April 8, 2016

Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School

Risinghill cover_repaired_400Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968 / Cover: ©Phil Meheux, Malcolm Johnson

This book created a furore on publication by Penguin in 1968. It arose out of, and became part of, a passionate fight for the life of a school which was eventually closed by the government regardless of local and national concern.

Risinghill was a school which really lived up to the original ideal or vision of comprehensive education in England, and was a glowing example of an inclusive and tolerant society. Its success was very much a product of the personality of the headmaster, Michael Duane, but as a State employee his values were not entirely welcome.

Although there was incredible resistance from the kids themselves as well as their parents, the battle was lost to the internal politics of the teachers, the employing local council, the right-wing press, and the government.

Leila’s book goes deeply into the ethos and daily life of the school, its birth in its desperately deprived surroundings in North London, and growth in stature and recognition to a point where its success clearly became a threat to the status quo, and finally the entire debilitating attack, blow by blow, to the very end.

It was a fight which classically illustrates the issues which have galvanised Leila’s writing throughout her career.

That evening I went to a parents’ meeting, where Mr Duane was giving the latest news. It went at a furious pace, new questions fired before the previous answer was completed. The hall was packed, with national pressmen as well as parents, and someone would suddenly shout to the reporters, ‘Just speak the truth! You can stay if you speak the truth!’. And there would be a roar of assent. After two-and-a-half hours, when the hall had to be closed, still arguing, still passionately discussing education, the parents streamed into the streets, bumping into one another as they argued or agreed, and clustering into seething knots at street corners. I had been to many parents’ meetings, but never to one like that, never to one where uneducated parents were so passionately involved.

Yet the school was closed. Despite petitions from children, petitions from parents, marches to Downing Street, the school was closed. It was closed because comprehensive education was the hot political issue of the time, and the Labour politicians wanted not a good school but ‘a good image’…And Michael Duane, with his swift announcement that the children would not be beaten, with his accessibility, with his liking for the parents and they for him, was not giving it. 

LB, from an essay All We Had Was A Voice in Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 60s, ed Sara Maitland

Leila was also commissioned by Salisbury Playhouse to turn the book into a play, called Raising Hell. A small touring company toured the play to institutions of all kinds in their educational region, including an open borstal, where it moved the boys to tears, and a night at the Young Vic in London.

Duane with pupils 10/1/65 news photo

News photo 10/01/65 Photographer and publication unknown


The Risinghill Research Group – comprised of ex-pupils – have written and sourced a sequel to Leila’s book, called Risinghill Revisited, and are currently (as of 2016) seeking a suitable publisher.

“Risinghill Revisited is a story of deceit and obfuscation, of authoritarian and arrogant attitudes towards children, parents and teachers, and of the politics of an education system that was (and still is) seriously flawed….based on extensive, archival research; surveys of, and communications from, some 100 ex-pupils and teachers; and from interviews with those intimately involved – notably Leila Berg and Duane’s widow. The research was aimed at trying to determine the true nature of the school, and the reasons for its closure.”

Synopsis of publishing proposal for Risinghill Revisited

Risinghill Research Group website

Twenty years of friendship with Alexander Sutherland Neill had convinced me that his gentleness, insight and courage were rare….. he would talk of his hopes for the young and about the deep pessimism he had long felt as he watched power-mad psychopaths seek, in the name of ‘security’ or ‘democracy’, to mould them for the purposes of this or that set of political dogmas. Even in his last hours he was preoccupied with the problems that had been with him for seventy years: how to enable the warm, squirming, lovable infant to retain and develop the infinite range of sensitivity with which he arrives from his mother’s womb. How, in home and school, to inoculate the individual against the social sickness that generates the hating ‘little man’ who in the massive anonymity of industrial society spawns the bureaucrat, the party politician and, ultimately, the Hitler. How to protect man’s specific human birthright – love. Continues here: A S Neill and Summerhill: An article by Michael Duane