To: All ex Risinghill Comprehensive Pupils
From: Isabel Sheridan (Wingrove) and Lynn Brady (Stockwell)
Before I get into this letter, can I say “watcha” to all my old school friends and apologise for not contacting each and every one of you separately. There are so many names on the FR website (some that I know well and others that I recognise, though can’t quite put a face to) but there are 200 people that I still need to contact, so I hope you will understand. Lynn gives the same apologies and for the same reason. I met up with Lynn this February - after years of keeping in touch with Christmas cards, promising to meet and never quite managing it! After pie and mash and a stroll through the market it felt just like the old days! We talked non stop – about so many things – and before going home Lynn loaned me her copy of ‘Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School’.
I’m not quite sure whose idea it was to write a sequel to this book – methinks it was Lynn! Anyway, we have been playing around with a couple of ideas and have met with Leila Berg, the author of ‘Risinghill’. Leila is in her 80s now, crippled with arthritis, but mentally very sharp and is really excited about the idea of a sequel. We have also been in touch with Bob Dixon, an ex teacher, who remained friends with Michael Duane (MD) long after the school closed. Bob has provided us with a wealth of information about Risinghill and is supportive of our project. Michael passed away in January 1997 but Margaret, his widow, is equally delighted about our sequel and we hope to meet up with her soon. When Michael died, Margaret deposited all his papers at the Institute of Education (7 boxes) and Lynn and I have started looking through these. We have also been to the London Metropolitan Archives, which houses the LCC and GLC Education papers of the time.
Those ex pupils, who are registered on Friends Reunited, will have received an email from me in June inviting them to participate in this project. Quite a few people responded, including Alan Foxall, who has been helping us with the research. John Bailey is another person who came to us via the Friends Reunited site, and John has designed and developed a ‘Risinghill Research Group’ website of our very own. Some interest has also been expressed in making a TV documentary/series and we have met with some media people to discuss this. So what started off as just an “idea” in February is now beginning to take shape!
Risinghill Comprehensive opened in May1960 – at a time when the phrase “comprehensive school” was a totally new concept. The school was an amalgamation of 4 pre-existing schools (Gifford Mixed Secondary School, Ritchie Secondary School for Girls, Northampton Technical Secondary School for Boys and Bloomsbury Technical School for Girls) plus an intake of 11 year olds who came straight from primary school. Under the headship of MD, the school became the subject of intense public and media scrutiny, largely because of MD’s non authoritarian approach to education. His encouragement of informal relationships between staff and pupils, his opposition to corporal punishment and open approach to sex education caused quite a stir – not just with some teachers, but his employer, the London County Council. In 1965 the school was closed in order to accommodate Starcross, an all girls Comprehensive school? At least this is what we were asked to believe in 1965 and it makes as much sense now as it probably did way back then. Here was a school that epitomized the original ideal or vision of comprehensive education in England, yet it was allowed to close so unceremoniously and before it had even been officially opened? Despite some of the adverse publicity, Risinghill was a huge success with many of the kids and their parents and there was a tremendous battle to keep it open.
In 1968 Leila published her book, which went deeply into the ethos and whole life of the school. Its growth in stature and recognition reached a point where, according to Leila, it became a threat to the status quo and had to go – along with its Headteacher! The book describes the politics behind the closure and refers to Leila’s interviews with staff, parents and pupils. It caused a furor when it was published and was contested by many. Of interest, is that it is still being written about and contested today! For me and Lynn, Leila’s book is an interesting account of what happened, although there are some aspects we would question. There are some lovely stories, some funny and some sad. I was able to identify with quite a few. ‘Risinghill’ was the first non fiction book to become a best seller and Leila also wrote a play about it.
Like me, I suspect most of you will be unaware that such a book existed. As for the controversy surrounding Risinghill’s closure, I was aware of some of it but had no idea of the politics. Only much later in life, when attending a job interview, did I come to realise that I had been stigmatized in some way. I was quizzed about the ‘Blackboard Jungle’ and I remember feeling more than a bit “ticked off” with the interviewer, although I did get the job!
Our sequel will be dedicated to MD and we now have an outline of things that might be explored. The “comprehensive” debate is, for example, as divisive now as it was 40 years ago and maybe there is something that can be learned from Risinghill. In Leila’s own words “Once you believe, or say you believe, that all children are of equal value whatever their intellectual attainments, you are changing the whole concept of school …”. Without realizing it, we were all part of a unique experiment – whether it was a successful one or not, is something we would like to examine. It is here that we need your help, as the information you provide will, hopefully, answer this question and set the scene for ‘Risinghill Revisited’ (our title for the book). One of the big issues today is the importance of exams and testing. We think it would be useful to find out how we have managed in later life without this emphasis on education.
At the end of this letter is a Questionnaire, which we hope you will search your memories to complete. Any photographs, funny stories (or even serious ones) will be welcome and these do not have to be written in perfect English. Just write it as it comes. Some of the questions might seem personal and if there are any you do not want to answer, just go on to the next one. If you can get hold of a copy of Leila’s book, the Questionnaire will make more sense and give you some idea of where we are coming from. You might get a copy on the internet from ‘ebay’, or from a second hand bookshop; it was originally published by Penguin. One of the things that really annoyed me and Lynn was the fact that, having come from the streets of Islington (an area perceived to be of intense deprivation), we were considered failures before our lives had even begun; the implication being that children from deprived areas were, by definition, also poor intellectually!
Having said all this we want to take an objective view, as there are bound to be instances where pupils were bullied, abused and/or have a different perspective of Risinghill altogether. We want honest feedback and hope you will give it. We would like to contact ex pupils from all 4 schools and those who joined straight from primary school. If you are in contact with other ex-pupils, could you please copy this letter and Questionnaire (Click here to get your pupil questionnaire) and ask them if they would like to take part in this project. And if anyone has any particular skills, useful contacts or access to equipment that they think might be of use, then please contact us. Any help really would be welcome.
‘Risinghill Revisited’ will be as much for you, as it is for MD. We hope it will provide an opportunity to say how it really was, that even if we did come from poor homes, or live in a poor area, it did not make us poor socially, or intellectually. Like me and Lynn, you might even disagree with the description of Islington itself! It is likely that the book will be of interest to today’s education establishment and to parents who have become hung up on sending their children to the “best” schools. Many of us have achieved in our lives without this early pressure. Lynn didn’t have any qualifications until she was 40 and has now got a BA Hons (First Class) and is completing her PhD this year.
As for me, I left Risinghill with a GCE in English and 5 RSAs, which was probably quite an achievement in those days, especially for a Gifford Street child! We have both held relatively good jobs and are happy, well adjusted individuals who are probably not that much different from you or any other ex pupil. Risinghill was not, in any event, just about teaching kids how to pass exams; it was so much more and this is what we want to explore. Please don’t feel put off by the Questionnaire, even if you do not feel that you have achieved much in the education stakes. What we are interested to know is whether you have achieved in life what you wanted to achieve and have been relatively satisfied as a result. A warm, happy family life is perhaps the biggest achievement of all and is equally important as far as this piece of research is concerned.
If you can post the Questionnaire (and any other contributions in the way of “memories” or photographs) to me or Lynn, this would be great. Our addresses can be found in the Questionnaire.
Isabel and Lynn
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