Paedagogica Historica vol:40 issue:1-2 pages:193-209
In answer to economic needs and social demands, a structural innovation was introduced in secondary education in most West European countries, mainly in the 1960s. Contrary to the traditional schools, organized in vertical categories, the so-called comprehensive schools brought together all branches in one school. There was protest against this type of school from the start but it was mainly in the 1980s and 1990s that comprehensive schools came under siege. In most countries the comprehensive structures have been abandoned or adjusted to a more moderate form.
This paper tries to explain the factors that stimulated innovation in the 1960s, and those that counteracted comprehensive education. As will be shown, these factors were not always related to ideological positions. In fact, the reasons for local educational authorities to “go comprehensive” (or not) were often practically rather than ideologically inspired. Theories of “dominant rationality” by Matthijssen and the “referential” by Jobert succeed in surpassing ideological parameters, and can be interesting tools to explain changing mentalities. However, a satisfying explanation for the history of comprehensive education cannot be offered without paying attention to everyday pragmatics, that – in the author’s view – have been decisive for the evolution of comprehensive education.
The paper will be illustrated with examples from the Belgian case. Comprehensive schools were introduced in Belgium in 1969. All state public schools went comprehensive in the 1970s, and the number of comprehensive private schools grew rapidly until growth ceased around 1980. The ongoing struggle between Catholic comprehensive and traditional schools led to a compromise created by the Catholic educational authorities, a fusion of comprehensive and traditional elements. This structure was imposed by the Flemish government as a unitary structure for all secondary schools in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in 1989.