Walworth School started life as school board elementary school in the late nineteenth century and became two central schools (boys’ and girls’) which were reconstituted in 1946 into a single mixed ‘experimental’ comprehensive school, one of five set up in the London County Council’s tentative first move to a totally comprehensive system that was never in the event to be achieved. It was here that some of the first moves towards a new conception of English were initiated in the mid-1950s, a development that was preceded by the institution of a progressive school regime and curriculum and the recruitment of a staff that included highly qualified men and women fired by a democratic, often socialist or communist optimism.
In the early period (1949-55) Arthur Harvey established that the best of grammar school teaching could successfully be brought to pupils who had narrowly failed the ‘11+’ grammar school entrance examination. While Harvey’s inspirational English teaching led a significant number of this group into higher education, with a number becoming teachers, less attention was given to the lower stream. The next three heads of department, however, Harold Rosen (1956-58), John Dixon (1958-63) and Alec McLeod (1963-69) were active members of the London Association of Teachers of English and went on to distinguished further careers in teacher education , exerting a major effect on policy.
English in this stage placed pupils’ talk, creative writing and improvised drama at the centre and drew on their experience in family and community as the main theme for their discussions, leading in the upper school to reflection on social themes and a more impersonal use of written language. Academic success was maintained, and literary accomplishment rewarded with the publication of a pupil’s novel, Valerie Avery’s (1964) London Morning, which rapidly became a popular set text nationally. With Simon Clements and Leslie Stratta, his close collaborators in developing the subject, Dixon converted the fourth year course into a best-selling textbook, Reflections (1963).
Through these publications and the authors’ leadership in the community of English teachers nationally, ‘Walworth English’ became one of the foundations for a national re-thinking of English teaching from the mid-1960s, with effects that last (here and there but internationally) to this day.
The series of autobiographical novels by Valerie Avery give insights into the school and its teachers in the 1950s.
Valerie Avery, London Morning (London: 1964)
Valerie Avery, London Shadows (London: William Kimber, 1981)
Valerie Avery, London Spring (London: William Kimber, 1982)