New grammar school decision: How secondary moderns are responding

While a lot of loud noise is being made today about the rejuvenation of grammar schools – the secondary moderns that often have to sit in their shadows are quietly planning their own fightback.

The government’s controversial decision to approve a grammar school expansion in Kent is set to spark a flurry of similar applications for “satellite” grammars across the country.

But for every new grammar comes even more “secondary moderns” (schools that historically existed in grammar areas for pupils that did not achieve scores in the top 25 per cent of the 11+ examination).

While its official school tag is now obsolete – after the introduction of comprehensives – many schools in counties with selective systems effectively fulfil the same role – taking pupils who do not get into grammar schools.

Facing the news that even more of their community’s best and brightest pupils could be snapped up by growing grammar schools, you would expect a downhearted response.

Sir Michael Wilshaw even said today: “Remember this – for every grammar school you create, you create three secondary moderns and I can’t see parents queuing up to send their children Wilshaw-e5-MA4_1385_tightto more secondary moderns.”

But Ian Widdows, deputy headteacher at Giles Academy in Lincolnshire (a selective county) and founder of the National Association for Secondary Moderns (NASM), told Schools Week: “Ironically, this may be a good day for us.”

He said the announcement has highlighted the work of the group – set up in 2013 – to raise awareness of the successes and hard work of secondary moderns.

His Twitter feed has not stopped all day with encouraging words of support.

“It has provided a vehicle to open further debate about school accountability and inspection processes which take into account school contexts – in particular the ability of its intake.”

Mr Widdows was clear he is not against grammar schools, but instead wants honesty. “If there are to be more grammar schools and more secondary moderns, then support all of them appropriately and hold all schools to account fairly.”

Schools Week reported earlier this year the government’s new “coasting school” plans – to supposedly challenge those schools in advantaged “leafy areas – would actually come down harder on schools with lower ability and less advantaged intakes, notably secondary moderns.

I want to challenge the assumption that grammar schools are always good schools and secondary moderns always bad

A former executive head at a secondary modern, who did not want to be named, said today’s news is a further blow.

“There may be faults in state comprehensive schools but if we all committed ourselves to supporting them and improving them then it would produce a much better system than segregation,” he said.

“To me – this is more about social class than ability. I saw the effects of grammar education in Lincolnshire [where I used to work] – I couldn’t defend it.”

But while Mr Widdows accepted secondary moderns are under “exceptional pressure”, he added: “They do a great job in very challenging circumstances.

“I want to challenge the assumption that grammar schools are always good schools and secondary moderns always bad.”

He now wants to shift the debate towards how all schools can be held to account fairly in a selective system.

“In many ways grammars have not received the level of scrutiny and challenge which other schools have had over recent years and therefore have been left to their own devices while secondary moderns and comprehensives battle hard to get the results which will avoid poor Ofsted judgements.”

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. Alastair Thomson

    Isn’t ‘Secondary Modern’ an unhelpful historic term? Much better to promote such schools as ‘all-ability’, ‘inclusive’ or even ‘comprehensive intake’.

    Get on the front foot and stop apologising for not being elitist!

    • A bit like “Grammar” being an unhelpful historical term? Could be replaced by “middle class attempt to reserve schools so that their children only meet similar children”?

      Why do Grammar schools have significant lower numbers of any vulnerable group? For example – students with EAL needs?

    • Janet Downs

      Secondary moderns aren’t all-ability. They have been creamed of high-attaining pupils and their intakes are skewed to the bottom end. And what does being ‘elitist’ mean in this context? That at age 11 children can be assigned to grammars (‘first class’) and other schools howsoever named (‘second class’) on the basis of two short, flawed tests?
      Secondary modern is far from being ‘an unhelpful historic term’. The Department for Education’s School Performance Tables still classify some schools in selective areas (eg Lincolnshire, Kent, Trafford) as ‘modern’.

  2. Janet Downs

    Mr Widdows is correct that non-selective schools in selective areas (aka secondary moderns) do a good job in difficult circumstances. But they’re not rewarded for it. I, too, like the unnamed head above, taught in Lincolnshire in a non-selective school which was doubly-creamed by a nearby grammar and a fully-comprehensive school just over the county border. Unsurprisingly our results were low in comparison. We were regularly pilloried in the local press for our results. No recognition was ever given to the innovative work that went on there – we were one of the ‘worst’ in local league tables.
    I read a letter in the local press about a year ago describing my school as having ‘failed’ local children for decades. I gave my professional life to this school and worked unsparingly to do the best for my pupils (as did my colleagues). But that wasn’t enough apparently – our efforts ‘failed’.

  3. I went to a secondary modern school. I’m 61 years old, but I remember the day I stood in that playground on the first day as if it was yesterday. We lined up beside the pigswill bins, and I just thought that I had been relegated to the dustbin of life. We all felt like complete losers, judged at 11, and punished for not happening to pass an exam that none of us even remember taking. Nobody ever went up from the secondary modern to the Grammer however much we improved, but the Grammer school sent all its trouble makers to us. We were the last in line for everything. Books, equipment, the best teachers, they all went to the grammer School, while we managed on whatever was left. We were not unaware, and I know after talking to some of my fellow students that we all remain bitter about the experience. You never really catch up. I loved learning, but was denied more than a very basic and frankly abysmal academic experience. To me it seems a terrible retrograde step to take. Heaven help all the future secondary modern students who are about to be sent to the scrapheap at 11 if they don’t manage to pass that exam on that one day. I’m in tears just thinking about it.