‘Bring Back Secondary Moderns for the 75%’ doesn’t quite have the same appeal as the call to reintroduce grammars.

Janet Downs's picture
UKIP wants a grammar school in every town. London Mayor Boris Johnson says scrapping grammars was a ‘real tragedy’. Prince Charles lobbied ministers to reintroduce selection at 11. Home Secretary Teresa May appears willing to consider support for a grammar school’s ‘satellite’ in comprehensive Maidenhead. The clamour to bring back grammar schools is getting louder.

Much support for selection at 11 appears fuelled by a rosy-tinted view of grammar schools offering a leg up out of the working class for a few bright children. But post-war social mobility was not dependent on a grammar school education. It was encouraged by the hundreds of thousands of white-collar jobs (by definition ‘middle-class’) which didn’t require qualifications and jobs (many defined as ‘working class’) which paid enough for men* to get a mortgage. This turned them into ‘middle class’ property owners. The role paid by grammar schools in enabling post-war social mobility is exaggerated.

Grammar school supporters ignore the downside to selection at 11: the 75% of children who were sent to secondary modern schools. A tiny proportion went to technical schools but these institutions were few and the idea faded. If you didn’t pass the 11+ then it was the secondary modern, leave school at 15 with no qualifications.

But it would be different now, I hear people say. All children remain in school to at least age 16. And that’s going to rise. All children take exams. So it wouldn’t matter if children were segregated at 11, would it?

Yes it would. First there’s the evidence. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which runs the triennial PISA tests found the best-performing countries in these tests tend to be those which do not segregate children academically. They delay selection until at least upper secondary (age 15/16).

Second, research has found that early selection and a number of 'public** selective schools' (as well as private schools with fees) 'amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students'. In other words, they worsen the effect of socioeconomic background on pupils' results.

Third, there’s the unpalatable fact that grammar schools for the few mean secondary modern type schools for the rest. They won’t be called secondary moderns, of course. They will be high schools, colleges or academies. But they will still be regarded as secondary moderns. Creamed of the high ability pupils, they will offer courses deemed more ‘suitable’ for average and below-average pupils. They’ll offer more academic courses for any high-ability children discovered in their classrooms. But they will still be regarded as secondary moderns – second rank schools for second-rate children.

The message sent to children who don’t pass the 11+ is that they are failures. They aren’t ‘alpha’ children but ‘beta’, ‘gamma’ and ‘delta’. They have to have a particular kind of education – something ‘more suited’ for their lesser talents and abilities. That’s the message that would be given to three-quarters of eleven-year-old children in a system that selects at such a young age.

So let’s be clear what a call for reintroducing grammars means. It’s lobbying for the return of the secondary modern for the majority of children. It’s a proposal to demoralise three-quarters of our eleven year-olds. It’s a proposition which would label three-quarters of our future as second best.


Remember, then, the call to bring back grammars is a call to bring back secondary moderns.

*It was very difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to get a mortgage in the so-called Golden Age. Women who wanted credit needed their husband’s signature.

**'Public' in this context means 'state maintained' not 'Public' as in 'Public schools' like Eton.
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Martin Francis (@WembleyMatters)'s picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 17:20

I can confirm much of what you say about sense of failure as a 67 year old who failed both the 11+ and the second chance (in some areas) 13+. What is often ignored is that there was not uniform provision so some areas had more grammar schools than others. I was London overspill in Bedfordshire with just one grammar school and one technical covering a large area.

I think only two children in my class of 40 passed - the son of the bank manager and the sone of the manager of Woolworths!

John Wadsworth's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 18:12

I also failed my 11+ not because I was unintelligent but because I had just arrived in the UK and hadn't been coached for it. fortunately my parents moved abroad again and I was able to attend a fully comprehensive school where the most able had not been creamed off. Had I remained in the UK I would have ended up in a secondary modern with low horizons set for me and would probably not have gone on the get a degree and an MA.

