Crown Woods: death of a comprehensive

In the early 1980s, Crown Woods School was London’s largest comprehensive.

It had a thriving Sixth Form. It had a ‘farm’ which students tended, and a Rural Studies course. It had a ham radio set-up. Unusually for a state school, it even had a boarding wing. Over two thousand students were on the school’s roll. They came from a wide area of South-East London, and spoke between them several dozen different languages. But the students of the class of 1981 could have been no more apprehensive walking through the school’s entrance-foyer to start the school year than I was. Crown Woods was my first teaching-post.

The school I knew and worked in for almost twenty years has recently ceased to exist. Its entrance-foyer, classrooms, labs, gyms and workshops will shortly be razed to the ground. It its place, newly-built at a cost of £50M and financed by a PFI scheme, Crown Woods College has opened. The College is distinguished not only by new buildings and modern facilities, but also by a way of seeing and treating students fundamentally at odds with and hostile to the values of comprehensive education which the school I knew had helped pioneer. The ethos of Crown Woods College exemplifies instead the values of edu-business and the marketisation of organised learning. In this respect it is a school for our regressive times.


Crown Woods College presents itself as four schools in one. Each ‘mini-school’ has a discrete set of buildings, open spaces, staff hierarchy and organisation, and student population. In its publicity the school suggests this approach is akin to the US system of ‘schools within schools’. But this is a distraction. The guiding principle at Crown Woods College is not to do with the creation of smaller, more autonomous learning-communities. It has nothing in common with the movement for Human Scale Education, whose hallmarks are democracy, fairness and respect. Instead of pioneering a new way of knowing and educating students, Crown Woods College adopts an old strategy. The nub of its approach is academic selection. Cohorts of students are divided up on the basis of test-scores achieved at Primary School and teacher-predictions about future test-scores. This mechanism purports to ensure that each mini-school contains students only of broadly-similar ‘ability’. There is therefore a mini-school for the ‘able’, another for the ‘average’, and a third for the ‘less able’. (The fourth mini-school is the Sixth Form.)

Classification and selection continues within each mini-school, sub-dividing the
already-segregated populations of each into ‘ability-streams’.

The College will call this simply a method of grouping students. In fact it is how the institution has decided to regard students, and to make them known to themselves and eachother. It is also a lesson in how the students should understand the world and what is possible in it. The world, this approach to education urges, is hierarchical, fixed and unchangeable. Know your place and make the best of it.

As a practice this approach to student-grouping and all it implies re-invents or raises from the dead the discredited notion of ‘general academic ability’ promulgated by certain powerful educational psychologists and members of the Eugenics Society in the 1920s and 1930s and used to justify a triple-track system of state education after WW2. It is precisely what the original comprehensive school movement stood against and worked to replace.

Pioneers of comprehensive education exposed in the 1950s the way grouping students into ‘streams’ in Primary school for all their lessons prevented many from being fully educated. At Secondary level the debate tended to centre less on streaming than on individual subject-setting by so-called ‘ability’ as against ‘mixed ability’ grouping. The latter policy was held to create less homogenous classes, with educational and social benefits. Changes to student-grouping required changes to pedagogy, and recognition that teaching, if it is to be effective, cannot be reduced to ‘delivery’. It also required the involvement of teachers in decisions about the school’s curriculum-offer. If teaching is not ‘delivery’, still less is it ‘delivery’ of content teachers have had no hand in deciding. The role of students in helping eachother learn, the nature and centrality of student-talk (rather than teacher-talk) in the classroom, the significance of more democratic approaches to all aspects of the life of the school: the movement for comprehensive education would inspire and stimulate these and many other new ways of improving schools.

Different futures

Crown Woods College sets its face against all this. Students in each mini-school outside the Sixth Form, sorted by so-called ‘ability’, wear distinctly-coloured uniforms and go through their school-day separated from the rest of their peers. They do not share lunchtimes. They do not share educational activities. They do not share futures, at least in the eyes of the College. Colour-coded according to a specious view of their relative educability, students understand from the outset that a hierarchy is at work, one that imposes itself on every aspect of their educational experience. The College’s prospectus tells them as much. It makes clear that the educational offers made in each ‘mini-school’ differ radically, as do the likely outcomes:

Ashdown is a school where… students follow a … curriculum consisting of a… range of both academic and vocational qualifications. At KS3 learning will be skills-based with a…focus on literacy and numeracy…

