Secondary Modern

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

The miner, still sweat on his brow and dirt from the pit.
The fence old, worn and broken, singing a song of wonders
And the bird singing a song of scorn.
And the children, happy now
But what after they reach the gate of their home?

—13-YEAR-OLD from a "rather weak middle stream"

in a Leeds secondary modern school
Practically everybody treats you like a scruff.
—14-YEAR-OLD from form 4E

in a West Riding secondary modern school

EVERYONE KNOWS A SECONDARY MODERN CHILD: there are so many of them. Three quarters of the children in this country receive a secondary modern education on leaving their primary schools. When, under the slogan, "secondary education for all", the 1944 Education Act turned the senior departments of the old elementary schools into "secondary modern" schools, as from 1st April, 1945, nothing was changed. The children, the teachers and the buildings were the same. Some of the schools had been foreshadowing the kind of work associated with the idea of secondary education freed from the grammar school strait-jacket of university entrance requirements for years, others developed it slowly. Some haven't developed it yet. In April, 1947, the leaving age was raised to 15. Soon afterwards the first of the emergency-trained teachers came into the schools, bringing ideas and attitudes from other occupations than teaching. Today, seventeen years after the secondary modern schools began their official existence, about a third of the 4,000 odd such schools in England and Wales are in post-war buildings or in pre-war buildings "reasonably appropriate for secondary education". The rest inhabit what the NUT called "a mass of out-of-date elementary schools completely unsuited to modern educational needs".

When ANARCHY published its recent issue on comprehensive schools, several contributors mentioned the impossibility of generalizing about them, they were all so different. Exactly how many of them are of the kind described in Edward Blishen's The Roaring Boys, or exactly how many are really better schools than the socially-esteemed grammar schools of the same neighbourhood is impossible to say. A far greater proportion than either are probably places of which the best, and worst, that can be said is that they fail to make an impression on the majority of the children who pass through them before joining our nation of semi-literate conformists — a nation, as Michael Young puts it, "of failures with only a thin elite of super-trained people at the top." (In purely economic terms, this has been expressed by John Vaizey (The Cost of Education) in his finding that "A grammar school child receives 70 per cent more per year in expenditure than a child in a secondary modern school, and nearly double per school life.").

The secondary modern school has been a centre of controversy since its inception, but in the course of time the controversies have changed. In the early days there were on the one hand those who thought that the task of the school should be, as it had been, in the days of the senior elementary schools, to develop the "three R's" and ensure that every child on leaving could cope adequately with reading, writing and arithmetic. In the conditions of the immediate post-war years, with children whose primary schooling had been subject to every kind of wartime disruption, this was not an unworthy aim, even though it strikes us as pathetically limited.

On the other hand, were those schools which sought to bring to life the aspiration voiced in the Ministry of Education's 1947 pamphlet The New Secondary Education, "to provide a good all-round secondary education, not focussed primarily on the traditional subjects of the school curriculum, but developing out of the interests of the children." Of the schools in this group, Professor Dent in his Secondary Modern Schools, distinguishes two types: those who taught the academic subjects in the same way, but to a less advanced level, as the grammar schools, and allocated proportionately more time to art, handicrafts and various social activities; and those who departed to a greater or less degree from both the traditional academic subject divisions and the traditional methods of handling the academic subjects. Some of these schools — though I believe a constantly diminishing number — built their curricula largely upon 'projects' or 'centres of interest'; for example, a neighbourhood surveyor a co-operative study of some large topic, such as building, transport, clothes or housing. These schools relied upon the diverse content of the project or centre of interest to provide exercises in all the school subjects, both academic and practical.

Explaining why he thinks the number of such schools is diminishing, he goes on to say that "There was from about 1950 onwards in the Secondary Modern School a widespread trend away from unconventional approaches and methods. This was, I believe, in large part the direct result of external pressures brought to bear upon the Modern School: pressures caused by public concern about the standards of attainment and behaviour in some of the schools, and more especially about the standards of literacy." (He also mentions that project work is much more exacting in its demands on the teacher's time and energy than conventional class teaching).

The social pressures on the schools were real enough, but I think they were of a different kind. With the higher levels of social and occupational expectation in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, parents who in an earlier generation would not have had such aspirations for their children, are bitterly disappointed when they fail to gain admission to the grammar school, and want them to be given an opportunity to gain the educational requirements for those occupations to which the grammar school normally leads. In other words, and this brings us to the current version of the secondary modern controversy, they want their children to sit for the General Certificate of Education examinations at Ordinary Level. More and more secondary modern children do in fact stay beyond the minimum leaving age of fifteen, and more and more do in fact sit for the GCE.

