Reclaiming comprehensives

Speech to launch 'Going the extra mile: excellence in competitive school sport'

Sir Michael Wilshaw

Good morning and thank you for inviting me once again to talk at the Wellington Festival. This is my third visit to Wellington. It’s always a great educational occasion. And, as ever, I’m grateful to Sir Anthony and his team for hosting the event and providing a forum for education debate, and allowing me the opportunity to talk about a subject that has preoccupied me for a long time: comprehensive education.

I appreciate that some may find it ironic that I want to talk about a socially inclusive education model in so privileged a setting as Wellington. But no one who cares about our country’s future can afford not to have a view on a school model that still educates the overwhelming majority of our children and that is likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

I come here this morning not to bury the comprehensive ideal but to reclaim and celebrate it. This is not to deny that comprehensives have their problems. Of course they do.

In fact, many critics believe that their problems are so intractable that the only solution is to bring back grammars. I am not one of them.

I appreciate that many grammar schools do a fine job and equip their students with an excellent education. But their record of including students from non-middle-class backgrounds is poor. And let’s not delude ourselves. ‘A grammar school in every town’, as some are calling for, would also mean three secondary moderns in every town, too – a consequence rarely mentioned.

What does the country need more of? Schools that educate only the top 20% of students, 90% of whom get good GCSEs, or schools that educate 100% of students, 80% of whom are capable of getting good GCSEs? I think the answer is pretty obvious.

If we have learned anything from those educational superstars in Asia and elsewhere it is that a country will only progress if it provides an excellent education for all of its citizens, not just some of them.

An ideal worth fighting for

I am a passionate believer in local schools for all abilities. Indeed, until the current job, I had spent my entire professional life in inner-city comprehensives. So it saddens me to see that, despite the success of many comprehensives, their reputation remains tarnished.

Last year I gave a series of interviews to launch our Most able report, which considered how well state-schools were addressing the needs of their most talented students. When I told one well-known interviewer that Ofsted wanted to see comprehensives doing more for the most able, he jovially scoffed: ‘Good luck with that one!’ His implication was that comprehensives were incapable of stretching children academically and what is more that everyone knew it. I think his reaction encapsulates the scale of the challenge we face in reclaiming the image.

Despite the enormous strides the majority of our comprehensives have made in the past few years, the name is still associated in the minds of many with mediocrity, laxity and failure. For many, journalists and politicians in particular, comprehensives remain – to use an infamous label – bog-standard.

In fact, the vast majority of today’s comprehensives, whether local authority schools or academies, are far better than many of their critics allow. And they are a lot better than the comprehensives I first worked in 30 years ago.

The old comprehensive ‘schools from hell’, the names that journalists regularly invoked to terrify their readers, are rare. The descendants of these schools are often successful academies, which no longer pander to their students but educate them. Comprehensive schools should be proudly academic schools. To be anything else is a betrayal of their principles. They exist to promote the idea that all children, regardless of background, deserve – and can benefit from – an intellectually stimulating education.

Given the challenging intakes they often have, I realise that isn’t always easy. But then learning rarely is. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’ Or do you think Robert Browning’s words should apply only to the children of the well-off? But it would be foolish to pretend all is perfect. As our last annual report showed, almost a fifth of all schools require improvement and many others engage in a constant battle to avoid slipping backwards.

Much of this underperformance, in my opinion, has historical roots. Even though the ideology that afflicted so many of the early comprehensives has been largely discredited, its damaging effects remain. They can be seen in the toleration of poor behaviour, the disdain for competitive sports, the half-hearted pursuit of high academic standards and the meagre respect sometimes given to leadership and authority.

If we are to reclaim the comprehensive ideal, if more schools are to become good, we have to tackle these baleful legacies.

Some history

Comprehensives were launched with what was, and remains, a laudable guiding principle: they were to provide educational opportunities for children of all abilities in a single school rather than dividing them into winners and losers at the tender age of 11. A comprehensive was to be, in Harold Wilson’s phrase, ‘a grammar school for all’.

Sadly, for most children, that ambition was never fulfilled. Newspapers were soon full of stories about plummeting educational standards, abysmal student behaviour and evaporating teacher authority.

