Stoke-on-Trent teachers were shocked when they learned that Henry Dibden, the director of education, wanted to abolish the city’s grammar schools.
When Henry became director of education in 1951, the Potteries was a deprived area. It had only four grammar schools, and most children left school at 15 without any qualifications. Less than 10% took O’ Levels and plans to build nine new grammar schools were abandoned when the city ran out of money.
The education committee estimated that between 25% and 30% of the school population could obtain five or more O’ Levels but only one secondary modern school (Goldenhill Secondary Modern) was entering pupils for these examinations. Realising the city needed a new education policy, the education committee told Henry to draw up plans to go comprehensive and as an interim measure introduced selected entry O’ Level streams into six secondary moderns.
Henry’s scheme for secondary school reorganisation was published on January 20th, 1959. He proposed replacing the grammar schools and the secondary moderns with 24 neighbourhood comprehensives and a sixth form college for A’ Level students. Accepted by the Labour Party controlled city council, the plan was attacked by the Conservative Party, the Workers Educational Association and Keele University. Outraged teachers held public meetings and threatened to resign unless the scheme was withdrawn. When the council refused to back down, some teachers sold their homes in the city and went to live in South Cheshire to ensure that their children received a grammar school education.
Wanting to go comprehensive in the early 1960s, the education committee renamed the six secondary moderns that had selected entry 0’ Level streams junior high schools. An experimental sixth form college was opened at Longton High School, but the Conservative government refused to allow the committee to turn its grammar and secondary modern schools into comprehensives.
In 1964, the Labour Party won the general election, and Stoke-on-Trent hoped the new government would accept its proposals. Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, who had been educated at Wirral Grammar School, opposed the scheme saying that grammar schools would be abolished over his dead body. The city council responded by threatening to go comprehensive without government approval and a bitter row developed within the Labour Party.
To prevent the dispute being made public the city council and the government reached a compromise, which involved reorganising both primary and secondary education. Stoke-on-Trent agreed to make its infants’ schools first schools taking pupils aged five to eight and establish middle schools for children from eight to twelve. In return, the government allowed the city to replace grammar and secondary modern schools with comprehensives and build a new sixth form college.
Erected at Fenton Manor, the college cost £500,000. It was opened by Harold Wilson on April 10th, 1970 and had accommodation for 750 A’ Level students aged 16 to 19.
Copyright Betty Cooper – The Phoenix Trust, September 2010