This in turn had led to the demand for a leaving examination for those children who do not sit for the GCE, which has been met either by entering the children for examinations held by private examining bodies (in spite of disapproval by the Ministry) or by local organised and recognised school-leaving examinations.

The Beloe Committee, which reported two years ago, found that if the existing examining bodies are allowed to go on unchecked, there is a very real danger of damage to the curriculum and teaching of secondary schools using these examinations. It urged the government to encourage and help provide a new sort of examination to be administered by 20 regional examining bodies. Such an examination will probably be operating by 1965. Meanwhile the number of secondary modern pupils taking the GCE examination increases year by year.

But it is precisely those who are most concerned with the "average" as well as the below average, who are concerned about the effect of our contemporary examination fever. The grammar schools are dominated by university entrance requirements (it would be difficult to say what educational advances have been made in them over the last thirty or forty years) and as Miss Miles, headmistress of Mayfield School pointed out a month ago, it is ironical that the GCE was now tyrannising the curricula of every type of school. The public judge secondary modern and comprehensive schools as well as grammar schools by their GCE results, because of the misguided belief that to be examined was to be educated. The opponents of the Beloe idea fear that the "C" stream children, already handicapped, already given the largest classes, the worst accommodation and the most inexperienced teachers, would become, as David Holbrook puts it "the new untouchables, without a ticket". Margaret Maison wrote recently in the Times Educational Supplement.

In this fiendishly competitive, exam-mad, class-ridden, status-hypnotized England children need to be protected from the demands of society in general and of their parents in particular. If the teachers will not help them, who will?

I have known scores of parents whose ignorance is as colossal as their snobbery and to whom a child's pass in one GCE subject is a major status symbol. (Hence the number of expensive and utterly tenth-rate private schools now catering for this social appetite). I have known scores of families whose members are encouraged to compete madly for so many Os and As without reference to any future career but solely as a means of keeping up with the Joneses.

I am convinced that any increase in the number of conventional external examinations, especially at sub-GCE levels, will bring only further chaos, competition and snobbery into the educational scene; the ruin of the child, begun at 11-plus, will be complete; teachers will be exam. coaches only (replaceable by computers of course) and education will be nothing but the dreary business of pumping muddy information into unretentive sieves.

Happily there are other, genuinely educational trends at work in the secondary modern schools. There is the work of the Guild of teachers of Backward Children, whose chairman, Mr. S. S. Segal has done so much to help change attitudes to the "11-plus rejects". There is the work of the Society for Education Through Art, gradually permeating the whole field of the education of the senses. And there is the approach to the English language which Mr. Denys Thompson has been propagating for years in the journal The Use of English and its predecessor English in Schools. In 1933 Thompson and F. R. Leavis wrote a book Culture and Environment which sowed the seeds of a whole tradition in teaching. In one direction it leads to the kind of work in which David Holbrook has been active, in another it leads to the semantic approach advocated for secondary modern schools by Harold Drasdo in his stimulating article "The Language of Persuasion" in ANARCHY 19, and in another to the whole trend of teaching by drawing out critical and discerning responses to the mass media. (Our readers will have caught a glimpse of this in the interview with an "early leaver" published in ANARCHY 18). The British Film Institute and the Society for Education in Film and Television are building up a body of experience of classroom work of this kind.*

If you saw the recent BBC Television documentary by Richard Cawston, "The Schools", you will remember the fascinating sequence in which a teacher of English was drawing out his pupils' vocabulary by blowing bubbles. A television critic in one of the weeklies assumed that the teacher "only did this because it was a secondary modern class, the implication being that the kids were pretty dim and needed visual aids:" This drew the teacher out of his anonymity (and he turned out to be Mr. Peter Emmens of the Margaret Tabor Secondary School, Braintree, which is the school where the headmaster abolished prefects so as to encourage the pupils to be responsible for themselves), to point out that "I teach English through the senses for the sole reason that I believe it to be the right method. The best way to teach any any abstract concept is through a concrete illustration, and creative writing is certainly best encouraged by the stimulation of the imagination, through a liberating and enriching sense-experience. I should use the same method in a grammar school."

Perhaps the really valuable advances in educational technique will come from the modern schools, in spite of the shadow of the examiners. Denys Thompson, who is now a headmaster in Yeovil declared that the aim of educators should be "to turn out misfits" meaning that by unfitting pupils for their environment, they can hope to change it. We, as anarchists, can hardly disagree with him.

*see "Teaching and Discrimination" by Paddy Whannel (in Forum, Spring 1961), "Teaching and Discrimination — A Classroom Approach" by Tonv Higgins and Don Waters (in Forum, Autumn 1961), "Teaching Discrimination" by D. Leech in Screen Education, Jan.-Feb., 1962) and a reply to the last article, by Don Waters in Screen Education, May-June, 1962).