Comprehensive school

A comprehensive school is a secondary school or middle school that is a state school and does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. This is in contrast to the selective school system, where admission is restricted on the basis of selection criteria. The term is commonly used in relation to England and Wales, where comprehensive schools were introduced on an experimental basis in the 1940s and became more widespread from 1965. About 90% of British secondary school pupils now attend comprehensive schools. They correspond broadly to the public high school in the United States and Canada and to the German Gesamtschule.

Comprehensive schools are primarily about providing an entitlement curriculum to all children, without selection whether due to financial considerations or attainment. A consequence of that is a wider ranging curriculum, including practical subjects such as design and technology and vocational learning, which were less common or non-existent in grammar schools. Providing post-16 education cost-effectively becomes more challenging for smaller comprehensive schools, because of the number of courses needed to cover a broader curriculum with comparatively fewer students. This is why schools have tended to get larger and also why many local authorities have organised secondary education into 11–16 schools, with the post-16 provision provided by sixth form colleges and further education colleges. Comprehensive schools do not select their intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude, but there are demographic reasons why the attainment profiles of different schools vary considerably. In addition, government initiatives such as the City Technology Colleges and Specialist schools programmes have made the comprehensive ideal less certain.

In these schools children could be selected on the basis of curriculum aptitude related to the school's specialism even though the schools do take quotas from each quartile of the attainment range to ensure they were not selective by attainment. A problem with this is whether the quotas should be taken from a normal distribution or from the specific distribution of attainment in the immediate catchment area. In the selective school system, which survives in several parts of the United Kingdom, admission is dependent on selection criteria, most commonly a cognitive test or tests. Although comprehensive schools were introduced to England and Wales in 1965, there are 164 selective grammar schools that are still in operation. (though this is a small number compared to approximately 3500 state secondary schools in England). Most comprehensives are secondary schools for children between the ages of 11 to 16, but in a few areas there are comprehensive middle schools, and in some places the secondary level is divided into two, for students aged 11 to 14 and those aged 14 to 18, roughly corresponding to the US middle school (or junior high school) and high school, respectively. With the advent of key stages in the National Curriculum some local authorities reverted from the Middle School system to 11–16 and 11–18 schools so that the transition between schools corresponds to the end of one key stage and the start of another.

In principle, comprehensive schools were conceived as "neighbourhood" schools for all students in a specified catchment area.


Further information: Education in Finland

In most countries, the term "comprehensive school" is used to refer to the education of children after primary school, but in Finland this English term is confusingly used to also refer to all of the earlier grades.

Finland has used comprehensive schools after 5th grade since the 1970s. (Schools up to 4th grade have always been comprehensive in most countries, including Finland.) Until the 1970s, some children stayed on in the primary school (kansaloulu) until the end of the sixth grade whereas others left after the fourth grade to go to a school (oppikoulu) whose higher grades were called lukio (high school) and prepared them for tertiary education.

Since the 1970s, everyone has been required to complete the same nine grades of peruskoulu (literally "basic school"), from the ages of 7 to 16. This change was modeled on the British comprehensive school, which goes from the ages of 11 to 16. (In the USA and Germany, for example, comprehensive schools go to the age of 18 or 19.) From the ages of 16 to 19, students go either to vocational school or high school (lukio).

The division of the peruskoulu into a lower school (grades 1–6, ala-aste, alakoulu) and upper school (grades 7–9, yläaste, yläkoulu) has been discontinued.


Further information: Education in Germany
The comprehensive school of Ludwigshafen-Oggersheim

Comprehensive schools that offer college preparatory classes

Germany has a comprehensive school known as the Gesamtschule. While some German schools such as the Gymnasium and the Realschule have rather strict entrance requirements, the Gesamtschule does not have such requirements. They offer college preparatory classes for the students who are doing well, general education classes for average students, and remedial courses for those who aren't doing that well. In most cases students attending a Gesamtschule may graduate with the Hauptschulabschluss, the Realschulabschluss or the Abitur depending on how well they did in school.

The percentage of students attending a Gesamtschule varies by Bundesland. In the State of Brandenburg more than 50% of all students attended a Gesamtschule in 2007,[1] while in the State of Bavaria less than 1% did.

Starting in 2010/2011, Hauptschulen were merged with Realschulen and Gesamtschulen to form a new type of comprehensive school in the German States of Berlin and Hamburg, called Stadtteilschule in Hamburg and Sekundarschule in Berlin (see: Education in Berlin, Education in Hamburg).

Comprehensive schools that do not offer college preparatory classes

The "Mittelschule" is a school in some States of Germany that offers regular classes and remedial classes but no college preparatory classes. In some States of Germany, the Hauptschule does not exist, and any student who has not been accepted by another school has to attend the Mittelschule. Students may be awarded the Hauptschulabschluss or the Mittlere Reife but not the Abitur.


There is some controversy about comprehensive schools. As a rule of thumb those supporting The Left Party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Alliance '90/The Greens are in favour of comprehensive schools, while those supporting the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party are opposed to them.

