Comprehensive school

Comprehensive school

A comprehensive school is a state school that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. This is in contrast to the selective school system, where admission is restricted on the basis of a selection criteria. The term is commonly used in relation to the United Kingdom, where comprehensive schools were introduced in 1965. It corresponds broadly to the German Gesamtschule and to the high school in the United States and Canada. About 90% of British pupils attend comprehensive schools.

Although comprehensive schools do not directly select pupils on the basis of academic ability, they may be part of a system in which selection occurs via catchment area. For example, school catchment areas containing expensive houses will be mainly populated by wealthy parents, whose children would be expected to show, on average, a high level of academic achievement at primary school. Most comprehensives are secondary schools for children between the ages of 11 to at least 19, but in a few areas there are comprehensive middle schools, and in some places the secondary level is divided into two, for students aged 11 to 14 and those aged 14 to 19, roughly corresponding to the US middle school (or junior high school) and high school, respectively.

Since a comprehensive school offers a full range of subjects across the academic and vocational spectrum, it is commonly understood that the school will need to be of a large size and to take children from a wide range of abilities. In principle, it was originally conceived as a "neighbourhood" school, which all students in its catchment area were meant to attend, irrespective of ability and without, in most cases, any significant element of parental choice.



Finland has used comprehensive schools since the 1970s, in the sense that everyone is expected to complete the nine grades of peruskoulu, from the age 7 to 16. The division to lower comprehensive school (grades 1-6, ala-aste, alakoulu) and upper comprehensive school (grades 7-9, yläaste, yläkoulu) has been discontinued.


The comprehensive school of Ludwigshafen-Oggersheim

Comprehensive schools that offer college preparatory classes

Germany has a comprehensive school known as the Gesamtschule. While some German schools such as the Gymnasium and the Realschule have rather strict entrance requirements, the Gesamtschule does not have such requirements. They offer college preparatory classes for the students who are doing well, general education classes for average students, and remedial courses for those who aren't doing that well. In most cases students attending a Gesamtschule may graduate with the Hauptschulabschluss, the Realschulabschluss or the Abitur depending on how well they did in school. The percentage of students attending a Gesamtschule varies by Bundesland. In 2007 the State of Brandenburg more than 50% of all students attended a Gesamtschule,[1] while in the State of Bavaria less than 1% did. Starting in 2010/2011 in the German States of Berlin and Hamburg Hauptschulen were merged with Realschulen and Gesamtschulen to form a new type of comprehensive school called Stadtteilschule in Hamburg and Sekundarschule in Berlin (see: Education in Berlin, Education in Hamburg). Germany's most famous Gesamtschulen are the Helene-Lange-School in Wiesbaden and the Laborschule Bielefeld.

Comprehensive schools that do not offer college preparatory classes

The "Mittelschule" is a school in some States of Germany that offers regular classes and remedial classes but no college preparatory classes. In some States of Germany, the Hauptschule does not exist, and everybody who was not accepted by another school has to attend the Mittelschule. Students may be awarded the Hauptschulabschluss or the Mittlere Reife but not the Abitur.


There is some controversy about comprehensive schools. As a rule of thumb those supporting The Left Party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Alliance '90/The Greens are in favour of comprehensive schools, while those supporting the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party are opposed to them.

Grade inflation

Integrierte Gesamtschule Ludwigshafen-Gartenstadt

Comprehensive schools have been accused of grade inflation after a study revealed that Gymnasium senior students of average mathematical ability[2] found themselves in the very bottom of their class and had an average grade of "Five", which means "Failed". Gesamtschule senior students of average mathematical ability found themselves in the upper half of their class and had an average grade of "Three Plus".[3] When a central Abitur examination was established in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia it was revealed that Gesamtschule students did worse than could be predicted by their grades or class rank. Barbara Sommer (Christian Democratic Union), Education Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, commented that: Looking at the performance gap between comprehensives and the Gymnasium [at the Abitur central examination] [...] it is difficult to understand why the Social Democratic Party of Germany wants to do away with the Gymnasium. [...] The comprehensives do not help students achieve [...] I am sick and tired of the comprehensive schools blaming their problems on the social class origins of their students. What kind of attitude is this to blame their own students? She also called the Abitur awarded by the Gymnasium the true Abitur and the Abitur awarded by the Gesamtschule "Abitur light".[4] As a reaction Sigrid Beer (Alliance '90/The Greens) stated that comprehensives were structually discriminated against by the government, which favoured the Gymnasien. She also said that many of the students awarded the Abitur by the comprehensives came from "underprivileged groups" and sneering at their performance was a "piece of impudence".[5]

Is the tripartite system unfair?

