From 1960 until 1965 there was a comprehensive school called Risinghill in Islington, then one of the toughest areas of London. The head teacher was Michael Duane. He set up a school council where the majority of members were children, he kept an open study door for any children, parents or staff who wanted to speak to him, listened to the child's side of the story if a teacher complained, did not insist on school uniform or on teachers being called ‘Sir' and ‘Miss', and, most sensationally of all for that time, announced that he would never use corporal punishment.
The first eighteen months were difficult, but soon the children adjusted to the atmosphere and taught newcomers how to behave. The atmosphere in the school became cordial, racially harmonious and free from fear. (Inspectors objected that Duane ‘esteems cordiality among the major virtues,' and ‘Sometimes in avoiding terror the school has abandoned awe.')
Two neighbouring grammar schools creamed off the most able children, supposedly leaving Risinghill with fewer than 2 children per year group within reach of the O-Level standard, which was intended for only the top 20% of the school population. By the end of the five years of Duane's headship the number of candidates entered for the O-Level exams, had risen from 18 to 80. The number of children on probation had fallen from 98 to only 9 and in 1965, for the first time, two ex-pupils went on to university. This school, which had so clearly demonstrated success through standard benchmarks, was then closed by the Inner London Education Authority.
In 1969 the children's author, Leila Berg, published a book called Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School. She wrote, ‘Once you believe , or say you believe, that all children are of equal value whatever their intellectual attainments, you are changing the whole concept of school.' Comprehensive schools were supposed to represent this new concept, but the demonstrably successful Risinghill was apparently believed to have gone too far. Leila Berg's hypothesis was that in the end the fame and success of the school had reached a point where it was threatening the educational establishment. The local authority therefore closed it down and sacked its headmaster, who was never afterwards appointed head of any other school, in spite of making several applications.
The school only lasted for five years. Two former pupils, Lynn Brady and Isabel Sheridan, having read Leila Berg's book with great interest and spoken to the author, felt that there were still questions that needed to be answered, and formed an editorial group to write a sequel. They have been seeking out former pupils, through Friends Reunited and other sources, to find out what, from their point of view, were the advantages and disadvantages. The project has made good progress, and the new book is to be entitled Risinghill Revisited .
Arguments about the importance of testing and exams are even more prominent now than they were in the 1960s. The editorial group is asking how ex-pupils' lives have been affected by their experiences in a school which had a wider range of priorities. In their letter to former pupils, they say, ‘ Without realizing it, we were all part of a unique experiment – whether it was a successful one or not, is something we would like to examine.'
Former teachers are also being sought, in the hope of discovering how much dissidence within the staff body may have contributed to the demise of the school. Was Michael Duane too defiant in his challenge to the status quo? He got on well with the pupils, but how did he get on with the staff? Risinghill seems to have been a flagship for comprehensive education, so how can it have been forced to close so abruptly, in spite of well-publicised protests from pupils and parents? What was the political background to the decision?
The editorial group has had more than sixty responses to the questionnaires it has sent out. They have had access to Michael Duane's papers at the Institute of Education and to the London Metropolitan Archives, which house the LCC and GLC Education papers of the time.
‘ Risinghill Revisited ,' wrote Isabel Sheridan in her first letter to former pupils, ‘will be as much for you, as it is for MD [Michael Duane]. We hope it will provide an opportunity to say how it really was, that even if we did come from poor homes, or live in a poor area, it did not make us poor socially, or intellectually. Like me and Lynn, you might even disagree with the description of Islington itself! It is likely that the book will be of interest to today's education establishment and to parents who have become hung up on sending their children to the ‘best' schools. Many of us have achieved in our lives without this early pressure. Lynn didn't have any qualifications until she was 40 and has now got a BA Hons (First Class) and is completing her PhD this year. As for me, I left Risinghill with a GCE in English and 5 RSAs, which was probably quite an achievement in those days, especially for a Gifford Street child! We have both held relatively good jobs and are happy, well adjusted individuals who are probably not that much different from you or any other ex-pupil. Risinghill was not, in any event, just about teaching kids how to pass exams; it was so much more and this is what we want to explore.'
There is little doubt that Risinghill Revisited will be an important work, not merely from a historical point of view but also for its relevance to the current educational debate.
For further details, visit www.risinghill.co.uk