Grade inflation

Integrierte Gesamtschule Ludwigshafen-Gartenstadt

Comprehensive schools have been accused of grade inflation after a study revealed that Gymnasium senior students of average mathematical ability[2] found themselves at the very bottom of their class and had an average grade of "Five", which means "Failed". Gesamtschule senior students of average mathematical ability found themselves in the upper half of their class and had an average grade of "Three Plus".[3] When a central Abitur examination was established in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, it was revealed that Gesamtschule students did worse than could be predicted by their grades or class rank. Barbara Sommer (Christian Democratic Union), Education Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, commented that: Looking at the performance gap between comprehensives and the Gymnasium [at the Abitur central examination] [...] it is difficult to understand why the Social Democratic Party of Germany wants to do away with the Gymnasium. [...] The comprehensives do not help students achieve [...] I am sick and tired of the comprehensive schools blaming their problems on the social class origins of their students. What kind of attitude is this to blame their own students? She also called the Abitur awarded by the Gymnasium the true Abitur and the Abitur awarded by the Gesamtschule "Abitur light".[4] As a reaction, Sigrid Beer (Alliance '90/The Greens) stated that comprehensives were structurally discriminated against by the government, which favoured the Gymnasiums. She also said that many of the students awarded the Abitur by the comprehensives came from "underprivileged groups" and sneering at their performance was a "piece of impudence".[5]


Gesamtschulen might put bright working class students at risk according to several studies. It could be shown that an achievement gap opens between working class students attending a comprehensive and their middle class peers. Also, working class students attending a Gymnasium or a Realschule outperform students from similar backgrounds attending a Gesamtschulen. However, it is not students attending a Gesamtschulen, but students attending a Hauptschule who perform the poorest.

PISA points earned[6]
type school social class "very low" social class "low" social class "high" social class "very high"
Hauptschule 400 429 436 450
Gesamtschule 438 469 489 515
Realschule 482 504 528 526
Gymnasium 578 581 587 602

A study by a group of researchers around Helmut Fend, an Austrian Professor of Pedagogy and proponent of comprehensive schools, revealed that comprehensive schools do not help working class students in the long term. The researchers compared alumni of the tripartite system to alumni of comprehensive schools. While working class alumni of comprehensive schools were awarded better school diplomas, at age 35 they held similar occupational positions as working class alumni of the tripartite system and were as unlikely to graduate from college. Fend concluded that the social background outweighs advantages of the type of school after graduation.[7]

According to Kurt A. Heller:

Social class divergences are exacerbated by comprehensive schools.[8]

According to Ulrich Sprenger:

As the proponents of comprehensives invariably demand humanization of schools, it is very disappointing that socially disadvantaged students, who are most desperately in need of a process of humanization, obviously benefit the least from the structural innovations brought about by the integrated comprehensive system, the organisational and curricular changes of which were primarily aimed at promoting and providing special assistance to this very group of students.[9]


Further information: Education in Gibraltar

Gibraltar opened its first comprehensive school in 1972. Between the ages of 12 and 16 two comprehensive schools cater for girls and boys separately. Students may also continue into the sixth form to complete their A-levels.


Comprehensive schools were introduced into Ireland in 1966 by an initiative by Patrick Hillery, Minister for Education, to give a broader range of education compared to that of the vocational school system, which was then the only system of schools completely controlled by the state. Until then, education in Ireland was largely dominated by religious persuasion, particularly the voluntary secondary school system was a particular realisation of this. The comprehensive school system is still relatively small and to an extent has been superseded by the community school concept. The Irish word for a comprehensive school is a 'scoil chuimsitheach.'

In Ireland comprehensive schools were an earlier model of state schools, introduced in the late 1960s and largely replaced by the secular community model of the 1970s. The comprehensive model generally incorporated older schools that were under Roman Catholic or Protestant ownership, and the various denominations still manage the school as patrons or trustees. The state owns the school property, which is vested in the trustees in perpetuity. The model was adopted to make state schools more acceptable to a largely conservative society of the time.

The introduction of the community school model in the 1970s controversially removed the denominational basis of the schools, but religious interests were invited to be represented on the Boards of Management. Community schools are divided into two models, the community school vested in the Minister for Education and the community college vested in the local Education and Training Board. Community colleges tended to be amalgamations of unviable local schools under the umbrella of a new community school model, but community schools have tended to be entirely new foundations.


Government Comprehensive Secondary School (GCSS) is a government-owned secondary school located in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, Nigeria.


Sweden had used mixed-ability schools for some years before they were introduced into England and Wales, and was chosen as one of the models.

United Kingdom

England and Wales

The first comprehensives were set up after the Second World War. In 1946, for example, Walworth School was one of five 'experimental' comprehensive schools set up by the London County Council[10] Another early comprehensive school was Holyhead County School in Anglesey in 1949.[11][12] Other early examples of comprehensive schools included Woodlands Boys School in Coventry (opened in 1954) and Tividale Comprehensive School in Tipton.