A lot of studies discussed the fact if the German tripartite system was unfair, so that it should be given up in favour of comprehensive schools. Those studies will be discussed here and here.

Is the comprehensive school unfair?

Gesamtschulen might put bright working class students at risk according to several studies. It could be shown that an achievement gap opens between working class students attending a comprehensive and their middle class peers. Also working class students attending a Gymnasium or a Realschule outperform students from similar backgrounds attending a comprehensive. However it is not students attending a comprehensive, but students attending a Hauptschule, who perform the poorest.

performance on PISA (points earned)
type school social class „very low“ social class „low“ social class „high“ social class „very high“
Hauptschule 400 429 436 450
Gesamtschule 438 469 489 515
Realschule 482 504 528 526
Gymnasium 578 581 587 602
PISA 2003 – Der Bildungsstand der Jugendlichen in Deutschland – Ergebnisse des 2. internationalen Vergleiches.[6]

According to a study done by Helmut Fend (who had always been a fierce proponent of comprehensive schools) revealed that comprehensive schools do not help working class students. He compared alumni of the tripartite system to alumni of comprehensive schools. While working class alumni of comprehensive schools were rewarded better school diplomas at age 35 they held similar occupational positions than working class alumni of the tripartite system and were as unlikely to graduate from college.[7]

According to Kurt A. Heller:

Social class divergences are exacerbated by comprehensive schools.[8]

According to Ulrich Sprenger:

In the light of the claim of humanization of the schools the proponents of comprehensive schools always make, it is very disappointing, that the very students who would not the humanization of the schools the most and has been the main target group of the organizational and curricular innovations, do not benefit [from comprehensives]: disadvantaged students[9]


Gibraltar opened its first comprehensive school in 1972. Between the ages of 12 and 16 two comprehensive schools cater for girls and boys separately. Students may also continue into the sixth form to complete their A-levels.

Republic of Ireland

These schools were introduced into the Republic of Ireland in 1966 by an initiative by Patrick Hillery, Minister for Education, to give a broader range of education compared to that of the vocational school system, which was then the only system of schools completely controlled by the state. Until this time education in Ireland was largely dominated by religious persuasion, and in particular the voluntary secondary school system was a particular realisation of this. The comprehensive school system is still relatively small and to an extent has been superseded by the community school concept. The Irish word for a comprehensive school is a 'scoil chuimsitheach.'

In Ireland comprehensive schools were an earlier model of State schools introduced in the late 1960s and largely replaced by the secular community model of the 1970s. The comprehensive model generally incorporated older schools that were under Roman Catholic or Protestant ownership, and the various denominations continue to manage the school as patrons or trustees. The State owns the school property, but it is vested in the trustees in perpetuity. The model was adopted to make State schools more acceptable to a largely conservative society of the time. The last proposed comprehensive school in Ireland was Gonzaga College SJ in Dublin[citation needed]. However late in the negotiations the Department of Education declined to extend this model to the Society of Jesus and the proposal was dropped.

The introduction of the community school model in the 1970s controversially removed the denominational basis of the schools, though religious interests were invited to be represented on the Boards of Management. Community schools are divided into two models, the community school vested in the Minister for Education and Science, and the community college vested in the local Vocational Education Committee. Community colleges tended to be amalgamations of unviable local schools under the umbrella of a new community school model, whereas community schools have tended to be entirely new foundations.


Sweden had used mixed-ability schools for some years before they were introduced into England and Wales, and was chosen as one of the models.

United Kingdom

England and Wales


Before the Second World War, secondary education provision in Britain was both patchy and expensive. After the war, secondary education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was provided free to at least the age of 14 and managed under the Tripartite System introduced by Conservative Secretary of State for Education R.A. Butler.[10] Children took the eleven-plus examination in their last year of primary education and were sent to secondary modern, secondary technical or grammar schools, depending on their perceived ability. In the event, technical schools were never widely implemented, and for 20 years there was a virtual bipartite system, with fierce competition for the available grammar school places, which varied between 15% and 25% of total secondary places, depending on location.

Controversy around the eleven-plus exam, together with increasing dissatisfaction with the education offered by many secondary modern schools, led to experiments with comprehensive schools from the 1940s. In some low-population areas — such as the town of Settle — the creation of a tripartite structure was not physically viable, and comprehensive schools began to spread, though patchily, across the country, from Anglesey to the West Riding of Yorkshire.

