Sunday, 13 October 2013

Half our Future? Secondary Modern Schools and the Newsom Report - fifty years on

Professor Gary McCulloch is Head of Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Institute of Education, University of London. His principle interests are in the history of education, including curriculum history, the history of secondary education, the history of teachers and teaching, the history of educational policy, historical perspectives on current educational issues, historical theory and methodology relating to education, and documentary research methods.

Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright
Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright

In an article that Gary McCulloch and Liz Sobell published in 1994, ‘Toward a social history of the secondary modern schools’ (History of Education,1994,Vol 23, no. 3, 275-286), the authors pointed out how little attention had been given to Secondary Modern education. They indicated possible future lines of enquiry, such as how gender figured in these schools, how pupils’ families related to the schools, and called for any analysis to be put within the contexts of social stratification and the ‘tripartite system’ . They pointed out that the 1944 settlement established this system in the institutions which the Act set up - Secondary Modern, Grammar and Technical schools - but that the notion that students aged 11 can (or should) be divided up in this way precedes 1944 and persists today. In relation to social stratification, are explicit and implicit ideas about ‘working-class’ education.

Again, these ideas precede the Secondary Modern era, run throughout it and continue today. Studies in this area range across the psychometrics of eg Cyril Burt et al; the monumental reports of eg Crowther and Newsom; Brian Jackson’s sociological study of one grammar school; the historical accounts of eg Harold Silver; Floud and Halsey’s celebrated studies in inequality; fly on the wall explorations by eg Phil Cohen; the political analyses of eg Brian Simon, Ken Jones. The sociolinguistic work of Basil Bernstein and William Labov arrived at very different conclusions on the part played by the ‘home’ language of young people. Meanwhile, what might be called the ‘Bourdieu tradition’ reversed the whole view by asking what is it about the nature of education that appears to suit some social layers more than others. This analysis has been attacked by the Right, sometimes drawing particularly on the ideas of E.D.Hirsch whilst bringing to an end the era of local control of schooling on the grounds that it ‘failed’.

Did it? And if it sometimes did, as Gary McCulloch’s own work as in ‘Failing the Ordinary Child’ (1998) suggests, was the problem with the local control or with national implementation of ideas about adolescence, intelligence, language, social class and the ‘needs of society’ - a notion often reduced to the ‘needs of employers’?

In all this, the voices of pupils, parents and teachers in Secondary Modern Schools have been mostly absent. So, we return to the opening lines of McCulloch’s and Sobell’s article of 1994:

“Surprisingly little attention has been given to secondary modern schools. It is clear that there has been much greater interest in grammar and public schools than for the secondary modern schools, which catered in their time, only a generation ago, for the large majority of the 11-15 age group.”

Gary McCulloch has very kindly written the following introductory notes for our Sec Mod blog. 


Half our Future?  Secondary modern schools and the Newsom Report – fifty years on

October 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Newsom Report, Half our Future, which examined what it called ‘the education of pupils aged 13 to 16 of average and less than average ability’.  The Report tried hard to keep well clear of the debates about comprehensive reorganisation that we then being rehearsed widely.  Yet it was highly relevant to pupils in the secondary modern schools where the so-called ‘ordinary child’ was usually taught.  According to this Report, the characteristic problems of educating such pupils could not be solved through administrative changes, but needed to more basic change in attitudes about educability.  In this spirit, it supported the raising of the school leaving age to sixteen – still a controversial proposal nearly twenty years after it had been endorsed by the Education Act of 1944.

There is some useful literature about the secondary modern schools and its pupils.  My own contributions have tried to show the links between the secondary modern schools and the changing educational, social and political context.  My book Failing The Ordinary Child? (1998) examined these schools as an example of working class secondary education.  A new book, written by myself with my colleagues Tom Woodin and Steve Cowan, looks at the raising of the school leaving age (Secondary Education and the Raising of the School Leaving Age, 2013).  I have also written articles that are relevant to these issues in History of Education (with Liz Sobell, 1994) and the Journal of Educational Administration and History (2000).  What we still lack, though, is a social history of these schools that brings out the everyday experiences of pupils and teachers. [Our italics]

Again a good starting point for such a history is the Newsom Report of 1963.  For the purposes of the Report a national sample was taken that provided over 6,000 pen-portraits of 14-year-old boys and girls, a cross-section of all pupils in these schools.  There were 3,668 secondary modern schools in England at this time, more than two-thirds of all secondary schools.  This survey gives us some help in beginning to reconstruct the experiences of pupils in these schools.  A collection of oral and written testimonies from teachers and pupils, highlighting memories of these schools from those most closely involved, would be a wonderful resource as a basis for a social history schools which is sorely needed, and a great contribution to a fuller understanding.  I look forward to seeing the results of this new enterprise looking back on the secondary modern schools, fifty years on.