Students at Delamere School will achieve outstanding academic success and develop into highly ambitious, creative, confident and happy individuals…(Crown Woods College Prospectus, p. 6)

Differentiating students at eleven by so-called ‘ability’, segregating cohorts of students on this basis, keeping them apart in separate colour-coded buildings and distinguishing them by colour-coded uniforms enacts and enforces a despairing approach to human learning. It founds itself on the erroneous notion that each child is born with a fixed quantum of innate educational ‘ability’ or ‘potential’ which can never be exceeded. Broadly speaking, the child is held to be from the start ‘bright’ or ‘average’ or ‘less able’ in any and all situations, contexts and company, and that nothing can be done to alter this. The originators of this view disdained euphemism and deployed terms such as ‘defective’, ‘dull’, ‘feeble-minded’, and ‘backward’ to describe those nowadays badged as ‘less able’. They claimed to know what the calibre of mind of each student might be, and to have devised the appropriate set of educational experiences for it. But their tests, like all such tests, construct what they purport only to reveal. In doing so they condemned cohorts of students determined to be for ever ‘low ability’ to a much narrower set of educational experiences than their peers were offered. They ensured certain students were taught in less imaginative and creative ways than others, and were prompted to aspire to a more restricted future. Crown Woods College holds to this view, and implements it afresh.

Research ignored

There have been more than fifty years of research into the nature and effects of grouping students according to ‘ability’ as constructed by tests and in line with a deficit-model of children, one which would judge them by what they supposedly cannot do at a given age. The damage streaming and setting inflict, and the social purposes such grouping-methods serve, have been made very clear. The most impoverished students, and those for whom English is not a first language, are over-represented in bottom streams and sets. Boys are over-represented in bottom and top streams and sets, girls in middle ones. Those at the bottom tend to be taught by the least experienced staff. Expectations for what these students might achieve are lower than those for members of middle or top streams or sets. Girls in top sets or streams put themselves under overly-intense pressure to achieve highly, sometimes with dangerous consequences. Those in bottom sets and streams, alienated by the administrative actions of the school, generate their own oppositional culture, and often feel themselves to have been psychologically imprisoned for life by being labelled ‘less able’. Movement between streams and sets is minimal, despite assurances to the contrary. The tests by which students are sorted into streams or sets are riddled with class, gender and ethnic biases, discriminating against particular groups. The effect of streaming and setting on exam-results is negligible, if it exists at all. One thing is well-known, though. These grouping-practices stigmatise, de-motivate entire cohorts of students, and generate and perpetuate inequities. Hence they have been deemed unlawful in, for example, Sweden, and contested in courts in the USA.

The educational outlook materialised in the buildings, organisation, uniform, curriculum offer and pedagogical approach at Crown Woods College ignores this wealth of research. The College seems wedded to determinist assumptions about ‘ability’. In the words of Michael Murphy, the Headteacher, (as reported by the Independent when he took up his post) the best the College may offer the child is the chance to “fulfil its potential”. Note the use of the impersonal pronoun. One mark of a true teacher is that the child is always ‘he’ or ‘she’, always a human being who counts as such. But at Crown Woods College, where the child’s potential has been determined before she starts, the child is an ‘it’.

When he first took up his post, Michael Murphy said that: “Schools are essentially businesses.” Interviewed (in the Guardian, July 25 2011) about the newly-opened College he had the same outlook. He offered nothing on educational grounds to justify his segregationist approach. Instead he quoted Margaret Thatcher about the unignorability of the market. Creating a mini-school exclusively for those deemed ‘very able’, and ensuring they are sealed off from contact with their ‘less able’ peers, is supposed to appeal to a certain kind of parent.


Businesses have certainly been closely involved in creating Crown Woods College. Balfour Beatty and G4S are partners in the PFI scheme which financed the new and segregated sets of buildings. It is hard to see how either company offers good lessons in personal, social or citizenship education. Balfour Beatty was fined £5M in 2009 for being party, along with other firms, to rigging the bidding-process for, and deceiving local councils over the costs of, public service projects. A year earlier, the company was forced by a Serious Fraud Office investigation to hand over £2.25M of “unlawful proceeds” gained from irregular payments in relation to a prestigious construction-project in Egypt. Similar examples of corrupt practices occur regularly through the company’s past.

