Liz Truss and “my comprehensive school”

Roundhay High School in 2000. It was demolished soon afterwards and the front of Roundhay
Boys’ School next door was kept and the new school built behind it.

“At my comprehensive school, we had lessons in racism and sexism, but there was too little effort ensuring everyone had a grasp of maths and English” writes Liz Truss in the Mail on Sunday, 27 December 2020.

What does she mean by this? Reading the rest of the article, she seems to be implying that the school was following a left-wing political agenda, the “pernicious woke culture” as she describes it. Her opinion ought to count for something, shouldn’t it, since she is currently the minister for women and equalities?

Well, Liz Truss, I too went to Roundhay School in Leeds. So did my brother and my son.

And there’s a lot more to it than that.

When I was at Roundhay in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was two schools: Roundhay High, a girls’ grammar school; and Roundhay School, a grammar school for boys. They were next door to each other in the North Leeds suburb of Roundhay, just near the park. In those days, it was believed that if adolescent girls and boys ever met each other, teenage pregnancies would immediately result, leading to wholesale destruction and the imminent downfall of society. So the start and finishing times of the two schools were staggered: they were different worlds. 

Roundhay High School as I knew it was a traditional girls’ grammar school – all Latin and uniforms and high achievement and almost all white. The school was rather stuffy and old-fashioned and full of dictated notes and learning by rote. I had a lot of grumbles about it at the time. I started a petition for girls to be allowed to wear trousers – what a rebel, eh? – but in reality, I was pretty academic and learning in this way suited me. 

Then, in the early 1970s, as I went into the sixth form, the two schools were combined into a single entity – Roundhay School, a comprehensive school. “A shotgun wedding!” cried Miss Lee, the headmistress of the girls’ school, in horror.

The teachers were mostly white grammar school staff who couldn’t cope with anyone who hadn’t passed their eleven-plus, and who were completely unused to working with people of different ethnicities. So by the time my brother started there in 1978, their approach was to build a kind of mini grammar school within the huge comprehensive, with nine different streams. The catchment area was a wildly differing mix of middle-class-to-posh, mostly white Leeds suburbs – Roundhay, Gledhow – and more working-class, deprived areas such as Harehills and Chapeltown, from whence came many students of black and Asian heritage.

My brother, up there in the top streams, felt that whilst the very top stream was toxic – “look how clever and superior we are!” – the bottom streams were simply forgotten about. His recollection and perception is that black students were, at that time, far more likely to be put into the lower streams. 

A new head teacher was brought in to troubleshoot: to change the culture, to ensure equal opportunities for all. Which is perhaps why Liz Truss, there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, claims that she was taught about racism and sexism – this teaching was vital, and still is now. So is what Liz Truss describes as “so-called unconscious bias training”. Our son, who started there in 2000, thinks that in fact there was not enough about racism and sexism. “We studied some quite racist and sexist texts in English without any discussion of that content”.

We need to hear more about such issues, not less. 

Members of our son’s year group got some of the best A-Level results in the country. In response to Liz Truss’s comment he says, “I remember learning more than I cared to know about things like quadratic equations and osmosis, and that I was generally taught by teachers passionate about these subjects”. 

In January 2020, Roundhay was awarded “World Class” status – a quality mark for non-selective state schools that offer the best education in the UK. There are only ever a hundred schools in the country with this award. It isn’t just about academic achievement at the top, but about the ethos of the school. Interestingly, Liz Truss went from Roundhay to study at Oxford University.

Shame on the minister for women and equalities for her simplistic, derogatory soundbite about “my comprehensive school”. She’s in a government led by old Etonians where it’s apparently fine to say that Africans have “water-melon smiles” or that the Queen loves the commonwealth because it provides her with “regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”.

Eton or Roundhay? Roundhay, every time.

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