The History of Woodberry Down Comprehensive School


Jack Whitehead, teacher at Woodberry Down from 1956 to 1980

I joined Woodberry Down School a year after it opened, to teach Technical subjects. I taught Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing for four years and during that time I taught some English. After five years I became the Deputy Housemaster in Keller House, a post which I held for many years. The policy was for there to be two male and two female Heads of Houses and two Deputy Heads of the opposite sex. My Head of House was Ann Patterson, who went eventually to a school in Essex at a period when many teachers left. In the meantime there had been a few changes of Head of House, but all female. There was no room for me and the policy of two men and two women heads (which I supported) continued. In the meantime I had begun to teach more and more English and less of the other subjects.

From my position in the House system I was able to watch great changes take place in the development of the school over the years. When we started, Woodberry Down was a new, pioneering experiment. I had supported the concept of The Common School, which we now call the Comprehensive, since it was first mooted at the time of the 1944 Butler Education Act. The eleven plus exam had always meant that enough clerks were being trained to run British Industry and the cut-off point dividing those who would be taught in classes of thirty for five years and the majority who would be taught in classes of forty, in worse conditions, for only four years, was arbitrary. Everything depended on a test on one particular day. If a child was feeling under the weather and did not perform well there was no appeal. We showed that a child's score could vary by as much as 17 points according to his/her state of health on the day, when two points could make the difference between passing and failing.

The system was supported by a lot of mumbo jumbo about intelligence propagated mainly by a swindler called Burt. He claimed that his intelligence tests at eleven could predict what a person would achieve in later life. When we said that Einstein would have failed the 11Plus exam we were ignored. He was the high priest of the intelligence testing and was knighted for his half-truths. It became a sort of religious mantra. Nobody who has taught across the intelligence rang would deny that there is such a thing as intelligence and that it it is important. We were concerned with the unfairness and downright stupidity of basing education of whole people on a test at the age of eleven, but the 11 Plus became a sort of religious mantra, similar to the present discussion on School Academies. Two million pounds and you can teach that the earth is flat.

What we did not know at the time was that Burt was concocting his intelligence tables with a mysterious person in Australia who we could never find. When asked for a set of intelligence tables there was silence for a fortnight and then they appeared, correct to three places of decimals. It is hard enough to get any correlation in statistics anyway, but to get them to three places of decimals is incredible.

I have written all this to explain the difference between the educational climate when we started Woodberry Down and today. Then the majority of children left school at the age of fourteen. Only 25% (including those who paid) went to Grammar schools and stayed to sixteen. A very small proportion of these continued into the sixth form.

 At the end of WW2 the Butler Education Act had divided children into Grammar, Technical/ Commercial, and Secondary Modern Schools and this was heralded at the time as a great advance, but it did not deal with the difficulty of the I1+ cut-off point. Children who developed late; those who had had a period in hospital during their early years; or those who came into the country late and had English as their second languages; did badly at the 11+, but could catch up quickly when they began to settle in. Comprehensives were designed to deal with these problems and to give a more general fairness to the system.

Lastly, the educational needs of the country had altered. Before the War, Britain was a huge manufacturing nation, with some highly skilled craftsmen, plenty of semi-skilled workers and a mass of labourers. There were far fewer machines than today. Small portable bench tools and hand tools, with electric motors or batteries, were unknown. Thus house building and road building, for example, were still very labour intensive.

By the end of the Second World War the need for a mass of unskilled labour was greatly reduced. What was needed was a better educated population and one does not get this by denying education to a vast mass of the population. Remember too that this was soon after the Second World War when the idea of fairness, and equality, instead of Devil take the hindmost, was very important politically.

Comprehensive schools were talked about all the time. There were three in Middlesex and my wife and I had moved into the catchment area of one of them so that our son could attend it.

The London County Council had set up an Interim Comprehensive School at West Norwood with specially selected teachers to train them for the planned comprehensives. Mrs Chetwynd was the Deputy Headmistress. As the school was on three sites, the conditions were not ideal, but the school was a hive of ideas. A group of teachers, led by Mrs H.R.Chetwynd and including Johnny Biginel and Charlie Thurgood, were chosen to start Woodberry Down. A few months later Crown Woods, at Abbey Wood, was opened as well.

Mrs Chetwynd recruited staff from Clissold School (the neighbouring Secondary Modern School) and from all over the country. There was a very large application and the first Heads of Departments were a powerful lot. Five years later many were to leave and open further comprehensives outside London, taking our organization with them.

In an interview just before the school opened, Mrs Chetwynd said,

“We would like people to know that this will be one complete school. Pupils will not be called grammar, central and secondary modern, but will all belong to one school with the same chances.”