G4S is the world’s largest private security firm. In this country it runs four prisons, three immigration removal centres, and hundreds of police cells. It was until recently responsible for deporting people whose asylum-applications had been refused. G4S lost this lucrative government contract following the death of Mr Jimmy Mubenga, who was subjected to life-threatening and ultimately fatal restraint techniques by three G4S employees as he was being deported. Last year, a record year for complaints against the company, forty-eight claims of assault were lodged against its employees, of which three were upheld. Two claims of racism were also upheld.

In business the bottom line is all. If Crown Woods College is, as Michael Murphy urges, essentially a business, exam-results are its bottom-line. The current Head took over Crown Woods School in September 2000. The school had been designated as ‘failing’ by OFSTED and placed in Special Measures. Crown Woods had been the first school to mount a successful legal challenge to the results of an earlier inspection. It had taken OFSTED to the High Court. It also had a member of an OFSTED inspection-team removed for making a racist remark. In each of the four years prior to Mr Murphy’s appointment the school’s headline A*-C GCSE results outperformed the Local Authority average. In each bar one of the six years following the appointment of the new Head, the school’s A*-C GCSE results were worse than the Authority average. Even in the single year (2002) when these results exceeded the Authority average they failed to match the best equivalent score from the four years before Mr Murphy took over. OFSTED inspection-reports in the first decade of the new century noted that the school’s exam-results were below average, or well below average, until at least 2006. On the other hand they commended the Headteacher’s leadership and vision for the school. Michael Murphy has described his management-style as autocratic, not consensual (in the Evening Standard, 5 January 2001). He was reputed to be the highest-paid state school Headteacher when he took up the post at Crown Woods, making £92K in his first year there. His current earnings, despite the underwhelming record of headline GCSE results, are reported (by the Daily Mail) to be £171k. This is significantly above the maximum level of £112k an inner-London Headteacher supposedly may earn according to the published pay structure.

New Labour praised setting, and the Coalition government loudly demand more streaming. A recent Institute of Education report found that 17% of Primary students in England are now streamed. Governments of all stripes deepen social division and waste the talents of generations by adherence to the pernicious doctrine of fixed innate ‘ability’. Crown Woods College stands as a monument to an increasingly-divided and unequal society, and one whose state education system is being re-structured to intensify those divisions and inequities.


Crown Woods School

Take a look at the website for Crown Woods - replete with coloured crowns - and see if you can find this year's GCSE results, apparently not so good. Other Hogwarts creep in the borough at Thomas Tallis - fabulous school, brilliant ethos, creative, relaxed, good results especially at 6 form level. Old head disappeared without notice, new 'executive' head shipped in from Woolwich Poly whole school now under attack from the conservative powers that be.

I was class of 85.

The school wasnt so great even in 1985. But it wasnt the administration or the structure - it was the radical left-wing new-teacher types who's interest in education was second only to their interest in converting us to their left-wing middle-class 'trendy socialist' values. This was working class SE London, and too many teachers came with their middle-class ideals about leveling the playing field and changing history without understanding the culture of working class SE London. Many of you made arbitrary accusations about us using racist, sexist, or any other-ist words that personally offended you and in doing so removed our freedom of expression and speech. Keeping academically similar students together makes much more sense than teaching to the lowest and slowest common denominator in the room. Why are teacher so scared of admitting that some students are brighter and quicker than others?

Response from Pat Yarker

Hi Manny,

Thanks for responding to my piece about the demise of Crown Woods School. You offer some forthright opinions, but no evidence beyond your own assertions, so it's hard to do more than say that as I recall the school in the early and mid 80s (I started there in October 1982) class-discussion was carefully planned for and encouraged, a wide range of views was respected, and colleagues of mine in the English Dpt. were very alive to the issues around who sets limits to free speech in the classroom and how this might best be done.

Anti-racist and anti-sexist initiatives were being taken at long last by large numbers of teachers across London, and elsewhere, in an attempt to prevent schools functioning merely as sites for the reproduction of social injustice. You'll know that CWS pupils came from a wide geographical area, from places like Blackheath and as well as from Eltham: its comprehensive intake presented a more mixed class-profile than you seem to suggest. Equally, working-class South East London had more than one culture.

