What happened to the old technical schools?

The 1944 Education Act famously created three types of schools: academically selective grammars, selective technical schools, and secondary moderns for the hoi polloi.

Grammars and secondary moderns charged ahead. But what happened to the selective technical schools? Few opened and of those that did, several became mainstream grammars before the end of the 1960s. The others quickly became comprehensive after Labour started moves to get rid of selection.

So what went wrong? An interesting place to start is the Norwood report of 1943. Commissioned in 1941, famous educationists of the period spent two years considering how secondary education ought to work in England. Grammars provided a passage to university, but it was increasingly obvious the country needed to replace the engineers and scientists who had died in the Second World War. Buildings and machinery also had to be replenished. Hence, a route was needed to get smart people into science.

The Norwood report recommended the three school types – grammar, moderns and technical – but also, importantly, that children in all three schools should study the same curriculum until 13, that transfer between schools should keep happening and that entry into schools should be on the basis of teacher judgment and parents’ and pupils’ wishes, with tests only a “supplement if desired”.

There was a problem, however. School stock was depleted and most local authorities didn’t have the money to build a school with the equipment or classroom types for a technical education. Meanwhile, local authorities didn’t have to pay to build most grammars. Many were private schools that converted to become state-funded as long as they could maintain a selective intake which, previously, had been done on entrance tests. And so the trend was continued.

Of the few selective technical schools that did open, there were some quirks that made them a target for redevelopment in the 1960s. In Bournville for example, a girls’ grammar was accompanied by the opening of a boys’ technical school, where pupils had links to industry and were given skills to become foremen. (Presumably the girls were taught how to make tea for the foremen.)

The increasingly awkward single-sex separation, plus the growing trend for comprehensivisation, meant that by the late 1960s the schools merged and abandoned their specialism.

In Kent, Dartford technical college increasingly swapped its technical specialism for a straightforward grammar approach. Having started with a focus on agriculture – much in vogue, post-war – the need for farmers was reducing by the 1960s and so was swapped in favour of a more traditional academic curriculum. A trend echoed today in the university technical colleges with science specialisms that have swapped to become mainstream schools over the past year or so.

A third problem plagued the technical schools. Although they were seen as selective, children who did well at the 11-plus tended to pick grammars first. In any particular area there are usually only a small number of pupils whose achievement is very high; once they are taken out, the next layer of “selectives” are largely going to take in quite average pupils. Hence, the technical schools did not have as prestigious intakes as expected.

It will be interesting to see if the government takes note of these historical issues when it releases its expected white paper on new forms of selective schools. It would be nice to make some new mistakes, at least, rather than simply repeating the old ones.

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  1. I failed to gain sufficient marks in the 11+ to attend the girls’ grammar but I did score sufficiently highly to be given a place at a new technical school. The girls’ technical school shared a site with the boys’ technical school but we didn’t mix although the appearance of boys on our playing field caused a huge amount of excitement.
    Our curriculum covered the usual stuff (English, Maths, Science, French, creative subjects etc) plus ‘Hygiene’ which equipped us to be future housewives (we learnt how to ball socks, scrub pine tables, polish shoes and other domestic tasks). And, yes, our first lesson in DS (Domestic Science) was to make a pot of tea and toast bread.
    After two years, the schools dropped their ‘technical’ status and became ‘bilateral’ with a grammar stream and a secondary modern stream. Girls in the grammar stream did O levels and could enter the 6th form; girls in the secondary modern stream were steered towards shorthand/typing and left at 15.

  2. “Of the few selective technical schools that did open, there were some quirks that made them a target for redevelopment in the 1960s. In Bournville for example, a girls’ grammar was accompanied by the opening of a boys’ technical school, where pupils had links to industry and were given skills to become foremen. (Presumably the girls were taught how to make tea for the foremen.)”

    This is wide of the mark. I was one the first intake to Bournville Boys Technical School in 1958. The completely separate girl’s school sharing the site was Bournville Girl’s Technical School, not a grammar school. Dad’s Army actor Ian Lavender was also one of the first intake. He starred in the school production of, ‘She stoops to conquer’ (all male cast’), in which I also had a minor part.

