Islington: Children as Guinea Pigs of the Left

“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”.

One primary school which took the Plowden Report to heart was William Tyndale School, located just off Islington’s Upper Street among the gentrifying terraces of Canonbury. In 1973, Terry Ellis became head, although he preferred the non-hierarchical title of “convener”. His second-in-command was the generously sideburned Brian Haddow, later described by a colleague as “a hard person, a troublemaker and an ideologue”. Together, Ellis and Haddow embarked upon an extraordinarily irresponsible two-year experiment that shocked the British public.

Haddow and Ellis saw traditional education as “social control”, so they abandoned formal lessons and gave pupils complete choice over what they learnt. Even writing lessons were optional, as this skill was thought to be obsolete in the age of the typewriter. No effort was made to enforce school discipline, and when parents complained about their children being allowed to play truant and run onto the streets, the head answered, “What do you expect me to do? Make the school into a concentration camp to keep your children in?”

Stories began to filter through of William Tyndale pupils “bullying infants; laughing and swearing at teachers; and abusing the dinner ladies and playground supervisors”, as well as throwing stones and spitting at pupils in the next-door infant school. In perhaps the worst incident, one boy climbed on top of the roof of the toilets and began hurling glass milk bottles at the infant school pupils below. The head’s solution was to suggest that milk be delivered in cardboard cartons instead.

The school roll fell from 230 pupils in 1973 to 144 a year later, and by the summer of 1975 there were just 63 pupils. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) entered into a protracted battle to get the school shut down, so Ellis, Haddow and five staffroom allies went on strike. By this point, the William Tyndale affair was being closely followed by the national press. The Daily Express explained: “Here among the drama, comedy and absurdity of it all is sandwiched the future of British schools.”

The public outcry was so fierce that a parliamentary inquiry was called. The Auld Inquiry interviewed 107 witnesses and spent £55,000; its report ran to 250,000 words and concluded that William Tyndale was an unfortunate but exceptional case. A remedial teacher from William Tyndale, Dolly Walker, disagreed, and wrote in response: “I venture to say that the debasement of education which [William Tyndale] exemplifies is a reflection of the very widespread malaise within education in the country today.” 

By the late Seventies, the spread of progressive education was alarming figures on both Left and Right. The Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was particularly worried, and questioned the efficacy of “informal” teaching methods in his influential 1976 speech on education at Ruskin College, Oxford. Callaghan was pushed to do so by Bernard O’Donoughue, an Islington resident and the head of his policy unit, who was concerned by the education received by his children at local schools. Donoughue was born into a poor family and raised by a single mother, but received a first-rate traditional education at Northampton Grammar School, making him highly sceptical of the innovations taking place in the nation’s classrooms by the Seventies.

Later in life, Donoughue recalled the inspiration behind Callaghan’s speech: “There was clear evidence that working-class parents and children wanted education and what they wanted was not the same as the middle-class Labour people from Islington, the trendy lecturers from higher education who wanted education at the expense of working-class kids. Jim and I talked about this. Whenever I heard those people talk I got very angry . . . Their thinking was based on Guardian-style ideologies and prejudices.”

If these “ideologies and prejudices” had a soundtrack, it may well have been the 1979 anti-authority anthem “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”. Roger Walters’s song was a revolt against formal teaching, in particular the “oppressive” education he received at the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys during the Fifties. In the accompanying video, Gerald Scarfe provided a cartoon of a demonic, cane-wielding teacher feeding children through a school-shaped meat-mincer. A group of London schoolchildren provided the chorus, singing: “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom . . . Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone.”

The song was recorded just off Upper Street, and the children were recruited from the nearby Islington Green Comprehensive School. However, while Walters’s song was a protest against his strict Fifties grammar school, the education these children were receiving in 1979 was very different indeed. A testbed of progressive education, Islington Green Comprehensive had an established reputation for chaotic behaviour and dreadful academic results. A new head, Communist Party member Margaret Maden, had been drafted in to turn the school around. Unfortunately her approach, in her own words “informal but not sloppy”, appeared to offer more of the same.

