Since a comprehensive school teaches a comprehensive 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 ability range.
Most schools use setting to group children by ability in individual subjects. There has been a recent trend to designate Comprehensive schools as specialising in particular areas e.g. technology.
All comprehensive schools take pupils from the age of 11 to at least 16. Some have a sixth form, entry to which is often on an open basis, with some pupils taking A levels. Others students follow vocational programmes in specified subjects which, whilst adhering to a subject specification and are rigorous, generally require less academic aptitude in order to obtain the qualification. These vocational subjects include Business Studies, Health and Social Care, ICT and the Performing Arts.
Controversy around the eleven plus exam combined with increasing dissatisfaction with the education offered by the secondary modern schools led to experiments with comprehensive schools from the early 1950s. In some low-population areas—such as the town of Settle—the creation of a tripartite structure was not physically viable and comprehensive schools had been gradually spreading across the country, from Anglesey to the West Riding.
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 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.
In London, the LCC sought to build an entire system of equal-access secondary schools. The first purpose-built comprehensive in the country, Kidbrooke School in Greenwich, was opened in 1954 at a cost of £560,000. The first purpose-built comprehensive school in Wales was Sandfields Comprehensive School which opened in 1958.
These early comprehensives modelled themselves firmly on the grammar school, with teachers in gowns and lessons in a very formal style. The opening of the Risinghill Comprehensive 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.
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 vociferous 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 seventies, 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.
Note: Cumbria and Telford have one selective school.
Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, parents have a right to choose which school their child should go to. Government policy is currently promoting 'specialisation' where 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 good schools. This logic has underpinned the controversial league tables of school performance.
Experiments have included:
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 a 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 rejects the original logic of the neighbourhood comprehensive - that all children will go to their local school - and assume that 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.
Critics of comprehensive schools argue that the reality has been a levelling down of provision and a denial of opportunity to able 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, is to purchase a house within the catchment area of that school. This has led to selection by financial means of parents 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', where 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.
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 which were under Roman Catholic or Protestant ownership and the various denominations continued, and 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. 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 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 colleges have tended to be entirely new foundations.