Finally, it is not true that some students 'are academically brighter/quicker' than others and there's an end to the matter. No-one is born with a fixed quantum of 'academic ability' measurable by some kind of test. People's learning-capacity is not fixed: it is strictly unlimited. However, the education-system in this country constructs pupils in ways predicated on the notion you are happy to endorse, with all manner of adverse consequences (for those labelled 'bright' as well as those you label 'slow and low'.) Determinist thinking such as you advance about so-called 'ability' has a history which is characterised by hierarchising pupils in ways which mimic the social inequalities capitalism fosters and maintains. At its worst such thinking underpins eugenicist views. At best it wastes the talents of tens of thousands. Countries whose education-systems reject the notion of fixed innate 'ability' do best in international comparisons of educational achievement (for what that might be worth). It is easy to confuse the label attached to a child as soon as they enter the school system with the reality of that child's learning-capacity. (It is made almost compulsory to do so by the policies pursued by successive governments.) But it remains a basic error.

Against significant odds and in the teeth of the prevailing orthodoxy, some teachers work to find ways to enable all children to learn in spite of the barriers put in their way by 'ability-labelling and all that stems from it in and beyond school. There is readily-available research about all of this, should you wish to follow it up.

My thoughts.

Respectfully, i continue to disagree!. I wasnt condoning sexism or racist, i apologize if that was how my comment came across, but the comments, discussions, and essays handed to the English dept teachers who were so overly quick to try and identify comments that the teacher decided fell into these 'offensive' categories, and were never open for discussion or comment. Yourself, David Shepard and Leslie Crocombe were so quick to find fault in these areas, it seemed that the class development were a secondary afterthought to weeding out the infidels who felt the phrases and comments were acceptable.

I see you're quick to dismiss the concept that students have different levels of abilities and that any individuals learning capacity is not fixed, but there are as many studies in agreement as there are to the contrary. Does removing that notion not imply that the teachers abilities are therefore inadequate?. If indeed your belief is correct, why do students learn and complete school with such hugely varied results?

Thanks for your comments.

Another reply from Pat Yarker

Thank-you for your considered response. I’m sorry to learn, even so long after the fact, that your experience of my classroom wasn’t as productive or positive as you’d hoped. The colleagues you mention I always found to be dedicated and hard-working, with a constant concern to help their students grow and develop.

The idea of fixed innate ‘ability’ emerges to try to rehabilitate the discredited notion of IQ. You’ll be aware how such psychometric constructs have been used to justify inequalities in the provision of education to different social groups. Sometimes such injustice is cloaked in claims that narrower or more limited provision is in the best interests of the group. The set work is ‘easier’, for example, since it is all the student can cope with. My belief is that the educability of any student is unlimited, and that it is external constraints and barriers, many of which may be put up by the school itself, which limit and prevent pupils. The testing and examination regime constructs what it purports only to measure, namely the ‘ability’ of the pupil. (See the work of Bourdieu & Passeron on this.) Pupils are now given an ‘ability’ label almost as soon as they enter the system, and for the great majority the label stays with them throughout, shaping their educational destiny. The big disparities in (final) attainment do not reflect disparities in the inherent ‘ability’ of individual pupils but rather the determining action of the system. It is not that ‘every pupil has the same ability’; it is that every pupil’s learning-capacity is unlimited and yet is affected by all decisions made in the present within the system. The present context serves to shape the future outcome. So the focus needs to shift from a reified concept of individual ‘ability’ (and an obsession with measuring and then ‘treating’ it) towards considering how to re-configure the dynamic and multi-faceted educational context, which includes what the teacher does, and does not do, in the classroom. For proper treatment of these ideas, you might want to track down Hart et al. (2004) Learning Without Limits. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Finally, I wonder why you use the word ‘infidels’?

Patrick Yarker's hypocrisy

Yes - Patrick Yarker is very committed to the idea of teaching pupils of differing abilities, unless it actually means he has to do it; in which case he has them removed from his class.

Patrick Yarker took me for A-level English at Crown Woods in the mid 90s. At this point A-level English had no entry criteria and we had pupils of differeing abilities in the class.

After Lower Sixth he announced he was unwilling to teach me any more and that I would have to sit his lessons out. The reason? Well, apparently I was disruptive? Why? Because my views did not meet with the carefully planned socialist brainwashing he wanted to deliver as part of the lesson.

So I had to remove myself from is class (another teacher took us for two hours a week so I was able to go to the those classes) and teach myself in the library. And now here he is railing aginst streaming, when he instigated his own streaming and his own selection in his own classes.

So yeah - very committed to teaching pupils of differing abilities as long as those differing abilities do not interfere with his own agenda.

Mr Shephard was almost as bad - I think it is true what Manny has said, these teachers seemeed more interested in the politics of teaching that helping children to learn.

having said that, I remember Mr Crocombe very fondly indeed; he was my maths teacher in my first year and let me do a project designing a monastery.

