By James Whiting, General Secretary of the Socialist Educational Association

This article explores how the Tories in Wandsworth led by Edward Lister destroyed comprehensive education in the borough and beyond, creating instead a climate where structural racism is present in the school system.

Sitting at the heart of Boris Johnson’s current administration is a lesser known but equally crucial figure compared to Dominic Cummings, Edward Lister. It is interesting that on the right of politics experience in pushing forward the right’s ideological agenda in education, is essential if one wants to progress to the top. (This is far from the case on the left.) Whilst Cummings was responsible for much of the Gove project in the 2010 coalition government, Lister cut his teeth in local council politics as the first Chair of Education in Thatcherite Wandsworth after the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority, (ILEA) in 1990. He went on to become leader of the Council, adviser to the Johnson mayoralty and now serves as adviser to the prime minister.

Lister was highly critical of the ILEA. In his 1991 paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, the right wing think tank, he states that when it was abolished, 19% of pupils were leaving ILEA schools without qualifications and truancy was rife. He pointed out that Wandsworth parents were increasingly choosing the private sector or out of borough schools. They could do this of course because of selection in nearby boroughs such as Kingston and Sutton which was already undermining the comprehensive nature of ILEA schools. Further he ignored the changes happening on the ground in the borough where schools themselves were becoming increasingly aware of the need to improve and were taking steps to do so. His solution was ‘comprehensive education’ but not comprehensive schools which he saw as ‘a pretence’ in the sense they could not possibly cater for the wide range of pupils and make available the full range of subjects. His solution was as a series of ‘magnet programmes’ to which pupils would be selected. ‘Selection is the means whereby children are matched to the education which suits them best’.

His paper contained the roots of current Tory thinking on free schools and academies. ‘We must stop trying to ‘plan’ the education service at national and local level. We must regard the surplus of places as an asset rather than a liability the central means of creating the market conditions where genuine variety can be created.’ It also contains contradictions that persist at the heart of right-wing dogma:

  1. trying to square a ‘free market’ for parents with an education system designed to select ‘the best’ for the economy
  2. providing surplus places whilst at the same time maintaining Wandsworth’s growing reputation for cuts in spending, low Council tax and ruthless efficiency.

In both cases despite Lister’s stated intentions, Wandsworth Council attempted to plan a magnet school system and also closed schools it saw as surplus to requirements.

Opposition to the Lister plans was quick to grow. It came not only from the NUT but school leaders who were still loyal to ILEA principles around comprehensive education as well as wanting to strike out on a new path committed to excellence. The combination of a firm belief in equal opportunities and the pursuit of excellence was personified by the principal of Burntwood School, the borough’s girls school. Brigid Beattie was strongly influenced by feminism and anti-racism. The school still bears her motto ‘the best education today for the women of tomorrow’ and the highlight of her career was personally settling in a black student, whose parents had not gone to university, into her Oxford college. Burntwood and three other schools took advantage of the 1988 Education Act to opt out and become grant maintained in order to escape the Wandsworth plans. Ironically, the act which was designed to enable individual schools to escape from the so-called horrors of Labour left wing councils was used for the opposite purpose. This posed a problem for those of us on the left at the time. Would more school autonomy and the increased marketisation which goes with opting out really help maintain a comprehensive system with genuine comprehensive schools? In retrospect the answer was no.

As those schools with a following amongst the affluent liberal middle class of Wandsworth opted out, the Council showed it had further strings to its bow.   In a shrewd move in 1994, it applied, as the 1988 act then allowed, to make the boys school, Ernest Bevin, it still controlled, a ‘bilateral’ or partially selective school selecting 33% of its pupils on general ability. This proved to be a Sarajevo moment and the consequences of the decision would be felt outside the borough in Lambeth too. It coupled this application with a threat to Burntwood School. For equal opportunities reasons, the same number of selective places had to be available to girls. If Burntwood failed to agree to provide the places the Council indicated it might have to open a girls grammar school on a closed school site. In reality this was extremely unlikely to happen. But Burntwood did not put up a fight and relented. After all Wandsworth had abolished the ILEA banding system back in 1990 because ‘it limited parental choice’. This had endangered the school’s ability to guarantee a significant number of ‘able’ pupils in its intake.

The Burntwood decision caused a domino effect. Graveney School, a mixed comprehensive in the more suburban south of the borough, applied for and received permission to select 50% of its pupils. Other schools applied for a banded intake too. In reality, there were not enough ‘able’ pupils to go round. Dunraven School in neighbouring Lambeth as well as the Lambeth Catholic comprehensive were also quick to apply for and get permission to operate forms of selection, all biased in favour of the ’more able’. Graveney School proved to be the extreme, virtually becoming a grammar school. In 1998 at the school open evening the Head boasted that only 9 pupils got in by distance. 50% were selected on ability (one came from Brighton every day), the school then gave priority to siblings, and social need which included staff children. This had the effect of freezing out children living close to the school and sparked a campaign for access from local parents.