The largest expansion of comprehensive schools in 1965 resulted from a policy decision taken in 1965 by Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for Education in the 1964–1970 Labour government. The policy decision was implemented by Circular 10/65, an instruction to local education authorities to plan for conversion. Students sat the 11+ examination in their last year of primary education and were sent to one of a secondary modern, secondary technical or grammar school depending on their perceived ability. Secondary technical schools were never widely implemented and for 20 years there was a virtual bipartite system which saw fierce competition for the available grammar school places, which varied between 15% and 25% of total secondary places, depending on location.

In 1970 Margaret Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education of the new Conservative government. She ended the compulsion on local authorities to convert, however, many local authorities were so far down the path that it would have been prohibitively expensive to attempt to reverse the process, and more comprehensive schools were established under Thatcher than any other education secretary.

By 1975 the majority of local authorities in England and Wales had abandoned the 11-Plus examination and moved to a comprehensive system. Over that 10-year period many secondary modern schools and grammar schools were amalgamated to form large neighbourhood comprehensives, whilst a number of new schools were built to accommodate a growing school population. By the mid-1970s the system had been almost fully implemented, with virtually no secondary modern schools remaining. Many grammar schools were either closed or changed to comprehensive status. Some local authorities, including Sandwell and Dudley in the West Midlands, changed all of its state secondary schools to comprehensive schools during the 1970s.

In 1976 the future Labour prime minister James Callaghan launched what became known as the 'great debate' on the education system. He went on to list the areas he felt needed closest scrutiny: the case for a core curriculum, the validity and use of informal teaching methods, the role of school inspection and the future of the examination system. Comprehensive school remains the most common type of state secondary school in England, and the only type in Wales. They account for around 90% of pupils, or 64% if one does not count schools with low-level selection. This figure varies by region.

Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, parents have a right to choose which school their child should go to or whether to not send them to school at all and to home educate them instead. The concept of "school choice" introduces the idea of competition between state schools, a fundamental change to the original "neighbourhood comprehensive" model, and is partly intended as a means by which schools that are perceived to be inferior are forced either to improve or, if hardly anyone wants to go there, to close down. Government policy is currently promoting 'specialisation' whereby parents choose a secondary school appropriate for their child's interests and skills. Most initiatives focus on parental choice and information, implementing a pseudo-market incentive to encourage better schools. This logic has underpinned the controversial league tables of school performance.


Further information: Education in Scotland

Scotland has a very different educational system from England and Wales, though also based on comprehensive education. It has different ages of transfer, different examinations and a different philosophy of choice and provision. All publicly funded primary and secondary schools are comprehensive. The Scottish Government has rejected plans for specialist schools as of 2005.

Northern Ireland

Further information: Education in Northern Ireland

Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly from systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but it is more similar to that used in England and Wales than it is to Scotland.


  1. Prof Dr. Valentin Merkelbach: "Gesamtschulen und Grundschulen sind das Beste in unserem Schulsystem"
  2. who scored 100 on a math test, provided by the scientists
  3. Manfred Tücke: "Psychologie in der Schule, Psychologie für die Schule: Eine themenzentrierte Einführung in die Psychologie für (zukünftige) Lehrer". 4 Auflage 2005. Münster: LIT Verlag; p. 127; the study was done in North Rhine-Westphalia, students were attending a Leistungskurs
  4. Presseinformationen: Sprechzettel von Ministerin Barbara Sommer zur Pressekonferenz am 19.08.2008 "Schuljahresbeginn und Auswertung des Zentralabiturs 2008". Ministerium für Schule und Weiterbildung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen
  5. Stephan Lüke: "Gutes Abitur, schlechte Gesamtschule". WDR Wissen
  6. Ehmke et al., 2004, In: PISA-Konsortium Deutschland (Hrsg.): PISA 2003 – Der Bildungsstand der Jugendlichen in Deutschland – Ergebnisse des 2. internationalen Vergleiches, Münster/NewYork: Waxmann, S. 244
  7. Jochen Leffers: "Gesamtschule folgenlos - Bildung wird vererbt". 3 January 2008. Der Spiegel.
  8. Kurt A. Heller:[] "Umgang mit Heterogenität im Gesamtschul- versus dreigliedrigen Sekundarschulsystem". From the magazine, "Realschule in Deutschland", 116, Nr. 6 (2008).
  9. Ulrich Sprenger: "Die Realschule im Spiegel der Bildungsforschung: Sieben Thesen und acht Fragen zu ihrer Zukunft - Ein Beitrag zur Schulformdebatte".
  10. Peter Medway and Pat Kingwell, ‘A Curriculum in its place: English teaching in one school 1946-1963′, History of Education 39, no. 6 (November 2010): 749-765.
  11. Comps - here to stay?, Phil Tineline, September 2005, BBC, accessed 12 August 2008.
  12. Missing or empty |title= (help)
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