Compare And Contrast

During the early 1970s, I was a teacher at Holland Park school, one of the first built-for-purpose comprehensive schools in London that opened its doors in 1958. Dr Derek Rushworth, who was new to the headship, dared to introduce innovative changes such as mixed-ability classes, eliminating uniform and corporal punishment. He was both an intellectual and approachable person with a good sense of humour, and his staff adored and respected him.

Music teaching had always been challenging for me, but I found myself happier at Holland Park than in any other learning institution. Although the conservative borough of Kensington and Chelsea deemed it a progressive hotspot, it was a pleasant school that had colourful paint on its walls, was open to new ideas and held idealistic views. Occasionally, some of the older, wilful students skipped classes and went to the park on hot summer days. Fortunately, we were not bothered as it gave us an opportunity to teach without any distractions. Teachers wore what they liked, moved in teams with walkie-talkies for safety and even visited homes to check on students’ welfare.

In those days, some people complained that comprehensive systems would never function correctly, the school’s enormous size, along with it being radical, had gotten out of control. Complaints about education still persist as everything is driven by exams and targets, children struggle under the pressure, staff are burdened by Ofsted and management, exams have been simplified, and students remain unruly.

Today, Holland Park has one of the highest budgets in the UK, designated specialist school status, and a new headteacher with a "major mission to increase its performance." So, are our current concerns justified? The school’s 2008 Ofsted report was glowing, and it stated that the changes since the current headteacher took over have been transformative.

It was shocking for me to see that I could barely recognise the place when I visited. There were high metal gates and security guards at the entrance. As I was entering, a late girl was reprimanded by an unsympathetic teacher who hurried her to class. She was made to change into black shiny shoes after taking off her black plimsolls under supervision. There were no other tardy students in sight, creating complete silence around the school’s tidy lawns.

The children’s favourite meeting place, which used to be the foyer, was now spotless and silent, with only one receptionist behind a high curving desk. She handed me a visitor’s badge, and I was led by the headteacher and the assistant headteacher, Andrew Conway, to a visitors’ room, where a large, blemish-free wooden table was set with pastries and a swanky vase of white flowers. A woman in black and white brought us tea and coffee.

From Hall’s explanation, he emphasized that the school now has a "significant sense of accountability…which is passed on to others. It causes anxiety, creates tension… The degree of strictness has transformed, and what is crucial is human relations… Thus, we need teachers who have confidence, can appropriately manipulate children to meet the demanded end product, and be sensitive to their needs… What I’d say is that the school is driven."

Hall and Conway took me through the school, and we entered an English class where the teacher enthusiastically encouraged her students to discuss a Carol Ann Duffy poem. There was no speaking except for when the teacher asked questions, and pupils gave their answers. The teacher apologised to Hall for the mess when we walked in, although I saw no visible mess. "I can make you ready for a C," the teacher told the class. "You have to get ready for an A* yourself. Be free in the exam. Bask in it… and start from section B, which has 40% value."

In another classroom, it was still immaculate with excellent light and shiny floors. Only the teacher spoke. The behaviour of the students was perfect, but I was quite uneasy about the sense of rigidity and strictness it portrayed.

As I step outside, a well-tended recreation area greets me. It features several olive trees, all in uniform grey pots and clean wooden benches. The area is devoid of litter or graffiti; everything is spick and span. Inside the school, every wall gleams white. Each is adorned with large copies of the school rules and some exquisite sections of Alan Bennett’s prose. Accompanying these pieces are stunning photographs, including one that captures the Queen’s discreet tears. The school exudes an air of spotlessness, and I cannot find any evidence of surliness, cheek, or students skulking.

As we journeyed on, we encountered a girl and boy standing woefully outside a classroom. When Hall asked them what they were up to, they whispered their response fearfully. He entered the Year 7 class, showing a willingness to help, and reprimanded the girl for opening a crisp packet. He emphasized the need for her to apologize, tell him what she did, and assure him she would never do it again while using his fingers to click fiercely, motioning her into position. Following this, Hall took over the class, requesting the students to use words like protagonist instead of plain words like main character.

Hall advised that using significant words demonstrate one’s range of vocabulary. He guided the learners, explaining that words such as big and fat did not show sophistication and would not earn any points in exams. The classroom seemed well-ordered, with clear table surfaces indicating an absence of clutter. Each student had a still-closed pencil case and two neatly arranged planning papers containing a timetable, homework, notes, and general instructions.

