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Great Stone Road Secondary Modern in Trafford, Greater Manchester, circa 1969

A secondary modern school (Welsh: ysgol uwchradd fodern) is a type of secondary school that existed throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 1944 until the 1970s under the Tripartite System.[1] Schools of this type continue in Northern Ireland, where they are usually referred to as secondary schools, and in areas of England, such as Buckinghamshire (where they are referred to as community schools), Lincolnshire and Wirral, (where they are called high schools).[2]

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 to a selective grammar school which offered education beyond 15. From 1965 onwards, secondary moderns were replaced in most of the UK by the comprehensive school system.


The tripartite system of streaming children of presumed different intellectual ability into different schools has its origin in the interwar period. Three levels of secondary school emerged 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 domestic skills for girls; and secondary schools which provided a basic secondary education.

Educational practice in the 1940s 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 went 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 mainly 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".[3]

The first secondary moderns were created by converting about 1,200 elementary schools,[4]: 125  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.

Until the raising of statutory school leaving age in 1972, pupils could leave school at 15, at the end of the fourth form (year 10). This left a demotivated rump of 14–15-year-olds who did not want to be there, and had no intention of taking a school-leaving exam at 16.[5]

Tripartite system

The eleven-plus exam 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.[6][7][8]: 194–195 

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.[6][9]

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.[6][9] As a result, cut-off standards on the 11-plus 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.[6]

Although parity of esteem between this and the other sections of the tripartite system had been planned, in practice the secondary modern came to be seen as the school for failures. Those who had "failed" their 11-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 teaching for the latter was established in later years, fewer than one in ten students participated. 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.[10] Secondary moderns were generally deprived of both resources and good teachers.[11] 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.[12]


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:

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'.[14] 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.'[15]

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.[8]: 195 

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.[9] 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)[9][16]

Movement towards a comprehensive system

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 all throughout the UK except Northern Ireland.

Secondary modern schools today

Wetherby High School; a former secondary modern; now comprehensive school

In counties still operating a selective system, as of 2015 there were 130 schools fulfilling the role of the secondary modern by taking those pupils who do not get into grammar schools.[17] 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 was founded by Ian Widdows, former Headteacher at the Giles Academy in Boston, Lincolnshire.[18] The organisation represents non-selective schools in selective areas[17] and has organised a number of national conferences since it was founded, such as one in April 2016 addressed by Shadow Secretary of State for Education Lucy Powell, Tim Leunig from the Department for Education, and National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter, among others.[19][20]

Ofsted continues to judge secondary moderns in the same way it judges grammar schools, expecting them to show the same academic achievement as schools that have had the top ability quartile removed. Ofsted admits it does not have a record of the number of secondary moderns and that its inspectors have received no training on how to assess them. They are preventing from awarding the highest grades to a school as that would require the data to take into account the differing intakes.[19]

In 2016, the Government introduced Progress 8 as a headline method to judge secondary schools, in which the sum of all the pupils' GCSE achievements was compared with the predicted grades, in order to expose "coasting" schools. Each grade achieved was worth one point. In 2017 for one year, they modified the method so a low grade was worth 0.5 and the top grades received 1.5, thus weighting the benchmark towards the most able. This disproportionately affected schools only serving the three less-able quartiles. Frank Norris, director of the Co-operative Academies Trust that runs eight academies, believes the changes will advantage high-achievers. "The proposed changes are based on the flawed thinking that it is much harder for a student to move from a grade B to an A rather than from grade G to F," he said. "They are probably discriminatory because they imply it is less important and worthwhile for lower-attaining students to achieve as well as they can."[19]

See also


  1. ^ "Diwrnod cyntaf Ysgol Uwchradd Fitzalan newydd sbon".
  2. ^ Weale, Sally (8 September 2016). "Kent children sit 11-plus as government plans new grammar schools". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 8 September 2016.
  3. ^ Dover Express (UK newspaper), 5 July 1935
  4. ^ Judge, Harry (1967). A Short History of Education. Routledge. Between 1945 and 1951, around 1,200 elementary schools were converted to secondary modern schools in England and Wales
  5. ^ Partridge, John (1965). Life in a Secondary Modern School. Pelican. pp. 91–98.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Sumner, C., '1945 – 1965: The Long Road to Circular 10/65', Reflecting Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, April 2010, p.97.
  8. ^ a b c Sampson, Anthony (1965). Anatomy of Britain today. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Retrieved 5 May 2023.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Brooks, V., 'Role of External Examinations in the Making of Secondary Modern Schools in England 1945–65', 2008, doi:10.1080/00467600600909892
  11. ^ Newsom, J., 'Half our future', A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education, London: HM Stationery Office, 1963
  12. ^ 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. "Working Papers". Archived from the original on 5 July 2011. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  13. ^ Ministry of Education, New Secondary Education, 4, p.46
  14. ^ Panayides, Theo (8 April 2016). "Sensitive, creative, heart on sleeve". The Cyprus Mail. Nicosia.
  15. ^ "Letters". The Guardian. London. 20 October 2015.
  16. ^ Gillard, D., 'Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England's schools', (2008) (see the section '1945-1960: Doubts and concerns')
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Staufenberg, Jess (9 May 2017). "Profile: Ian Widdows, National Association of Secondary Moderns". Schools Week. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  19. ^ a b c Camden, Billy (6 February 2017). "Progress 8 'punishes' schools with low-achieving pupils". Schools Week. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  20. ^ Widdows, Ian (22 October 2016). "'It's time for an end to the lazy assumptions about secondary moderns; we are not an anomaly that can be ignored'". TES Times Education Supplement. London. Retrieved 5 August 2018.