The coming of the comprehensive

50 years on... it's time to celebrate an education experiment. Michael Hickling reports on the anniversary of a Yorkshire school which was at the forefront of a revolution

Glorious was it in that dawn to be alive and going to school was very heaven. Can this be true?

It seems that if applied to pupils and teachers alike at Colne Valley High School, it was. This was the first purpose-built comprehensive school in the north of England. Here in bricks-and-mortar was an idea whose time had come, a school with a vision, and without vision the people perish. Self-belief bred confidence in the new collective endeavour and the school song poured all this energy and idealism into words and music.

"Let us adventure on, through these our days of youth,

In endless search for Beauty, Knowledge, Justice, Truth.

Still growing ever fitter to take in life our part,

Though greater far in wisdom, yet humble still in heart..."

"We used to throw our heads back and sing our hearts out," says Charlie Adamson. "The song's rarely sung now, it must have disappeared from the scene in our time, I can't remember why. There are so many other things to do now, not so many formal assembly times and more time pressures. The last time I heard it was the lead into the 40th anniversary concert."

Charlie Adamson was an English teacher at Colne Valley High School for 29 years. Andrew Pearson, who retired as head of English, taught there for 32 years. Surely the biggest endorsement any institution can receive is to have people willing to commit most of their working lives to it. "It was a loyal staff, particularly those who arrived in the late 60s and early 70s, this was one of its great strengths," says Andrew.

There's still a depth of loyalty to the school at large. When it was decided to do a book to mark the school's anniversary, Charlie sent out an appeal letter and got 5,500 from a range of businesses. Charlie began it last September, while following a local history course at Huddersfield University, and completed it with Andrew and a small team of former colleagues.

He clearly recalls those early days at the end of the textile industry when the valley was semi-industrial, semi-rural, and his sense of excitement at working in Yorkshire's biggest and most expensive school.

"In the early days it was an adventure going into the unknown. The staff were young, the school was young. In the Colne Valley in the 1950s education had been fragmented. Some went to junior school, some went to Harold Wilson's old school, Royd's Hall. People went all over. The Calder Valley was an area which lent itself to the idea of a comprehensive school.

"Our first headteacher, Ernest Butcher, staged a number of meetings with parents around the valley. He was so convincing that there were parents who could have sent their children to grammar schools but decided to send them here."

The headmaster still had some way to go to persuade the wider community. Some idea of the general suspicion towards the school can be guessed from headlines in this newspaper on November 25, 1961 which followed remarks by the school's head of religious education, E J R Cook. Mr Cook had told a public meeting that, "Religion is not chained to the Bible in this school" and that extracts from Marx had been read at the school assembly. There was uproar. The school's governors held an inquiry and reported in a press statement that they were perfectly happy with Mr Cook.

The school was a showpiece and that sort of media interest came with the territory. "Opponents of comprehensive education wanted the school not to succeed," says Andrew. "We were damned if this was going to happen. We had visitors from all over the world, it was a bit like being in a goldfish bowl. People who came looking to learn about how this experiment was working and found there was no formula. One colleague said he would go round the school listening to how the others were teaching.

"You would go from an Upper Sixth Form A-level class to one of limited ability and get the most unexpected rewards from the latter. Some of the most awkward youngsters were the able, bolshie ones who knew how to work the system.

"Pupils didn't have a label stuck on them at 11. Some schools seem reluctant to give the fullest credit to youngsters who are skilled with hands-on matters rather than in academia. The early ethos of this place was as concerned about equipping people for jobs as much as sending them into higher education. That was the tradition in the Colne Valley – get yourself a trade.

"The school was the making of a lot of youngsters who didn't have a lot to offer in terms of pen and paper. It even had its own farm, which came under the science department, from which the children sold meat and eggs."

It began in January 1956 with 860 pupils. At its largest, the school had 1,900. "The sheer size put so many people off, they thought it would be a sausage factory," says Andrew. "But the sense of conviction of people working here won over the critics. You couldn't know everyone but you didn't feel cast adrift in an anonymous sea. We had a strong house system, with 18 teams representing the school at sport on Saturdays, supervised by 30 members of staff. They gave their time free and ungrudgingly. Then Ken Baker said we were all idle slugs – so that was it."

What do the pair of them think to Tony Blair's education shake-up? "Governments always have to be seen to be doing something," says Andrew. "There are only so many changes you can make. This was a brand new system. We had no league tables, no targets, we just wanted to do a damn good job. I was always proud to say I worked here.

"It's not so much about a system, it's about how it is operated – and belief in the system is what this place had. I'm sure some grammar schools would say the same thing.

"Whatever label you put on a school, at the end of the day it's the individual youngsters you are working with; they are at the centre of everything.

"What is wrong today is that everything is being centralised, teachers feel like punchbags. They feel the Government doesn't trust them. We used to be trusted and we did have time to devote to the social welfare of the school – which we wanted to do. I wouldn't want to suggest this was a golden period now gone. But now there's a formulaic list of things to do. We are not totally convinced it produces a better quality of work from children."

n The book Adventure On is launched this Friday, May 26. Contact 01484 663628.