AN EVENT AT HOUSEMANS BOOKSHOP
HELD ON WEDNESDAY 22ND MAY 2013
TO CELEBRATE
LEILA BERG’S CONTRIBUTION
TO RADICAL EDUCATION
AND THE LIVES OF CHILDREN

 

 

 

 

Photograph owned by John Walmsley. Click on photograph to link to John's other pictures.

 
Speaker Lynn Brady

 

 

The speakers were: Michael Fielding (Institute of Education), Emily Charkin (Institute of Education) , Wendy Jones (Author) Lynn Brady (ex Risinghill pupil) and Jenny Ellis (Leila Berg’s daughter)

LYNN BRADY SPOKE ABOUT – ‘RISINGHILL – DEATH OF A COMPRHENSIVE’

‘Leila Berg wrote Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School’ in 1965. It took just one year to write. The book is about the education of working class children and tells the story of the fight to save a brand new school that was closed down just 5 years after it opened.

I first met Leila in 2004 when I went to visit her with Isabel Sheridan; we had both been pupils at the school and were considering writing a sequel to Leila’s book. We wanted to know if Leila’s book was an accurate account of the history and life of the school?

Leila became involved with the school in January 1965 when articles about closing the school started to appear in the national press. She went to the school and met the headmaster, Michael Duane for the first time.

Leila liked his approach to children and was impressed by what she saw at the school and started the research for her book. At that time the London County Council ran all London schools; she interviewed education officials, LCC elected council members, pupils, parents, teachers, and Michael Duane. Alan Foxall (now a member of the Risinghill Research Group) is referred to in the book as…Roger)

The book was finally published 3 years later in 1968; the delay in publishing was due to Penguin’s fears about legal challenges. Leila had controversially decided to name and shame the education officials responsible for closing the school down and getting rid of Michael Duane. This book was the first non-fiction title to become a bestseller. Unfortunately it is now out of publication, although it is still possible to buy copies on the Internet.

As a former pupil of the school it is impossible for me to talk about Leila and this book without also talking about her perception of the pupils. On the back of the book it states

”It is a sad story, written in anger and without fear”.

Leila was angry at the ILEA and other people in power at that time because she recognised that the decision to close the school and end Michael Duane’s headship was for political and not educational reasons.

HER PORTRAYAL OF WORKING CLASS FAMILIES
I read the book for the first time a few years after it was published. I was also angry, not initially at the educational establishment but about Leila’s portrayal of the Risinghill children and parents. I felt that she had stereotyped and made generalisations about working class children. For example:

“The development of such children is astonishing. When they cry as babies – their first attempt at communication – they are hit and told ‘Stop that row’ When they first learn to speak, they are either met with tight-lipped silence or told ‘Shut up’ and clouted”. (Pages 11,12)

“Until the school opened, books meant for most of them only magazines, or children’s pulped-up annuals. Most of them had no background of other-than-supermarket books at home – no books on shelves, books casually on armchairs, books borrowed from children’s libraries, or bought and read in the evenings” (page 113)

I could not identify with these descriptions – this wasn’t about my family, nor did it reflect my friends’ families. Our parents talked to us and were interested in our education; we also had books at home. Of course, there were and still are families who neglect and abuse their children, but the majority of us had parents who worked hard and cared for us.

WHY THE BOOK WAS IMPORTANT
However, there is no doubt that Risinghill was an important book and was very influential for many years. It documents:

The Birth of the school in 1960
The Growth in 1961
The Attacks on the school in 1962 – 65 and
The Death of the School in 1965
The Obituary is the final chapter

The challenges for Michael Duane were enormous. To create Risinghill as a brand new comprehensive school he had to integrate the pupils from 4 very different secondary schools. One was a boys engineering technical school, one a girls tailoring and dressmaking school, one was a girls secondary modern and the other was a mixed secondary modern.

Our previous schools were mainly housed in an old pre-war single school building with very few facilities. You can imagine how it felt arriving at this large brand new school that was made up of lots of different buildings called ‘blocks’. Every block had a different function. There was a teaching block for academic classes, an fully equipped engineering block, a woodwork and metal work block, a cookery block, a science block with photography equipment, a dressmaking and tailoring block, a gym block with a wide range of high quality sports equipment, including trampolines that had just been introduced in this country, another large main building housed the main assembly hall, houserooms and kitchens. We had outdoor tennis courts, netball pitches and seven different playground areas for football and other games.

Everyone started on the same day in May 1960 together with new pupils who had just left primary school, some new teachers and supply teachers who were brought in to fill the gaps. For some reason Risinghill was never fully staffed. (There were also had staff who had previously been head teachers in the old schools who were now expected to be Michael Duane’s deputies.

This was not a true comprehensive school because the majority of children had failed the 11+ – Risinghill always had less than 1% of children in the top ability group and the majority of children were in groups 4 and 5 these were the lowest ability groups. Not 20% from each of the five different ability groups”

Slowly but surely Michael Duane and the teachers were bringing about changes and improved educational achievements for many of the pupils, but this wasn’t good enough or quick enough for some the LCC inspectors and officials. It seemed from the beginning that they did not want to school to succeed.

