A Secondary Modern School is a type of secondary school that existed in most of the United Kingdom from 1944 until the early 1970s under the Tripartite System, and was designed for the majority of pupils - those who do not achieve scores in the top 25% of the eleven plus examination. They were replaced in most of Britain by the comprehensive school system and remain in place now mainly in Northern Ireland, where they are usually referred to simply as Secondary schools, and in some parts of England, such as Buckinghamshire.
The 1944 Butler Education Act created a system in which children were tested and streamed at the age of eleven. Those who were thought unsuitable for either an academic curriculum or a technical one, were to be sent to the secondary modern, where they would receive training in simple, practical skills. Education here was to focus on training in basic subjects such as arithmetic, mechanical skills such as woodworking and domestic skills, such as cookery. In an age before the advent of the national curriculum, the specific subjects taught were chosen by the individual school.
The first secondary moderns were created by converting around three thousand Senior Elementary schools, which had previously offered a continuation of primary education to the age of fourteen, into separate institutions. Many more were built between the end of the war and 1965, in the effort to provide universal secondary education.
Although the Butler act planned a parity of esteem between this and the other sections of the tripartite system, in practice the secondary modern came to be seen as the school for failures. Those who had ‘failed’ their eleven plus were sent there to learn rudimentary skills before advancing to menial jobs. Secondary moderns prepared their students for the CSE examination, rather than the more prestigious O level, and although training for the latter was established in later years, less than one in ten children took advantage of it. Secondary moderns did not offer schooling for the A level, and in 1963 only 318 former secondary modern pupils sat A levels. None went on to university.
Secondary moderns were generally deprived of resources and good teachers. The Newsom Report of 1963 reported on education for these children, and found that in some schools in slum areas of London fifteen year old pupils were sitting on furniture intended for primary schools. Staff turnover was high and continuity in teaching minimal. Not all secondary moderns were as bad, but they did generally suffer from neglect by the authorities.
The poor performance of the ‘submerged three quarters’ of British schoolchildren led to calls for reform. Experiments with comprehensive schools began in the 1950s, hoping to provide an education which would offer greater opportunities for those who did not enter grammar schools. Several counties, such as Leicestershire, got rid of their secondary moderns altogether. In 1965, the Labour government issued Circular 10/65, implementing the Comprehensive System. By 1976, with the exception of a few regions including Kent, Dorset, Buckinghamshire, Stoke, Slough, the Wirral and Ripon, secondary modern schools had been formally phased out.
In counties still operating the Tripartite System or a Bipartite System, there are still schools fulfilling the role of the secondary modern by taking those pupils who do not get into grammar schools. These schools may be known colloquially (though not officially) as 'high schools' (Medway and Trafford), 'upper schools' (Buckinghamshire) or simply 'all-ability schools'.
For more information on debates about the fairness of the Tripartite System, see the article on debates on the grammar school