I appreciate your troubling

I appreciate your troubling to comment. But in your haste to brand me a hypocrite you neglect the main point of my argument. It retains its force whatever you may think of the person who puts it. You refer to 'pupils of differing abilities' , but my central point is that such a description damagingly misconceives the pupil. The pupil does not arrive at school pre-programmed with a fixed given quantum of 'ability' which may be readily and accurately determined by various kinds of test, or intuited by the teacher, after which the pupil may be satisfactorily labelled and assigned educational experiences supposedly best-suited to someone of her 'ability'. Anyone's and everyone's learning-capacity is unlimited. What needs to be focused on are the learning-environments, resources, activities and opportunities within which or through which the young person is learning. These need to be responsively changed when necessary to enable the pupil to have the best chance of learning rather than to confirm an assigned 'ability'-label.

You will find such assertions ironic in view of the way you feel you were treated, and since the relationship with one's teacher is a key element of the learning-environment and significantly shapes one's opportunity for learning, you may feel you are justified in rejecting or ignoring the arguments I try to advance. And yet it might be suggested that in the circumstances, since you were not doing so in my class, the best way to help you learn, engage with necessary classwork and have the chance to succeed was firstly to set you up in a slightly-less-bad situation.

I would just like to point

I would just like to point out that I stumbled across this article by accident (was trying to google how many pupils Crown Woods had in the 90s) and I do not want it to seem like I have spent years mulling this over trawling the internet waiting to post something – I just could felt that I had to agree with the comments of the other guy (I assume it is a guy) who posted, particularly when I saw them rebutted.

What you say about a child's ability to learn is certainly true IF (and now this is a big if)....

The education of the child can be taken all the way through following this principle. There is a great deal of worth in teaching different children together, in allowing them to learn that other people are different and allowing them to learn from each other. Children should not be allowed to think that just because they are better readers, better spellers, better at spouting dates or better at adding up they are cleverer than the children who are not so good. Children who are good at making things, children who are good at doing things and children who are who are simply just good at getting along well with other people are just as "clever" as the good rememberers and the good reciters. It is also very worthwhile to constantly give a child the opportunity to try new things; just because a kid's teacher in the final year at primary school decides (from what she sees of him) that he is not very bright, that does not mean that he should be relegated to some Beezer Homes Leagues class in his new school and left at that.

However, that is not the principle on which our education system works; however much we might wish it did. Children leave one school branded with one stream and join another. At the end of their time in that school they take exams which allow them to take further exams to get into university, That is how the system works. I do not think it is the role of a teacher employed within that system (who knew how the system worked) to sacrfice the chances of his pupils succeeding within that system to the ideal of how he wished the system were, in a perfect world.

I agree, in princiiple – that constant testing and grading, and essentially branding of children as one thing or another is not helpful at all; and it reduces learning to nothing more than a process. It also alienates many, many people; who feel that they are not clever enough. When of course they ARE, it is just that the system never recognised it.

But fighting against that system should not be done by using the childten within that system as pawns. Those children need to get the best out of the education system in which they find themselves. It is not very helpful if a teacher, such as you, refuses to help a child through that system just because that child pushes back against the teacher's personal ideology. It is hypocritical to say you are against streaming but then instigate your own streaming based on who you feel you can teach. A teacher in a state school is honour-bound to teach all the children (short of ones who are an actual physical threat, and yes I do remember children like that at Crown Woods), after all that child's parents have paid the taxes which fund the state.

There were very, very good teachers at Crown Woods, committed to helping children learn and committed to the real ideal of comprehensive education; there were also teachers whose commitment to ideology was more important to them than the practicalities of helping a child get the best he could out of the system. As you say above, you had arguments you tried to advance. That really was not your role as an A-level English teacher; it was to teach us Dickens and Shakespeare and the beginnings of literary theory to help us pass our A-levels. You placed "arguments" above that, and if you had an argument it follows you had a viewpoint. I do not think teachers should have political viewpoints that they try to advance on their pupils, especially not at the cost of getting them through the system. Refusing to teach a child because they ignored the arguments you tried to advance, is not helping a child get the most out of the system.

Maybe you did not agree with the system; maybe I do not agree with the system. That is not relevant. WHat matters is that was the system and you did not do your best to help children get through it.