As Janet suggests, the countries that do best in PISA are all countries that have equitable school systems but they are also in countries where the gap between the wealthy and the poor is small, unlike the UK. Grammar schools are and always will be part of the mythology that you can join the top table if you strive hard enough. rather than calling for more politicians who claim to want a more equal society should be doing everything in their power to consign them to the dustbin of history

Brian's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 21:19

I asked a group of UKIP supporters who had set up their stall in the entrance of a large national-chain supermarket why they never said 'Bring Back Secondary Moderns'. They struggled with concept and after a few minutes I was asked (I won't use the actual phrase used for fear of offending) to leave. This has resulted to a complaint to the supermarket in question, but that's another issue altogether. Still it's nice to know that supporters of selection can muster a rational argument to support their viewpoint.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 22:14

Brian. Thanks for the idea of asking why UKIP never say "Bring Back Secondary Moderns". I must try that. After all, there's an election pending and I'm sure I'll run into a canvasser. There is, of course, a very serious side to the question. A full, and rounded education is what is needed for all kids in school, not just the 'elite' top percent, the number of which is never defined. In 2014 and into the future, all children need to be properly educated in order to have the best chances in the modern economy. It's interesting how often this knee-jerk call arises and how little it's potential consequences are examined.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 11/11/2014 - 23:51

Oh, dear here we go again bashing secondary modern education and the pupils who attended them.

As I recall the post war the rationale was a a 3-tier approach: Grammar, Secondary Modern and Technology schools. Regrettably the system never got off the ground because the nation simply couldn't afford the system. At the time the whole thing was judged by educationalists and economists as quiet revolutionary and ironically would have been equal to if not better than that established in post war Germany.

For the record I am loudly and proudly the product of secondary modern education and still managed to become a commissioned officer in the RN, Bursar in the independent sector, 2:1 Honours, PGCE, AST and DHT etc. But gosh that clearly doesn't match with former Grammar boys and girls, many of whom struggled at their schools and left with not a lot.

I do so wish we could overcome this constant putting down of secondary modern schools and crowing from products of the former Grammar school era.

Brian's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 07:53

Not sure anybody as far as I can see is 'bashing' secondary modern pupils. You're the only one who has mentioned it. Still it is interesting to note that your success as an ex-secondary modern pupils is contrasted with grammar school pupils 'many of whom struggled at their schools and left with not a lot.' A ringing endorsement of the selective system if ever I heard one.

Mr_Chas's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 01:25

Please can we great some facts straight here. Having Grammar Schools alongside non-selective schools in 2014, both of which will teach the same GCSE courses , maybe BTEC's alongside and subsequently A levels and equivalents, is a very different scenario to that which existed in the 1950's & 1960's when Secondary Moderns gave a completely different education to children , with a lower school leaving age ( 15 ) and no end of school external exams until 1960 when the CSE came in. Those who are citing memories of this period are being deliberately disingenuous ( The "Do you want Secondary Moderns back again ? brigade. ) Nobody is proposing a return to differentiated educational leaving qualifications based on school type. Grammar Schools are academic hothouses ideal for those children for whom this pace and culture is suitable. I would call it an 'extended' option. My local Grammar School gets a whole extra year of syllabus ( TWO compulsory MFL's for instance ) into KS3. Non-selective schools give an excellent all round education at a moderate pace. I call this the standard option.

Neither is this diverting money from the majority to the few. A school place created is a school place that remains in perpetuity and increases the number available in the area. We live in an era of rapidly rising population, especially in the South East and the large cites of the North. ALL schools ( Grammar / non selective ) receive the same amount per pupil per annum, likewise the pupil premium. I support Grammar schools, and would love to see them come back, especially in the inner cities. Some people are against them, that is their choice, but please stop the scaremongering and suggesting that more Grammar Schools = a return to the divided system of the 1950's. It does NOT.

Brian's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 08:24

It is also disingenuous to pretend that selection at eleven doesn't bring a 'success and failure' responses, a school full of 'successes' several others full of 'failures.' A majority of pupils for whom it has been decided at a very early age that an 'academic pace and culture' isn't suitable. Indeed it has been decided at that early age that a large proportion of pupils aren't even to be given the opportunity to mix with the 'academic' and vice versa. The fact that this segregation will be almost totally down social lines will once again be celebrated by some ... 'away from all those awful rough kids at last.'

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 08:43

Andy - I wasn't bashing indvidual secondary moderns many of whom did a good job with their intake. It's the system I object to. The idea that at age 11 it's possible to sort children out on the basis on a couple of short tests to decide the type of education they receive (and ultimately the type of job they will go into). In the early secondary modern era, during the fifties and early-sixties, most secondary modern children (and even some grammar pupils) left school at 15 with no qualifications. Gradually, sec mods realised they had some high-ability pupils who somehow had missed out on either 11+ or 13+. They started providing O level courses for these children most of whom passed.

By the time the school leaving age was raised, most sec mods were doing this. At the same time, parents had realised their children only stood a one-in-four chance of getting into the supposedly 'elite' grammars and campaigned for a fairer, comprehensive system which didn't segregate pupils at 11.

