Secondary modern schools 1940s-50s Britain

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Secondary modern schools were where children who failed the scholarship (11-plus exam) went unless their parents paid them to attend private schools. This page elaborates and in particular discusses the damage that they did to their pupils and why they were phased out in favour of comprehensive schools.


By the webmaster based on discussions with people who went to secondary modern schools

What secondary modern schools were

Secondary modern schools were for children who did not do well enough in a national exam at the age of 11 to progress to a grammar school. The exam was known as 'the scholarship' in the 1940s and afterwards as the 11-plus, often written as the 11+.

At secondary moderns the emphasis was on vocational training, although they did give some basic academic teaching.

The problem with this arrangement was that those children designated for secondary modern schools were almost always regarded by themselves and many others as failures. Was this fair? And was it valid? And what about late developers?

Was the secondary modern system fair or valid?

I passed the 11+ to a grammar school and for years was simply grateful for the splendid education that I received there. I just accepted the educational system as it was, as children do. However, as I have grown older and met quite a number of people who failed the 11+, I have changed my mind. I now see no educational reason why all children should not progress to the same type of school where the brighter ones can receive a grammar school type of education through streaming. Note that I say 'educational reasons'. Many people saw other reasons, both for and against, but read on to find out more.

The better secondary moderns

One man I spoke to who went through the secondary modern system in the 1940s was quite positive about it. A number of his contemporaries learnt trades which stood them in good stead afterwards. What he particularly valued for himself was that his secondary modern used streaming. He was placed in the top stream which was informally known as the 'grammar school stream'. As a result he believed in himself and eventually achieved a healthy number of O levels which allowed him to go on to further education.

The not so good secondary moderns

I also spoke to someone who went to the same school about ten years later. A lot had changed. This person was, judging by his later qualifications, extremely able and although he did identify two teachers who he regarded as good, in general the teaching was "not only inferior but downright disgraceful ... Even those in the 'A' stream at their primary school, but failed the 11+, subsequently tended to rapidly drop down in the Secondary Modern".

The problem of late developers at secondary modern schools

All the people who spoke to me and who failed the 11+ were late developers who went on to achieve well in later life. They probably have good reason to feel hard-done-by, even though they have risen above it.

As far as I can tell - although if you know better, please get in touch - late developers were not particularly unusual. Either:



Comprehensive education, the levelling of society

The solution to all these problems was to abolish secondary modern schools in favour of comprehensive schools.

Based on discussions with people who went to secondary modern schools. For reasons which should have become clear, they have wished to remain anonymous.

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If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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