Crown Woods was a very good school. There were very committed teachers, and there were aspects of it which did allow for a more holistic teaching approach regardless of the strictures of testing and exams nd the overall dismantling of the comprehensive ideal. One of these was the opportunity to be taught by the same people from the age of eleven right through to eighteen. This did mean that teachers did get the chance to really get to know the children and how clever they really were, regardless of what their test marks said. In a perfect world I think all children would taught in a system which takes them right through and which allows them dip in and dip out. To be a bit thick for a bit and a bit clever for a bit because we all have ups and downs and one mark in one test should not determine everything, At the moment, this sort of education is only available to the very wealthy.

I was lucky, I was branded as one of the more able, which is an advantage in that system; but I saw teachers who developed really great relationships with other children who had branded as "less able" and it was those relationships, and the fact that much of the teaching was done in a truly comprehensive environment, which enabled those children to get as much out of the system (however wrong that system might have been) as they could.

You did not do that. If the reasoning you give for this is a reasoning with which you feel comfortable then I would suggest that my assertion is a valid one – that your arguments (which you here admit to having and trying to advance) were more important to you than your teaching.

I think you have mis-read me.

I think you have mis-read me. The 'argument I try to advance' is advanced in my reply to your accusatory first post. I am not saying that when I was a secondary teacher I tried to advance an argument about innate fixed 'ability' thinking. No: I tried to do something else then, which was to work (instinctively) in ways which looked to refute such a view of individual learning-capacity. An understanding of the intellectual arguments arrived later, as you may read in the book by Hart and her co-authors to which I refer in an earlier post.

You have followed up your mis-reading with a set of further accusations: that I refused to help you; that I instigated my own streaming based on who it was I felt I could teach, that my 'arguments [by which I think you mean my political commitments]... were more important to me than [my] teaching'. You also claim that for some teachers at CWS 'ideology was more important... than the practicalities of helping a child get the best he could out of the system.' You go on to require teachers, in the interests of helping pupils, to put up with the system as it is: 'that was the system and you did not do your best to help children get through it.'

You are wrong on every count. It did not lie in my power to decide who was in my classes: I could not effect the removal of a pupil or have someone transfer in. You suggest that you were making a stand against political indoctrination, whereas I recall someone who refused over a sustained and lengthy period to work with me or for me either in the ways everyone else worked, or in the ways in which I attempted to accommodate you in order to help you succeed; whose parents accepted this was the case, and, faced with the impasse caused by your imperviousness to all attempts to engage you constructively, agreed with the school hierarchy that you would be best-served in another environment. The advice you offer teachers on how to do their job would render teachers merely skilled technical functionaries in someone else's system, thereby denying teachers both autonomy and responsibility (including ethical responsibility) for their pupils' learning. You would also deny teachers something central to their role, namely the opportunity to be whole persons, who they are, in the classroom. You seem to think teachers need to take a self-denying ordinance, rather than extending to teachers recognition that they are people who,as best they can and in the face (at least in my own case) of many a failure, look to put the needs of their students first, and who understand and deeply consider the tensions that arise in and from their role.

That the co-construction of knowledge has, among many other facets, a political facet, and that thinking about literary texts and discussing and evaluating ideas and readings in relation to them is inherently (but not solely) political, is not a partisan position to take. But if you are of the view that literature is, and teaching should be, 'above' politics, then we must be content, decades on, yet again to differ.

I was a seventeen year old

I was a seventeen year old boy, I did what I was told. My parents also agreed to what the teachers told them was best. Anyway, it's not a big deal, we all make mistakes - it hasn't ruined my life or anything - I only thought about it on reading this article.

A thought has just occured to me; maybe - and I will admit I have not read any of your work so what I say now is not a judgement on anything you have said or written on the subject - but maybe that goes to show it might not be possible to teach all children together. I DO believe in comprehensive education and I am glad I went to Crown Woods. If I were to have children, they would go to the local comp - but maybe this (the problems of having a difficult pupil in a classroom) goes to show that perhaps not all children should be taught together. Yes, I probably was quite difficult but do you know how boring it was being in a classroom with kids who could not even get their heads around really "basic" ideas (this was not really the case in your class, I am talking about earlier on in lower years). It is not that kid's fault, he had just not had the chance to learn properly - but it is not useful to the child who needs further opportunities to grasp "basic" ideas or for the teacher to also have to deal with another child who is being disruptive because he is bored by the repetition of basic ideas. I don't know what the answer to that is because what you gain by then streaming the kids, you lose by also branding them.