Gary McCulloch
Institute of Education London


  1. Having passed for the grammar school but ending up in the sec modern I never really settled . again at 13 passed but still wasnt allowed to go. Dropped out of school without being noticed and still ended up in the 'A' Stream was glad to leave at 15 and get a proper education as it was assumes that we could do farming or an apprenticeship and not go into a profession. Hated it !!!

  2. Was it home or school preventing your from transferring to grammar school? You don't have to answer that if you'd rather not. Emma Williams

  3. Where I grew up, all secondary schools were new and bilateral - commercial/modern or grammar/modern. It was possibly to move between streams within a school, as I did from "intermediate" to "grammar".

  4. Children who failed the 11 plus felt stigmatised and second class. We went to secondary modern schools. The curriculum was to provide basic tuition. We were to be the cleaners, shop assistants and factory workers. I girl who wanted to be a nurse told her teacher and the teacher said, 'you can't be a nurse'. I was told by a teacher that I would have passed the English GCE but was never put in for it. As almost all secondary modern pupils I left school with no qualifications at all. Later I went on to further education and got 7 'O' levels and 2 'A' levels. During a sociology class we watched the BBC series The New Jerusalem about planning for health, housing and education after the second world war. During the series about education a clip was shown of a minister for education visiting a secondary modern school and saying to a girl 'you do not want GCE's do you Janet'. I was horrified. The education ministry of the time did not want secondary modern pupils to take GCE's. We were failed by the system and this was deliberate. It was unforgivable. I was appalled to see that UKIP want to bring back selection and a 3 tiered education system. I would hate to see a system brought back that failed thousands of children in the past.

  5. I recently celebrated my 69th birthday and have been reflecting on my life in the form of a scrapbook; writing about my upbringing, school, working years etc. Whilst compiling memorabilia and photos for this project I realized that unbeknownst to me, for years I have withheld giving any information pertaining to my school years to anyone but never knew why. I was always under the impression that I had completed the required years of education, and even took an "extended" course in typing, successfully landing an office job immediately after simply walking out of the school gate for the last time. A few years later I married and emigrated to the U.S.A. I had two daughters and as they grew older I re-entered the workforce at which time I also decided I wanted to further my education. Feeling somewhat smug at the prospect, after all, I excelled at various subjects in secondary school: I could read and write by the time I entered infant school, had excellent penmanship which had earned me a certificate and an italic pen as a prize, had excellent reading skills, and also possessed a certificate of excellence in embroidery. In fact I felt quite confident when I first strutted in for an interview at a local community college. The first blow was when I was asked for my high school transcripts. My heart sank and the shattering truth was realized in that I was not going to be accepted. I remember going home and thinking that for 1) I never attended high school like the american children did - I attended a "secondary" school, and 2) I did not have any document, except for a couple of torn report cards, to even show that I had ever attended ANY school. Needless to say I never went back to the college, but still with some optimism I sent a couple of letters to the County Council where I had attended school requesting information for proof of my attendance, and even had the gall to ask for documentation that I had completed school, which were totally dismissed. I felt cheated whenever anyone would talk to me about my educational experience, as it was considered with my current employment, that surely I was not a "drop-out." It then occurred to me that it was looked upon as though I had not "graduated," so from that time on I found myself cleverly changing the subject with feeble humor never again disclosing my age of "completing" school. Over the years I did manage to maintain gainful employment by taking courses to upgrade my skills in a local business school, and also receiving on-the-job training to keep me abreast of required job qualifications. I do NOT remember taking the 11+ exam (I didn't even know it had a name), but it has been embedded in my brain and has haunted me for all of these years that I failed a test in school when I was quite young that obviously dictated whether I would be offered the opportunity to further my education in a positive way, or rather be stifled educationally due to failing an obvious flawed exam at the tender age of 10, which favored from what I've been reading, children from a more affluent background than myself, that environment was also a factor, and yes, could it have also been because I was female? A couple of years ago I asked a close friend of mine who resides in England if she remembered anything about taking a test when we were very young, and she did. She even offered a little extra information that made me cringe even more, informing me that we left at the age of fifteen, whereas I was under the impression we were the ripe old age of sixteen. Then one day I googled "Tests given at school in the 1950's in England," and I was absolutely astounded to read some of the material regarding the educational system at that particular time depicting evidence of "pollution" as far as the scoring system. I do feel comfort in that obviously there are many other "victims" out there bearing this emotional scar from years ago. How AWESOME that this period will go down in the history books.