For the record, Andy, I, too 'failed' my 11+. I was sent to one of the rare 'Technical' schools because, I was told, I was good with my hands and more suitable for 'technical' work. This was risible as I was one of the few, very few, children who failed their Cycling Proficiency Test and I broke my mum's knitting machine at the first attempt. The 'technical' school morphed into a 'bi-lateral' (two-stream) school and I was placed in the 'grammar' stream.

I have actually lived and worked my entire life in areas which retained selection. I have seen at first hand the harm the system does on the non-selective schools in which I taught. This resulted (obviously) in our school with its intake skewed towards the bottom end being near the bottom of local league tables. But that wasn't how it was seen locally - our school was 'bad' because of our league table position. And, funny, but the fully comprehensive school half-a-mile over the country border suddenly seemed very attractive to parents whose children had 'failed' the 11+.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 08:55

Thank you, Brian, for pointing out to Mr Chas the obvious point that giving children a test at 11 which marks them 'successes or failures' is divisive and inhumane. There is absolutely no need for it. Leave aside the evidence which shows countries which don't select until upper secondary tend to score higher in PISA than countries that segregate their children at an early age. Leave aside other evidence that early selection worsens the effect of socio-economic background on performance. There's the unpalatable fact that 75% of children in a selective system are told they are failures. At age 10 and 11. And it's cruel to label children so publicly at such a young age.

Mr Chas is of course right that we are in a different era to the old grammar/sec mod world of the 50s and 60s. It's odd, then, that so many politicians hark back to this supposed Golden Age of social mobility via grammar schools and are nostalgic for the world of P'Tang Yang Kipper Bang.

Non-selective schools in areas which retain selection, sorry Mr Chas, are viewed as second rank. The grammar school is regarded as the pinnacle of local education provision - non-selective schools are still seen as schools for the 'average' and 'below average'. They may not be called secondary moderns, but their intake results in their being perceived as such.

That's not to say grammars are bad schools. My local grammar school is excellent. I just want it to open its doors to all pupils and not just concentrate on the selected few.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 12:39

Mr Chas - The problem with your argument is that children's abilities are continuously variable with very large and rich diversity in terms of talents and developmental needs.

The idea that all of this rich variation can be usefully divided into a bilateral system of 'moderate pace' schools and 'extended pace' schools is risible. No school should be one or the other and any school that can be characterised in such a way is certain to be failing a significant number of its pupils.

I agree that it is wrong to imply 'grammar school-good', 'secondary modern school-bad'.

Neither are as good as they should be and that is why the best performing school systems in the world reject the whole silly and divisive idea - as Janet points out.

Jane Eades's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 13:55

In addition to the number of children who were "failed" at the 11+ stage, I'm fed up with this myth about how good grammar schools were and the opportunities given to working class children. I admit that my mother was lucky: she got a scholarship to grammar school and then to university, in the '20s/30s. First and only one in her family. However, that meant that no-one else in her family could benefit - the family couldn't afford more than one.

I went to a boarding grammar school in Dorset. It had boarders because the town could not justify a grammar school without importing pupils from military families, outlying farms and social services cases. The standards were incredibly low and, when put into the 'B' stream for a short while to 'encourage me to work harder', I learned how to play strip poker and to throw a knife. Very few pupils got 5 'O' levels and many got none at all. As the only girl I was faced with incredible sexism from boys and a teacher whilst trying to do Maths and Physics at 'A' level.

When people say bring back grammar schools they mean bring back the fiction of high standards of education rather than, in many cases, complacent teaching. I often wished I had failed my 11+ although I suffered sleepless nights before taking it.

Parent2's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 15:43

It's very easy for Boris Johnson and Theresa May to support grammar schools when they represent constituencies that (a) border grammar areas but aren't directly affected in terms of how they skew intake of schools that remain, and (b) see grammars as a rather amusing cheap alternative to private schools in a state system they don't have to participate in.

It's also hypocritical from a party that has removed the ability to plan provision from LAs. You either have an unplanned, market-driven free-for-all supposedly justified in terms of competition and 'choice' (not available if you are sorting children by ability), or you have a system where local authorities have long-term planning powers and grammars are distributed evenly among the population. Grammar schools would still be extremely low on the list of priorities given the shortage of places and shortage of sites for approved free schools. Even distribution is impossible where there are other admissions criteria such as religious selection.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 21:54

I am no supporter of Grammar Schools.

