Progressive Islington: Pupils from Risinghill Comprehensive School protest the rumoured closure of their school in 1965 (credit: Getty Images)
"He was a public school man who had gone into state education because it was more rewarding." So begins John le Carré's description of Peter Worthington, a minor character in his 1977 novel The Honourable Schoolboy. Worthington is a decent but hapless schoolteacher who makes references to behavioural psychology in conversation and advocates giving children the "freedom" to "develop their individuality". Where did le Carré, a master chronicler of the English professional class, choose for this character to teach? The London Borough of Islington.
While I was researching a book about the recent history of Britain's state schools, this one London borough cropped up again and again, playing a significant role in every decade from the Sixties to today. Islington was the home of Britain's first outwardly "progressive" comprehensive school, and this country's most acrimonious school scandal. The borough's schools have spurred politicians of all stripes into action, from the right-wing Tory MP Rhodes Boyson, to Jim Callaghan's head of policy Bernard Donoughue. Tony Blair, once Islington's most famous resident, risked the ire of his own party by refusing to send his children to a local school, and charged another Islington resident, Andrew Adonis, with reforming British education. An Islington school even provided the choir for perhaps the world's best-known song about education, Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)".
During the Sixties and Seventies, Islington's elegant but crumbling Georgian terraces were bought and renovated by an influx of vaguely bohemian professional couples — "the white wine and marijuana brigade" in the words of one historian. In keeping with their countercultural outlook, many of these couples sent their children to a clutch of new "progressive" local schools, where the rudiments of a traditional school — academic subjects, uniforms, strict discipline, examinations — were giving way to experiments in "child-centred" learning and minimal adult authority. Here, middle-class children rubbed shoulders with the inhabitants of Islington's large new council estates, including many recent immigrants from Cyprus and the West Indies. These schools set out to provide a liberated school environment where children from all classes and cultures could be freed from adult authority and achieve self-fulfilment. The reality could not have been more different.
In 1960, a secondary school called Risinghill opened next to Pentonville Prison in the Barnsbury neighbourhood of Islington. The school's head, Michael Duane, was a left-wing former army major who had been ousted from secondary moderns in Suffolk and Hertfordshire for his unconventional approach to schooling. He was a friend of A.S. Neill, founder of the do-as-you-please boarding school Summerhill, where lessons were optional and school rules non-existent.
At Risinghill, Duane was given the opportunity to apply a version of the Summerhill vision to a state comprehensive school. He introduced a regime of no formal discipline, humanist assemblies, and a pupil-led school council that dealt with major school issues. The Duane regime quickly descended into chaos. An inspector's report from 1962 recorded obscene graffiti, an epidemic of truancy and "an atmosphere of indiscipline which is difficult to describe". The school attracted press attention when a pupil was seen shooting out of the windows with an air rifle, and its pupil roll fell from 1,323 when it first opened to 854 by 1965. That year, only five years after it had opened, London County Council closed Risinghill.
One might have hoped that Risinghill's progressive approach to schooling would die with it. Instead, Duane's vision was to become commonplace among a new generation of British schools. The long postwar population boom meant that many members of the "generation of ‘68", the radical students who had seen revolutionary ideals sweep their university campuses, were drafted in to join the teaching profession. Their appetite for a new vision of schooling gained official endorsement in 1967 with the Plowden Report, a highly influential document which encouraged primary schools to move away from "traditional lines" to be run along "free lines".
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