Rebellious kids, hippy teachers and legal smoking: was progressive education just a Seventies aberration? Eleanor Bailey talks to the former pupils of cool schools
AS EDUCATIONALISTS become ever more obsessed with league tables, this week a book is published about the other extreme: the comprehensive experiments of the Sixties and Seventies when the cool schools were intellectual free-for-alls of early sex and legal smoking.

Comp, by John-Paul Flintoff, is a personal story of Holland Park Comprehensive in the Seventies and Eighties. He describes it as, "The bright experiment of trying to make all of society love each other. Academic education was not the main point but rather turning out good citizens." The experiment became, as his book records, a bizarre culture clash of middle-class children of left-wing, idealistic parents and bottom-of-the-pile council estate kids. One of Flintoff's best friends was a drug dealer. Sewing and role playing were high on the agenda. Streaming was scrapped. Students may have failed all their "O" levels but they did have a hugely inspiring talk from the 1983 world disco-dancing champion.

Our generation - Flintoff is now 30 - grew up when progressive education and liberal thinking was at its height: when the more conservative teachers bridled at having to teach "women's studies"and when self-expression was taken to such extremes that no objection was raised when someone put a poster outside Camden Girls saying "Camden welcomes you with open legs". Cool schools were great if you wanted to do something "creative", but less great if you wanted to be an accountant or a lawyer and were consequently made to feel like a dweeb. Also less great if you were the kind of child who liked nothing better than regularity, order and work. What is the legacy?

After five years of dropping his "h"s, "t"s, multi-syllables and the "Paul" part of his embarrassing first name, Flintoff underachieved in his "O" levels, went into the sixth form and actually did some work (he later went to Bristol University). He was rather contemptuous of the posh children who flocked from traditional establishments like St Paul's and Westminster to go to a trendy school where you could get away with murder. For others, the experience was regrettable. Sophie Leris, 31, went to King Alfred's, a progressive private school in North London. While she has happy memories of her time there, she is left wishing that the regime had been more structured.

"King Alfred's was a compromise between my mother, who wanted somewhere even more progressive, and my father who wanted somewhere like Rhodean. There were very good things about it. The individual was very important and it did breed a kind of confidence, even arrogance. I loved our sporting efforts where we always lost everything 30 - nil and the games teacher would give us all cream eggs and tell us not to worry. But I wasn't pushed enough. There was no sense of competition. Before that I had been to a primary school that had a very traditional teaching approach which really suited me. I wanted to work and I was good at it. The interview to get into the school was more like a test for being the right kind of person. I wasn't one of the trendy people, because I was quite shy. What the school did teach us was how to argue and debate and hold our own.

"But I didn't do any work. We had to go to classes but we weren't pushed to make an effort. I only realised this when I retook my "A" levels at a comp in Norfolk and the first thing they said was 'Why didn't you do Oxbridge and "S" Levels?' I never learnt the real joy of working. I ended up going to Cambridge Polytechnic. I feel that I didn't do as well as I would have done if I had gone to somewhere like St Paul's and had the kind of teacher who becomes a mentor."

It is the essential twist behind Absolutely Fabulous. The Edinas are the radicals, full of Sixties idealism, while the Saffys are desperate for a few rules and academic pressure. Sophie's mother, Alys Kihl, a teacher specialising in music in an inner London state primary school, says "I know Sophie feels that she could have achieved more at a purely academic school but I believed in progressive education. She regrets it but she also gained a lot. Her friends who went to public school were like something out of Brideshead Revisited. She had some concept of the rest of the world. The Seventies were a very exciting time when teachers could have great ideas and not be penalised for it. It's very disillusioning now."

We all blame our schooling for why we're not Jeremy Paxman and harbour slow-casseroled resentment about a regime that pushed too hard or didn't push enough. There is always an evil teacher explanation for why we didn't get the A+ in physics we deserved. But the best results, academically or otherwise, come when a child is in a school which suits his personal needs. Flintoff found that, as a boy with a studious streak, the new liberalism was rather frustrating. "When I got there and they started teaching us about Amazon tribes I couldn't see point. I thought I knew my Kings and Queens, but suddenly the knowledge I had was of no relevance. I had to spend my time trying not to sound too posh."

