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Economies of truth

kjhRemember when they said they were cutting the ‘second post’?  And remember what happened?  Yes, that’s right.  They actually did away with first post, and now we have to wait until after lunch for our mail.

The same sorts of ‘institutional lie’ frequently attend changes to education.  Widespread and justifiable concern about the standard of education offered to pupils once sent to ‘Secondary Modern’ schools ended with the end of selective secondary education and the creation of Comprehensives.  Alas, in poorer catchment areas, the result was that the escape route of education that had formerly been available to a few, was abolished.  They said they were abolishing second best, but instead they abolished access to the best. 

Picture: Trophies for the 2010 Schools Geology Challenge, hosted that year by Whitchurch High. Photo: Ted Nield.

Open plan

Then came ‘open plan schools’.  ‘Comprehensivization’ demanded new buildings to accommodate much larger institutions (‘economies of scale’).  Obviously, internal walls are expensive, so as with other pseudo-egalitarian measures like non-selective secondary education - and the swiftly-abandoned absurdity that was ‘mixed-ability teaching’ - ‘studies’ were generated to demonstrate that housing several classes in one cavernous space would prove better for everybody.  No teachers were asked, needless to say.

One of the main supposed – and in the end illusory - benefits of comprehensivization was that once its sunlit uplands were attained, minority subjects hitherto only available to the select would become available to all.  But alas, without the concentrating effect of selection, which ensured that minority subjects could at least attract small numbers in small institutions, in some catchments, even very large comprehensives failed to do so.  Minority subjects started instead to disappear, from all except schools in relatively well-off areas – the exact reverse of what was promised.  The process continues today as comprehensive catchments, and the resulting house-price segregation they create, further perpetuate economic privilege.

Post-16 education

All post-16 education within schools is now problematic.  It is cheaper to make FE colleges cater for everybody, run A-level courses there instead, and bus pupils in.  One of those ‘minority subjects’ is geology.  And one of those ‘schools in relatively well-off areas’ is none other than Cardiff’s Whitchurch High – which has won the Schools Geology Challenge in Wales for the last four years and became UK champions in 2017. 

Whitchurch has a very large - and diverse - sixth form, with over 400 pupils; but this has not saved it.  Instead, funding has been cut by nearly 20% in six years – and by £255,000 this year, which Joyce Slack, chair of governors, described in a BBC interview as “a shock”. Which is why this year, she told the BBC: "We've had to cut some key areas such as geology where we're felt to be sector leading."  She is not wrong.  Geology at WHS is almost legendary.

There is nothing inherently wrong with non-selective secondary education, and much to be said for it.  But, like modern architecture, it can’t be done well on the cheap.  First, they came for music, and we said nothing.  You know how the rest of it goes.


Dr Ted Nield, former Editor of Geoscientist, comes from a long line of schoolteachers and is only writing this because nobody else did.  Support your local Whitchurch!