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The Good Old British Comp

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Lots of girls and lots of boys
Lots of smells and lots of noise
Playing football in the park
Kicking Pushbikes after dark
Baggy trousers, dirty shirt
Pulling hair and eating dirt
Teacher comes to break it up
Back of the head with a plastic cup.
— "Baggy Trousers", Madness

A British state school, note  also known as a comprehensive school - or "comp" for short.

Comprehensive schools, now generally just called "secondary schools", were set up in the 1960s by the 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 — a system that still prevails in Northern Ireland and some English counties — and a variation of which 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. In some cases the "outside" has gone too, having been sold off to property developers or used to build a new block to replace the prefab hut classrooms.

British school pupils in almost all cases are required to wear school uniforms, 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, shirt not tucked in, top button undone, wearing trainers, etc. 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 bother to wear the entire uniform correctly. Uniform generally consists of a white shirt, tie, dark bottoms (trousers or skirts), smart dark shoes and, quite often, a blazer.

The troublemakers also like to smoke behind the bike sheds, which is usually also where teenage romances take 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.


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    Comic Books 
  • British girls' comic Bunty had a long-running strip called The Comp about this type of school, originally from its self-conciously "modern" counterpart Nikki before that comic folded in 1989 after four years. Bunty'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.
  • Lowborn High in the 2000 AD strip of the same name is comprehensive as Wizarding School, contrasting sharply with the slightly-familar-looking Boarding School in the backstory. The main character is a kid from one of the elite wizard families, who wrongly believed that this alone would get him into the posh school, and is bewildered to learn that many of his classmates are better at magic than him, because while they may not be the elite, they were at least paying attention.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Discworld of A.A. Pessimal, the Fantasy Counterpart of the Good Old British Comp is the Thieves' Guild School. If places like Hugglestones and the Assassins' Guild School are the Discworld's take on British boarding schools for the socially well-heeled, Pessimal reasoned, then there surely must be a run-down secondary modern somewhere in the city which is neither socially upscale nor all that academically inclined. But which teaches its less privileged pupils all the street-smarts they will ever need. As the TGS is just round a corner or two from the AGS - look out for Class War between toffs and scruffs to be played out in all its violent glory. Assassin students may learn all about stylish weapon-use, but Thieves are also taught skills like Bladed Weapons, Use of Cosh, How to Break a Bottle Safely note  and, most crucially, Resisting Arrest. The respective Headmasters, Mr Boggis and Lord Downey, deplore the violence and frequenlty get together for a social drink and discussions on fostering amity between their respective pupils. note 
    • There is also the Convent School of Seven-Handed Sek, which generates the Disc's equivalent of convent girls. Their interactions with their more privileged peers at the AGS can be every bit as attitudinal, as an upmarket Venturi girl discovers at the price of her pride and dignity.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Carry On Teacher, even though the school is a secondary-modern.
  • Clockwise. Much is made of the punctuality-obsessed headmaster being the "first chairman of the headmasters' conference in the whole of history who is headmaster of a state comprehensive school".
  • 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.

  • 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 stereotypical depiction is lampshaded when Hamish Mancini visits the school and is disappointed that canings have been done away with.
  • The Demon Headmaster is set in a "too good to be true" example (as 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...
  • In the Discworld of Terry Pratchett, the Fantasy Counterpart of the Good Old British Comp is the Thieves' Guild School. Pratchett did not get round to describing this teaching institution in anything like the same depth of detail he gave to the more socially upscale Assassins' Guild School, but The Thieves' Guild Yearbook sketches out enough background detail to infer that this is Ankh-Morpork's take on the Good Old British Comp.
  • At the start of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Dursleys are planning to send Harry to a local state school called Stonewall High. We don't actually see it since he obviously ends up going to Hogwarts instead, but it's evoked as a Sucky School where Harry would have been bullied.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Behind The Bike Sheds was a short lived musical tv series set in one.
  • The Beiderbecke Affair
  • The Boot Street Band
  • Doctor Who: "School Reunion" is set at a comprehensive school whose teachers have been replaced with shapeshifting aliens.
  • One episode of Educating Marmalade was a parody of Grange Hill and set in a comprehensive school.
  • 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.
  • Most of The Grimleys was set in a 1970s one, complete with a stereotype sadist PE teacher.
  • Hank Zipzer has Westbrook Academy, which has an overly ambitious head teacher attempting to foist new (and cost-saving) education techniques on to the school, over the objections of the teachers and the disinterest of the students.
  • Hollyoaks has several storylines set at the local version, Hollyoaks High (although its focus is on university students).
  • The Inbetweeners is the single best, most realistic depiction of British school life ever seen on TV. 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 school pupils do).
  • Please Sir! was a sitcom (1968-1972) set in a Secondary Modern, many aspects of which continued in comprehensives.
  • 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 Machine, which is how Maggie managed to be there.
  • Harmony attends one in The Queen's Nose.
  • The Sarah Jane Adventures series one had one serial 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-based scenes, primarily centred around new character Rani Chandra.
  • The Catherine Tate Show has one sketch about a girl called Lauren Cooper who is a Fiery Redhead chav. Along with her boyfriend Ryan Perkins and best friend Liese Jackson attend a chavvy comprehensive school where Lauren frequently argues with her teachers and cannot be “bovvered” to make much of an effort in class, like most of her classmates.
  • So Awkward is a Kid Com that follows the lives, loves and academic careers of three best friends from first form through to sixth at Cranmede Upper School.
  • Teachers (2001) was set in one although the focus was (as the title suggests) more on the teachers - who were just as unruly as the pupils they were trying to teach.
  • Waterloo Road

  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • The eponymous school in Strange Hill High, which is a Weirdness Magnet. The central trio of protagonists constantly find themselves in bizarre and surreal situations, while surrounded by staff and students who are exaggerations of the types of characters found in a typical British school drama.

Alternative Title(s): Good Old British Comp