My secondary modern offered CSEs and GCE 'O' levels. It also boasted separate wood work, metalwork (including a forge), engineering (pupils could help rebuild motorbikes and scale traction engines) and technical drawing alongside rural studies through its own smallholding. The majority of pupils were catered for from academic streaming through to hands on skills. In today's UK it seems that academia drives the vast majority of schools curriculum's with Studio schools filling the gap for those not given to studying for paper quals.

I would invite attention to John W's comment, "Had I remained in the UK I would have ended up in a secondary modern with low horizons set for me and would probably not have gone on the get a degree and an MA." I fear that Janet's comment, "Third, there’s the unpalatable fact that grammar schools for the few mean secondary modern type schools for the rest. They won’t be called secondary moderns, of course. They will be high schools, colleges or academies. But they will still be regarded as secondary moderns. Creamed of the high ability pupils, they will offer courses deemed more ‘suitable’ for average and below-average pupils. They’ll offer more academic courses for any high-ability children discovered in their classrooms. But they will still be regarded as secondary moderns – second rank schools for second-rate children" cannot easily be glossed over. Sorry but even though Janet did not attend a Grammar school those comments are pretty damning about those who attended secondary moderns. It also ignores the fact that even back in the day the majority of kids didn't get into Grammars because there simply weren't enough places for those that did pass the 11+. It follows then that some of the "cream" didn't get skimmed off and actually went to and did well at secondary moderns.

How ironic that it is the much maligned and attacked SMW who has fought hard for recognition that children from all backgrounds have the ability to achieve well and too many are held back by artificial ceilings e.g. social deprivation and FSM used by lazy professional to write them off as holding school performance back.

Brian's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 22:06

'It also ignores the fact that even back in the day the majority of kids didn’t get into Grammars because there simply weren’t enough places for those that did pass the 11+.'

Do you mean that if grammar schools has been bigger then a majority of kids would have got into them? Really?

Andy V's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 22:25

Brian, Don't be so obtuse. You know full well that wasn't the meaning or intention of my comment. It is as plain as day that if there was insufficient space for all the pupils who passed to get a place then those pupils ended up in a secondary modern. It follows then that the assertion that secondary moderns were the filled with "... second-rate children" is wholly errant. That is to say, if in the late 50s/60s there were 2000 Grammar places per year and 6000 pupils passed the 11+ the 4000 without a Grammar place would go to a secondary modern, which utterly destroys the assertion that 100% of the cream of the crop was skimmed off to Grammars. The fact that a child that passed the 11+ didn't get a place doesn't mean they overnight become "second-rate children".

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 12/11/2014 - 22:27

Andy - How I agree with your last paragraph. SMW is a great champion of comprehensive schools and is on record as a strong critic of grammar schools and selection.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 09:04

Andy - my comment about how non-selective schools in selective areas would be regarded as 'second rank' is not a criticism of those who attended secondary moderns. Far from it. It's an indictment of a system which separates children into successes and failures at age 10/11. And this description sticks.

As I said above I have lived and worked all my life in selective areas so perhaps my view is coloured by the attitude I have seen around me. I was a teacher for 20 years in such a non-selective school (with an ability ranged skewed to the bottom end, so it was in practice a secondary modern). I became used to my school being described as the last one anyone would choose because it wasn't as 'good' as the grammar or even the fully-comprehensive school a mile over the country border (and second choice for parents whose children didn't pass the 11+). I experienced daily the 'second-rank' (even 'third rank') description. Someone even suggested to me once that I couldn't be a particularly good teacher because I worked in such a school.

We gave our pupils the best possible education. But we were still considered second-rate. And, disgracefully, our pupils were considered to be second-rate. They weren't. But that's how they were perceived because they were at a 'secondary modern' in all but name.

Jane Eades's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 13:04

It is assumed that there was one pass mark for the 11+, which operated nationally. This was not the case. The pass mark was dependent on the area. I also remember research which showed that in many cases the pass mark for boys was lower than that for girls (sorry can't remember the source - it was about 30 years ago that I read the study).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 13:41

The pass mark is likely to fall if there are insufficient pupils taking and passing the 11+. This has already happened in Northern Ireland where the grammars are fishing more deeply in the ability pool in order to fill their schools at a time of falling pupil numbers.

In the Golden Age, there were more grammar school places for boys than for girls. It was quite common, therefore, for some girls at secondary moderns to have scored higher at 11+ than some grammar boys.

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