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Mike Stallard: Secondary Moderns weren't all that bad


Mike has have been in education all of his life, in teaching and pastorally. Since retirement he has been a governor at the local comprehensive, a coach and a supply teacher. He argues here that the successes of Secondary Moderns shouldn't be overlooked.

Poor old John Prescott, who didn’t get his bicycle when he failed to get into the grammar school. So at the tender age of 11, he was already a “failure”. (Judging by the state of the railways, maybe they were right.)

Today many Conservatives want to bring back the grammar school system and David Cameron doesn’t. There aren’t that many votes from the mothers and fathers of “failures”.

Is “failure” the right way to look at it? For children of pushy parents, yes, it is. But there is another side to it. It takes a lot of self discipline to go to University and succeed. You have to forego partying and social life. You have to do a lot of work to get all those A levels. You have to live in great poverty at school and then go heavily into debt. You have to postpone your child bearing activities until, alas, often it is too late.

Many, many people neither want nor need to make that sacrifice. They would much rather stay at home, raise a family, live modestly and run the local community.

Let me declare an interest. My late father in law started off his own Secondary Modern school at Methwold, in rural Norfolk. It had a piggery and a grape vine. The girls did domestic science and the boys did woodwork. During the holidays, he took over the woodwork shop and built his own sea going boat. The Christmas turkey was cooked in the domestic science lab oven. He taught typing.

In those days, people were not afraid to get their hands dirty.

Until the very end of his life he received a card from his first head girl. All round Methwold, he was greeted with respect and gratitude by ex pupils.

Today the school is, of course, Comprehensive. The piggery is gone.

Until this week, I was coaching a lad from London. For a number of reasons, which the Social Worker elaborated on with some gusto, he had been transferred into Lincolnshire and sent to the local Secondary Modern – now, of course called a “Comprehensive”. Lincolnshire still has the 11+.

Their GCSE results are, of course, much better than the nearest Cambridgeshire Comprehensive, which is already in special measures and about to undergo Fresh Start in September. The examination results stand up pretty well compared to the local Norfolk Comprehensives too.

The school is much smaller and serves just one country town.  Because of its human size, the Deputy Head can stand outside the school at the beginning and end of the day greeting the pupils by name and trying to look stern. Inside, parents queue at Reception where they chat with the receptionist. Teachers control the corridors, calling children by their names. At break, there is a lot of happy noise, but there isn’t any fighting and precious little swearing. There isn’t violent, angry, desperate football either.

In the corridor, a boy dropped some litter and, to my surprise, a girl told him to pick it up. He did. A pupil stood in my way and then said “Sorry”. In the Fifth Form Study Area you could talk to the youngsters and receive a polite reply. The teacher in charge not only knew them by name, but also helped them with their revision. The ones I spoke to were pleased to tell you their future plans: the army, Spalding Grammar School, a College, law school. Their eyes showed that they knew what they were doing.

Casualties were dealt with quietly and efficiently by people who knew the person and their family.

Teachers smiled and said "Hello" to me, a stranger.

Even better, I was constantly plied with hot drinks by the fifth formers who were invariably polite and who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty by moving furniture, washing up, fetching things or welcoming a party of Hungarians (The boy in charge minded very much when the Hungarian lady teacher gave him a huge hug).

People came in from outside and were welcomed and encouraged to help educate the children. There was always something exciting going on.

So, there it is. A Secondary Modern still looking after local children, giving them a real future – they are nice, polite and very employable young people –  during their adolescence.

Yes, they did have a smoke on the way home. There was a boy shouting rude words the first time I went there. A girl was in floods of tears because she was being bullied on the bus. It’s a school! These were normal children.

To call them “failures” is as ridiculous as saying that they were not receiving a really effective education. I really do wish people would mention the success of Secondary Moderns when they talk about Grammar Schools.


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