The Comprehensive Idea
The Secondary Teacher, Dec. 1966, Vol. 1 No. 10
(Some of the ideas expressed by Mr. King in this article are, to say the least, controversial. It is hoped, however, that they will lead to the discussion that the author himself asks for in his final sentence.—Editor.)
The idea of the comprehensive school has been in circulation since Dr. Hillery, then Minister for Education, initiated it in 1963. Later, when Mr. Colley took over the top position in education he expanded on the idea. His contribution was the assertion that there would be few new comprehensive schools but that the comprehensive idea would be realised through the fusion of the existing secondary and vocational systems. In September 1960, Mr. O'Malley, the new Minister for Education, announced the provision of free post-primary education up to the Intermediate Certificate level.
These are the general guidelines available to anyone who wishes to .know about this new dimension in Irish Education. The guidelines are so general that it is difficult to formulate in any precise terms what, the result will be. It would seem that the Minister's publication of the idea was an attempt to initiate discussion. In fact very little discussion has taken place, partly, perhaps, because we are not used to thinking about education. The result has been that the comprehensive idea although four years in circulation, is still shrouded in vagueness. Writing about it. therefore, will involve not only piecing together the limited information at our disposal but also making suggestions on the comprehensive idea that may contribute to a discussion that never really began.
A Department of Education information sheet has this to say about the comprehensive idea: Comprehensive education is a system of post - primary education combining academic and technical subjects in a wide curriculum, offering to each pupil an education structured to his needs and interests and providing specialist guidance and advice on the pupil's abilities and aptitudes. Equality of educational opportunity is inherent in such a system. The comprehensive school serves such a purpose particularly well. The prosperity of a nation depends on the abilities of its people and it is therefore of paramount importance to seek out and develop the talents not just of the few who are intellectually gifted but of all the children. There is a need of all talents, in all their variety and diversity.
The comprehensive idea is an attempt to fuse the secondary and vocational levels in post-primary education that have existed for so long in cold isolation. "It involves," to quote from another Department communication, "the, creation of a situation in which the type of education that is best suited to the needs, abilities and aptitudes of each individual pupil is provided. To do this it is essential that the educational development of each student should be presented with as wide a selection of subjects as possible so that he may be given the opportunity of developing his talents to the fullest extent." The comprehensive idea is an attempt to introduce equality of educational opportunity. This involves two levels of equality : it is an attempt to erode the second-rate status of technical education by putting it on a par with its academic counterpart; as we shall see later, it sets out to provide educational opportunity for children living in areas of the country badly provided with post-primary educational facilities : the new comprehensive schools have been built in such areas.
There are other than educational reasons for the comprehensive idea. Education becomes more important every day. What was good enough for the parents will not be good enough for the children. "Because of the tremendous discoveries of science in the past 25 years," Mr. George Colley. Minister for Education, said to the Carlow group of Pax Romana. in March. 1966. "the fabric of industrial and commercial life has been radically altered. The day is fast approaching when the worker without a particular skill will be unable to find employment." And it is not only for a job that we need to raise the level of education; it is also for leisure. The Minister continued : "There is another side of the immense scientific advance which we are now experiencing. There is the promise of greater leisure. The five-day week may well become a three-day week if man remains a rational being, that is, if he does not wipe himself out. Education will help us to get more pleasure from our free time."
Whether for educational, economic, social, or egalitarian reasons, there is a great necessity to expand our educational opportunities. The needs of the country demand that we no longer be satisfied with the talents of the privileged. We cannot afford to allow 17,000 children to leave school with nothing but a primary education. This is no indictment of primary education. Rather is it a recognition of the fact that primary education was never intended to cope with the complexities of the machine age. We still need saints and scholars but we need the type suited to a technological age.
How is the comprehensive idea to be implemented? The comprehensive system of education will be provided through the erection of new comprehensive schools, through the expansion of present secondary and vocational schools, and through the co-operation between the secondary and vocational school authorities in providing educational facilities. Already, four new comprehensive schools have been completed and they are to serve as guidelines for schools in the other categories. According to the Department of Education, there has been an excellent response to the Minister's request for cooperation between the secondary and vocational school authorities. Many meetings at local level have already been held and plans have been made in several cases for practical co-operation during the next school year. Problems of authority, arrangement of curricula, and movement of pupils, between centres have not been discussed.
