Have a look at this prospectus (click image below to open). It’s a flag planted firmly and carefully in a disputed territory lately won for the people. It is a sign and a symbol, a snapshot in time and a work of art.
What does it represent? The first comprehensive schools were opened in the late forties, but they were rare. Our neighbour, Kidbrooke Comprehensive, was purpose-built in 1954 but selection at 11 continued. In 1965 Harold Wilson was PM and Antony Crosland Secretary of State for Education and Science. On their watch, Circular 10/65 The organisation of secondary education  boldly stated the Government's objective to end selection and eliminate separatism – and therefore, to enable comprehensive schools for every child in every community.
That this House, conscious of the need to raise educational standards at all levels, and regretting that the realisation of this objective is impeded by the separation of children into different types of secondary schools, notes with approval the efforts of local authorities to reorganise secondary education on comprehensive lines which will preserve all that is valuable in grammar school education for those children who now receive it and make it available to more children; recognises that the method and timing of such reorganisation should vary to meet local needs; and believes that the time is now ripe for a declaration of national policy.
In this, they hoped to create something very particular in the nation’s schools.
A comprehensive school aims to establish a school community in which pupils over the whole ability range and with differing interests and backgrounds can be encouraged to mix with each other, gaining stimulus from the contacts and learning tolerance and understanding in the process.
Though difficult, the task was honourable and worthy of brave endeavour.
The Government are aware that the complete elimination of selection and separatism in secondary education will take time to achieve… But the spontaneous and exciting progress which has been made in this direction by so many authorities in recent years demonstrates that the objective is not only practicable; it is also now widely accepted. The Government believe that both the education service and the general public will welcome the further impetus which a clear statement of national policy will secure.
Thomas Tallis School was born in 1971, part of the ‘further impetus’ and the artefact under advisement is a prospectus – perhaps its first – from 1975.
I love the photo of Beryl Husain. Yes, school prospectuses are full of headteachers at their desks, but she isn’t posing smugly for the camera with some spurious award behind her. This is a woman who gives the impression of being a bit distracted, perhaps mildly irritated by a mildly irritating problem – a sudden change in the noise level on the yard, a staff absence. Her desk’s got stuff on it and the biro’s a long way from a gold fountain pen. While this is a woman who could leap into action at any point to give something a bit of a shake, she looks like a thinker.
And she writes clearly, staking her ground. ‘Good facilities do not necessarily create a good school. more important are the policies and long-term aims which determine what happen to the children’. Equal opportunities, no labelling, no discrimination, a progressive school with traditional standards. Informality, and friendliness without abandoning courtesy, politeness and behaviour. Consideration for others. Service to the community. I might just replace our prospectus with this one.
The prospectus talks of transition, grouping, Heads of Year, teachers, Deputy Heads, communication with home. The organisational chart with ‘your child’ in the centre is a perfect representation of a school, without verbiage or risible claims. In the description of the curriculum for the older children there’s a line about making ‘provision for those who prefer not to take exams’ which has a beautiful dignity completely lost from a current system hyped-up on aspiration and its tragic die-stamping and funnelling of children.
The curriculum is described concisely, and I’m particularly diverted by what changes most, perhaps in the humanities where ‘man in society’ and social anthropology are key. Would we live in a more understanding world if social anthropology had been compulsory in all schools?
Prospectuses always show libraries and it’s great to know that children were sent to research using not only books, but LPs and slides. The idea of languages day trips to Boulogne always startles me about London schools but wait! What is THIS! A trip to Romania in 1974! No, I went on a trip to Romania in 1974, from Teesside! Did all socialist authorities send their children over, to see the mountains and the poverty, the soldiers with guns in the snow and the terrifying plumbing? In my head I’m transported to a cavernous guest-house dining room in the mountain resort of Sibiu, my first taste of fizzy mineral water and foreign sausages. Were there other teenagers there, cooler ones, from Tallis?
Readers of this site need no more information about residentials to Inverliever, though the near-misses don’t appear. Sporting clubs as well as competitive teams has a pleasant tone. Cycling at Herne Hill is still a thing.
Unlike, sadly, on the final page, the Youth Centre. That’s a dream that took root in some fields but was uprooted almost everywhere in successive decades. Youth work is fantastically important but easy to cut, until there’s nothing left. Soon the youth work historians with have to begin by explaining what it was. And why it mattered. And how well the nation’s young have done without it.
