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.