The comprehensive school will be open to all pupils who have reached the age of 12 years. No form of selection is contemplated at this age. The school will offer a three-year course leading to the Intermediate Certificate examination and subsequent courses leading to the Leaving Certificate. Primary education, where comprehensive facilities exist, will end at the age of 12 and the pupil will continue his education in a comprehensive school to the age of 15 years, graduating, if he does not wish to continue further. After 1970, when compulsory education to the age of 15 will be introduced, this will apply to all pupils.
The Department rejects the principle of any selection at the age of 12 years. Although no investigation into the effects of "streaming" has been done in this country, research in other countries since World War II suggests that it is extremely doubtful if intelligence can be accurately measured at an early age. On the basis of this research, Mr. Colley, in the above-mentioned speech, said : "In regard to comprehensive schools, I have decided that there will be no streaming based on ability on entry. Nor will there be streaming at any time during the three-year period leading to the Intermediate Certificate examination." "Streaming" will be avoided but since it will be necessary to obtain some measure of the pupil's achievement on entry so that he may be assigned to the class for each subject that best suits him at the time, the pupils will take achievement tests in Irish, English and Arithmetic. According to their achievement in each subject separately they will be assigned to the appropriate class in that subject. Furthermore, each pupil's potential will be measured shortly after entry and the results compared with those of the attainment tests. It will be possible in this way to recognise the pupils whose achievement does not measure up to their potential and steps will be taken to remedy their deficiencies. This investigation will be undertaken jointly by the teaching staff and the Department's psychological service.
The curriculum for the comprehensive school will contain a core group of studies which will be examined at the Intermediate Certificate examination. This group includes Irish. English, Mathematics, and a hand-and-eye subject. Also included in this compulsory core of subjects is Religious Instruction, which will be subject to diocesan examination. As well as this core group required for the Intermediate Certificate examination, every pupil will be required to take ''courses of study in the following subjects : Social and Environmental Studies (which will incorporate Civics), Physical Education, Library projects, Singing and Musical appreciation. Optional subjects will include History and Geography, Continental languages, Latin, Greek, Commerce, Rural Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology.' The compulsory subjects will absorb some 21 hours of instruction time per week, leaving nine hours for optional subjects. The optional subjects are examination subjects and when the pupil has completed his three-year course in the subjects of his choice he can offer them in the Intermediate Certificate examination.
When the school-leaving age is raised to 1.5 years, every child in the country will have free education as far as the 'Intermediate Certificate level, regardless of his financial or intellectual ability. Those who wish to continue further will be streamed into the academic, commercial, or technical or apprentice scheme. Those of the academic stream will continue and take the Leaving Certificate examination. Those in the other streams will continue and take the Technical Schools' Leaving Certificate examination. The streaming will be based on the results of the expert investigation of the achievements and interests of the pupil over the three-year period so that he will be able to make a realistic assessment of the goals he should set himself. If he decides to take a Leaving Certificate course, the compulsory core of subjects will be reduced. Christian Doctrine, Irish and English will remain, together with Physical Education, Musical appreciation, and Library projects. This reduction in the compulsory core will enable the student to give far more time to the subjects of his special interest. On the other hand, if the pupil decides to terminate his formal schooling at 15 years, the expert assessment of his strengths and weaknesses should be of considerable help to him in his choice of occupation.
In order to be able to continue his schooling beyond the Intermediate Certificate level, the pupil will be dependent on either his own financial support or on financial aid from the State in the form of scholarships or grants. At this stage it is not yet known to what extent aid will be available to students of merit who have not the financial means of supporting their further education.
