Grammars and Secondary Moderns

Oh no, not Grammar schools again! (

I know a bit about these, having been to one in the 1950s, and my father having been headmaster of an Essex Secondary Modern at the same time. I can confirm the sense of superiority it gave to us winners, and of failure felt by all the ‘losers’ – those who failed the ‘11+’ – which stayed with many of them throughout their lives. Those who ‘achieved’ in one way or another despite this were true heroes. That a small minority did, was no excuse for demoralising the rest.

Dad naturally went into secondary moderns as a teacher because he himself was of that class. That was despite his winning a scholarship to a grammar school (in Chelmsford), which gave him his first step up the class ladder. (That’s probably what the Tories mean when they claim that Grammar schools encourage ‘social mobility’.) But then he only took a teaching diploma and a London External degree. Heads of Grammar schools were expected to have been to university.

I got the impression he ran his school well and creatively, putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, for example, each year, and with some wonderful and inspiring teachers, many of whom who became my friends and mentors. Some of his pupils he managed to coach through the ‘13+’, a second chance of getting into a ‘good’ school. But the rest all knew they were ‘losers’. Most of them turned into ‘Essex girl’ and ‘Essex boy’, as we know them today.

I can’t see how you can have ‘selective’ schools without branding those who haven’t been selected as losers. The 11+ of course was a travesty as a true test of academic ability, skewed towards the middle classes and those whose parents could afford coaching, and based on very dodgy empirical evidence in any case. (Remember the Cyril Burt ‘IQ Test’ scandal?) It was obvious to all of us at the time – winners as well as losers – that it was actually intended to categorise and separate children by class. My parents didn’t want me sitting at a desk beside a lorry-driver’s boy. (No girls, at my school.) Which is why I’m not sure how Education Secretary Justine Greening’s idea to force her new Grammar schools to take 50% of their pupils from the poorest classes is going to go down with the posh parents of Kent and Buckinghamshire. That looks like a sop to Theresa May’s pretended ambition of freeing up social mobility; part of her initial ‘progressive’ rhetoric which I don’t think any of us quite believed at the time. As every expert is emphasising just now, including some high-placed Tory ones, Grammar schools are the very worst way of achieving equality and social mobility.

But of course they’re popular with nostalgic Tory backwoodspeople, going right back to the 1950s and ’60s, who need to believe – in view of her unreliable position on Brexit – that May really is ‘one of them’. After Grammar schools will come corporal punishment, spotted dick, and AA men saluting them from their motor bikes. (Ah, the good old days!) Many commentators expect this scheme to fail, if not in the Commons, then in the Lords. Good. For myself, I’m convinced that I’d have been a better person if I’d gone to a co-educational Comprehensive. As indeed my children are.


While on the subject of the 1950s: my piece on ‘1956’, which I posted here ( because it had been squeezed out of the LRB, has now been taken up by the TLS. It should be there in 2-3 weeks.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Grammars and Secondary Moderns

  1. TJ says:

    It’s a truly British or rather English phenomenon that this old subject keeps raising its ugly head, aided by the right-wing gutter press massaging the middle classes misplaced for the 50’s. I went to grammar school, but taught in a super Essex sec. mod or a year in the 60’s before going to university, and saw what great teachers struggling with few resources and expectations could achieve. But most of the kids, including some very bright ones, went to work in factories or clerical jobs that largely don’t exist now. I later taught briefly in a ‘Direct Grant’ Grammar School and it was a depressing experience. They were even worse than urban grammars, exam factories that saw themselves more as public schools, even down to summer straw boaters and a Cadet Corps!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right about the Direct Grant schools too. My ‘Grammar’ school was one of them: Brentwood. We had boaters and a ‘CCF’. I don’t suppose you taught at my Dad’s Secondary Modern? (Dury Falls.)


      • TJ says:

        It was Rainham County Sec. Mod. out towards the Essex Marshes, a place with a lot of of East End emigre families. It also had a marvellous Head, compassionate and caring, knowing he was doing his best with few resources. The teachers were also generally highly committed, quite a few of them Welsh with no English class ‘hang-ups.’ Although a few kids always did well in ‘O’ levels and went on to the Technical College at Thurrock or Barking, there were few subjects offered, and many of the boys went into Ford’s car factory, the lucky one’s with apprenticeships, and the girls into retail or hairdressing. But there were some really talented kids, some of whom would have benefited from a more academic education. Anyway, something to aspire to instead of being written off as failures – what a terrible waste of human talent based on a few dodgy tests at age 11!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s