While on a staircase, we encountered a cleaning lady, to whom Hall addressed kind words. A few yards away, he swiftly picked up a piece of litter that the Cleaner had overlooked. As we walked by, the music room caused us to pause. We noticed a circle of pupils singing while a select few played musical instruments — a cello, a flute, and a violin. The music was enchanting, with Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light in performance.

The teacher informed us that the school had numerous music groups, including a string quartet, cello ensemble, string group, guitar group, small orchestra, and a 15-member choir. Further inside, we found an empty room filled with technology that we never had when I was a student. Hall explained that they all had Apple Macs installed, enabling students to start composing music. They could now produce individualized music rather than focusing on choirs and orchestras.

Outside, the school had a towering metal fence that completely encircled it. It was unquestionably good for security, ensuring that no one could enter or exit without authorization. Additionally, the children did not leave the school compound to purchase food or snacks, and there were no vending machines on the premises.

This disciplined approach was a far cry from the anarchic environment that existed in a school situated near my home, where children were always coming and going, buying junk food, and habitually littering. The students at Hall’s school wore uniforms consisting of black suits, blue shirts, and pink and blue ties. Any student caught with a shirt hanging out received an immediate order to tuck it in.

Not shockingly, the school’s exam results had increased significantly, as they had nationally. The school was now inundated with management personnel, fewer teachers, and higher-quality furnishings, including seven distinct designer tables. According to the BBC’s File on Four in 2006, some of these tables cost nearly £3,000 each. The school’s budget was £8.5 million, and all the costs involved were quite high.

Advertisements for the school were created using premium-quality brochures, and teachers and parents received matching planners. The school had stringent rules and procedures that everyone, students, teachers, and parents, was expected to comply with. The Parent Planner emphasized the need for students not to work with music or TVs on and called for a peaceful environment. In Year 11, parents were reminded that their children should be doing three hours of homework every night and asked to provide evidence of this. Without such evidence, they were urged to make substantial inquiries. By the final year, Year 12/13, the message was abundantly clear: "Last moments. Every minute counts."

Oh my. Can you just imagine how we parents and teachers would have coped with this back in the 70s? Or even understood the language? If anyone had spoken to us in that manner during those days, we would have thought they were mocking us. I can’t even envisage my colleagues from 1972 suffering through much of this, but since Hall became the head teacher, the regime seems to have become even stricter. Almost 100 current staff members, all of whom are National Union of Teachers members, have left because of stress, bullying, harassment, and threats of capability proceedings. Some have even been silenced entirely. "We were relying on Rescue Remedy," says Claire Read, who taught design technology and was eventually failed by inspectors for a class she did not teach.

Ian Whitwham, who taught English for 30 years, was retired after the last few years of teaching. "I felt that the school had lost its soul," he said. "Like many other schools nowadays, it had turned into an exam factory." Many of the liberal leftists and union members are leaving as well. It’s as if Holland Park’s DNA has undergone a total transformation, and anyone or anything that fit happily into the previous culture has had to be removed.

The school in the early 70s may not have been perfect. As a teacher during that period and throughout the 80s, I often longed for things to be different. I always loathed the obscure jargon that arose from the introduction of the National Curriculum, the ever-changing government policies, and the relentless increase of management. Now, at Holland Park, they seem to have what we did not: order, uniformity, quiet politeness, spelling corrections, vast vocabularies, grammar, and Latin. However, there is something eerie about the school. It feels too sterile and rigorous, controlled and driven. Pupils and teachers appear to be nervous and frightened. Is this what the new academies are trying to achieve? Are children indeed a "product" that must be measured and "manipulated"?

I wish there was a happy medium, a blend of today’s best ideas and the best of our old 70s school. It had a lot worth preserving. Jane Shallice, the deputy head from 1984 to 1995, claims that it was often maligned, with newspapers falsely "claiming that it was all sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll with little education." "But it wasn’t. Rushworth had developed a brilliant, liberal, creative curriculum… which opened up the world to the children… [and] created a genuine sense of a school community."

It seems like a lost world. The school did not seem very liberal today. I was personally guided around the facility by the headmaster and his assistant for nearly three hours, but I was politely escorted right back to the gates after leaving. However, there are plans to rebuild Holland Park for £72 million as a state-of-the-art giant glass box. Finally, the Conservative borough of Kensington and Chelsea appears to have gotten what it desired.


  • oscarcunningham

    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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