TOBY YOUNG: Flippin ‘eck Tucker! Our schools are so much better thanks to you

I was pleased to hear that the TV series Grange Hill is going to be made into a film. 

As a child at a North London comprehensive in the 1970s, I was an avid fan of the BBC drama, which ran from 1978-87.

Grange Hill was set in a fictional school – also in North London – and was widely condemned at the time for painting an unrealistically ugly portrait of life at a typical comprehensive. 

Its storylines included drugs, racism, bullying, teenage pregnancy, knife crime, alcoholism and death.

Grange Hill was set in a fictional school – also in North London – and was widely condemned at the time for painting an unrealistically ugly portrait of life at a typical comprehensive

It was unrealistic all right, but not for the reasons its critics said. On the contrary, compared to the comprehensive I attended in Muswell Hill – Creighton – it was like a five-star resort. Take racism, for instance. 

There was plenty of racial bullying at Creighton, but it was almost all directed at white children like me – a storyline never explored in Grange Hill.

Creighton was the flagship of an educational experiment run by the Labour-controlled Haringey Council. 

Children from the most deprived parts of the borough were ‘bussed’ over to leafy Muswell Hill in an attempt to promote social integration. In fact, it just meant middle-class softies like me were targeted by the tough kids from the other side of the borough. 

We spent our break-time being chased by groups of youths intent on stealing our dinner money. I remember when one of these boys brought an air pistol into school and, as I was running away, shot me in the leg.

Luckily, a teacher witnessed the whole thing. He dragged the boy off to face the headmistress, the wife of Labour MP Roy Hattersley and a star of the Haringey Labour Party. That’ll be one less bully I’ll have to avoid every day, I thought.

As a child at a North London comprehensive in the 1970s, I was an avid fan of the BBC drama, which ran from 1978-87

As a child at a North London comprehensive in the 1970s, I was an avid fan of the BBC drama, which ran from 1978-87

In fact, so ‘progressive’ was Mrs Hattersley’s attitude to bad behaviour that all the miscreant got was a two-day suspension.

This philosophy didn’t just extend to behaviour management. According to one of Mrs Hattersley’s hare-brained schemes, Creighton had a seven-day timetable, which meant that the first Monday of term was ‘Day One’, the following Monday was ‘Day Six’ and then Wednesday was ‘Day One’ again.

The upshot was that no one knew where they were supposed to be from one minute to the next.

The only part of the school where there was a modicum of order was the PE department – and in that respect it did bear some resemblance to Grange Hill. In the TV series, one of the few teachers to enjoy any authority was Mr Baxter, the fearsome PE teacher known as ‘Bullet’. At Creighton, our Mr Baxter was a Greek Cypriot who was a corporal punishment enthusiast.

Woe betide the boy who forgot his PE kit. You were given a choice of doing PE in your underpants or being given the slipper. None of the children complained, just accepting it as one more humiliation in this educational nut house.

I regarded all this as completely normal and was amazed when Grange Hill was slammed for exaggerating how awful London comprehensives were. I longed to go to a school as well run as the fictional comprehensive.

State schools in the 1970s were often violent places. The abnegation of authority that was so beloved of progressive educationalists – a teacher was to be a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’ – meant there was no one in the playground to protect the weak from the strong. For that reason, most comps were closer to fascist dystopias than socialist paradises. But Creighton was a basket case even by the standards of its day, and in 1976 became the subject of a major newspaper investigation.

That caused such a sensation – a school even worse than Grange Hill! – that the journalist Hunter Davies turned it into a book called The Creighton Report. Six years later, the ‘bussing’ experiment was ended, Creighton was merged with a neighbouring school and it was renamed Fortismere.

Creighton is a good illustration of everything that went wrong with state education in the 1970s. The school was created in 1967 when Haringey Council combined Tollington Grammar and William Grimshaw Secondary Modern. The idea behind such mergers, said then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was to create ‘grammar schools for all’. But all too often these new comprehensives became ‘secondary moderns for all’. After five years of comprehensive education, I emerged with just one O-level.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2001 – called Education At A Glance – revealed just how far a generation had been let down. It found that adult illiteracy was worse in Britain than in any other country in the industrialised world apart from the US.

I expect Sir Phil Redmond, the Left-wing creator of Grange Hill, will in his new film try to skewer the educational revolution that has taken place since 1987 – a national curriculum, league tables, regular inspections. Honesty and accountability, in other words.

Perhaps Grange Hill in 2022 will have become an academy sponsored by a vulgar industrialist, boasting strict discipline, smart uniforms and compulsory Latin. No doubt today’s descendants of Tucker, Trisha, Zammo, Judy and Roland will have been turned into automatons by this Tory exam factory, all creativity snuffed out by over-worked teachers chasing grades. 

Yet the reality is that most state schools are now a hundred times better than they were in the 1970s. Bullying is no longer tolerated, literacy and numeracy rates have shot up and half the students go on to university.

Just compare Fortismere to Creighton. It’s judged Outstanding by Ofsted and has a waiting list as long as your arm.

Last year 92 per cent of its A-level students got grade C or above, with 12 getting places at Cambridge or Oxford universities.

I’ve seen this sort of thing at first hand. Educational reforms brought in by Michael Gove enabled me to join forces with a group of local parents in Acton and set up a school that embodied Harold Wilson’s original vision for comprehensives – grammar school standards but with a non-selective intake.

In 2019, more than half of all the GCSE exams were marked 7, 8 or 9 – A and A* in old money.

That makes the West London Free School one of the highest-achieving academies in the country. But even though we set up our school under the Tories, this transformed educational landscape is the result of a joint effort by both the main political parties.

And the irony is that it was partly prompted by the horrified reaction of the viewing public when Grange Hill first appeared on television.

Sir Phil Redmond was a supporter of progressive education. But his warts-and-all portrait of a typical comprehensive shocked the country into facing the truth – and did us a favour in the process.

Despite the furious denials it provoked, far too many comprehensives really were as violent and depressing as Grange Hill. It proved to be a much-needed wake-up call. I look forward to seeing Redmond’s film. But if his new Grange Hill Comprehensive isn’t a huge improvement on the old one, it will be a travesty of the truth.

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