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.


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.

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’?