August 2, 2016

Risinghill Revisited

Michael Duane with Risinghill kids

“Wild School Tamed By Love” news item approx early ’65, poss Sunday Times, photographer unknown. Click on image to see full cutting


Synopsis of publishing proposal by Risinghill Research Group (2016)

Click here for full proposal and four sample chapters

When Risinghill, a new purpose built co-educational comprehensive school, opened in Islington, north London on 3 May 1960, no one could have imagined that it would be closed just five years later, among extraordinary press interest, and that a book chronicling its demise would make publishing history by becoming the UK’s first non-fiction best-seller. Risinghill: death of a Comprehensive School (1968) catapulted the author, Leila Berg, to fame along with Risinghill’s progressive headmaster, Michael Duane. Berg’s book was hugely contentious, and in some universities and colleges of further education is still being talked about today.

The various aspects of this cause célèbre has been mulled over thoroughly by the educational community, with one of its members (Brearley) declaring in the British Journal of Educational Studies (1968) that the truth of the Risinghill affair was probably too complex to ever be told: an observation that, until now, has proven to be the case. Risinghill Revisited (RR) lifts the lid on what really happened at the school, and includes for the first time the voices of the Risinghill pupils. Described at the time as the ‘waste clay’ of an educational experiment that had gone horribly wrong, their contribution to the debates about the school (and thereby the wider debate(s) about progressive education synonymous with the comprehensive) is a valuable one, adding another (political) dimension to the Risinghill story, which has largely been ignored.

New material is presented, obtained from: Duane’s widow, Margaret Duane, and Leila Berg before their recent deaths; various archives holding documents that were not available to Berg when she was researching her book; and a detailed survey with the pupils, and some of the former staff of the school.

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.

Rationale for the book

To correct the misconceptions about: Michael Duane, the Risinghill children (and by implication the stereotyping of the working-class), and the school itself, specifically in terms of its designation. Risinghill was one of several, new comprehensives that were built in fulfilment of the London School Plan 1947; the aim of which was to narrow the educational gap between the elite grammar schools and the secondary modern schools catering for the vast majority of children. Risinghill, however, was officially named ‘Risinghill Secondary Modern School’ albeit that it was never referred to as such. This anomaly is examined in the context of the thorny issue of selection, the politics of the grammar and the powers of the establishment. Last but not least, it raises the question: Was Risinghill an attempt to bring progressive education into the state sector?

Primary market

Educationalists interested in: (1) the history of secondary schooling and progressive education, specifically in relation to the comprehensive; (2) educational policy, planning and politics; and (3) progressive education. Although the book is essentially an academic book, it does tell a human story – one that will resonate with today’s teachers, teachers of teachers and their students, educational administrators and the consumers of education, primarily parents and young people. There will also be a (small) market of former Risinghill pupils and teachers.

International focus

Risinghill School was renowned, and was very popular with visitors from overseas, notably educationalists from the USA and Israel. In fact Duane visited the States (on invitation) to talk about his work at Risinghill shortly after it closed, and had many other international invitations and contacts. Now occupied by Elizabeth Garret Anderson (EGA), the school seems to be of as much interest internationally as it was 50 years ago. By way of example, EGA was Michelle Obama’s first port of call when she accompanied her husband on his first state visit to London in May 2011. The EGA pupils were given the surprise of their lives when America’s First Lady dropped by, specifically to tell them that she and they had much in common: that she had not been raised with “wealth or resources of any social standing” and if she could achieve in life, so could they. Duane had delivered the same, powerful messages of self-belief to us a life-time ago, begging the question: What has changed?

Professor Shin-ichiro Hori in Japan, an admirer of Duane’s and A S Neill’s work, has expressed interest in this book. Hori has set up a number of Kinokuni Children’s Village Schools (free schools in the real sense) in Japan, and is directly involved with the Kilquhanity Children’s Village in Castle Douglas, Scotland.

Therefore, we believe there is likely to be an international market for RR albeit a small one.

Needs fulfilled

Provides a viewpoint from former pupils and teachers; an analysis of what ordinary pupils have achieved from an ordinary (if notorious) school; what the pupils thought about their education; and what the pupils think about the education system that is in place today. The book also examines more widely the perceived failure of the comprehensive, exposing in the process: (1) political agendas; and (2) the flagrant abuse of power, resulting in this case in the loss of a first-class career (Duane’s), and the loss of a true, community school that was performing well in very difficult circumstances. Above all RR exposes the hypocrisy of an education system in which every child is supposed to matter.

Research focus

Primary research: This book is research based, albeit not from a conventional academic setting. It is 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 (both now sadly deceased). The research was aimed at trying to determine the true nature of the school, and the reasons for its closure.

Competition and parallel texts

As far as we know there is no direct competition for this book. Much of the argument of the Berg’s Penguin Special of 1968 is presented, but Berg’s book has been out of print for many years, and with the passage of time we have been able to draw on wider, archival and other resources to extend the scope.

What the intended audience is currently reading is an interesting question. One guess is that it is reading literature commenting on, or criticising, the changes to education brought in by the last Labour administration, the Conservative-Liberal coalition, and the current Conservative government. However, RR is not a conventional academic book, and is likely to appeal to a much wider audience – for example those outside academia who have an interest in: educational experimentation; issues of dealing with the behaviour of difficult adolescents; and the education of those considered to be ‘failures’, either because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds or are simply not academically inclined.

Evidence: (1) Our extensive searches and reading of the literature on Risinghill and Michael Duane. (2) Enthusiastic support for the book from senior academics at the Institute of Education (“this book must be published”) and others interested in our work. Indeed it was because of this interest that Routledge contacted us in May 2014 with an invitation to submit a publishing proposal for RR for (possible) inclusion in a series of progressive education monographs that it was planning. At the time, we still had quite a bit of work to do on RR and had not approached any publishers, bar Penguin, who, although interested in the idea of a sequel to Berg’s book, turned us down. But this was in 2005 when RR was still in the planning stage, and when we were quite naïve about the world of publishing. We did not, for example, provide Penguin with a publishing proposal. Routledge rejected RR on the grounds that it was not suitable for the series in question; however, we did receive two very good academic reviews, with one of the reviewers recommending that RR be published elsewhere on the Routledge list as it had great potential. We did ask about this, but because RR is not a conventional hard-back research-based academic monograph of the type that Routledge is more comfortable with, this was a problem for the editing team or so we were given to understand. However, we never set out to write an academic book so it was a huge compliment to receive such positive feed-back.