    From the very start, even though the new school did have good science and technology provision, the school culture from the very start was to ‘out-grammar’ the grammar schools. All the standard ‘grammar’ social indicators were adopted with knobs on. Staff wore gowns, prefects had ‘stripes’ on the sleeves of the uniform and ludicrous tassels on the compulsory school cap including for sixth formers. Corporal punishment, formal and informal, was widespread and brutal. There were no links with industry and pupils were certainly not expected to become ‘foremen’. The curriculum was that of a standard grammar school. I obtained C+ GCE grades in English, English Literature, maths, physics, chemistry, art, technical drawing, geography, French, art and woodwork.

    School sport was mainly Rugby, with football discouraged even in the playground and absolutely forbidden in PE and games lessons. All team competitions were exclusively with grammar schools. We had no contact with secondary modern schools whatever.

    At a later stage, after I left it became Bournville Grammar-Technical School for Boys.

    When the 11 plus results came out I got Bournville Tech as my second choice. Kings Norton Grammar was my first. Later I was offered a place in my first choice grammar school when a place presumably came available, but by then my parents had attended the open day at the new school and my working class, Labour voting parents opted to keep the Technical School place, impressed by the new schools and excellent provision for science and technology.

  3. Dr Harris

    The great problem with the selective system is the absurd belief that a test at 11 can in any way predict the performance of any child.

    Having failed the 11 plus I was presented with an abecedarian curriculum that did not allow thick students like me to attempt any public examination at all. At 15 years of age I had to try to get an education worthy of the word starting from scratch.

    I started by not telling my employer that I had enrolled on a course designed for students that had at least elementary school qualifications rather than the aimless course for thick students that I was told to join.

    Having passed this course I then walked into an external degree course at my local Technical College in company of a brave friend; we just sat down and got on with the work. We were discovered some six weeks later and the college head of engineering went ballistic. However, I had kept all the work I had done to that point and demonstrated to my chief engineer that the marks were as good as all the grammar school students and better than most; to my surprise he insisted that us two mavericks be allowed to stay on the course for at least the first year ; the college head went ballistic again; ” You are not good enough to take this course; stay out of the way of my clever boys” , was the welcome I received on my return to college.

    The college head spent the next four years trying to impede my progress; finally attempting to prevent me from entering the exam room to sit for the finals (I did not have documentary proof that I could read and write English); he failed to stop me, I passed with flying colours and received the course prize (not in his gift); the college head did not attend the prize-giving.

    A be-gowned apparition, that would have not looked out of place at Hogwarts, then approached me with congratulation at being a credit to my (his) Grammar School; I let him play out enough rope to hang himself before I informed him that I was a secondary modern school student and that I think most of those from his grammar school had actually failed, but that he should not be too hard on them, it was a very difficult course for them to master; he did not know if he should pile on more praise or apologise for his assumption, his mouth opened and closed a couple of times but nothing came out; he then turned and strode towards the door and would have run tantivy if sufficient dignity could have been maintained.

    I subsequently got a Masters at University and was employed to do research for a PhD. So much for selective education and the 11 plus test.

  4. Patrick McKeever

    I attended religious primary and secondary schools ( I failed the 11 plus) until passing the entrance exam to move to a Secondary Technical School of Engineering ( Willesden, London, N W 10) in 1953.
    In my time a 6th form was created and I was able to get to University as were other of my contemporaries. My technical education and experience enabled me to secure a shortened Graduate Apprenticship programme in Aviation.
    I feel it is sad that there is no provision for similar opportunities for late developers at this commercially oriented time.

