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comprehensive educationa form of secondary education in the UK in which pupils are generally taught in mixed ability groups or classes and for which there is no selective entry requirement.
Moves to develop a comprehensive system in England and Wales began during the 1960s after educational research demonstrated that secondary-modern school pupils designated as ‘non-academic’ were often highly successful in public examinations such as the General Certificate of Education (Floud, Halsey and Martin, 1956; Crowther, 1959; Jackson and Marsden, 1962). In addition, the 1960s were characterized by a growing concern with issues of inequality Theorists began to argue (Halsey, Floud and Anderson, 1961; Swift, 1967) that the continued separation of social classes in education engendered by the tripartite secondary system (see EDUCATION ACTS) produced continual inequalities in education provision.
The Labour government of 1964-70 saw the introduction of comprehensive schools as a means of reducing such social divisiveness and ending separatism in education, thus creating greater equality of opportunity. It also saw it as a response to overwhelming technological and popular demands, and the elimination of a waste of talent (Marsden, 1971).
The implementation of comprehensive education has been uneven and incomplete. It has been estimated that only about 20% of secondary pupils attend ‘true’ comprehensives. In some local education authorities selective grammar schools exist side by side with comprehensives or are being reintroduced. Many middle-class children continue to be educated in the private sector. Thus middle-class pupils with ability are ‘creamed off’. In some comprehensives children are 'S treamed’ (see STREAMING). In most they are organized in sets or bands for particular subjects, although some schools teach pupils in mixed-ability groups during years 1-3.
Whilst supporters of comprehensive education argue that it provides the only means of reducing inequality of educational opportunity (see Hargreaves, 1982), there exist major difficulties in realizing this aim (e.g. in inner city schools) and this is one reason why there is relatively little resistance to a retreat from comprehensive education.