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Issue 8 - November 1972
Thatch As Thatch Can
If the Secretary of State for Education, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, were to appear in Sunderland as she did earlier this year to open the new Wearside College of Further Education, there would be a good chance of a lynching. For her refusal to give the town permission to extend two secondary schools and build a new comprehensive school, thus introducing fully comprehensive education for all children, has aroused the anger of many people usually not politically committed and given rise to a passionate public debate.

Briefly, the situation at present is that 85% of Sunderland's school-kids automatically go to comprehensive schools, and the other 15% are waiting. They still sit the 11 plus. To finish the scheme, which was originally approved some years ago, a new comprehensive school needs to be built by Carley Hill, and extensions made to Farringdon and Broadway schools. Now Mrs Thatcher has refused to allow the go-ahead on even the preliminary planning.

So what does the Education Committee do? Remember that Labour pledged to rid the town of the 11 plus without delay when it won the municipal elections last May, and the answer is a hotch-potch scheme to do this without the new schools.

All this comes at a time when Sunderland is being proved to be one of the most educationally backward areas in Britain. The town is spending less on primary and secondary education than just about anywhere else in the country, and it is one of 11 County Boroughs named as spending less than half a reasonable amount on school books.

Anyway, the Education Committee asked the Director of Education, Mr John Bridge, to prepare a plan for abolishing the 11 plus, using the existing facilities. An impossible task, in fact, as there are simply not enough school buildings to give every kid a comprehensive education - this is why a new school is needed.

He came up with a plan to abolish selection for the 15%. He proposed a tiered system, whereby kids would start their secondary school career in an old school and they would then be moved to a new school. If they stayed on in the sixth form, they might have to move yet again. Meanwhile, kids at present going to new comprehensive schools at 11 would continue to do so.

Not surprisingly, it has been this idea which has sparked off the anger of the parents of the 15%. They say that this plan is as discriminating as it was when kids had to sit the 11 plus, and possibly more so.

Teachers also rejected it. Both the NUT and the NAS have been quick to point out the snags in this scheme.

Meanwhile, the Education Committee prepared a referendum to see what the parents of the children at the junior schools affected thought of this plan. They were given a choice of a tiered system or sending the kids straight to an unimproved secondary school.

Most didn't like either and said so, lobbying the September Council meeting, and forming action groups up and down the town. Ballot papers were torn up.

Two protest meetings have been held at which councillors were booed and jeered, but it seems that protest is only skin deep, as parents were quite happy to clap whenever a suggestion was made which they agreed with.

What they do seem to agree with is a solution so simple it is a wonder it wasn't proposed originally. This is to keep all kids in Sunderland on an extra year at junior schools, which would release enough places at the comprehensives already available to allow them all to go at 12. Extra classrooms would be built at the junior schools to accommodate the extra year. Ministerial approval would not be needed.

A variation on this scheme is to build the extra classrooms at the comprehensives, after redrawing the catchment areas so that there is a comprehensive in each, and continuing to send kids there at 11.

The debate continues and nothing has been finalised. Meanwhile, the action groups have provided parents with a platform, and the Education Committee is to be asked to consult with them before making a decision.

The fight for the new school and the extensions to the two others also continues. A deputation led by Sunderland's MPs, Gordon Bagier and Fred Willey, has already received the brush-off from Mrs Thatcher's second-in-command, Lord Belstead, but, not daunted, they are going again, this time to see Mrs Thatcher herself, and this time accompanied by, it is hoped, representatives of the action groups.

No-one is in any doubt that Sunderland needs, at the very least, its new school.