Houses help reduce the trauma of 'big' school

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The "house" system - which Charles Clarke wants every secondary school to adopt - dates back almost to the setting up of the country's first private schools. Of course, the system in those days was very different from the one Mr Clarke would like to see operating in the state sector.

It was mainly instituted for sports so that so-called "public" schools could have teams to compete against each other. There was also a system of "fagging", which remained at least until the 1960s and 1970s, whereby younger pupils had to run errands for their seniors.

That was the type of regime in operation when both Mr Clarke and I attended Highgate school in the 1960s, but that is not what Mr Clarke wants to bring in. His would be a more benevolent system, of a style which most private schools have now taken up.

"Houses" would meet, possibly once a week, and give a chance for older and younger pupils to mix with each other. Yesterday's blueprint says it would help to remove the trauma felt by many 11- and 12-year-olds when they arrive at "big" school for the first time. It would create a more intimate atmosphere in which they would not feel afraid to go to older pupils for help and advice.

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, rejected the proposal.

"In a document that talks about freedom and choice, why should he be telling governing bodies they must adopt the 'house' system?" he asked.

Most schools already had a version of the system, he said - although the majority (about 75 per cent) based it on year groups, while only about 20 per cent had a system whereby all year groups were included in each house.

Many schools also had a different all-age "house" system for sports to avoid first years competing against sixth-formers for a trophy. Mr Clarke would like to see the change here, so that all "house" activities were on an all-age basis.