"There is not a preferred style" says Peter Sharp, who has made a study of what makes schools effective. "A pluralist educational society is generally the most helpful. Some very mature children can thrive on total freedom. People can't be treated like fodder. Children, like adults, have individual learning styles. We categorise them as activists, theorists, reflectors and pragmatists. The ideal school environment would suit all these types."

Journalist Angela Neustatter is a former pupil of A.S Neill's visionary Summerhill. She robustly defended the school in the face of a threat of closure from Ofsted last year. However she sent her elder son, now 22, to Bedales ("progressive but takes education seriously") and the younger, now 17, to the local comp ('He never wanted to go to private school, and the comprehensive suited him perfectly").

"Educationally Summerhill was lousy," she admits. (Children have no uniform and the rules are changed according to democratic vote; the curriculum includes mending bikes and walks in the woods. Neustatter has compared her education to a piece of Gruyere cheese.) "Neill [the current head is his daughter Zoe] selected the strangest staff who all had their own problems to work out. I remember one man who would parade naked down the corridors with his dogs. That I regret. I would rather have had a more rigorous approach. But it gave us an optimistic view of the world. We weren't forever being slapped down. One didn't learn what it means to be humiliated and frightened."

This, some educationalists say, is one of the positive influences that the progressive school movement has had on conventional education. The more liberal schools would argue that it is an essential part of what they offer. Good exam results are of no benefit if the adult is too screwed up and insecure to put them to any practical use. The hot-house pressure of a competitive, strictly academic atmosphere can leave quiet, intelligent children with no self-esteem. "What teachers are being taught now," says Peter Sharp, "which I think is part of progressive education, is to reward children for good behaviour rather than punishing them for bad in a ratio of something like four to one."

"It was such fun," says journalist Louisa Saunders, who was in the same year as actress Sophie Thompson (Emma's younger sister) at cool school Camden School for Girls. "There was a smoking room, no uniform and ample opportunity to miss lessons and just chat with your mates. Each year had its Oxbridge-bound clique, but for the rest of us, there wasn't much interest in getting work done. Me and my sisters are all bright and I would say successful but as far as qualifications went we got bugger all. I don't think that was Camden's fault. I didn't want to go to university. All my sisters left school at 16. Yet what the school did give was an arrogance, a sense that you could achieve. There were a lot of girls who already were actresses and models and singers and we all just thought it was possible, I suppose." Whatever it was that Camden gave them, it certainly seems as useful as academic results. "People always think that my sister Kate Saunders [the novelist] went to Oxford."

Christopher Clouder, Director of Steiner Warldorf schools - which don't teach pupils to read until seven - explains that "It helps people in intangible areas that can't be measured by league tables. Children come with gifts and school is the place that they should be nourished and developed." Former Steiner pupils novelist Esther Freud and actress Jennifer Aniston would no doubt agree. But for all the creative success stories a lot of children will not thrive under too much freedom, which is one reason why most regimes have tightened up since those crazy years. Clouder describes Steiner schools now as very "structured. We see the benefit of exams". Geoffrey Fallows, head teacher at Camden Girls, says that the school has a tighter regime than in the laxer Seventies but that the ethos remains the same. "I think the government is too obsessed with academic standards rather than what makes for successful people." But on the whole, schools are far more conservative and most of the "progressive" schools produce league table results well up to the national average. When Kilquhanity, Summerhill's Scottish sister school closed, Edinburgh Academy Rector John Light pointed out "With avant-garde education you are taking a risk. We don't want to experiment with people's futures." Even Holland Park is strait-laced these days. "Walking through the corridors feels safer now," says Flintoff. "There is no longer the tangible anxiety of walking through a rule-free environment where you were worried about who you were going to meet and what they would want from you."

'Comp' is published on 5 March by Gollancz at pounds 10.99