Secondary modern school

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Frank Montgomery School, Sturry, Kent, a secondary modern school

A secondary modern school is a type of secondary school that once existed throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, from 1944 until the 1970s under the Tripartite System and still persist in Northern Ireland, where they are usually referred to simply as Secondary schools, and in areas of England, such as Buckinghamshire (where they are referred to as community schools), Lincolnshire, Wirral Medway and Kent where they are called high schools.[1]

Secondary modern schools were designed for the majority of pupils between 11 and 15. Those who achieved the highest scores in the 11-plus, were allowed to go a selective grammar school which offered education beyond 15. They were replaced in most of the UK by the Comprehensive School system, when the government issued Circular 10/65 then Circular 10/68.


The origin of the tripartite system of streaming children of presumed different intellectual ability into different schools has its origin in the Education Act 1918 (8 & 9 Geo. V c. 39), often known as the Fisher Act, drawn up by Herbert Fisher. This established three levels of secondary school in England and Wales, academic grammar schools for pupils deemed likely to go on to study at university, central schools which provided artisan and trade training, as well as homemaking skills for girls, and secondary schools which provided a basic secondary education.

The 1944 Butler Education Act developed this system so that children were tested and streamed into the renamed grammar, technical and secondary modern schools at the age of eleven. In practice few technical schools were created, and most technical and central schools, such as Frank Montgomery School in Kent, became secondary modern schools. As a result, the tripartite system was in effect a bipartite system in which children who passed the eleven-plus examination were sent to grammar schools and those who failed the test were sent to secondary modern schools.

At a secondary modern school pupils would receive training in a wide range of simple, practical skills. The purpose of this education was to focus on training in basic subjects, such as arithmetic, mechanical skills such as woodworking, and domestic skills, such as cookery. In an age before the advent of the National Curriculum, the specific subjects taught were chosen by the individual schools, but the curriculum at the Frank Montgomery School in Kent was stated as including, 'practical education, such as cookery, laundry, gardening, woodwork, metalwork and practical geography'.[2]

The first secondary moderns were created by converting about three thousand Senior Elementary schools, as well as central schools, which previously had offered a continuation of primary education to the age of 14, into separate institutions. Many more were built between the end of World War II and 1965, in an effort to provide universal secondary education.

Tri-partite system[edit]

The 11-plus was employed to stream children into Grammar Schools, Technical Schools (which existed only in some regions) and Secondary Modern Schools. Claims that the 11-plus was biased in favour of middle-class children remain controversial. However, strong evidence exists that the outcome of streaming was that, overwhelmingly, grammar schools were attended by middle-class children while secondary modern schools were attended by working-class children.[3][4][5]

The most academically able of students in secondary modern schools found that their potential progression to university and advanced post-secondary studies was constrained by limitations within their schools, the wider educational system and access to higher external examinations.[3][6]

The 'baby boomer' generation was particularly affected during the period 1957 to 1970 because grammar-school places had not been sufficiently increased to accommodate the large bulge in student numbers which entered secondary schools during this period.[3][6] As a result, cut-off standards on the Eleven Plus Examination for entry into grammar schools rose and many students who would, in earlier years, have been streamed into grammar schools were instead sent to secondary modern schools.[3]

Although the Butler Act planned a parity of esteem between this and the other sections of the tripartite system, in practice the secondary modern came to be seen as the school for failures. Those who had "failed" their eleven plus were sent there to learn rudimentary skills before advancing to factory or menial jobs. Secondary moderns prepared students for the CSE examination, rather than the more prestigious O level, and although training for the latter was established in later years, fewer than one in ten students took advantage of it. Secondary moderns did not offer schooling for the A level, and in 1963, for instance, only 318 former secondary-modern pupils sat A levels. None went on to university.

Grammar schools were generally funded at a higher per-student level than secondary modern schools.[7] Secondary moderns were generally deprived of both resources and good teachers.[8] The Newsom Report of 1963 reported on education for these children, and found that in some schools in slum areas of London 15-year-old pupils were sitting on furniture intended for primary schools. Staff turnover was high and continuity in teaching minimal. Not all secondary moderns were as bad, but they did generally suffer from neglect by authorities.

The interaction of the outcome of 11-plus streaming (middle class into grammar schools and working class into secondary modern schools) and better funding of grammar schools produced the result that middle-class children experienced better resourced schools offering superior future educational and vocational options while working-class children experienced comparatively inferior schools offering more limited prospects for educational and vocational progress. This reinforced class divisions in subsequent vocational achievement and earning potential.[9]


Although most students sent to secondary modern schools experienced the negative consequences of lower per-student funding than that enjoyed by grammar-school students, there existed a segment of the population of students in secondary modern schools that was particularly disadvantaged in the extent to which their schools could equip them to reach their full educational potential. This group consisted of the most academically able of students within the secondary modern system. The capacity of secondary modern schools to offer the best possible education to these students was limited by several factors:

  • Secondary modern schools were less disposed than grammar schools to promote school cultures favouring academic achievement. In their original conception secondary modern schools 'were to be shielded from the stultifying effects of external examinations'[10] with students having no access to GCE O Levels or other external examinations. Even though, during the 1950s, some secondary modern schools started to prepare their higher level students for GCE O Levels, the schools retained cultures which were more relaxed with respect to academic achievement than those fostered by grammar schools.
  • Secondary modern schools were far less inclined than grammar schools to encourage aspirations of student progression to advanced post-secondary and university education. While some secondary modern schools hoped that a proportion of students in their top classes might obtain reasonable results in GCE O Levels, there was rarely, if ever, a notion that a student might progress to A Levels. Further, for a student to profess a desire to undertake university studies would have been considered unrealistic and pretentious.
  • Secondary modern schools provided limited access to GCE O Levels and no access to GCE A Levels.
  • Inadequate provision was made for secondary modern students who performed well in GCE O Levels to articulate their studies to A Levels. During the 1950s and early 1960s, grammar schools would commonly not accept entry by secondary modern students who had done well in O Levels and who wished to study for A Levels.[3][5] Such students had to leave the school system and enrol at post-secondary institutions (generally for part-time, evening study). Accordingly, once a student had been streamed into a secondary modern school, irrespective of the student's level of success in GCE O Levels, the student faced enormous challenges in attempting to progress to GCE A Levels and beyond to university. There is limited information available as to why the Tripartite System showed inflexibility in this respect. There is also limited information as to how many secondary modern students, who performed well in GCE O Levels, were subsequently frustrated in attempting to progress to A Levels and beyond.