Hackney Downs Grammar, the predecessor to my former school, Mossbourne Academy, exemplified the problem. Hackney Downs had declined to the point where it was named the worst school in Britain.

It had failed to retain any legacy of its former life as a grammar. There was no respect for authority. Academic achievement was more often disdained than encouraged. Many teachers thought little of their students, who returned the compliment. This pattern was repeated up and down the country in hundreds of schools. It was by no means confined to tough inner-city schools like Hackney Downs. In too many instances, the local comp had become the school that many parents sought to avoid. The opportunity promised by educational reformers had become an ordeal.

How had it come to this? Why had a school model based on sound principles and enjoying cross-party support failed so many? Why hadn’t comprehensives become ‘grammar schools for all’?

What went wrong?

Historians point to poor organization and the sloppy way in which schools were reformed. But in my opinion the biggest single cause of failure was a loss of authority at all levels.

Teachers no longer respected the head, students no longer respected the teachers, parents no longer respected the school and few respected academic tradition. The authority conferred by learning, by academic excellence, was wilfully trashed. Local authorities, that at the time had so much power, failed to demand that schools improve.

Bernard Donoghue, Jim Callaghan’s adviser and the man responsible for the prime minister’s seminal Ruskin speech, delivered an early warning. Donoghue had come from a working-class background and was appalled that his children in Islington state schools were receiving a threadbare education. He firmly believed that the prospects of poor children were being ruined by ‘middle-class ideologues’ whose pet theories were reinforcing disadvantage not alleviating it.

The age of appeasement

My experiences at the time chimed with his. Intellectual excellence was sacrificed on the altar of social equality. To strive, to compete, to achieve was considered reactionary.

To show respect was craven. To expect obedience was oppressive. Rules, competitive sport, professional dress and uniforms were all too often ditched.

Headteachers were encouraged to pander to their staff and to their students. They were expected to be a friend not a leader. Some even styled themselves ‘convener’ rather than head. ‘Call me Pete,’ one urged his students. I can assure you none of my students ever called me ‘Mike’.

The external support headteachers needed to resist much of this nonsense was often absent. Local authorities rarely took a stand. Indeed, they often capitulated to those who were prepared to undermine authority. The establishment response, from local government to teacher training institutions, was unconditional surrender. Management was conditioned to concede.

One head who did stand against the tide was Rhodes Boyson. Admittedly, he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But Dr Boyson, a Labour councillor before he became a Tory MP, clearly had taken Harold Wilson’s injunction to run a ‘grammar school for all’ to heart.

His comprehensive, Highbury Grove in Islington, retained the traditions, rules and ethos of a grammar. Students were expected to excel and teachers were required to help them. It’s instructive to compare the results his students achieved with those of a neighbouring school, Islington Green, run on trendier lines. In 1978, Highbury Grove students achieved 220 passes at O level and 40 at A level. At Islington Green they managed only 22 O levels and a pitiful two passes at A level.

Lessons for today

As I said at the start of my speech, I’ve come to reclaim the comprehensive ideal – not to bury it.

Despite the wrong turns, despite the egregious polices that were sometimes implemented in its name, the founding principle of comprehensives – to offer a decent education to all abilities – remains a sound one. What is more, it is the only approach that will address the educational needs of the entire country, not just bits of it.

The reason I believe comprehensives are better today is that many more heads behave as Dr Boyson did all those years ago. They refuse to appease, they refuse to concede; they understand what makes a school successful.

But not all do. If we are to reclaim the comprehensive vision, if more of our schools are to succeed, then we need to find more leaders who are prepared to challenge the orthodoxies that have damaged education over the past 40 years. And in the battle against tired ideologies and harmful classroom practices good leadership is essential.

What do school leaders need to do to reclaim the vision?

1. Challenging tired teaching orthodoxies

First, they have to challenge tired teaching orthodoxies.

There are many comprehensive schools, some with incredibly challenging intakes, which provide a demanding intellectual education for their students.

Unfortunately, there are others that do the opposite. They still indulge in attitudes and practices that are far from exceptional and are a throwback to the 60s and 70s. ‘Informal’ or ‘individualised learning’ is a case in point. This once-fashionable concept was based on the belief that children learn best by self-discovery, that criticism and adult supervision stifle youthful creativity.