These schools were an obvious alternative to the Tripartite System, and had already proven successful in Sweden and parts of the US. Political and administrative support for the general introduction of comprehensive schools was strongest in London: London County Council (LCC) Education Officer Graham Savage, influenced by the US High School system, was a powerful advocate.

Early comprehensives

The first comprehensives were set up after the Second World War. In 1946, for example, Walworth School was one of five 'experimental' comprehensive schools set up by the London County Council[11] Another early comprehensive school was Holyhead County School in Anglesey in 1949.[12][13] Other places that experimented with comprehensives included Coventry, Sheffield, Leicestershire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire.

These early comprehensives mostly modelled themselves, in terms of ethos, on the grammar school, with gown-wearing teachers conducting lessons in a very formal style. Some comprehensive schools have continued to follow this model, especially those that were themselves grammar schools before becoming comprehensives. The opening of Risinghill School in Islington in 1960 offered an alternative to this model. Embracing the progressive ideals of sixties education, the school abandoned corporal punishment and brought in a much more liberal attitude to discipline and methods of study. However, this idea did not take hold in many places.

Nationwide implementation

The largest expansion of comprehensive schools resulted from a policy decision taken in 1965 by Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for Education in the 1964-1970 Labour government, a fervent supporter of comprehensive education. This had been the party's policy for some time. The policy decision was implemented by Circular 10/65, an instruction to local education authorities to plan for conversion.

In 1970 the Conservative Party re-entered government. Margaret Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education, and ended the compulsion on local authorities to convert. However, many local authorities were so far down the path that it would have been prohibitively expensive to attempt to reverse the process, and more comprehensive schools were established under Mrs Thatcher than any other education secretary. However, she went on to be a ferocious critic of comprehensive education. By 1975 the majority of local authorities in England and Wales had abandoned the 11-plus examination and moved to a comprehensive system.

Over that 10-year period many secondary modern schools and grammar schools were amalgamated to form large neighbourhood comprehensives, whilst a number of new schools were built to accommodate a growing school population. By 1968 around 20% of children had been in comprehensives, and by the mid 1970s the system had been almost fully implemented. Nearly all new schools were built as comprehensives, and existing grammar and modern schools had either been closed (see for example the Liverpool Institute) or amalgamated with neighbouring secondary moderns to produce comprehensive schools. A small number of local education authorities have held out against the trend, such as Kent. In those places, grammar schools, secondary modern schools and selection at 11 continue.

Timetable of implementation (by LEA or district)

Note: Cumbria and Telford have one selective school.

Callaghan's Great Debate

In 1976 the future Labour prime minister James Callaghan gave a speech at Oxford's Ruskin College. He launched what became known as the 'great debate' on the education system. He went on to list the areas he felt needed closest scrutiny: the case for a core curriculum, the validity and use of informal teaching methods, the role of school inspection and the future of the examination system. Callaghan was not the first to raise these questions. A 'black paper' attacking liberal theories in education and poor standards in comprehensive schools had appeared in 1969, to be followed by a second in 1971. The authors were the academics Brian Cox and A.E. Dyson. They were supported by certain head teachers, notably Dr. Rhodes Boyson, who later became a Conservative MP. The black papers called for a return to traditional teaching methods and an end to the comprehensive experiment.

Current status

Comprehensive schools remain the most common type of state secondary school in England, and the only type in Wales. They account for around 90% of pupils, or 64% if one does not count schools with low-level selection. This figure varies by region.

Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, parents have a right to choose which school their child should go to. This concept of "school choice" introduces the idea of competition between state schools, a fundamental change to the original "neighbourhood comprehensive" model, and is partly intended as a means by which schools that are perceived to be inferior are forced either to improve or, if hardly anyone wants to go there, to close down. Government policy is currently promoting 'specialisation' whereby parents choose a secondary school appropriate for their child's interests and skills. Most initiatives focus on parental choice and information, implementing a pseudo-market incentive to encourage better schools. This logic has underpinned the controversial league tables of school performance.

Both Conservative Party and Labour governments have been experimenting with alternatives to the original neighbourhood comprehensive since the mid 1980s.[12]

Experiments have included:

  • partnerships where successful schools share knowledge and best practice with nearby schools
  • federations of schools, where a partnership is formalised through joint governance arrangements
  • closing and reopening 'failing schools'
  • city technology colleges
  • city academies

Currently, following the advice of Sir Cyril Taylor - former businessman and Conservative politician, and chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) - in the mid 1990s, both major parties have backed the creation of specialist schools, which focus on excellence in a particular subject and are theoretically allowed to select up to 10% of their intake. This policy consensus had brought to an end the notion that all children will go to their local school, and assumes parents will send their child to the school they feel they are most suited to.