One writer on the experience of being an academically able pupil in a secondary modern school, Michael Paraskos, claimed 'You knew you were a failure from day one. Because they told you! So they weren't pleasant places to be if you were into art, or books, or anything like that'.[11] Paraskos also claimed in The Guardian that those who attend secondary modern schools 'are condemned to a lifetime of social exclusion and crippling self-doubt.'[12]

According to Anthony Sampson, in his book Anatomy of Britain (1965), there were structural problems within the testing process that underpinned the eleven plus which meant it tended to result in secondary modern schools being overwhelmingly dominated by the children of poor and working-class parents, while grammar schools were dominated by the children of wealthier middle-class parents.[13]

In the 1960s there was increasing criticism of the limitations imposed on students within secondary modern schools flowing from political pressure from increasing numbers of middle-class parents of 'baby boomer' children who did not obtain admission to grammar schools[6] and evidence that students from secondary modern schools who took GCE O Levels were increasingly achieving results comparable to those being achieved by students from grammar schools (a remarkable finding given the disadvantages, discussed above, of secondary modern schools compared to grammar schools)[6][14]

Movement towards a comprehensive system[edit]

Further, the failure of secondary modern schools generally to equip the ‘submerged three quarters’ of British schoolchildren to realise their full potential led to calls for reform. Experiments with Comprehensive Schools began in the 1950s, hoping to provide an education that would offer greater opportunities for those who did not enter grammar schools. Several counties, such as Leicestershire, eliminated their secondary moderns altogether. In 1965, the Labour government issued Circular 10/65, implementing the Comprehensive System. By 1976, with the exception of a few regions, such as Kent, Dorset, Buckinghamshire, Stoke, Slough, the Wirral and Ripon, secondary modern schools had been formally phased out.

Secondary modern schools today[edit]

In counties still operating a selective system, there are still 130 schools fulfilling the role of the secondary modern by taking those pupils who do not get into grammar schools.[15] These schools may be known colloquially (though not officially) as high schools (Medway and Trafford), upper schools (Buckinghamshire), all-ability or non-selective schools.

The term secondary modern has completely disappeared in the naming of schools, although in 2013 the National Association of Secondary Moderns (NASM) was founded by Ian Widdows, Headteacher at the Giles Academy in Boston, Lincolnshire. The organisation represents non-selective schools in selective areas[15] and has held annual conferences since it was founded, the first in Peterborough in 2014 followed by a second in London in 2015 and a third at the QEII Centre in London on 28 April 2016. The 2016 event included speeches from Shadow Secretary of State for Education Lucy Powell, Tim Leunig from the Department for Education, National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter, Steve Besley from Pearson, and Mike Treadaway from FFT.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Weale, Sally (8 September 2016). "Kent children sit 11-plus as government plans new grammar schools". Guardian. Guardian Newspaper. Retrieved 8 September 2016. 
  2. ^ Dover Express (UK newspaper), 5 July 1935
  3. ^ a b c d e Hart, R.A., Moro M., Roberts J.E., 'Date of birth, family background, and the 11 plus exam: short- and long-term consequences of the 1944 secondary education reforms in England and Wales’, Stirling Economics Discussion Paper 2012-10 May 2012 pp. 6 to 25.
  4. ^ Sumner, C., ‘1945 – 1965: The Long Road to Circular 10/65’, Reflecting Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, April 2010, p.97.
  5. ^ a b Sampson, A., ‘ Anatomy of Britain Today’, Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, pp.194–195
  6. ^ a b c d Ford, J., 'Social Class and the Comprehensive School', Volume 233, Routeledge and Kegan Paul 2006, pp. 4–16. 29 January 1998 | ISBN 0415177723 | ISBN 978-0415177726
  7. ^ Brooks, V., 'Role of External Examinations in the Making of Secondary Modern Schools in England 1945–65', 2008, doi:10.1080/00467600600909892
  8. ^ Newsom, J., 'Half our future', A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education, London: HM Stationery Office, 1963
  9. ^ Hart, R.A., Moro M., Roberts J.E., 'Date of birth, family background, and the 11 plus exam: short- and long-term consequences of the 1944 secondary education reforms in England and Wales', Stirling Economics Discussion Paper 2012-10 May 2012 pp. 24–25.
  10. ^ Ministry of Education, New Secondary Education, 4, p.46
  11. ^ Panayides, Theo (8 April 2016). "Sensitive, creative, heart on sleeve". The Cyprus Mail. Nicosia. 
  12. ^ "Letters". The Guardian. London. 20 October 2015. 
  13. ^ Sampson, A. Anatomy of Britain Today, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, p.195
  14. ^ Gillard, D., ‘Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England's schools’, (2008) (see the section ‘1945-1960: Doubts and concerns’)
  15. ^ a b Stewart, William (31 January 2015). "Secondary moderns fight back as clamour for grammars grows". TES - Times Education Supplement. London. Retrieved 16 April 2016. 

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