Maden employed as music teacher Alun Renshaw, a maverick figure who chain-smoked in lessons, swore at pupils, and encouraged his classes to tour the school making music by banging on the walls. He also organised the choir to sing for Pink Floyd.

 In 2007, a BBC documentary reunited the choir, and there was a palpable sense they had been let down by their school. One former pupil, the daughter of a consultant psychiatrist, recalled, “I don’t think I learned anywhere near as much as I could have done. I was quite bright, I think obviously if it had been a far more disciplined school then an awful lot more time would have been taken up with teaching and much less with crowd control. Come the end of the fifth year I was desperate to get out. I just wanted to leave.” Aged 40, she was doing four jobs to afford the fees at her son’s independent prep school.

There was one Islington comprehensive school that valiantly swam against this progressive tide. The headmaster, a northern Methodist with a thick Lancashire accent and distinctive mutton-chop whiskers, was Rhodes Boyson. He would go on to achieve national fame as a socially conservative Tory MP in the Thatcher era, but in 1967 Boyson was a former Labour councillor and founding member of the Comprehensive Schools Committee. That year, he established Highbury Grove School as a single-sex comprehensive school aimed at “giving many more boys the opportunity of academic achievements”.

Highbury Grove amalgamated three schools, but tellingly retained the smart blazers, badges and ties of Highbury Grammar School. Boyson aimed to fulfil Harold Wilson’s original vision of the comprehensive as a “grammar school for all”, so Highbury Grove had a house system, strict discipline, lots of sport, academic streaming and a curriculum stretching from Latin to motor engineering. The school gained excellent examination results and was continually oversubscribed.

However, by this time the ILEA was in thrall to progressive education and hated Boyson’s school where pupils sang “Jerusalem” and the National Anthem on prize day. They also resented its academic record: in 1978, Highbury Grove pupils achieved 220 O-level passes and 40 A-level passes, compared to just 22 O-level passes and two A-level passes at Islington Green Comprehensive. Boyson left the school in 1974 to become a Conservative MP, and the ILEA made repeated attempts to kill off the school’s old-fashioned approach. In 1987, Boyson’s chosen successor retired and a progressive head, Peter Searl, took over. He banned assemblies, introduced mixed ability teaching, emphasised the “struggle for social justice” in the school curriculum, and encouraged pupils to call him Pete. In 1991, a visiting inspector commented on bad behaviour, poor punctuality and unsatisfactory lessons.

By 1996, Islington reportedly had the worst GCSE results for any local authority in the country. Few were surprised when Islington resident and Labour Party leader Tony Blair refused to send his sons to the local secondary school. Instead, he sent his sons eight miles across London to the Oratory in Fulham, a Catholic school known for its traditionalist ethos. Even former Islington Council leader Margaret Hodge made a similar concession, sending her children across the boundary to a school in Camden. In 1996, the Sunday Times sent a reporter to Islington to find out why the top brass of the Labour Party were avoiding their local schools. He reported: “The progressive ideologies of the 1960s . . . are still very much alive in [Tony Blair’s] back yard.”

Progressive education was not a passing fad of the Seventies. In schools across Britain, ideas which were once radical and revolutionary had by now become ubiquitous. Chris Pryce, the Liberal Democrat leader of the opposition at Islington Council, reported in 1996: “The people running Islington schools believe that personal achievement, especially in exams, is ‘middle-class’ and therefore suspect, and that failure of individual children should not be recognised because it is ‘discriminatory’.”