New Labour introduced specialist schools and an adjudicator with the power to vary though not abolish percentages of selection. This led to changes as did academisation and the arrival of a City Technology college. The current situation regarding Wandsworth Schools is shown in the table below. All schools are academies now, apart from Ernest Bevin still run by the borough.


School Type Selection %FSM (in past 6 years) %EAL
Burntwood Girls 25% 40 65
Chestnut Grove Mixed 18% art

18% languages

30 31
Ernest Bevin College boys 33% 40 43
Graveney Mixed 25% 20 23
Ashcroft CTC mixed 11% technology plus intake banded by ability 39 58
Saint Cecilia’s C of E VA mixed 60% by faith remainder by distance 29 17
Ark Bolingbroke Academy chain Non selective 30 29
Ark Putney (ex Elliott) Academy chain Non selective 53 31
Harris Battersea Academy Chain Non selective 69 52
Southfields Mixed Non selective 47 55
Saint John Boscoe Mixed Faith RC 51 55


The 11-plus is known to discriminate against the disadvantaged when applied to grammar schools. Only 3% attending grammar schools claim free school meals. A recent NFER report into partially selective schools shows that 11% claim free school meals in these schools compared to 16% in non-selective schools. However, there are not many partially selective schools nationally. The figures above confirm that the school of choice for mainly white affluent parents is Graveney School. The % of pupils on FSM currently there is 9% which is incredibly low for a school in an inner London borough. It also has the lowest EAL figure apart from the C of E school. The borough is mixed throughout like most in inner London, with expensive middle-class housing interspersed with social housing. Higher concentrations of social housing exist in the north of the borough in Battersea.  Despite this there is a clear hierarchy of schools emerging from the figures. Graveney School is the go-to choice for more affluent white parents and it has the highest proportion of *white pupils. Southfields on the other hand in the middle of the borough with affluent housing close by is around *90% black and Asian.

(*accurate figures are not in the public domain. These are estimates from recent pupils.)

The hierarchy of schools, an intended consequence of the Tory policy in Wandsworth all along, has unleashed unconscious racism as liberal white parents fight to get their offspring into a school where there are high concentrations of similar pupils.

The fight among schools for ‘able’ (perhaps sadly white) pupils has had consequences for black pupils at Graveney which emerged in the recent BLM protests. Graveney School which had its percentage selection figure cut from 50% to 25% has had to accept a more diverse intake. However, it still appears to want to remain the school of choice for white middle-class parents. It therefore implements a rigid streaming policy. Pupils and some staff at the school became aware that this was, deliberately or not, resulting in pupils being divided on racial lines. The school denies this claiming that using the 11-plus enables them to take poorer pupils from across the borough rather than ‘selection by house price’. Their FSM figures do not bear this out. Pupils and ex-pupils have collected examples of discrimination, racist behaviour from a minority of white pupils and the school failing to act.

The local news website published this in July this year.

‘Students have presented Graveney School with a list of eight changes they want to see enacted in the school.

These include a restructuring of the school’s setting system to “promote diversity within forms and classes”, forums for students to discuss topics such as prejudice and discrimination, cultural and religious training for staff and decolonising the curriculum.

One campaign member said: “The volume of stories we received allowed us to identify some of the root causes of racism and discrimination within the school. Many of these stories highlighted the problems within the streaming system used by Graveney, which creates a clear racial divide amongst students.”

The group says it feels it has made progress on several points with the school, but argues that the change council “is simply the school’s attempt to make the issue go away without making any real changes.”

What is beyond doubt is that selection in Wandsworth has resulted in discrimination by class and by race.

Finally, a market in education brings out the worst in parents and school leaders. The fight to recruit the ‘best’ pupils or to get into the ‘best’ school complement each other in creating an environment where those least able to fight the battles lose out. Markets always make winners and losers and in education the losers tend to be those with the least resources and those facing racism already in their lives. The ILEA was by no means perfect but it was reformable. Only a strong democratic locally centralised body such as the ILEA can provide a bulwark against the negative forces of the market. That’s why the Tories abolished it.

James Whiting is the SEA General Secretary and former Wandsworth Teacher and Parent.

Our Future Thoughts series of articles are  opinion pieces designed to provoke debate, they represent the views of the author and not Comprehensive Future policy.