SO there you have it - you had a disruptive child in your class and your solution was to agree to his removal - a true commitment to inclusive education would mean you would not agree to that. The idea that I chose that is preposterous; as I said i was a seventeen year old boy (and in 1996 seventeen year old boys really were boys, or at least I was) and the fact that my parents agreed is neither here nor there, they have the least hands-on approach to education going.

It is sad but teachers in the state sector ARE merely skilled technical functionaries within someone else's system. That system is called the school, which is not owned by the teacher. A teacher who wishes to be more than that is free to be more than that, by choosing not to teach within that system (privately) or campaigning for a change in that system but NOT by experimenting with the children who find themselves in that system. Yeah, fair enough research is fine but not when the end result is an A-level which your experiements jeopardise. Ultimately, that is what state-schools are all about - although we both wish they weren't.

Anyway, I am going to stop this now because my intention was never to gatecrash your article with a re-hash of a minor spat eighteen years ago but I would say that if three people have replied to your article, two of whom are former pupils and both of whom have said the same thing, then I think you are going to have to accept that criticism and move on from it.

I was at Crown Wood School in the 60's

I, like one of the correspondents above, stumbled across this article whilst trying to find out what happened to Crown Woods School.

I attended the school from 1964 to 1970 - a golden era ? - and from memory a Mr Ross was Headmaster.

My impression was that, although a comprehensive school, there was a definite streaming of pupils from the most able in the Alpha classes through to the A classes, B classes and C classes in each year. This of course flies in the face of everything Mr Yarker appears to stand for but the plain simple truth is that streaming worked.

Mr Yarker may not like or accept this but common sense suggests that if you have mixed ability classes it is fairly inevitable that the most academically strong will almost certainly be held back as the teachers have to teach to the least academically gifted. No-one is at fault here - but sometimes you just have to accept that some children will be much better at school than others - please don't hold them back just because of some 'right on, left wing, all kids are the same' views. They aren't, and you'll end up doing most a considerable disservice. Teach them the basics well, and leave the political views at the school gates.

I was lucky enough to be in the top Alpha classes whilst at Crown Woods, and it was only my own lack of ambition that stopped me from getting much better qualifications. But, all in all, I did at least get a good education........

New segregation

Like A pupil of the 60's I was at Crown Woods in the 1960s, specifically from 1961 to 1965. I only left the school when my family emigrated to Australia that year.

I was streamed by the 11 Plus exam into 1 Alpha 2. This signified that I was good at English and hopeless at mathematics and sciences. I don't know if you'd call that deterministic but it still describes me. I don't recall if my peers in 1 Alpha 2 right up until 3 Alpha 2 (I was in 4P if I remember rightly when I left) and myself were given any different form of instruction in mathematics and the sciences. All I do remember is my dread each time I went into a mathematics lesson.

That was the academic side. On the social side it was a bit better. We were grouped into Houses (some of the old House names seem to be in the new College) and home groups. In New 11 we had individuals from Alpha, A. B, C and D. I remember sitting next to a student who was in the D stream, a top bloke. The school was mixed in terms of social class but back in those days was far less ethincally mixed then in recent years, perhaps reflecting the catchment area for the school which was pretty middle class. I was a working class kid from Woolwich and Abbey Wood but I felt no different from anyone else in the school.

My point is that there was academic streaming but the home room concept together with the House concept meant that there was no - or at least very little - official segregation. The new College approach is an anathema to the approach that was used back in the 60s and beyond. I don't think that's a good idea and I think I agree with Pat's points on the new segregation.

An old A-Level pupil of yours writes...

Dear Patrick,

As my former English teacher I hope you’ll take responsibility for any errors in spelling and grammar below.

You began with your first experience of Crown Woods, so let me briefly tell you about mine. I came to the school from Humphry Davy, a former Cornish grammar with an intake of 800. In my first two years there I was educated on a “lower site” with a small group of around 150 pupils. That school felt like a community, everyone was friendly and personable – in short, it felt like a school as I imagine a school to be. In contrast Crown Woods was impersonal and anonymous. In addition to being unwieldy I thought it was an ugly sausage factory, not a building one could take pride in or forge an emotional connection with.

This is superficial of course but it speaks to something fundamental, namely how the ethos of a school, as manifest in its intake and space, effect the psychological disposition of the children who attend (then later choose not to). You lamented the destruction of the school’s “classrooms, labs, gyms and workshops” but they were characterless spaces and it’s just possible they fostered characterlessness.

