Secondary Modern

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Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright

Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright

Michael Rosen and Emma-Louise Williams explain the background to their website, Sec Mod, which is collecting memories of education at secondary modern schools in Britain.

Michael Rosen writes:

I came to this subject in several ways: personally, my educational experience began when I was three in 1949, so I hit the 11-plus in 1956-57. I passed and went first to Harrow Weald County Grammar School and then (because we moved when I was sixteen) to Watford Boys’ Grammar School. I thought that I would fail but my mother (who was a primary school teacher) assured me that I wouldn’t because the headteacher had told her that I wouldn’t! At the time this seemed odd. She explained to me several years later that that is what primary school headteachers did. They had the ultimate say-so on who would pass. The visible display of that at my school was one girl who came to school on ‘results day’, clearly and obviously having failed. She was someone who had always finished in the ‘top half’ of the top stream in primary school. I remember our class teacher saying something reassuring to the girl on ‘results day’. On the first day of Year One, I saw her in her grammar school uniform.

In short, this 11-plus exam wasn’t quite the meritocratic, objective test it was made out to be.

Woman: ‘In my last year at school we had to choose whether we wanted to go in the class that lead us onto a nursing career or a class for those interested in office/secretarial work. The two other streams were for the least able pupils. I neither wanted to be a nurse (we had been shown around the local hospital to see tape worms in jars, etc) or work in an office. I suppose I must have plumped for the office option as I remember sitting at a desk with a typewriter.

‘I left school in 1967 at the tender age of fifteen years and three months without any qualifications and got a job as an office junior. As a young mother in my early twenties I studied with the Open University. Thank God for Jenny Lee!’

My other reason is political. My parents were active in the movement to bring about comprehensive education. I was surrounded from an early age with debates about the validity (or not) of IQ testing, streaming, segregation of children at eleven, the predictive value of tests at eleven on children’s outcomes at fifteen, sixteen, eighteen and so on.

So, for many years I have been curious about what went on at the schools where some of my friends went, what happened to them after they left, how they view the relationship between their schools, their later lives, people who passed and so on. Quite simply, I don’t know, and in that sense I’m part of the problem! A 1950s grammar school boy like me doesn’t know what it felt like to have been a sec mod boy or girl of that time, and as an adult now I don’t know how my contemporaries feel about it all.

Miss Williams says that only the top two rows

will pass their Eleven Plus.

She stands next to the last person on the

end of the second row.

She holds up her hand as if

she is helping people cross the road.

This side will pass, she says.

This side will fail, she says.

‘The Bell’ in ‘Michael Rosen’s Big Book of Bad Things (Puffin, 2010)

Emma-Louise Williams writes:

My dad failed the 11-plus. When I was a child, I remember him telling us that when his younger brother passed the exam, he got a bike. My dad didn’t get the bike. He went to a sec mod in Kenton, Harrow, left at fifteen to go to technical college. He became an apprentice, a draughtsman, ran his own business and is now a specialised form of surveyor. I have never thought of him as being less able or less skilled than anyone else, but I wonder how he perceives himself. I should add that my experience of studying in Germany in the late 1980s showed me that people pursuing technical and vocational courses were valued as much as my German friends following more academic courses.

My mum came from a working-class family (her father worked on the tugs on the River Thames) and she passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school in 1955.

I went to a comprehensive school.

This one family history expresses an intersection of some of the themes running through post-war English education.

As a radio producer, I have had the feeling that this subject still hasn’t been heard and I would really like to be the one to make that radio programme.

Education is an aspect of our collective past that seems strangely absent from narratives about how we have lived.


Stories of schooling appear in individual biographies and an account of government legislation appears in accounts of decades and eras. Missing from either is a sense of what it was collectively like to have experienced a particular kind of schooling. The two exceptions are accounts of life in the large private schools and, more recently, stories of life in the grammar schools of the 1950s and 60s. In themselves, there is of course nothing wrong with these, but highly selective view of the past has led to the construction of a particular ideology on the back of these stories: private education was ultimately a ‘good thing’ no matter what individual privations may or may not have been suffered by (in particular) boy boarders; grammar schools were a good thing both in themselves because they provided a ‘good education’ and because working-class children in particular benefited from them.

Both these ideas can be contested. Post-war grammar school education was in many places seriously deficient in how it approached science and technology, and the education of the working class cannot be told in its entirety as a story of what happened to those working-class children who found their way into grammar schools. It should also be said here that the classification of children as ‘working class’ in this period is beset with many problems that don’t show up on the scales that were used at the time. Brian Jackson’s study Education and the Working Class (now available as an ebook) drew particular attention to the invisibility of the education of working-class children’s parents. He pointed out that one parent, often the mother, was often of educated origin, and that fathers had often experienced an ‘invisible’ form of education through trade union or political activity.

