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Highbury County Grammar School for Boys. 1922 – 1967

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This state grammar school in Islington, North London flourished briefly before being swept away like so many others during the 2nd half of the 20th century when this kind of school was no longer fashionable in an age that favoured uniformity and equal education for all. The original concept of such schools in poorer working class districts was to provide a level of free education to all that was otherwise only available at fee paying schools.

In the early to mid-20th century the value of a good education was accepted universally and the UK's school system matured and developed to provide this. The 1944 Education Act advanced and codified much of these changes, so that all children, regardless of class or background, had the certainty of a proper education until the official school leaving age (which had gradually advanced to 15 years by the early 1950's) The system at the time was a primary/junior education from ages 5-11 then to a secondary school from 11 until at least age 15. A fifth year was available to all if they and the school wished (when 'O' level (Ordinary) exams could be sat. After this 2 further years were available to the more gifted academically as demonstrated by results at 'O' level. These last 2 years were mostly focussed on the 'A' level certificates (Advanced) which would determine entry prospects for university. Not all schools had a sixth form (as it was known) and so pupils from these had to move to another nearby, or a specialist 6th form college if they wished to sit A' levels.

The age of 11 was a crucial milestone as all junior pupils sat the 11-plus exam in this final primary year and results determined what kind of secondary school they would be offered. All pupils who passed this exam received an offer of a grammar school place (which they were not obliged to take up) while the others went to a secondary modern which has a curriculum of slightly less academic and slightly more technical subjects and from where few were expected to study beyond the official minimum leaving age. It was also possible to be offered a 'Governors place' at a grammar school if an 11-year old had just missed the cut and/or had extenuating circumstances such as a period of missed schooling through, for instance, illness. (In 1963 Highbury County offered 3 governors places and 27 candidates were interviewed)

Highbury County was based in the old LCC area of North London N5, just north of Kings Cross and west of Hackney. At the time, Highbury was still predominantly working class but gradually gentrifying and today is considered one of the best districts in the region with multi-million pound houses and all the accompanying amenities.

The schools origin was at the very start of the 20th Century as an outpost of the Northern Polytechnic to provide a secondary education to the more gifted lower classes who might advance through the poly to a technical career in Britain’s dynamic late-Victorian industries. On being adopted by the local council in 1922 it was moved to premises the council owned on the corner of Highbury Grove and Highbury New Park.

At the start of the war North London was considered too dangerous and the school was evacuated first to Kimbolton Huntingdonshire. This was a poor choice as the area lacked suitable accommodation and it proved impossible to carry on proper teaching. In less than a year they were re-located with more success to Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Accounts at the time seem to indicate though that teaching was not always a priority with agricultural and other useful work playing a part in the boys daily life. Many pupils drifted back to London as the fears subsided and eventually the school returned in 1943.

A few years after the war and with just its 3rd headmaster the school probably got into its stride. The annual intake settled on 90 boys (in 3 classes of 30) and a respectable number stayed on after 15 and into the 6th form where streams of arts and sciences produced enough results to see a steady stream go onto universities including Oxbridge from time-to-time. The school also performed reasonably at sports, drama and arts, particularly noteworthy considering the physical limitations of their facilities (an example was that Wednesday afternoon sports involved a convoy of coaches bussing almost the whole school over to the sports fields at Highams Park in Essex. When bad weather prevented the use of these fields the coaches would instead transport everyone northwards to Parliament Hill Fields for a muddy cross country run)

Finally after just 45 years Highbury County merged with two other local schools to form a new comprehensive, Highbury Grove in 1967.

The Buildings

The building themselves, dominated by an imposing 4 story Victorian edifice fronting Highbury Grove, dated mainly from 1853; erected for the Church Missionary Society as a children’s home, then in 1891 becoming a residential home for persistent truants and in 1909 the Highbury Industrial School for Child delinquents (9).

In 1938 the council had approved a plan to replace the buildings at a cost of £57,815 spread over 4 years. The outbreak of the war less than a year later meant the shelving these plans and they were quietly forgotten. When the school returned to London in 1943 bomb damage meant the first few years teaching took place at a building in Offord Rd. (6) By the time of its closure the school buildings were regarded as old fashioned and inappropriate and arguably were a major reason for the merger. The classrooms were just adequate and science and technical rooms barely able to cope, For example the one craft lesson was woodwork which had just enough space for 15 pupils at a time. Equally sciences struggled with just 4 labs. It's interesting to speculate over the eventual fate of the school if the 1938 plans had not been shelved as one of the factors behind its merger in 1967 was the desperate need to replace buildings now over 100 years old.

However the site did have reasonable space in total with a number of playgrounds and was situated in a good position at the apex of Highbury Grove and Grosvenor Avenue and bounded on a 3rd side by Highbury New Park. Along with the acquisition of a row of houses this made the site ideal for the construction of the new buildings and facilities for the more than 1100 pupils the new merged school would house after 1967.

When the building of Highbury Grove was underway completely new buildings were erected in the spaces around the old school and on completion the old main building demolished, much to the old incumbents' delight as they cheered each swing of a giant iron wrecking ball. Only the old gym was retained though this was finally erased when the 1967 school buildings were in turn demolished and replaced in 2009.

The Headmasters

In the schools 45 years it had just 4 headmasters, plus two acting heads, one during the wartime evacuation and another as a holding placement just before the closure.

1922-28: The first headmaster, was Mr William Spragg, who by accounts was a better teacher than head and was replaced in 1928.