  5. James Seddon

    I sat the 11-plus in a Wigan primary school in 1956. The system then allowed only a quota from each primary school to enter the local grammar school; with the headteacher empowered to name those he recommended. Years later, we discovered that the top two scores were myself and the local butcher’s son. But neither of us was recommended to enter the Gidlow Grammar School although the reasons are still a mystery; and I was gutted at the time. We both entered different secondary modern school. However, in 1958, I sat the 13-plus and entered Leigh Technical School [now defunct] with top score, apparently. My career, has been via A-levels, university for Bachelors, another university for Masters, eventually dean of faculty in two universities, Visiting Professor in an overseas university in applied mathematics, consultant mathematician in finance and construction and social research and aeronatics, author of various technical and text books, magistrate, and now long retired with still a consultancy clientele. So far as I am concerned the 11-plus failed to identify my potential and only the quirk of the 13-plus saved my lifetyle and my career. The technical school was brilliant and I still meet with friends from those days, over 60 years later, and they all say the same. The closures of technical schools represented a major lost opportunity for UK-PLC and now they are being denigrated as inferior but that wasn’t my experience.

  6. Marion King

    I passed the 11-plus but to my knowledge my parents did not receive my actual mark. The letter that they received stated simply that I had passed and that I had been allocated a place at their first choice of school for me, which was a technical high school a few minutes’ walk from our home.

    My parents had put the grammar school as their second choice, as it was nearly three miles from our home and there was no direct bus route. As we were very much a working class family, the prestige associated with attending a grammar school was not a consideration for my parents and took second place to the practicalities of getting there!

    I received an excellent education at my technical high school but as they were such a short-lived concept it became painfully apparent over the years that many people (including employers) confused them with technical colleges and didn’t equate them with being the scientific equivalent of grammar schools. Much of the information about them online is inaccurate, so it was good to see this article.

  7. Kathryn Slater

    My brother passed the 11 plus and went to grammar school which he hated and bought himself out at either 15 or 16. I sat the 11 plus not sure how I scored but as I was a girl it was expected I would grow up get married have children and have no use for an education I went to a technical high school which for someone like me who doesn’t have a practical bone in their body I was useless at most things. I enjoyed the arts more than technology but of course as this was a technical school hoping to churn out the blue collar workers I was a fish out of water. There was no prospect of university in my dads words people like us don’t go to university. I’ve had a varied working life and I married with one child but I always worked not going with the stereotype my parents expected of me.

  8. Alan Johnson

    I was born in 1930 and attended elementary schools. My education was to say the least patchy because of the war and the fact that I suffered a serious accident that meant I had no schooling being hospitalised from January 1944 to July 1945. I had obtained a place at Bristol Secondary Technical School of Building to start in 1944 and was fortunate to be able to take up that place in September 1945. Despite the lack of education I was highly successful achieving a distinction certificate (UEI) in 1948.. I was accepted as an Engineering Apprentice with The Bristol Aeroplane Company Engine Division and became a senior draughtsman. I later had careers in atomic energy and in technical/management training and personnel management. I gained HNC’s in mechanical and electrical engineering and personnel management. I am a professional mechanical engineer (retired ) CEng MIMechE and CM Institute ofPersonnel Management. The school was excellent in every way despite the limitations in resources in the post war period and was a major turning point in my life. The other schools for post age 13 children were the Brisol Technical School of Engineering and the Commercial School where my wife, after leaving the Colston Grammar School, took Office Secretarial subjects before working as a secretary.

  9. Malcolm Cottrell

    In elementary school I was always called the “scholarship boy” and I did pass the 11+ exam, the only one to do so, that year. I was offered a place at Old Swan Technical High School, Liverpool that was only a short bus ride away.
    At the end of the first year, the school was moved to a new location, West Derby Technical High School a lot further away from my home. Several of my class mates did not move there but I did.
    Unfortunately my family fortunes did not allow me to continue and I left at the end of the third year and joined a local Comprehensive until I was fifteen. I started at a small local company and attended both night school and day release classes to gain an education. After several years I realized that I needed a degree to progress and by hard work and paying my own way finally received a BEng.
    I am now a retired mechanical/piping engineer having been employed by major engineering companies in various parts of the World. I did not know it at the time but I will say that the education that I started to receive at Old Swan & West Derby Tech’s was excellent and I wish I could have continued up to ‘A’ level and university.
    Sadly West Deby has been demolished, after being changed to a Comprehensive in the 60’s.