These new school types mean that it is open to debate whether the comprehensive system is still in operation; but it could be argued that the new forms of school are best characterised as developments from, rather than challenges to, comprehensive education.

Debate and issues

Supporters of comprehensive education argue that it is unacceptable on both moral and practical grounds to select or reject children on the basis of their academic ability. They also argue that comprehensive schools in the UK have allowed millions of children to gain access to further and higher education after the age of 16, and that the previous selective system relegated children who failed the eleven-plus examination to a second-class, inferior education and hence to worse employment prospects.

Critics of comprehensive schools argue that the reality has been a levelling-down of provision and a denial of opportunity to bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might once have expected to pass the eleven-plus exam and have the advantage of a grammar school education. The most straightforward way for parents to ensure that their children attend what is perceived to be a "good" school now is to buy a house within its catchment area. This, critics claim, has led to de facto selection according to parents' financial means rather than their children's ability at passing exams.

During the late 1960s there was heated debate about the merits of streaming pupils. In grammar schools pupils were taught in different classes according to their perceived ability. At first the comprehensives copied this structure, but the failings of streaming, principally that it failed to reflect the spread of abilities in different subjects, led to experiments with other methods. One controversial method, mixed ability teaching, was widely adopted. Over time, however, it was supplanted in many schools by 'setting', whereby children are grouped by ability in different subjects, allowing the possibility of being in the 'top' set for mathematics, but the 'bottom set' for history.


Scotland has a very different educational system to England and Wales, though also based on comprehensive education. It has different ages of transfer, different examinations and a different philosophy of choice and provision. (See Education in Scotland for detail.) All publicly funded primary and secondary schools are comprehensive. The Scottish Government has rejected plans for specialist schools as of 2005.

Northern Ireland

Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly to systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, though it is more similar to that used in England and Wales than it is to Scotland.


The Inbetweeners is a British sitcom which took place in a fictional Comprehensive.


  1. ^ Prof Dr. Valentin Merkelbach: "Gesamtschulen und Grundschulen sind das Beste in unserem Schulsystem"
  2. ^ who scored 100 on a math test, provided by the scientists
  3. ^ Manfred Tücke: "Psychologie in der Schule, Psychologie für die Schule: Eine themenzentrierte Einführung in die Psychologie für (zukünftige) Lehrer". 4 Auflage 2005. Münster: LIT Verlag; p. 127; the study was done in North Rhine-Westphalia, students were attending a Leistungskurs
  4. ^ Presseinformationen: Sprechzettel von Ministerin Barbara Sommer zur Pressekonferenz am 19.08.2008 "Schuljahresbeginn und Auswertung des Zentralabiturs 2008". Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen
  5. ^ Stephan Lüke: "Gutes Abitur, schlechte Gesamtschule". WDR Wissen
  6. ^ Ehmke et al., 2004, In: PISA-Konsortium Deutschland (Hrsg.): PISA 2003 – Der Bildungsstand der Jugendlichen in Deutschland – Ergebnisse des 2. internationalen Vergleiches, Münster/NewYork: Waxmann, S. 244
  7. ^ Jochen Leffers: "Gesamtschule folgenlos - Bildung wird vererbt". 3rd January 2008. Der Spiegel."
  8. ^ Kurt A. Heller: "Umgang mit Heterogenität im Gesamtschul- versus dreigliedrigen Sekundarschulsystem". From the magazine: "Realschule in Deutschland", 116, Nr. 6 (2008) [1]
  9. ^ Ulrich Sprenger: "Die Realschule im Spiegel der Bildungsforschung: Sieben Thesen und acht Fragen zu ihrer Zukunft - Ein Beitrag zur Schulformdebatte" [2]
  10. ^ Education Act, 1944.
  11. ^ Peter Medway and Pat Kingwell, ‘A Curriculum in its place: English teaching in one school 1946-1963′, History of Education 39, no. 6 (November 2010): 749-765.
  12. ^ a b Comps - here to stay?, Phil Tineline, September 2005, BBC, accessed 12 August 2008.
  13. ^ . [dead link]
  14. ^ Report and Recommendations on Reorganisation of Secondary Education. West Sussex County Council. 1966. 

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