The Return of Secondary Moderns?

The Government suggest that there should be more Grammar Schools, yet conveniently don’t say that this would also mean the return of the Secondary Modern, a failed concept which no-one should support.

In my class of 42 at Primary School there were just 11 students who were deemed to have ‘passed’ the Eleven Plus, nine boys and just two girls, which must have been reflecting the poor provision for girls at the time. That left 31 eleven-year-old students labelled as ‘failures’, a stigma which probably still haunts them to this day. I met many of them recently at a reunion, all were successful and had done well for themselves, so how can anyone justify the decision made about them so many years ago?

I was sent to a Grammar School, no choice in the matter, and it is fair to say I struggled. I had been good at the Eleven Plus, just one test comparing shapes, picking the odd one out and so on as I recall. More like fun than a test! However good I was at Maths I was hopeless at Latin, English and Science, so after a year I found myself in 2A, with 2B, 2G and 2L all clearly better than us. The focus was all on academic success, progress to a good University with a thorough sifting out after O-levels. I got through that hurdle but when I expressed a wish to become a teacher the limit of the guidance I was given was ‘the box you want is over there Floate’. Thanks!

My brother was less ‘lucky’ and ended up at the Secondary Modern just up the road. One evening my grandfather was sent to pick us up. He came to me first and I recall arriving out side my brother’s school. It was another 1920s school like mine but far less ornate. I went in to where I knew my brother would be through a door by the stairs. I can still picture that staircase today, purely functional with no ornamentation like at my school. More shocking was the state of the place – it had not been decorated in years, unlike mine. Was that fair I thought?

This experience stays with me and I can rightly call it a political awakening, although at the time I was unaware of this. Around ten years later I was a teacher myself, and I found a job teaching at a large mixed ability inner-city Comprehensive. This was by choice, and I worked there for over thirty years, happy that we were giving the students the best and fairest chance of a good start in life.

Teachers stayed with a tutor group for five years up to the age of sixteen so really got to know the students in our care. The first group I welcomed in at the age of eleven were amazing, with a wide range of backgrounds and ability. Quickly three groups formed – a group of quiet girls to one side, quiet boys to the other and in the middle the happiest and most diverse group of students possible. They remained friends throughout their time with me and met up five years after they left. They still got on and we found that we had a diverse range of trades and skills from a washing machine repairer to a graduate from a top University. For all of them the experience of knowing the others must have been better than if they had just known just the limited group of people they’d have met had a selective system been in place.

I live in Kent, a county with Grammar Schools. I wondered if my argument against selection at eleven would stand if I looked at how our schools are doing. I quickly found that out of 150 local education authorities Kent came 48th in the national League Table for GCSE performance. In footballing terms that would leave them as a mid-table Championship team, surely just not good enough?

However, Kent were top of another League table.  I had checked to see how many schools had been deemed to be failing – that term again. Shockingly there were twice as many schools in this category as the next most troubled authority, inner city Birmingham. Not good.

The Prime Minister could not name when challenged any expert who backed her plan. Kent is clearly no support to her either, with selection at eleven giving the few a chance at the expense of the majority.

I have neither read nor heard anything over the past week to make me change my mind. There is no case to be made for the return of Secondary Moderns, or Grammar Schools.

3 thoughts on “The Return of Secondary Moderns?

  1. Unlike Mike I was not good at joining dots and fitting triangles into squares. At age eleven I was deemed a failure. And yes I do do still feel the stigma, it is my dark secret that I rarely mention. This is despite transfering to a grammar school aged fifteen, where I and the four other girls who transfered with me were immediatly relegated to the lowest class. However, we soon showed our ability, each passing several O levels and going on to take A levels. One of us became a teacher, one a physiotherapist and I trained as a state registared chiropodist passing out as the top student in my year.In later life, still trying to make ammends for my early failure, I took a degree with Open University and gained a two one degree in English. This may all sound like bragging but I still feel I have to prove I am not ‘a failure ‘. Silly maybe, but early impressions are very enduring

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The issue is not that grammar school education leaves its pupils wanting ; many grammar schools offer an excellent rounded education for academically able students and working class children do attend these schools, albeit in smaller numbers than their middle class classmates. The issue is that the education for those students not selected is adversely affected, as well as their self esteem. It has been shown in studies that the overall academic achievements in non selective comprehensive areas exceeds that where there is a selection process, if the achievements of ALL pupils are taken into account. Moreover, 11 years of age is woefully young to be labelling children.

      Mrs May is correct that these days, there are those who buy their children places at grammars through moving into highly priced postcodes and sending them to prep schools or private tutors.

      We all have strong opinions on education, coloured by our own personal experiences and prejudices. I went to a state grammar and my classmates included sons of dustmen, labourers and postmen – I know this is still the case in many of today’s grammars, especially in London. My mother left school at 14 to become a hairdresser. I have school friends from those days who are not professionals but are builders and shop workers. I went into a profession. However, my anecdotal experience is meaningless, as many others will have other, different personal anecdotes to refute mine! We need to look at what educational studies show us if we wish to win the argument and these favour the comprehensive system.

      I would also argue that social mobility is achieved for the very few through the grammar school system but if we wish to achieve equality of opportunity for all, we need to offer a fully comprehensive system, which values and offers academic, technical, practical and vocational education on an equal footing. In my opinion, we should therefore be calling for the ending of faith schools (also divisive); the withdrawal of charity status for public schools; and the banning of unpaid internships, as the greatest barrier to social mobility is not only the selective education system, but the fact that it is exacerbated by the social connections that people have through their churches, schools, relatives, rugby clubs, as well as new social phenomena, such as unpaid internships ( which only those with affluent parents can afford).

      The retrograde return to the grammar school system is an ineffective sop by Mrs May to be seen to be addressing the issue of social mobility whilst continuing the “Old Boy “ network of the elite. Even many Tories oppose it! She is on to a loser.


  2. The retrograde return to the grammar school system is an ineffective sop by Mrs May to be seen to be addressing the issue of social mobility whilst continuing the “Old Boy “ network of the elite. Even many Tories oppose it! She is on to a loser.


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