When we opened we accepted children according to their 11+ results to make up an intake which covered the complete intelligence range. They were placed in eight streams and taught in these groups for most lessons but, as I remember, were streamed separately for maths ability. I can remember teaching two first year classes one after the other. One was like teaching electric sparks. Some of the children in the other class had difficulty tying their shoe laces. Teaching across the full intelligence range is an unforgettable experience.

The following year the applications of top band children were so large that we had more than double the correct number and Mrs Chetwynd, to my surprise, accepted them all. At this time one third of the pupils were Jewish, so we had plenty of parents in the professions and we could always call on their expert advice and we in the house system drew on this a lot.

The school became very famous in the first few years. Mrs Pandit opened it. It was nothing to see a group of visitors from some distant country peering in through the window in a variety of headdresses. The children became so used to visitors and that they took them in their stride. At this time too Princess Anne was about thirteen and some newspaper, for want of something better to do, suggested that she should come to Woodberry Down. This was the modern form of education and her presence would be a sign that the Royal Family was embracing modern ideas.

I wrote a comic interview with Mrs Chetwynd in which she said that she had seen the parents, who had agreed to move into the area. Presumably they would change the guard at the Manor House pub. Anne would be in a normal class of twenty five including four members of the Flying Squad. When they had talked about careers, Mrs Chetwynd had said the audio-typing was becoming very popular with the girls. The thought of becoming a princess was typical of girls of her age and she would get over it.

Needless to say nothing came of this idea, but it illustrates how well known the school became in the early days.

The nature of the school population was to change considerably over the years. I did a survey of my Keller House members about eight years after the school opened and found that almost all of my top stream children were living in Woodford and other quite distant places. They had joined the school and the family had then moved away. The children travelled in, or in some cases stayed during the week with relations. Some, I suspect, had been living away but used a grandparent's address for school purposes when they had applied. Later other Educational authorities refused to pay money to the inner London Education Authority for teaching their pupils when they had perfectly good schools themselves and we lost a number of promising children, some even in their final exam year.

When the Jewish Free School was opened in Camden Town, many of our Jewish children left to go there. The Jewish Free School has itself now moved to Harrow, following the Jewish children, so everything has changed. The site has now been covered with houses.

Over the years children came from all over the Commonwealth and we took in refugees from every war zone, so that the school became a complete melting pot. This has been the story of all London Schools and has been for years, but I was able to watch the change from close up. My first class, in 1956, had one boy from Jamaica, and a fine young man he was. The rest of the class was white. By the time I left the school was completely mixed.

For me the House System was a completely new experience and exhilarating experience. Instead of teaching a subject, we were getting to know the pupils, their brothers and sisters and the parents, over a period of years. We interviewed them at eleven and stayed with them until either they left, or we did. Officially their work was not our concern. We could always talk to the subject teachers when things went wrong and perhaps have a word with the child. We were often buffers between conflicting interests and could help smooth things out. Often all that was necessary was a period of closer observation and supervision.

Sometimes things were more complicated that that. Some behaviour seemed inexplicable to me. A highly intelligent child could go off the boil. There could be a sudden change of attitude. A previously happy child could withdraw. There was no end of puzzling questions. I travelled into school every day with Roland (Doc) Harris, the Deputy Head, and one of the most perceptive people I have ever met. Among other things, I discussed some of my problems with him, bouncing off his brains. Matty Harris, his wife was a psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, in Swiss Cottage. Roland told her about my problems and she came in to my Houseroom at lunch time every Thursday for about a year. I interviewed my problem cases and she observed and gently joined in. Her help was invaluable, but there became more to it than that.

The following year Matty Harris opened a class for Counselling at the Tavistock, with Doc Harris in the chair. By this time he was at Brunel University, organising work experience in Industry for the students. Each week a group of about twenty Teachers and Social Workers met for a lecture and a group discussion and at the end of the year we were all a lot wiser than when we started. Over the years hundreds must have attended these classes and become Counsellors. Shirley Hase and I were among the first batch of Tavistock Counsellors. And this all started in Doc Harris's van on the way to school. Very sadly Doc Harris had a serious stroke and died during the course of that year. A great loss, felt by everyone. Travelling each day in his van was a liberal education in itself.

While this was happening, the school population was changing and so were the teachers. House prices in London began to go through the roof. Single young teachers could afford to share an overcrowded flat, or live in a squat, as several did. When they wanted to settle down and start a family they had to move away to where the housing was cheaper. By the end of the sixties, that period of mock revolution, the Staff room was polarised. There were a few older teachers like me, who had bought their houses earlier, young teachers who had just left college, and people from Australia and New Zealand who had back-packed their way here and would help us for a couple of years. What London Education would have done without them I shudder to think.