However, the major gap in all this is the story of the secondary modern school. To recap, in 1944 the ‘Butler Act’ as it came to be known, or the 1944 Education Act brought in the ‘tripartite system’ in England and Wales. This divided schools in to grammar, technical and secondary modern. In their last year at primary school, when the children were aged ten-eleven, all children in state schools would sit an exam, which came to be known as the 11-plus, which would decide the type of school that the children would go to. The exams consisted of three elements: maths, English and a form of IQ test. Those that averaged a pass would go to the grammar school. Those that failed would go to the secondary modern (or ‘sec mod’ as they came to be known) and some children who were borderline or deemed to be of a particularly technical bent, would go to the technical schools.

Brass Band in a Secondary Modern School. Crown copyright

Brass Band in a Secondary Modern School. Crown copyright

As it panned out (and there are very interesting historical reasons for this) the technical schools never really got off the ground. They morphed into technical colleges that accepted students at fifteen or sixteen rather than at eleven. The history of how these technical colleges at first provided a high level of qualification for many sec mod students and some grammar school students – all of whom were mostly of working-class origin – has never really been told. We’ll leave that to one side for the moment.

So the failures at 11-plus went to the sec mods. Instantly there were problems with this. Education was controlled at the local level through local education authorities. Different local authorities provided different percentages of places. One area might only allow for a 10 per cent pass rate. Another over 30 per cent. All local authorities aimed to provide equal numbers of places for boys and girls. However, more girls than boys usually passed. What followed was in essence a fiddle. A percentage of the girls who passed the 11-plus were retrospectively deemed to have failed, and sent to the sec mod. A percentage of boys who failed were nevertheless sent to the grammar school.

Woman: ‘When I “failed” the 11th plus I felt sad. When the head showed me my result on a print out and told me that had I been a boy, I would have gone, I felt sadder. He said he could intervene but felt I would do better being at the top of a set rather than the bottom. In a way he was right but to this day I still feel inferior.’

The education in the two institutions – grammar and sec mod – was very different. Before the days of a national curriculum or indeed any fixed idea of a universal national entitlement, the curriculum was worked out by dint of a matching of government ‘reports’ or commissions, the government inspectorate, the exam system, local authority inspectors and teachers themselves. Grammar schools were largely ruled downwards, starting with an intention to get as many people as possible through A-levels and, before that, O-levels. These exams structured education both in terms of the curriculum and how it was taught back down the school from the O-levels down to the first year (the present Year 7).

Woman: ‘I was told if I did well enough and came top in the end of year exams I might be moved to the grammar school.

‘I worked hard and got really good marks in all my tests, except for needlework where I was second from bottom and art where I came bottom of the class. I came top in maths, science, French etc. There was nothing to be done I couldn’t be moved.’

Secondary modern schools were a different matter entirely. Some were streamed, some weren’t. Most children left before taking O-levels. Some had a top stream, which encouraged children to take one or some O-levels. Small groups of students made their way into grammar schools, post-sixteen if they had passed sufficient numbers of O-levels. In some areas the number of the students doing those rose year on year, thereby showing that the segregation at eleven was seriously faulty.

However, the question remains: what was taught in secondary modern schools to students aged between eleven and fifteen (which was the school-leaving age until 1972)? How was it taught? By whom? But of course schools aren’t solely a matter of what is taught. They are institutions governed by rules, overseen by an implicit ideology or ethos. What were the explicit and implicit rules? And what did it feel like to be in such schools for six hours a day – as a pupil, as a boy, as a girl? As a teacher? As a school worker?

How did it feel to be a sec mod student or adult in the neighbourhood? Was it like being a member of a caste or class? What was it like to be in a family group where some went to grammar school, some to a sec mod?

And what was it like to go through life after a sec mod career? Did it mark you out? Did such people find that they were deficient in certain ways or was that just a perception by others? Or both?

Woman: ‘I don’t actually remember taking my 11+. What I do remember was being called to the girls’ grammar school for an interview because I was “borderline” the interview was terrifying. Four very stern women kept asking me what I wanted to do when I left school. I was really very uncertain but thought I might want to be a teacher! That was obviously the wrong answer. I remember a letter coming addressed to my mother. She opened it in my presence, and I learnt I had failed to achieve a place at the girl’s grammar because, “I was uncertain about my long-term future, and what I wanted to be”. I felt angry having got to an interview and then being rejected, but even then I knew deep down a girls’ grammar was not for me. No one in my family had ever got beyond secondary modern school so why should I be any different? was the thought going through my head. My family were not bothered one way or the other.’

