Thursday, 2 February 2012

First, thanks for starting this site. It really is amazing how rarely one hears the voice of any Secondary Modern educated person in a contemporary debate about education. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that anyone under 40 now has only the very haziest idea of what they were. People have been fed the lie that Comprehensive Schools replaced Grammar Schools alone. So we get an endless repetition of the assertion that ’Grammar Schools encouraged social mobility’ – which they most certainly didn’t – and Comprehensive schools closed down opportunities for ‘bright, hardworking’ children of manual workers. This is the polar opposite of what I know to be the truth.
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.

Copyright 2012
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  1. Girls had even lower expectations thrust upon them. The highest aims we were chanelled into were nursing training or secretarial work, if you managed to pass your GCEs. I was at Sec Mod from 1958 to 1963, and was eventually considered to have done fairly well after a poor start, staying on for the extra year to take GCEs. In our school they did provide the facility for willing and able pupils to do this, without having to transfer to the grammar school. I hated school all the way through until that last year, when we were finally treated like sentient beings instead of creatures to be herded from one place to another and made to be silent and still in between. This is why I, and many of my generation, have no tolerance for the insolent behaviour that is so common in classrooms now. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and nobody wins either way.

    In my view, the only solution is that class sizes should be small, whichever school you are placed in - no more than ten pupils per teacher, and the teacher can then get to know the pupils properly so that a sensible decision can be made as to what routes they individually take in their future, taking into account latent talent, skills and potential. We are all different - some are happy to do something practical, we can't ignore that. Some children take longer to develop; when I first started school I was crippled by shyness and was not used to being in the company of large numbers of children, so learning was the last thing I did. By the time I was sixteen and had acquired enough confidence to be able to concentrate on my work, it was too late for the system. I started my real learning with the Open University years later, and I am still learning. After my degree I did qualify as a teacher, so for a short time I experienced what it was like on the other side of the battleground. I always suspected I had as much basic intelligence as any academic, but with no confidence at the right time, I had no way of knowing how to pursue that route and there was no support or information available for me to find out how I could go about it. I spent most of my working life frustrated in various offices, typing out other people's misspelt and badly worded correspondence. It's only now I'm retired I have reached anything near fulfilment, having the time to pursue what really interests me without consideration of having to earn a living. I don't think I am the only one of my generation.

  2. I went to a secondary modern from 1975 - 1982, except the head expected the most from us. I left with 4 A-levels and went on to do a degree. I'm now a children's author and teacher. Here on the Wirral we still have grammar schools which I wasn't clever enough to attend as a student but I'm now qualified to teach in... Don't start me.

  3. I have a masters degree, a post grad diploma, post grad cert, two technical college diplomas and a certificate; plus quite a few other qualifications taken over the years. I am also a member of ten institutes and associations and have won many awards; I was dux of one college. I also served 4years in the army reserve.
    I failed the eleven plus and received a miserable two O' levels at sixteen while attending a secondary modern school. When I left the UK forty-five years ago it was an opportunity to start over again. My school time spent in the UK was a profound disappointment and I suffered from under achievement - little was expected from me. At sixteen I was happy to leave a country where snobbery was rewarded and respected, to a land quite the opposite. Married now with daughters both of whom have masters degrees too, thankfully, they were never exposed to such a class-based educational and divisive system.