  10. Helen Anderson ( nee -Davidson)

    I failed my 11+ and was given a place in Bournville Girls’ Tech when it was first opened. The year below us had passed their 11+. None of my year went to University but some went to Teachers’ Training Colleges. I became a Domestic Science teacher but have since obtained a Masters in English and taught English to overseas Uni. students and migrants. I cannot give enough praise to the dedicated teachers, seemingly hand picked by our brilliant Headmistress, Mrs Cotton. The school was the pride of the Education Dept. and received loads of visitors thirsting for a glimpse of the experiment. I was as dumb as dishwater but so happy. We even had cows in a field out the back. It was that new.The Cadburys took a great interest after donating the land. The lesson learnt from this is that every child can eventually have a good education if they are happy and given lots of opportunities to succeed.

  11. robert whitrow

    Like many other 11+ failures I went to Bristol Technical School at 13. Passed my school certificate at 16 and 3A-levels [Maths P&A], Physics and Chemistry at 18. Was told I was not university material so went to Oxford College of Technology and got an upper second BSc in Physics. Not knowing what to do next I went to Essex University and got a PhD in Physics followed by a career in industry and academia.
    The politicians and town councillors of my time have demonstrated their expertise in knowing little/ nothing about opportunity and education and failing generations young people with many non subjects today.

    • Martin Satherley

      Similarly with myself Robert in that I failed the 11+ and went to Bristol Technical School Engineering at Boot Lane at the age of 13 in 1959. This school turned my education around eventually leaving with 3 ‘A’ levels which enabled me to get on a degree course in Electrical Engineering at Bristol College of Advanced Technology becoming Bath University in my final 2 years. I obtained a 2.2 in 1969 and worked as an electrical engineer in several countries eventually running my own Electrical Consultancy operating mainly in the London area. A friend of mine attended the building department at Barton Hill and came across to engineering to complete his A levels in 1962. He went on to get a PhD in fluid dynamics I believe at Bath University. He too was a failed 11+ candidate. I lost contact with Bristol Technical School after my degree as I worked overseas for 10 years and when I returned to UK Bristol Technical had closed. This was a brilliant school getting great results for kids who has been left behind as 11+ failures.

  12. John wallace

    Does anyone remember passing the exam to attend Chartesey secondary technical school to learn the printing trade in the early 1950’s.The printing course was discontinued before we attended,so it was a total waste of time.I believe the Headmaster was a Mr Dalrymple,and the school was located in Wenlock Road, North London.It seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth!

    • Christopher Conway

      Hello John

      I went to that school about the same time as you you are right Mr Dalrymple was the Headmaster other were Dr Palmer (History) Plumton Willis (Sience) Mr Ace (Maths) Mr English we had 2 school trips to Paris

      • Mike Volsing

        Greetings Fellow Charteseyians
        I too went to Chartesey in the mid to late ’50s, my parents not being able to afford City of London or Sir Owen at the Angel due to the curse of uniforms only available from approved source, still goes on today. Chartesey had a canal basin on one side and the Wenlock Brewery on the otherwise, what pong in summer. Arts and Crafts were in old school just off Boston Market a 20 or so minutes away. Doc Palmer, Mr. Mulverhill a ‘sadistic PE’ teacher. Mr. Shearer, Mr. Stockwell, Mr Harris et all. it became part of Shoreditch Comprehensive. Nice buildings but academic standards slipped. I left the week that I became 17.
        Both school buildings no longer exist A shame!! I finished my education in evening classes, day release and 1 year full time.

  13. Steve Jones

    I went to just such a selective technical school in 1966 when I attended Slough Technical High School. Mid way through my time there it changed its name to Herschel High School, later becoming Sir William Herschel Grammar School and latterly just plain Herschel Grammar School.

    The curiculuum omitted grammar school staples, like Latin and Greek, but was quite strong on the sciences and had well equipped laboratories and workshops. I gained ‘O’ levels in both metalwork and technical drawing, which have proved to be quite useful.

    In went on to study physics at Imperial college and ended up in the IT industry, so I guess my school education did largely as advertised. I confess, as an 11 year old, I was attracted by the technical side. The academic part did not cross my mind.

    I should add that there there were rumours that the school was only for those that just scraped through their 11 plus examination, but as it was my first choice, I can’t say whether that was true or not.