Islington: Children as guinea pigs of the Left

Experiments in progressive teaching in the north London borough have denied generations of working-class children a good education

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Tony Blair refused to send his children to school in Islington
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Robert Peal
On 20 May 2014 20:20

"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. O’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, O’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. 

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