WHY RISINGHILL WAS GROUNDBREAKING AND IS STILL RELEVANT
Today many of Michael Duane’s policies may seem commonplace, but at the time he was breaking new ground.

1. He did not believe in the use of corporal punishment. The teachers also voted to ban the cane, but many of them were upset when he announced this to the children. They didn’t mind the ban as long as the children didn’t know and it remained a deterrent. The LCC had policies about how, when and what types of canes could be used but these were regularly ignored. At that time children were regularly canned, slapped and had things thrown at them.

2. He believed in keeping the difficult children in school:
“He said that since education had been made compulsory by the state, expulsion was illegal.”
(p83)

3. He often put the children’s before the teachers - in the forward for our book Leila quotes him as saying: “
“if I must choose between teachers and children, in truth I will favour the children. The reason is the teachers are the adults they are now. But the children are the children they are now, and the adults they will become.”

4. He promoted multi-culturalism – children were arriving at the school from many different countries. The Cyprus High Commission’s Cultural Attaché is quoted as saying:
“Risinghill has succeeded in doing something the United Nations cannot do. He has children of all nationalities in his school living together in harmony. If we all believe in international co-operation and understanding, why close the school where these principles are being applied?” (page 194)

THE CAMPAIGN TO STOP THE CLOSURE - THE WORKING CLASSES FIGHT BACK
When the LCC started making moves to close the school down there was a great deal of opposition. The numerous press cuttings and articles from that time show that the decision to close the school created a huge public outcry locally and nationally. The pupils and their parents held rallies, signed petitions and made their views very public – they liked the school and wanted it to stay open. Not surprisingly – no one listened to them.

BETRAYAL BY THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT
In 1965, the final decision to close the school was taken by the Labour government’s Secretary of State, Anthony Crosland this was surprising because previously he had been quoted as saying :

‘he wanted to shut every fucking grammar school in the country’

But within a year of taking office he decided to shut Risinghill instead. Some of the key reasons he gave for his decision were:

• ILEA wanted to move a single sex school onto the site
• More parents were now opting for single sex schools
• There was a drop in pupils choosing Risinghill as their first choice school.

Leila’s book refutes the validity of most of these reasons arguing that the main aim was to end Michael Duane’s headship and the controversy over banning corporal punishment.

RECENT VIEWS ABOUT RISINGHILL, LEILA AND MICHAEL DUANE
Although Leila’s book is out of print some people still talk and write about Risinghill today. You may remember Chris Woodhead (a former Chief Inspector of Schools) who was definitely no lover of progressive educational. In 2005 when he was writing about closing comprehensive schools – he said:

Forty years ago the powers that be had the courage to close Risinghill. The time is now right for similar political decisiveness” (Woodhead, 2005)

Dr David Limond has also written several papers on the subject. His articles are based on Leila’s book and other historical papers. The way they are written is not very accessible and his views are quite controversial. He makes personal attacks on Michael Duane and also been very scathing about Leila’s descriptions of working class children.

“In effect then, my charge against Leila Berg is that she depicts the pupils of Risinghill and their families and neighbours not as they were but as she needs them to be. She is a London noir. Berg paints a uniform picture in which maternal deprivation seals personal fate. Berg belongs to a tradition of deprivationist thinking that already stretched back for 100 years or more when she came to write Risinghill. There is little in her deprivation study of Risinghill children that would have been out of place in Henry Mayhew’s voluminous London Labour and the London Poor…” (p170, Limond 2002)

This is about the only time we agree with Limond. But in every other respect Leila’s account of what happened at Risinghill was spot on.

In one article – written after the closure of the school by a former teacher - we were disturbed to find that the Risinghill children were deemed to be the ‘waste clay of an experiment’ (Constable 1968). Disrupting our education didn’t matter because we were not expected to achieve much in life or as another article implies we did have a ‘future beyond the dustbins’ (Anonymous article - Education 1968).

When we met Leila she supported us in our aim to prove that we had benefitted from our education at Risinghill and we had achieved in life.

There is no doubt that many children today would benefit from having a head teacher like Michael Duane and also from having the facilities we had at Risinghill. We had access to all types of academic and vocation education without constant testing – what we also had that was more important were real jobs and we certainly had more of a future that many children have today.

I now work as an advocate to help disadvantaged children to get their voice heard and recently found another of Leila’s books quoted in the introduction in a recent book about advocacy.


Anonymous article - Education (1968). "Beyond the dustbins of Risinghill." Education: 655-657.

Berg, L. (1968). Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School. Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd.

Constable, T. (1968). "The Risinghill Myth." New Society: 868-870.

Limond, D. (2002). "Risinghill Revised." History of Education 31(6): 611-622.

Redrupp, B. (2005). Informal interview.

Woodhead, C. (2005).e Education: Comprehensively catastrophic, www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,,2092-1774016,00.html. 2006.