Youth work’s older brother, the Adult Education Institute appears at the back too. Good education, good youth work, lifelong learning: cradle to grave intellectual and social support. What was so bad about this that it needed excising from our national psyche? When did we become antisocial drones, measuring the whole of our intellectual endeavour by competitive examination, designed to keep the rich in their copper towers?
The seeds were sown before the year of our next prospectus (click image below to open), 1996, when the previous government declared no such thing as society and sold off its assets. By ’96 John Major was at Number 10 and Gillian Shephard the SoS. It felt pretty ropey at the time but in hindsight looks like a golden age of conservative government.
Tallis the man appears on the inside cover opposite a picture of the Head, Colin Yardley who, with a friendly preface and a sideways look, declares to transition drop-in visitors ‘I am always available for most of the morning’. That sets the standard pretty high. How? How? Obviously, sensible prioritising and a control of your diary. Good for him. I doff my cap.
This prospectus has a long description of the aims of the Tallis curriculum of which I heartily approve. Breadth and balance, opportunities in the arts, well-qualified teachers and plenty of support staff in very practical roles. A nod to children with special needs and the chance to repeat a year, under certain circumstances, if that’s right for the child: difficult then and nigh-on impossible now. Integrated Humanities appears on the options list and I have to go for a short lie-down, suddenly reliving a nasty experience with Int Hums in the Midlands 12 years previously. Planners are explained and parents encouraged to sign them: is it odd that we still do this 25 years later?
Yardley’s Tallis has a post-Local Management of Schools feel to it, necessarily so. There’s less talk about the LEA and more about school-based decisions and systems. As with the curriculum, he’s clearer about behaviour mechanisms. ‘As few rules as are practical’, sensibly agreed, and we hold that torch still, Husain’s legacy carried through fifty years, but how the context has changed. I was clawing my way up the greasy pole as a behaviour trainer at the same time so I’m familiar with the territory: exclusion ‘for a few days’ (up to 10), outside support for those at risk of 45 days exclusion in a year and therefore permanent removal. (If I may take a diversion, when I was a clueless Deputy Head at about this time, one of the Behaviour Support team we relied on for those most depressing 45-day cases was Dominic Cummings’ mother. I kid you not.)
Girls are not at a disadvantage, we are assured. Racial incidents are rare. Children from ethnic minorities do well ‘indeed, they may be doing better than the majority group’. How did that play out, post-school?
The third prospectus (click image above to open), tra-la, is one of my own, which makes me reconsider the earlier ones. I write a bit of stuff at the start, lifted directly from ‘the policies and long-term aims which determine what happen to the children’ , as Husain has it but the rest of it is other’s endeavour: Curriculum Deputy, Head of Sixth, Director of Arts who conceptualises and realises the product. Who were the others in the past? Did Beryl draw her own child-centred diagram? Did Colin write the lot, from Welcome to Sixth Form? I know every name of the people who lift Tallis into the air in this 50th year, but looking back at this beautiful brochure, from 2046 or ‘71, who’ll remember the others, the uncredited experts whose tireless commitment buoys up my silly face, in a frilly shirt, leaning on a pillar?
And if only I could say that it is our ‘policies and long-term aims which determine what happen to the children’. It's much harder to see, now, the clear path from principled, quality education for all to prosperity in an equal society. It’s much harder to plot that course now that so many principles have been abandoned, so many short cuts rebranded as motorways.
I was 10 in 1971 and 35 in 1996. Neither of those years was perfect and I don’t expect perfection now, but it feels as though some hope has been abandoned along the way. Perhaps Headteachers in every generation feel that, though we’d rightly never find it out from their prospectuses. Even if that’s gloomily true, I hope that they, like me, are encouraged by irrepressible teenagers, friendly parents and inventive colleagues. I hope that when they press the button to start every day, they do it with style and focus, like these my own predecessors. They knew in their bones that the comprehensive school is a dream every bit as visionary as the National Health service, but much, much harder to achieve.
I feel better for reading these. I hope you do too. When I grow up, I want to look like Beryl Husain’s picture.
 Gillard, Derek. "Circular 10/65 (DES 1965) - full text online". www.educationengland.org.uk