Its legacy still lingers in some schools today: academic rigour is undervalued; basic literacy and numeracy are neglected; subject specialism is relegated in favour of cross-curricula muddle. Its echoes are particularly apparent in the continued resistance to exams and any form of meaningful qualification.

‘There is more to education than tests,’ some say. Yes, there is. But they are essential passports to further educational opportunity. And for youngsters who cannot rely on family connections, those four little letters – GCSE – are essential to prevent them being saddled with four less useful letters: NEET – not in employment, education or training.

Headteachers need to challenge any attitude that implies that a child’s educational potential is limited by their social class. And they must insist that the curriculum is academically robust. It is the key to greater life chances. After all, we are in the possibilities game. And a school that doesn’t push a student to excel, to do everything possible to succeed academically, simply isn’t doing its job.

2. Confronting parents who refuse to take responsibility

Second, we need leaders who are prepared to confront parents who refuse to take responsibility. One of the less talked about consequences of the move to comprehensives was that the relationship between schools and parents was often severed. Parents expected little of their local comprehensives and schools expected little of them.

As any successful headteacher knows, the engagement and support of parents and carers is crucial to the success of a school. They have to be told how important they are to the education of their children. Education is a compact; both parties have a role to play.

Too many comprehensives ignored this partnership. And this neglect had a corrosive consequence: parents were infantilised because they were rarely reminded of their responsibilities or engaged in an effective way.

Too few comprehensive headteachers thought it was their job to tell parents that they expected homework to be completed, or books to be brought in, or that it was unacceptable for children to be absent during term time.

I’m glad to say the situation has improved markedly since those days. Home-school agreements are common, parental engagement is a priority for most school leaders and public trust in the profession is high. But some schools still fail to tell parents how vital they are to the process of education and some parents fail to understand what exactly is expected of them.

This is most commonly seen in the opposition of some parents to strict uniform policies. ‘How dare they send my Oliver home because he has the wrong colour socks!’ they complain to the local paper. ‘It’s not vital to his education!’ Oh yes it is.

Strict uniform rules send a key message: ‘We, the teachers, are in charge. This is our school; these are our rules. And if you want your children to attend, you will abide by them.’

In my view, heads should not balk at telling parents when they fail in their duties to the school or their children. Poverty, or for that matter wealth, does not excuse parents from the responsibility to support their child or their school. And if they are not doing it, they should be told.

3. Challenging the view that competition is an ugly word

Third, good leaders challenge the view that competition is an ugly word. One of the most enduring legacies of the educational upheaval of 40 years ago is the effect it had on competitive sports. Sporting competitions, leagues, house games and all the other activities that underpinned a successful school ethos were jettisoned. In the eyes of many they were forever tainted with the elitism associated with grammar and independent schools.

Competition itself was regarded with distrust because it divided children into winners and losers. And that contradicted the warped version of equality many at the time held.

The pride sporting teams contribute to a school’s ethos was dismissed. The fact that children thrive and like competition was ignored. Yes, some children inevitably fail. But learning to deal with and move on from failure is one of the biggest lessons sport can teach.

As our report into competitive sports published today makes clear, state schools are still living with the consequences. Some 42% of UK medals won at the London Olympics were won by sportsmen and women who went to independent schools. This isn’t surprising when you consider the central role sport plays in those institutions. In independent schools, competitive sport isn’t an optional extra; it’s a key component in building self-esteem, confidence and academic excellence.

Of course, many independent schools enjoy financial advantages not available to their state-funded peers. But as our report also makes clear, it is not resource that is the key to their success but attitude. Children are expected to compete and teachers are expected to go the extra mile to help them.

I’m delighted to say that some state schools have also taken those lessons to heart. They use competitive sport to energise the entire school; their leaders understand its value and continually promote it. They ensure that their staff sign up to that goal and that all children, regardless of sporting prowess, are included in some way.

Pride in a team, the thrill of a new challenge, encouraging every student to have a go pays academic dividends. As a result, attainment across the school tends to be high. The school that wins on the pitch wins in the exam hall.

If these schools can do it, so can many more. But as things stand, many state schools treat competitive sport as an optional extra or fail to offer it in any meaningful way.