The issues involved in the proposed comprehensive scheme could be broadly divided into two groups: issues concerning implementation and those concerning education. According to the present Minister for Education. Mr. O'Malley, it is expected that this expansion of educational opportunity to the Intermediate Certificate level will cost the State in the region of two million pounds. As far as one can discover, that figure has been arrived at by multiplying the number of children to benefit by £25 and less. If that be the case, the Department of Education is failing to reckon the true cost of the implementation of this new scheme. Going comprehensive will involve a large increase in staff numbers. Apart from the need to expand the ordinary staff it will be necessary to employ trained people to teach the new subjects on the curriculum. In order to adequately and meaningfully assess pupils over the three-year period the Department will need to expand the numbers employed in its psychological service. Documentation and filing on the development of a pupil will involve most schools with secretarial problems. As well as that, the introduction of wider curricula will mean an extension of facilities in most schools, apart from the need for such extension to cope with the probably increased number of entrants into post-primary education as from next September.
For the present, the brunt of the new changes rest with existing secondary and vocational schools. They are expected to cooperate in the sharing of facilities. Schools are fond of their autonomy and there is grave danger in this instance that individual schools, whether secondary or vocational, may be inclined to extend their own facilities to cater for the comprehensive programme, rather than share with a neighbouring school. If this were to happen it would involve duplication of facilities and be a waste of scarce money. Or if the nearest school, with which another can share facilities, is some way distant, there are bound to be transport or other problems involved in the movement of pupils from one centre to the other. Although the comprehensive idea is still in an early stage of development, these questions need to be discussed.
When we come to discuss the more educational issues involved we have the Department's admission that the extension of post-primary education is due as much to social as to educational reasons. In so far as the former do not militate against the latter this aim is laudable enough. But in so far as, to quote from a statement by Dr. Hillery to the Press, when he was Minister for Education, "it is the duty of the State to strive for the opportunity of some post-primary education for all," the danger exists that educational standards may have to be lowered in order to ensure expression of all ranges of ability. However, this danger may be avoided by the introduction of a grading system in assessing results in place of the existing honours-pass-fail method; any interested person scanning a pupil's achievement card in a comprehensive school will be able to distinguish between ;a pupil with straight A's and a pupil with an over-generous allowance of C's.
Another issue is the content of the core group of subjects. Even though the aim of the new system of education is to prepare better the student for the machine age, there seems to be a failure to take that very aim into consideration in the list of subjects included in the core group. A General Science course would seem to be of vital importance. It would defeat the comprehensive idea if the core group were enlarged, so that the alternative would be to drop one of the subjects already included. Mathematics would seem the least indispensible. and a General Science course ought to be included in its place. Mathematics is important in many higher areas of education, but the student who thinks he may need it at a later stage could take it as one of his options.
The failure to make History more than an optional subject is another case in point. The fact that we may never learn from History is no guarantee of its unimportance. It is the subject that can best give perspective and cohesion to a whole education. For that reason it is sad to witness its present decline in secondary schools. One of the chief reasons for this decline seems to be the difficulty of getting high marks in it at an examination with its resultant liability as a scholarship subject. However, in the comprehensive idea where the pupil gets not only the opportunity to develop fully his potentialities but also a broad general education without specialisation, it is a highly relevant subject. The fact that local history is included in the Social and Environmental studies course is not sufficient. Something more is needed. It might be possible to include one hour a week on general history, a History-of-Western-Civilisation course tracing our cultural evolution from its beginnings to the present day. This could be done over the three-year period in a way meaningful to the age-groups involved. It would be compulsory for all those taking History as an optional subject.
For the present, the burden of implementing the comprehensive idea depends on the fusion of secondary and vocational levels of education. This is very well in theory but in practice it is conceivable that both systems will continue to perpetuate themselves; the vocational school could continue to provide essentially vocational subjects, with occasional gestures to the academic side of the picture, while the secondary school could make the necessary bow by taking mechanical drawing out of the basement and giving it a classroom of its own. If this were to happen, the students that begin in one of the systems, when they are better suited to the other kind, may never get the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. To prevent such an occurrence, care must be taken that the widest possible choice of subjects be available to the largest number of pupils as soon as possible.