You talk about the values of comprehensive education, but I suggest the delivery model was at odds with the principle. Comprehensive education implies, perhaps demands, a full or total education, but in the last century we rightly came to distrust any system prefixed by “total”. Social integration, which must be a part of any total system of development, seems noble in the abstract, but how can such a system be tailored to the needs of individuals? You say Edu-business reduces children to an abstraction – an “it”, but doesn’t a catch-all model do the same?

No one, buoyed by idealism, would create a system that wilfully segregated children, but here schools are fighting social forces far stronger than a state education provider. Trying to militate against such forces using state power is like holding an umbrella up to a tornado. Social segregation begins in the home; it starts with domestic indoctrination, class consciousness, and whatever passes for parental values. In the playground children self-segregate for the most part – they’re compelled, in a bid to shore up their fragile identity, to seek out children ostensibly similar to themselves.

It would be sublime to believe that kids can transcend their “type”, that they can break out of the straightjacket they’re put in at birth, but as children get older they begin to note the fabric of this straightjacket on other kids, delineate the edge of the straps. Typically young bucks and does that grew up with a mixed group of friends will hone their process of selection in late adolescence, looking for those who share their outlook and interests as they socially position themselves. In other words, by the time comp-kids are adults they’ve typically rolled back the forced integration of their school years. All they have to show for the experience are memories of children that they found either effete or degenerate and senseless. This is a child’s one true shared experience: playground streaming.

I’m cheered by the idea that there’s no such thing as general academic ability; that everyone’s born with limitless potential. No child feels that, you understand. The pupils of the old Crown Woods had an intuitive understanding of intelligence, honed from primary school onwards. Of course innate ability, whatever that means, isn’t something other kids can measure. If it’s not known to the children themselves, as it’s uncultivated, then it won’t be obvious to other tadpoles.

Yet kids aren’t bad at reading what’s behind the eyes, at sensing who’s curious and who isn’t, which child’s thoughtful and which are forever struggling to catch up with their mouths. In a comprehensive you’re bedfellows with those whose temperaments are anathema to your own. Were the kids of Crown Woods wrong to follow their instincts, categorise and self-select, based on what they found? Or could it be that if potential isn’t cultivated from the get go, it soon becomes limited, like (and here comes a cliché, so apologies, I may get marked down) a muscle that’s never used. Perhaps we’re unfixed at birth, but at fifteen? Thirty? When is it too late to take Danny Shunk, with his scatological fixation, propensity to flash his genitals, and belief that Shakespeare’s a type of weapon, and turn him into a genius?

You alluded to the benefits of the comprehensive principle. As a product of that system I don’t accept I’ve enjoyed any social benefit. I may integrate more easily with people from different backgrounds, but this malleability hasn’t led to an embarrassment of social riches. At Crown Woods these kids almost wasted as much of my time as I did.

So what of students helping others to learn? The basic problem for educationalists that put their faith in that idea is this: every precocious child who takes time out to help his less focused, less thoughtful peer, is a child who’s not been challenged. If the classroom is out of balance; if there’s fewer curious children than curious, student-talk is subject to the compulsory pressure of peer groups, which will often veer toward the tangential and trivial. In a culture where curiosity is viewed with suspicion, because it makes the incurious insecure, the opportunities for kids that want to learn are significantly reduced. The default assumption in your piece in that these structural principles improved schools but I saw no evidence of an intellectually stimulating environment at Crown Woods, just a place where the curious struggled to get on.

If you want to beat the “fixed quantum” principle you need a more holistic education system; one that compels parents and households to be part of the developmental cycle. There has to be a constitution; one that each family is obliged to sign up to – including fundamental principles like social difference as an injustice (if fixed a problem early, perhaps kids would grow up compelled to solve it, rather than perpetuate it) and the child’s right to learn, in other words, each family would be responsible for the uninterrupted learning of every other, a policy that by extension would prohibit impediments such as bullying and intimidation.

Only by instilling this principle from the start could you hope to address the cultural malaise that sank Crown Woods. No child should be written off young, or labelled, but that requires a nuanced and individuated approach to teaching that the comprehensive system cannot accommodate. In fact, given it’s an exercise in collectivisation, it’s hard to see how it could ever succeed on that basis. Each and every one of us is unique; we have different psychological barriers and respond to different kinds of learning. Crown Woods College isn’t the answer, but nor was the school it replaced.