I attended a Secondary Modern from 1969-1974 in a small town about an hour from London (I can obviously provide specific details, but you ask for such details to be omitted[Ed: Yes, thanks). The Grammar School was in the next door town, and pupils there were picked up at various points round my town by a school bus. We, on the other hand, simply walked or cycled to the Secondary Modern- which was situated in the middle of a relatively new Council Estate.
It’s important to remember that, back in the 1950s when the estate and the school were on the drawing board, council housing had a very different image to how it tends to be seen today. Owner occupation was much less common. Back then council housing was almost aspirational – certainly a lot of people wanted a council house to get out of inadequate (or war damaged) private rented stock, and estates weren’t, originally, one class communities.
So I don’t blame the planners for putting the school where they did. But, nonetheless, things began to change and a school with a ‘distant from the gates’ entry criteria when situated in the middle of a Council Estate was always going to have an unbalanced intake. It wasn’t so much that kids from the estate went off to the Grammar- precious few of them made it through the 11+ - it was that negligible numbers of middle class kids from outside the estate ended up at the school. To make matters more challenging still for the staff it was a town with a Military base: this meant that a sizeable minority of children had to move every time their fathers got a new posting so the school had a highish turnover.
It was seen as fairly natural that I’d end up at this school. I was, after all, the child of unskilled manual working parents living a few hundred yards from the edge of the estate,. By the time I left it had been open for 10 years- that’s 1800 children who went through it. I was the 4th to get to university. That’s a university entry rate of 0.2% - and in the late sixties and early seventies, precisely the time of the vast expansion of Higher Education.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising- the curriculum was destined to prepare us for the work of manual work most of us were deemed to be destined for. Compulsory woodwork and metal work till one was 14, and even if one dropped those subjects then there was a rule you had to keep up Technical Drawing (god help us!) instead. The year above me was the first one to experience the raising of the school leaving age to 16- before that the number of ‘big kids’ in the 5th form thinned out radically after Easter as only about 40-50% bothered to stay long enough to actually sit any exams. Naturally, there was no 6th Form.
This meant that when I – and only 4 other kids from my year – decided we wanted to stay in school to do A levels we had to transfer to what had been the Grammar school but was now, suddenly, rebranded as a 6th Form college. It was still the Grammar school of course - all the same staff, all the same compulsory Latin & CCF for the younger kids etc - it just had taken additional pupils into the 6th Form and stopped taking children at 11 so the lower school was missing its first year of entry. Institutional change happens slowly in education. This experience gives me the chance to share my biggest insight into the nature of Secondary Modern Education.
For five years at the Secondary Modern I had sat through the summer end of term assemblies. These followed a format which I suspect is still repeated in most schools – a formal goodbye to the cohort that is leaving, some celebration of successes and an upbeat account of the positives things the school wishes for the departees in the future. For five years the successes paraded before me at Secondary Modern end of term assemblies were the kids who had got ‘good’ apprenticeships- generally in electrical or mechanical engineering. Each boy who had achieved this was brought to the front and the whole school invited to applaud them. This was success. The assembly then tended to end with a stern lecture from the local beat Bobbie warning the rest of us not to get into trouble with the law over the long summer before us.
At the end of my lower 6th year in the ‘not-quite-ex-Grammar-school’ a similar event was staged. In outline it followed much the same format. But there were two big differences:
• It wasn’t thought necessary to get plod to warn Grammar school kids against breaking the law.
• The successes paraded before us were the young people who had got into Oxbridge.
This is a true story. I don’t think I’ve let time embellish it. For me, it is a perfect encapsulation of what was wrong with selective education. It bred diminished expectations of oneself – and reflected the diminished expectations the education system had for most young people, most of the time. There you were at 11, separated into sheep and goats and it took a huge effort of will, or, like me, being a statistical fluke, to buck your fate after that.
I say this without any animus against the staff or my fellow pupils at my Secondary Modern. Most of us, staff and pupils alike, did our best most of the time. But the system was unquestionably stacked against us.
These days I’m in my mid-fifties and the Chair of Governors at my children’s secondary school. It’s a Comp. Naturally. Where else would I send them?
My Secondary Modern failed of course. It was formally closed and re-opened with another name, a new head and another set of governance arrangements at some point in the 1980s or 1990s. It went co-ed. It is now formally a Comprehensive. But it still sits in the middle of the same Council estate, and it still takes kids on a ‘distance from school gates’ basis. So it’s been in and out of special measures ever since.
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