Most shocking of all, the school system that trendy lefties had designed for other people’s children during the 1970s did not seem so appealing when it came to their own families. Pryce conducted his own research and found as few as 10 per cent of Islington homeowners were now sending their children to the local schools. This was particularly the case with secondary education; by 1998, more than a third of Islington primary school pupils departed the borough for their secondary education. The affluent liberals of N1 were finding escape routes via London faith schools, or simply going private. This hypocrisy was not lost on Islington resident Andrew (now Lord) Adonis. His excellent account of reforming England’s schools, Education, Education, Education (Biteback), frankly states that by the 1990s Islington schools were “terrible”. He recounts his role as a governor of George Orwell School on the borough’s Haringey border. Under “Fresh Start”, an early New Labour scheme where failing schools were given a large financial grant to relaunch themselves, George Orwell was rebranded Islington Arts and Media School.

According to Adonis, this was “not a happy experience”. The refurbishment was poorly managed, Islington Council refused to let the school have an academic specialism, and the bloated governing body split into moderate and left-wing factions. Shortly after the school reopened, there was a near riot with racial overtones, causing the arrival of the police and the school’s temporary closure. Adonis learnt a valuable lesson: “The local authority which had allowed George Orwell School to fail so badly over so many years was hardly likely to be successful in managing its relaunch.”

Driven in part by his experience at George Orwell School, Adonis joined Tony Blair’s policy unit and launched the city academies reform, which saw failing schools removed from local authority control. Many of these academies achieved extraordinary turnarounds, but progress was slow. In 2005, the continued extent of the disorder in Britain’s schools was laid bare by Undercover Teacher, a Channel Four hidden-camera documentary in which a supply teacher named Alex Dolan secretly filmed school classes in London and Leeds. The footage is truly jaw-dropping, and the worst behaviour by quite some way took place at Highbury Grove. This Islington comprehensive, once a model of order and attainment under Rhodes Boyson, was little short of bedlam. On her first day, Dolan is told to “fuck off” by a pupil. When she challenges him, “You can’t tell a teacher to . . .” he butts in, “. . . fuck off? Yeah, I just did.” Lessons routinely descend into fights and one class she is given are known for rioting. We see one of these riots: pupils jump across desks, take the fire extinguisher off the wall, throw books across the room, and violently attack each other. At one point, Dolan asks a senior member of staff whether this is taking place simply because she is a supply teacher. “No, it’s just they’re completely hopeless,” comes the response. “You just have to make do. Don’t have too high expectations.” 

Dolan challenges another senior member of staff about the poor behaviour. “It might be that we don’t actually have clear parameters,” is the matter-of-fact reply. “We don’t list out the school rules and make a big thing out of it. We don’t say, ‘You’re not supposed to do this, if you do this, this will happen.’ We haven’t got anything like that.” Such language displayed perfectly how the precepts of progressive education, so radical and persuasive in the 20th century, had, by the 21st century, hardened into straightforward neglect.

If Islington has been a weathervane of changing educational fashions from the 1960s to today, there is some hope that British education may yet be saved. In 1998, Islington’s Local Education Authority (LEA) received one of the most damning Ofsted reports I have read, opening with “Islington LEA has a few strengths but many weaknesses.” So bad was its record that the management of its schools was turned over in 2000 to a private company called Cambridge Education. Between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of Islington secondary school pupils receiving five good GCSEs rose from 27 per cent (22 per cent below the national average) to 79 per cent (4 per cent below the national average). Islington Green Comprehensive was ignominiously closed in 2005, and reopened in 2008 as City of London Academy Islington, sponsored by the City of London Corporation and City University London. In 2013, 61 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with just 33 per cent the previous year.

It would be a stretch to say that Islington schools have achieved a recovery through a wholesale abandonment of progressive education, but the reassertion of strict discipline policies has been a common feature in the recent improvement of many London schools. This is just one example of how significant school improvement  depends on abandoning an educational philosophy that has done so much damage since the Sixties. Perhaps one day the Islington middle classes will send their children en masse to the local schools, when they are confident that the teachers will do more than simply “leave them kids alone”.

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