“This is also for every comprehensive school in Britain, which the government is trying to eradicate, they produce the best bands, the best art, and the best everything and the best boxers too.” 

The words of Manic Street Preachers' bassist Nicky Wire - as the Blackwood band collected the 1997 Brit Award for Best British Group - may have seemed odd to most school students in the final years of the millennium. 

For most, the future of comprehensive schools probably wasn’t in doubt,  or even contentious, and in practical terms had effectively been settled in the 1970s. 

By the early 1980s, before many of those in secondary school in 1997 had been born, comprehensive education was almost universal across Britain. 

However, John Major’s Conservative government had, in 1996, promised it would allow the establishment of new grammar schools where parents wanted them. 

The potential for the idea to become reality was short-lived, however. Just a matter of months after the Manic Street Preachers had been confirmed as Britain’s best band, Tony Blair would lead Labour to a landslide General Election victory. 

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Establishing new grammar schools was, supposedly, put back to bed as the new government passed legislation that allowed the existing grammar schools to continue but prevented the establishment of any new ones. 

Whether the debate over grammar schools ever really registered with most pupils and parents in large parts of Britain is debatable. But sections of the press have continued to rehearse the arguments – which are at their sharpest in the south east of England where the majority of the remaining grammar schools are concentrated. 

The idea was last revived when, former grammar school girl, Theresa May became prime minister in 2016 and she intended to lift the ban imposed by the Blair government, though five years on it remains in place. 

If the grammar school argument is one concentrated in pockets of England, and a long running debate in Northern Ireland where 67 of the 202 secondary schools are grammars, it is one which Wales had made a significant contribution to beyond the grandstanding of a celebratory Nicky Wire. 

Ysgol Uwchradd Caergybi, in Holyhead, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, comprehensive schools in Britain, having been established in 1949, while five “experimental comprehensives” had been established in London in 1946. 

Comprehensive education had its biggest push during the Labour governments of the 1960s and, at a time when Labour’s geographic spread across Wales was even greater than it is today, there was little resistance among local education authorities to the new model of schooling. 

Indeed, the last grammar school in Wales, Whitland Grammar in what was then Dyfed, had closed in 1988 – almost a full decade before the Manics shouted about the contribution of comprehensives at the Brit Awards. 

But while grammar schools are firmly confined to the history books in Wales, the issue of whether the country has a truly comprehensive education system is debatable according to one expert who has charted the history of Welsh education. 

Dr Philip Dixon was director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Wales for 11 years from 2005 and is the author of 'Testing Times: Success, Failure and Fiasco in Education Policy in Wales Since Devolution'. 

He was among the first generation educated at the newly established Upper Rhondda Comp’ in Treorchy, in 1974, and questions if he truly experienced the egalitarian approach promised. 

“I was lucky to be in the A stream but I had cousins who were in the B stream and it was never the two shall meet,” said Dr Dixon. He was speaking of the strict division of pupils by ability and expectation of their future performance which determined the curriculum they would follow and the qualifications they could gain. 

He said as comprehensives became established across Wales, their ability to deliver for all pupils was being questioned. 

“In the late 70s, there was a huge row on whether Wales had a comprehensive education system or if it had grammar schools and secondary moderns under the same roof due to streaming.” 

Dr Dixon thinks while old style streaming has been replaced and around 97 per cent of children in Wales attend state schools - which are all comprehensives - whether the system meets the true definition can be questioned. 

“Have we got a comprehensive system now? We have Welsh-medium and faith schools which means parents have some sort of choice. 

“I think the comprehensive ideal would be no choice. You have got parents exercising some choice, as I don’t think all those attending faith schools are devout and off on pilgrimages to Lourdes.

"And I don’t think all parents choosing Welsh-medium schools are primarily committed to the Welsh language. 

“It could be argued that you haven’t got a truly comprehensive system unless their local school is the only one a child can go to.” 

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Though the argument will be made that for many, a Welsh-medium or an education in a faith school isn’t a matter of choice – and in many areas, there is only one such school in operation –  or even no secondary Welsh-medium or faith schools, Dr Dixon says eliminating significant variables between schools is central to a comprehensive system. 

Some Welsh language campaigners are also calling for all children to receive a Welsh-medium education which would address one of the parental choice issues identified by Dr Dixon. 

He says the principle of a comprehensive system is undermined by social-economic factors: “One of the most important indicators, (for a school’s performance), is house prices.

"I’m sat in the north of the city and Cardiff High is a very good school but travel south of the A48 and the reverse is the case. 

“I don’t think we’ve got a fully comprehensive system in the sense that schools should be interchangeable, the quality of teaching shouldn’t matter whichever school you go to. It shouldn’t matter where the school is.

"The quality of teaching and achievements wouldn’t be determined by the school and I don’t think we are there yet. 

“Though some schools in very difficult catchments do a fantastic job

“I think you can see from a cost-benefit why Anglesey rushed to have the first comprehensive in Wales. It’s not because they were committed Marxists, but it was a way of saving money in a stretched rural community.” 

Funding for education has been one of the hot topics of the devolution era. And while the funding gap between Wales and England has narrowed and comparisons in performance no longer worthwhile due to differences in qualifications and examinations between both countries, Dr Dixon says the debate shouldn’t become obsessed with educational structures. 

Though grammar schools have generated many headlines and talking points in England, the real battleground has been over academies introduced by Labour and continued under the Conservatives.

Controversially, they have allowed an element of selection that the issue replacing grammar schools was supposed to resolve. 

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Dr Dixon admires the critical eye Leighton Andrews brought as education minister from 2011 to 2013 when he sought to challenge underperformance. 

Despite the Welsh Government’s rhetoric on rejecting many of the New Labour education reforms, he said the former Rhondda AM had looked at the system in England. 

“Behind closed doors, Leighton Andrews did look at what was going on in academies in England and was tempted by it in some ways, I suppose to deal with some of the basket case local authorities.

"But, the whole academy thing would have expended a whole lot of energy on education structures when all the research shows it’s not about structures but the quality of teaching.” 

The biggest change facing Welsh education at present is the move to a new curriculum, which schools will be able to delay the introduction of until 2023.

Dr Dixon notes “all the people with a vested interest are telling us that it is world-class”, but he hopes people will once again be willing to face up to challenges. 

“We need more vigorous debate and some of the things people say in private need to be said in public. It’s been said Wales is the land of the pulled punch. 

“One of the key things we need to look at is how poor or deprived children perform and how we tackle that. No country in the UK has got a good record on that.” 

The introduction of comprehensive education on Ynys Môn 72 years ago set the future course of schooling in Wales.

For Dr Dixon, it is the quality of teaching which will make the biggest impact, however politicians intervene in education. 

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