I began my teaching career in a secondary modern school in Southend on Sea. It was a challenging school to teach in: my head of department told me that if I was still standing up after a lesson with the fifth form (now Year 10) to count it “a success” – she had been pushed out of the way by a skinhead when she started and ended up with a broken shoulder!; many students came from fairly dysfunctional families the majority of which also had fairly negative attitudes towards education – and ordinary teachers like me weren’t allowed to meet parents in case we got hit! Yet the biggest problem was the euphemistically called “progressive” approach to education pursued by some local primary schools. It quite literally left many children starting secondary school unable to read. We had two brilliant special needs teachers who used to pull them out of normal lessons and teach them to read within half a term. I vividly recall being left with a first year (year 7) Geography class with only seven or eight students – as two thirds of the class had been withdrawn so that they could be taught to read.
The point is this there were and continue to be a whole variety of factors that affect school success the largest of which by far is the attitude of the family to education. There is a serious danger of looking back to the 1970s and saying ‘these schools didn’t always do too well and the cause was obviously because they were secondary moderns’. In fact, although school education has improved enormously since I started teaching many similar problems exist in struggling comprehensives, children from dysfunctional homes and even normal homes but where education is simply not valued and where there is little or no aspiration.
Not only is the myth that grammar schools are bad for those who don’t get in largely based on questionable and often anecdotal evidence of what happened in the 1960s and 70s, it ignores what is happening today. Many secondary modern schools are judged good or even outstanding by Ofsted. Statistics produced by the House of Commons library in June show that in 2014/15 of the 501,242 students in comprehensive schools 56.7% achieved 5 or more A*-C grade GCSEs including English and Maths; of the 22,493 students in grammar schools 96.7% achieved this; while among the 19,329 students in secondary moderns 49.7% achieved this – in other words the percentage of students in secondary moderns achieving this level was only 7% less than the comprehensive school average – even though typically grammar schools take around 25% of the most able students. Now if you add together the actual number of grammar school (21,750) and secondary modern students (9,606) achieving this it shows that together 75.0% of students achieved 5 A*-C grades including Maths and English – which is 18.3% higher than for comprehensives. In other words the statistics actually suggest that nationally students of a similar ability do better not just in grammar schools than comprehensives, but also in secondary modern schools than in comprehensives.
As John Glen observes underlying the argument against grammar and secondary modern schools is an argument about mixed ability classes. It is sometimes true that these can create aspirations for the less able. However, students are generally likely to do beest if taught close to their actual ability level. That is the strength of secondary moderns. Moreover, whilst highly motivated bright students can achieve in mixed ability classes, less well motivated able students, particularly those from families with low educational aspirations and tend to underachieve. They are the people the comprehensive system lets down.
I saw this at first hand helping set up a new sixth form college in a coastal town where virtually all our students came from failing comprehensive schools. Within two years we had massively improved A-level results in the town and the numbers going to university. There were one or two bright students who despite all the odds had managed to achieve a string of A*/A GCSEs in failing schools by working hard at home. But there were a much greater number of bright students who had seriously underachieved in local comprehensives. When they were in an A level class alongside other students of similar ability and pushed to achieve high aspirations – they could do so. Although we only had a year to get them on track before they applied to university. That is what grammar schools do – only they have much more than a year to have that positive impact on students.
The evidence is that the combination of grammar schools and secondary modern schools (or technical schools as Kenneth Baker would prefer them to be called) can actually improve the life chances not just for those at grammar schools, but also for those at secondary modern schools. Don’t run down today’s secondary modern schools – look at the evidence.