Secondary modern schools 1940s-50s Britain
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 11plus, 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:
- They stuck it out at the local secondary modern and found their own areas for their efforts. I know for a fact at least two such individuals who are now heads of multinational companies.
- Their parents paid for private education mainly to avoid the stigma of the secondary moderns and hopefully for better teaching. Normally funds limited this education to small schools which could not attract good teachers or afford good facilities. I know of one individual who achieved just one O level at such a school who told me that he was bored there and disinterested in the lessons. He went on to the local technical college where he achieved four A levels in one year and enough O levels to get into a good university. He now has a doctorate in physics. Another such individual went on to achieve four degrees in three different subject areas.
- Their parents felt so strongly that they were not secondary modern material that they managed to get them into a grammar school as late entries. The individual I spoke to was 13 when he made this change. I don't know whether it was the policy of his local authority to offer a 13 plus exam. It is a term I knew so maybe it wasn't uncommon, although few seemed to take advantage of it.
Comprehensive education, the levelling of society
The solution to all these problems was to abolish secondary modern schools in favour of comprehensive schools.