So there are many questions here and behind them all we might ask ourselves, why should this matter? Two answers come to mind: the first is that this isn’t some over-specialised subject confined to a tiny clique of people. A very large majority of people who went to school between the time of the 1944 Act and around 1970 went to sec mods. This was the majority’s experience of secondary education. This means that most people born in England and Wales between the early 1930s and around 1960 experienced this kind of education. How extraordinary that this huge body of social history remains hidden from view.

The other answer concerns the here and now. Major reforms are taking place in education. Grammar schools have remained in several localities but the major restructuring taking place concerns the slow death of local control and local accountability. Schools are becoming (or told to become) academies. These have a new and special status governed by new rules and controlled from the national centre by the Secretary of State for Education. A new kind of autonomy is coming into play that may well involve subtle and covert methods of selection. The exact nature of these has yet to be determined. However, there has been a steady stream of comment and policy from the centre that has claimed that comprehensive schools were faulty in many different ways (they say), but mostly because they enacted postcode selection and lacked ‘specialism’. Academies, they say, will avoid postcode selection and their specialisms will offer ‘real choice’. Meanwhile, many commentators and politicians talk up ‘the grammar school’.

In this context, we think there is an urgency about releasing the story of the sec mods. This is not just a matter of getting the stats out. Halsey, Floud et al did that admirably in their famous studies of inequality in the late 1950s.1 It’s also a matter of ‘felt’ history, the collective subjectivities of lives lived, both in the schools but subsequently. ‘Out there’, there are hundreds of thousands of people who experienced this. People who are now aged between their late forties and eighties. With this in mind we have set up a sec mod blog with a view to beginning a collection of testimonies.  We are asking people to send in their memories and accounts of attending or teaching at secondary modern schools to the blogspot.  There is a selection of the contributions that we’ve already received within this article.

Man: ‘Many of my junior cohorts, well, the boys that is, were also destined for the sec mod school. Thus we all ended up one September morning nervously filing into what seemed a very large hall. The building was pre-war and low level. There was a main entrance in the centre and two large squares of classrooms led off from this, one side for boys, the other for girls. Our entrance being at the extreme edge of the square and as far from the girls as could be arranged and never the twain did meet. There were roughly 450 boys in our school. Classes were streamed by ability, the G stream being the top or most academic and a lower strata or T stream, not sure what the T stood for, Technical perhaps? Bullying was a massive problem. There was a north playground, which was for first years only, and was strongly segregated for our own protection. There was a humiliating ritual called ‘The Block’, and older boys would pass in the corridor and ask if we had been ‘blocked’ yet. Blocking consisted of a public beating while hung face down over the low walls which separated the class room corridors and surrounded the square of the senior playground’

We are fully aware that this is only one method of collecting views of these experiences and such a self-selecting group of people are governed by important factors: they are literate, have access to the internet, are interested enough to want to put their experience in the public domain and so on. To get a fuller more multi-dimensional view, we will have to compensate for such biases by, for example, seeking out testimony from non- or semi-literate people, people without computers, people who might be disinclined to volunteer their experience without a face-to-face encounter with someone who is interested (i.e., one of us) and so on.

The ultimate aim is to turn these testimonies (or something like them) into, let’s say, a book or some other media intervention (film, TV programme or radio programme).

In the meantime, there is a good deal of legwork to be done!

Dr Michael Rosen is Visiting Professor of Children’s Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.
Michael is a former Children’s Laureate and son of educationists, Professor Harold Rosen and Connie Rosen. He presents Word of Mouth for BBC Radio 4.

Emma-Louise Williams is a radio producer whose work has been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and includes social histories of speedway (The Smell of the Shale), topical songwriters, Weston and Lee, (Oh, My What a Rotten Song), and socio-poetic montages about the city (Eye Hopes), and separated teenagers seeking asylum (A Place for Us).
In 2011 Emma made a feature-length film-poem Under the Cranes, based on Michael Rosen’s play for voices, Hackney Streets.


1. Floud, Jean and Halsey, A.H. (1957) ‘Intelligence tests, social class and selection for secondary schools’, The British Journal of Sociology Vol 8 No 1. March 1957; Floud, J.E. (ed.), Halsey, A.H., Martin, F.M. (1956) Social Class and Educational Opportunity, Heinemann, London.