We have to get rid of this curious leftover from the 70s that competition has no place in schools. Of course it does. The best headteachers are highly competitive people. The best schools aim to win. Competition isn’t incompatible with collaboration; it’s a necessary component of it. If you’re not good, you have little of value to share. We need to celebrate schools’ competitive instincts. Competition shouldn’t be an ugly word. Competition is good.

4. Insisting on the school being an orderly place

Finally, good leaders insist that the school is an orderly place. In the popular mind one of the biggest problems of the early comprehensives was poor student behaviour. It was obvious to me as a teacher in London that in many schools good behaviour was notable by its absence. Discipline evaporated as tradition was trashed and instruction was supplanted by indulgence.

In many schools the child was a ‘partner’ and the teacher a ‘friend’. The idea that a teacher could insist that a student follow his or her instructions was therefore moot.

This environment allowed weak teaching to flourish. Weakness was dressed up as ‘respect’ for a child’s innate difference. It was in truth a refusal to be professional, a refusal to take responsibility. And In the worst cases, it bred not respect for the child but disdain. ‘What can we do with kids like these?’ became an all too familiar excuse as behaviour deteriorated and exam results fell off a cliff.

But it wasn’t the kids who were at fault. We, the supposed professionals, were. We had abrogated our duty to be experts and authority figures. They hadn’t stopped being children; we had ceased to be teachers.

Although the excesses of the past are thankfully rare now, the notion that firm discipline is somehow unjust persists. I still see articles today with headlines such as ‘Do strict behaviour policies make for happy schools?’ and comments like ‘children must be able to discover what rules are appropriate for themselves.’

What nonsense. Children, especially those who lack structure at home, want and expect teachers to give them rules. In their absence, they do not sit around politely debating the most appropriate ones to follow. And they certainly don’t think much of teachers who give them the option.

Yet some teachers remain reluctant to say: ‘I’m in charge, these are my rules and you will follow them.’ Phrases such as ‘behaviour management’ are still bandied around as if a child’s conduct is something to be negotiated. It smacks of compromise and containment. It undermines authority and it implies that discipline cannot be imposed.

Schools must accept that discipline is not a dirty word. A good comprehensive school is a well-disciplined school where important rules are non-negotiable. They are as much about protecting the child as any safeguarding policy. Children are happiest in a school that is calm and well ordered and where they feel safe. It’s the only environment in which learning can flourish. Without it, teaching becomes impossible, learning dissolves; staff become disillusioned and too often leave.

Leadership is key

As I said earlier, the main reason I believe comprehensives schools have improved so much is that they now enjoy a quality of leadership that they lacked before.

In the past, senior leaders were often complicit in their own enfeeblement. They thought they lacked the legitimacy to lead. Most headteachers today do not lack self-belief. But if we are to entrench the gains we have made, all school leaders must learn to lead from the front. They must radiate authority. They must attend to the small details as well as the big picture. They must not become absentee managers, addicted to networking but averse to spending time in their school. They, and we, must learn the lessons of where school reform went wrong.

I have a suspicion that even now, for all the progress we have made, effective management is still seen in some quarters as marginal to the real purpose of schools – that good learning and teaching can happen miraculously without it. Well it can’t. And unless all comprehensives become synonymous with excellent leadership they will never be able to provide the education their students deserve.


Let me be clear, we need to reclaim and celebrate comprehensive education in this country not because I’m a romantic but because I’m a realist. It isn’t about salvaging the reputation of a discredited sixties ideology. It’s about acknowledging that there is only one school model that can realistically educate all our children to a standard they and the country deserve.

For all the nostalgic talk about bringing back selective education, the fact remains that virtually every top performing education system in the world follows some type of comprehensive model.

If we are to emulate them, we have to be honest about what went wrong in the past. I am optimistic that our schools are up to the challenge. But we have to ditch the legacy that blighted too many schools and that still lingers today.

Comprehensives must be unambiguously academic. They must be relentlessly competitive. They must engage with parents and carers. They must be places where discipline is taken for granted. And they must be exceptionally led.

If they do that, if we exorcise the ghosts of the past, then we will succeed. Because, ultimately, for our schools, the future is comprehensive.

Thank you.

‘Going the extra mile: excellence in competitive school sport’ Ofsted, 2014

‘The most able students: are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools’? Ofsted, 2013

Published 20 June 2014