents.  It is too easy to argue that the abysmal academic record of the city’s schools has resulted from the absorption of the most gifted pupils by the independent sector; whilst there are undoubtedly a high proportion of independent secondary school places in Bristol, there are other authorities in which a similar situation prevails and yet where the achievements of the maintained schools are consistently above the national average.

Moreover, it has evidently not always been the case that the independent schools in Bristol have been able to attract an abundance of fee-paying pupils, since before the cessation of the direct grant scheme in 1976, a significant number of those pupils attending Bristol’s independent schools were not fee-payers whose parents actively chose to reject the maintained sector but children who had seized the opportunity to enrol in a reputable school for free.

That in recent years these schools have been able to sustain themselves despite the absence of free or assisted places shows that their popularity has grown in Bristol, and the reason lies in the way in which the Local Education Authority’s (LEA’s) schools have developed since their foundation.  In short, Bristol’s state schools are not inferior because of the existence of independent schools; the independent schools have become popular because of the way in which the state schools have been allowed to develop.

The new schools never received parents’ total confidence

From the outset in the early 1960s, Bristol Education Committee’s deliberate use of the bi-lateral school as a stepping stone to comprehensive education compromised the reputation that the comprehensive schools were able to build with local parents.  Some of the bi-laterals had been formed from existing secondary modern schools (SMSs) and all of them were exposed for a considerable period to comparisons with the esteemed grammar schools operating elsewhere in the city.  Thus they inherited the muddied image of the SMS, a stigma which they retained when they evolved into fully comprehensive schools in 1965.  Consequently, the new schools never received parents’ total confidence.

This, combined with the zoning element of the Committee’s 1964 Development Plan which subjected many of the comprehensive schools to a disproportionate share of low-ability pupils or pupils from disadvantaged home backgrounds, dissuaded the more selective, educationally-assertive parents from supporting the comprehensive system, damaging their intakes and in turn, their academic prestige.

However, it is the poorly-planned and expedient nature of the Development Plan itself to which the lasting problems of Bristol’s schools can predominantly be attributed.  Particularly, the employment of a tiered school system in East Bristol created insurmountable challenges for the schools involved, with which they were made to cope for a damagingly lengthy period.

A tiered school system in East Bristol created insurmountable challenges

The schools’ inability to counteract the social deprivation which, due to the authority’s zoned allocation arrangements, was suffered by a high proportion of their pupils, further impacted upon their academic success and consequently their public reputations.  As in many areas of the city, these factors inevitably perpetuated the problem of low-ability intakes, trapping the schools in a cycle of low achievement.

The retention of selection in the central areas of Bristol also impacted detrimentally upon the comprehensives’ success, preserving four reputable grammar schools with which the comprehensives were consistently compared, mostly unfavourably.  This maintained a hierarchy of schools in the city which was upheld throughout the 1970s and 1980s as successive Education Committees failed to complete the reorganisation process.

Thus the patchy manner in which comprehensivisation was executed emerges as the crucial factor in predetermining the decline of Bristol’s maintained secondary schools.  That the local Labour Party had insisted this short-term plan was ‘urgently desirable’ despite the obvious problems it would present for the schools affected, illustrates the sheer expediency of their actions, their dogmatic commitment to the comprehensive principle overriding all regard for the educational reverberations.

The direct grant system continued to depress the comprehensives’ intakes into the 1970s

Undoubtedly this situation was exacerbated by the LEA’s repeated toying with the allocation of direct grant places in the city each time overall control of the council changed hands.  Most notably, the longer-term success of the comprehensives was compromised by the Citizen Party’s decision to reinstate the full direct grant scheme in 1967, a definitive point in the schools’ long-fought battle to establish their academic credibility.  Combined with the Citizens’ failure to remove selective entry to Cotham Grammar and Fairfield Grammar, the direct grant system continued to depress the comprehensives’ intakes into the 1970s, consolidating their reputation with many parents as second-rate schools.

The influence on a school’s success of its reputation and the existence of parental choice is a complex issue as it is very difficult to gauge retrospectively parents’ attitudes to different schools.  However, it is logical that those schools that struggle academically, due to lower-ability intakes or a high number of disadvantaged pupils, will gain relatively poor reputations with those parents who are interested in education and recognise its value; normally, for various economic and social reasons, those with higher-ability children.

Given the choice of sending them to a more successful school these parents inevitably choose to desert the schools that have earned poor reputations, further impoverishing them of gifted children.  Thus they fail to improve both their academic results and, in turn, their inferior reputations, creating a vicious cycle where the successful, popular schools get more successful and more popular and the struggling schools become locked in a state of decay.

A combination of factors have steadily eroded parental confidence

The weak start that the Bristolian comprehensives were afforded was consolidated in just this manner after 1974, when parents were offered this type of extended choice; when placed in competition with schools in Bath and the parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset brought under Avon LEA, a significant proportion of children from better-educated backgrounds or affluent families were able to escape the city’s schools for more reputable ones elsewhere that did not suffer comparably with low-ability, socio-economically deprived intakes.

The problems suffered by the Bristol schools were also inadequately addressed by Avon councillors, many of whom were first and foremost concerned with their own districts and failed to appreciate the specific challenges that faced inner-city schools.  Thus the starvation of Bristol’s comprehensives, instigated immediately though the LEA’s zoning policy and amplified in 1967 with the reinstatement of the direct grant scheme, was compounded in the 1970s and 1980s as fewer and fewer gifted children attended their local school.

Evidently, the condition of Bristol’s schools today owes to a combination of factors which have steadily eroded parental confidence in the maintained schools since their very foundation.  There are signs that the tide may be turning: in the last few months, due to low admissions, two independent schools in the city have been forced to apply for academy status, bringing them under LEA control as non-fee-paying institutions. 

There are signs that the tide may be turning

This has most likely been caused by the opening of Redland Green School in an affluent district of Bristol which has drawn in a large number of pupils whose parents would have previously shied away from sending them to other comprehensives in more deprived and socially diverse areas and opted out of the maintained sector altogether.  One can only hope that more pupils will return to the authority’s schools.  Undoubtedly, however, the LEA faces a daunting task, to rebuild parents’ confidence in all the city’s schools after their faith has been steadily eroded for over forty years.

This article is taken from on A Study in Failure?  The Development of Comprehensive Education in Bristol, 1963-1976 by Katherine Rich, a dissertation submitted to the University of Bristol in accordance with the requirements of the degree of MA in Contemporary History in the Faculty of Arts.

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