The other great change which affected all London Schools was the Clean Air Act. In the nineteen fifties London was still one of the great manufacturing areas of the country. You have only to look at the variety of local cast-iron cellar covers to realise how many local foundries there used to be in the neighbourhood. Each factory had its own furnace. They burnt coal. Only the newer factories on the Cambridge Road used electricity. The smoke from industry and the old fashioned coal burning trains produced dense yellow smogs and many people died. People who had had Tuberculosis before the War and had been cured by serving in the dry North African Desert, developed it afresh when they returned to London.

Parliament passed the Clean Air Act forbidding the burning of coal. Diesel trains were introduced and slowly London buildings could be cleaned of their age-old soot. At that time every London Station had notices advertising new factories in the New Towns. Government grants enabled firms to re-locate in Stevenage, Harlow and other New Towns. New houses with bathrooms were available for the workers and a mass migration took place. They exchanged queuing up for a bath on Friday nights at the local slipper baths, for a bathroom, a separate downstairs toilet and a garden. Families with young children were delighted with the prospect and moved in droves. The older workers were less sure. Those nearing retirement hesitated at the prospect of starting again and then retiring within a few years to unfamiliar places, away from friends and neighbours. Thus, when large firms like Gilbey's left Camden Town, Nagretti & Zambra left Islington and hundreds of other firms moved away, the young married families with children moved with them. Older people tended to take their redundancy pay and find other work within their own familiar streets.

Immediately the movement of industry affected our pupils by destroying their prospects of apprenticeships. Many of the local firms which had given apprenticeships for years, ceased to trade, or moved away. A number of boys who had taken out apprenticeships a few years earlier found themselves out of work because their firms closed down. Some moved to other firms to complete their training, while others had to find completely different work.

The effect on local schools was catastrophic. One cannot run a comprehensive school below a certain size. The curriculum must offer a wide variety of subjects and at different levels. Schools simply cannot afford to pay teachers to teach tiny classes and comprehensive schools must offer a wide choice of subjects if they are to serve the needs of all their pupils. Classes below a certain number are impossible. Latin, for example, had been a problem for several years, but when half the children moved out of the district things became desperate in all subjects.

The only solution was to amalgamate pairs of local schools. This meant that the Woodberry Down and Clissold School buildings were assessed and, while Woodberry Down was a good building, with some very interesting features, the Clissold School site had fewer problems and also room to expand.

It was decided to create Stoke Newington School on Clissold School site. For centuries Church Path had run from Newington Green to St Mary's Church, taking the faithful to church. The school was now to spread over the northern end of Church Path and the adjoining Nursery land. A playing field with astro-turf and some housing have now been built on the site.

All teachers had to apply for their own jobs in competition with the teachers from the other school. This was very distressing and traumatic experience for everyone, which was being repeated all over London at the time. Fortunately for me I could retire, but it was not an enjoyable experience for anyone.

At first the two Head Teachers, Michael Marland and Robin Chambers, both considered applying for the new headship, but Michael Marland was then asked to create a new school in North Westminster, amalgamating several schools on three existing campuses. This he did and Robin Chambers became Head of the new Stoke Newington School.

When I retired, in the midst of all this confusion, I realised that the new school staff would have nothing in common except the ground they stood on. For many years I had taught about the Local History, the development of the area, the nature of the buildings and movements of the population. I decided to combine my teaching notes into a book which I published at my own expense, to save others from having to do all the research I had had to do over the years. This I published in 1983.

By this time Michael Marland was creating the new North Westminster Community School. I offered to collect local material of the same type for him and asked each Head of Department in the new school how they would like to use the local environment in their curriculum. I researched all this in an area stretching from Marble Arch to Kilburn Bridge and from St John's Wood to Ladbrook Grove, which was the school catchment area. It was all new to me and often extremely interesting. It gave me entry to the many leading architectural offices and different archives which I might not have explored otherwise. I published this as a series of working documents for the different departments as I wrote them. Finally, in 1987, they became The Growth of St. Marylebone & Paddington, a book for the general public. During the period from 1980 to today the Paddington Basin area has had a roller coaster history and I have had the pleasure of watching it from the ringside, as the different editions of the book show.

In 1995 I wrote and published The Growth of Muswell Hill, where I had been brought up and lived for a number of years.

In 1999 I researched Camden Town and published The Growth of Camden Town which, among many other things, deals in some detail with the same movement of industry out of London to the New Towns, which so affected Woodberry Down.

++I have also written a number of small books on various subjects. At present I am slowly revising The Growth of Stoke Newington, which has been out of print for some years. It has been a pleasant way to spend a retirement and has kept me out of the pub, if nothing else.

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Revised: October 25, 2011 8:16 AM