The Good Old British Comp

Comprehensive schools, now generally just called "Secondary Schools", were set up in the 1960s by the Harold Wilson government, replacing the old system of Grammars and Secondary Moderns (where you went and a lot of your future depended on the dreaded 11 plus exams — this system still prevails in Northern Ireland and small parts of England, and a variation on it can be seen in the Harry Potter books and movies).

School buildings in the UK widely vary in age, from Victorian era to brand new. On TV, many are Victorian. Fortunately, the days of the outside toilets and outside swimming pools are gone. Actually, the "outside" has gone too, having been sold off to property developers.

British school pupils in almost all cases are required to wear school uniform and you can spot a troublemaker from a mile off by the fact that he or she isn't wearing it properly (skirt too short, tie askew, top button undone). It is of note that in some schools, not wearing one's uniform correctly has encroached en masse, to the extent that very few pupils wear the entire uniform correctly. They generally include a white shirt, tie, dark bottoms (trousers or skirts), smart dark shoes and, quite often, a blazer.

These troublemakers also like to smoke behind the bike sheds, where romance also takes place. (Presumably, the smoke obscures the romance.) These days smoking in the Staff Room is illegal, so pupils and teachers both disappear behind the bike sheds where they carefully ignore each other.

Kids in glasses are generally portrayed as 'swots', as are "prim and proper young ladies" (e.g., Hermione Granger from Harry Potter). The former get bullied, the latter may turn out to be Beautiful All Along.

Gangs are common, both of the good ("let's have a jape") and bad ("let's nick the smart kid's dinner money") variety, although most schools now have electronic payment for school dinners, so it's more "steal their dinner card/finger print". Kids in TV schools display a far greater degree of coordination on their own than one ever saw in real life. The teachers have to be called "Miss" or "Sir" (a policy that only actually happens in some schools) and are generally highly strict. Whatever you do, don't annoy the Head Teacher.

They used to be able to administer a caning, but this was stopped in the 1980s; many a media commentator has called for its return. Highly popular for the expected hijinks the students (and also often teachers) will get up to, because really, they shouldn't get up to them. Such shows are naturally prone to Dawson Casting.

There are a wide range of differences between English and Scottish schools, but none of them are relevant to the trope, except that uniforms seem to be more optional.

See also British Education System. Compare and contrast with Boarding School, the other British education trope.


Comic Books
  • British girls' comic Bunty had a long-running strip called The Comp about this type of school. The comic's flagship story, The Four Marys, was set in an exclusive boarding school for girls and had run since the magazine began in the 1950s; so The Comp was introduced as a more modern counterpart in an effort to represent the kind of school that readers might actually attend.

  • Kes
  • Carry On Teacher, even though the school is a secondary-modern.
  • Despite the above reservation about Scotland, surely we have to include Gregory's Girl
  • The History Boys - though not a comprehensive (they go to grammar school), all the characters are working class and explicitly underdogs in their applications to Oxford.

  • The Demon Headmaster is set in a "too good to be true" example (if the name wasn't a clue). The New Transfer Student protagonist finds that almost everyone is a model student, and kids can even be found parroting facts back and forth during breaks. Then she finds herself reciting stock lines whenever someone asks her about the school, and has no idea why...
  • Adrian Mole went to one in the earlier books and many of his problems, especially in the first book, occur here, such as his dealings with Barry Kent and Headmaster Reginald "Popeye" Scruton. The sterotypical depiction is lampshaded when Hamish Mancini visits the school and is disappointed that canings have been done away with.

Live-Action TV
  • The archetypal example of such a setting is the children's Soap Opera Grange Hill (1978-2008). If you're British and born before 1990, you can probably hum the theme tune.
    • This can be split down to 1978-1989 or thereabouts - this is the Tucker/Gripper/Ro-land era.
    • And younger viewers remember this from 1990 onwards.
  • Waterloo Road
  • The Boot Street Band
  • Behind The Bike Sheds was a short lived musical tv series set in one
  • The Sarah Jane Adventures series one had one episode set at the local comp (Park Vale High School, which despite the name is this trope and not a High School) and the second series sees an increase in school set scenes because the Suspiciously Similar Substitute for Maria, Rani, is the daughter of the new Headmaster.
  • The Doctor Who episode "School Reunion" was set at a comprehensive school whose teachers had been replaced with shapeshifting aliens.
  • Teachers
  • The Inbetweeners is the single best, most realistic depiction of British school life ever seen. Of particular note is how up-to-date the insults are (bellend and dickwad are particularly popular) and how they don't shy away from having kids swearing, watching porn and going on and on about sex (you know, as actual secondary schoolers and 6th formers actually do).
  • Please Sir!, a sitcom (1968—1972)
  • One episode of Educating Marmalade was a parody of Grange Hill and set in a comprehensive school.
  • The Beiderbecke Affair
  • Harmony attends one in The Queen's Nose
  • Palace Hill was a particularly surreal example, with members of the Royal Family, and for one series a young Margaret Thatcher, rubbing shoulders with working-class teenagers. Oh, and one of the school toilets was actually a "time khazi", which is how Maggie managed to be there.
  • Hollyoaks has several storylines set at the local version, Hollyoaks High (although its focus is on university students.)

  • Immortalised in song by Madness in "Baggy Trousers" from Absolutely:
    Lots of girls and lots of boys/ lots of smells and lots of noise.
Interestingly, written partly as a reaction to 'Another Brick in the Wall'. The slightly younger, working class members of Madness didn't entirely relate to that image of school— their own education had been slightly more relaxed, and they were aware that the teachers were making do as best they could with their situation as much as the children.

Video Games

  • Annyseed attends a Comprehensive school, although the laws of the Annyseed universe don't require the students to wear uniforms.

Alternative Title(s): Good Old British Comp