The dependence of the comprehensive idea on a secondary-vocational fusion may have repercussions after the Intermediate Certificate examination. The tendency could well be for those pupils attending vocational schools who continue beyond this stage to take the Technical Schools' Leaving Certificate. In so far as no higher facilities exist and in so far as universities continue to accept students from the academic stream only, such a pupil may well find himself in an educational cul-de-sac, or at most with a ticket to a technological college of inferior status to a university. The State has a duty to expand facilities for higher technological education and to upgrade colleges of technology to university status. Otherwise, students who pursue such a course of studies will be relegated to second-class status when they proceed beyond the Technical Schools' Leaving Certificate.
Probably the greatest criticism that can be made of the comprehensive idea, as envisaged by the Government, is its haphazard-ness. It is to be allowed to evolve out of the existing systems. The vested interests of the existing educational structure may prevent the comprehensive idea from being implemented. The danger exists that in the permitted laissez-faire schools will strive to become comprehensive in name by adding to their present curricula. There is the possibility of a great waste of money in this situation, especially in rural areas where there is an excess of small schools. Along ten miles of a road it is possible to find eight schools catering for smaller and larger numbers of pupils. The tendency for each will be to go comprehensive alone. A more logical development would be the sharing of facilities initially and the eventual incorporation of all into one. Admittedly, some sharing is already taking place, but how is this sharing going to lead to the fusion envisaged? If the fusion is to be meaningful it must lead to the eventual amalgamation of schools in an area under one authority. What school will vote for its extinction? (It is only fair to mention here that the Government seems to have the problem under consideration. A recent decision on their part involves the closing of some secondary schools and permission for others to teach classes up to Intermediate Certificate only.)
This introduces the idea of the neighbourhood school which ought to be the eventual aim of the Department of Education. The evolution of the school system to this end would have many advantages. It would introduce a definite goal to be achieved and give direction to existing developments. It would lead to a better use of resources because, apart from preventing the duplication of facilities, especially scientific laboratories, it would enable the Department, by taking account of demographic projections in the area concerned, to invest accordingly. As things stand, it is conceivable that a school, or schools, may expand to suit present population needs only to find themselves in ten years time with empty classrooms.
But the neighbourhood school, catering for all pupils in a certain area, would have other advantages. It would make the school a part of the local community as much as the primary school is today. It would enable a meaningful parent-teacher organisation to get off the ground. This is one thing that is barely hinted at in the proposed comprehensive scheme, the role of the parents. In many other countries parents play an important part in the education of their children. The recent Plowden Report on Primary Education in England recommended, among other things, closer relations between schools and parents. In Ireland, parents seem to abdicate their responsibility when they send their children to school. If parents were available for consultation on a regular and formal basis, they could be of great help to teachers and psychologists in arriving at a correct assessment of a pupil. If the neighbourhood school, incorporating one parish, or more where numbers are small, were in existence, parents could get such an opportunity to express themselves and to contribute to their children's welfare.
One other point is relevant in this context. The neighbourhood school would be a day-school. According to present intentions, expensive boarding schools will continue to exist, with the students paying their own fees. These fee-paying students are in danger of becoming the snobs of our educational system. (However, this development might be avoided if the State were to endow lavishly the schools it takes under its wing. Because there is very little financial patronage of schools in this country by Old Boys or Old Girls, the fee-charging school might find it difficult to finance expensive expansion.) The neighbourhood school, if properly developed, could become the pride of the community. Parents, who ordinarily might be inclined to send their children to expensive boarding schools, might come to accept as a substitute for their snobbish inclinations, the fact of their children playing an important role in the curricular and extracurricular activities of their neighbourhood school. This would be even more probable if parents were allowed a meaningful role in parent-teacher organisations. There are other possibilities in Boards of Governors and Scholarship Committees, etc.
The Department of Education claims that the comprehensive idea is more than the mere expansion of a curriculum and involves more than the teaching of a wide range of subjects. It is a new dimension in Irish Education. As such it is to be welcomed by all those who regard the present educational set-up as inadequate to present day needs. But the comprehensive idea is by no means a clearly thought-out system; it is still very much in the crawling stage and, before it can walk, it will demand the nurture of much discussion. It is to be hoped that all those, with a genuine interest in education, will contribute to that discussion.