1928-1953; Mr R.J.Marsh MA, a former public school teacher and strict disciplinarian. Inevitably being nicknamed “Boggy” by the boys, his reign which lasted until 1953 has been described as one of terror, with lines of boys waiting to be caned. However a more considered appreciation illustrates a dedicated and caring professional who strove hard to ensure the best education and future for his pupils, in particular taking pride in the job success they attained during periods when the economy and with it employment, was struggling (4). As well as setting a high level of educational standards and ambition he also set about reorganising the school and it's systems, often modelled on a public school. Old boys speak well of him generally.

1953 – 1965. His replacement, Mr R.J.King MA had previously been deputy head of Holloway School (a secondary modern also in Islington that still exists and had long been regarded as the schools greatest sporting rival. In fact he had also been a pupil at that school before winning a scholarship to St John's Cambridge, no mean feat for a local lad in those days). Sharing Mr Marsh's ambitions and aims Mr King led the school until the mid 60's, eventually retiring when the merger and comprehensive status became inevitable. During this time he also led change and reform, often agreeing with the younger less conservative staff to usher in a platform of 'modern' teaching appropriate to the schools status and times. Arguably the schools heydays were the 12 years of Kings leadership when it provided a strong academic grounding for over 500 boys alongside considerable attainments in sports, cultural, social and artistic areas too. (6)

1966-7 (and beyond) Dr (later Sir) Rhodes Boyson Bsc Phd. (and Later MP) After King retired Boyson was appointed to become the head of both the old school and the future Comprehensive. Undoubtedly the most famous, he led the school into its new era before decamping to parliament as MP for Brent North and fame as an arch conservative, junior education minister and joint author of a 'Black paper' extolling the kind of education he tried to practice at both Highbury's, underpinning choice, strong values and careful streaming with strict discipline. Fundamentally 'Grammar-lite' and clearly not something the liberal establishment were willing to take forward. He later detailed his time at Highbury in his book 'Oversubscribed' (3). The title based on the new schools early success in attracting more pupil candidates than it could accommodate.

Acting Heads

During the evacuation years a very popular teacher (? Philip Howells?) acted as head for the boys evacuated until the return to London in 1943.

1965-6 Mr E S Wood. One of the longest serving teachers having joined the school soon after the war. As deputy head he was a shoe-in to replace Mr King and hold the ship steady while awaiting the appointment of the permanent replacement after which he reverted to deputy until his retirement in 1973. Because of his large cranium he was nicknamed the Mekon after an evil villain in the Eagle comics 'Dan Dare' storyline.

Highbury Grove, 1967

As mentioned above the school lasted just 45 years before being merged with two other local schools to form Highbury Grove. Barnsbury Secondary modern was of similar size and based in nearby Barnsbury. While not a grammar school it was seen as a good choice for those who failed to pass their 11-plus. It too badly needed more and better space. The third party, Laycock School just to the east of Highbury was a much smaller secondary modern that had a poor reputation.

Notable alumni.

Rabbi Soloman Schonfield, 1912 - 1984: One of the most remarkable, yet least known of the Holocaust heroes. He personally rescued many thousands of Jews from Nazi forces in Central and Eastern Europe during the years 1938-1948. He founded the Hasmonean High School in 1944 and the other schools that formed the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement.

Sir Rhodes Boyson M.A. Ph.D., Dip Ed(as above and see separate entry)

Mr William (Bill) Ashton OBE. Taught French before leaving teaching to focus on his Junior Jazz orchestra which thrives today and he still leads. He is remembered fondly for his relaxed style and tendency to divert from teaching into interesting anecdotes involving characters like David Frost, Dudley Moore and Sir Frank Whittle

Micky Droy, Chelsea FC Centre Half. Micky started at Highbury in 1962 and his strong build made him a natural starter in the first team back four. After leaving school he wasn't fast tracked into the professional game but good performances on the semi-professional circuit (notably for Slough Town) led to a dream transfer to Chelsea. This was not the Chelsea we know today, languishing between the old first and 2nd divisions but Droy enjoyed a long career there before retirement.

Ken Friar OBE. Started working at Highbury Stadium while still a 12-year-old at the school; later advanced to become the manager Director of Arsenal Football club right through to recent times.

Frank Warren, Boxing Promoter. A pupil from 1963 to 1966 Frank rose from unpromising beginnings to become one of the major mover and shakers in the sport today. (8). Classmates recall he showed early promise in his later career by being good at getting other kids to fight each other. See separate entry.

John Hough: Film and TV producer. Films include Escape to Witch Mountain, Biggles and Hell house. TV series include The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Saint and Dempsey and Makepiece

Jonathan Issac Winegarten CBE. Specialist in the Economics of Agriculture


1. Highbury County Revisited. Boyle and Perman. Rockingham press. 2005. ISBN. 1-904851-01-0

2 Oversubscribed. Dr Rhodes Boyson. Ward Lock. 1974. 0-7062-3385-9

3. Streets With A story. The book of Islington. Eric A Willats FLA. 1986: Islington Local History Education Trust

4. Islington: The Highbury County School (formerly the Northern Polytechnic Secondary School) 1922-35 .(S 5601), The National Archives, Kew ED 35/5288

5. Highburian Magazine, Vol 1, No 2 July 1953. Mr L Lincoln

6. The Highburian Magazine, July 1966, Ed. R N Blake. John Crowley

7. The Highburian Magazine, July 1967, Ed. J Davies. Mr J M (Nobby) Knowles



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