Let's hear it for the sec mod

19th July 1996 at 01:00
Commentators have implied that those who failed the 11-plus in the 1950s were then given short shrift by the education system. Not so, says Gillian Harrison.

Mr Major is not my hero but he is my contemporary. I remember that vanished world of the 1950s before supermarkets, yoghurt, cheque cards, tights, canned soft drinks, the MoT test, package holidays, cash dispensers - and the national curriculum. But Mr Major's apparent hankering for a return to grammar schools has provoked some very dismissive references to secondary moderns, referring to them as dumping grounds.

Dumping does not describe what happened to children who failed the 11-plus, so I'd like to put the record straight.

My father taught in a secondary modern for so many years that he got an engraved silver plate when he retired. I "passed" and continued at the convent school which had direct-grant status and so, luckily for us, was free after the age of 11. I've taught for 20 years in an independent girls' school and, looking back, I'm struck by some similarities between a fee-paying school today and a secondary modern then.

Size, for one thing. Both my present school and my father's have about 400 pupils. Everyone is known to everyone else: none of the anonymity of the vast comprehensive of today.

Staff, too. Teachers stayed put in those days, generally speaking. There is a feeling of security when you know that "Dick" Barton taught your elder brother, your uncle, even your father. You share a tradition, a fund of shared experience and anecdote. I find the same where I am: today a Spanish girl in my tutor group, new to this country, smiled happily as she brought me news of her aunt, now a lawyer in Madrid - my pupil five years ago.

Many of the staff at my father's school were exceptionally able. I remember the mercurial Irish drama teacher who could breathe dramatic life into the most stolid child; the gentle, willowy, ex-guardsman, art teacher whose own work was so outstanding and who created in his studios an atmosphere of passionate absorption; "Fred" Perry, the impressive games teacher; the meticulous man who taught technical drawing.

Some of them were there by accident, I suppose. My father, a boy at Jarrow grammar school in love with theology and poetry as he was for the whole of his life, would have had a brilliant university career these days. Then, he left school to go into the shipyard as everyone did - not as a plater or welder, but as a trainee naval architect, which is what the bright boys did. After he'd qualified, the shipyard failed and my father was on the dole like 90 per cent of the town.

He travelled to the uncomprehending and unsympathetic South in search of any employment, lived from hand to mouth. Eventually his godmother lent her meagre savings to send him to Chester College to train as a teacher, and apart from a five-year stint in the army, a teacher he stayed. Married in wartime to his childhood sweetheart, his growing family demanded security. He took a job in Cheshire at a secondary modern, teaching history. He couldn't "use" much of his real knowledge operating on this relatively simple level, but he was a genial, sympathetic man who enjoyed life and had a keen sense of humour and of duty, too. He made a good job of his teaching and in the evenings and holidays, uncluttered by the paper-chase of national curriculum assessment and recording, he enjoyed his family life, read, listened to the wireless, walked, wrote letters, poems, articles, books. There must have been others like him in secondary modern schools then.

Another way in which my father's school and my present one coincide is a sense of occasion. At his school, there was "proper" assembly, school plays, an elegant, decorous Sports Day on the tree-lined playing field followed by a delicious home-made tea. There were exhibitions and open evenings.

Flexibility was also a characteristic of the school, as it is of good schools at any time. The school was truly "modern" in its attention to the needs of the whole child, perhaps at its best more so than at the grammar school, where pupils were often regarded as academic fodder and the teacher was often autocratic and self-absorbed.

It is a little-known fact that the 11-plus was not a final decision. In Cheshire, and I am sure in other countries, too, there was a process of transfer at 12-plus, 13-plus, 14-plus for anyone who seemed to need a more traditionally academic course and might have under-achieved at 11-plus.

I remember the boys at my father's school. They were high-spirited, not cowed; lively and hopeful, not depressed and despairing. They had an attractive school; a smart uniform; manageable class sizes; reliable and talented teachers; mothers at home as like as not with their tea ready when they went home; satisfying jobs in prospect, pretty well paid, skilled jobs like their older male relations. There were no girls in school, of course, but that didn't cramp their style. They usually got married and stayed married. The agenda was realistic, humane, dignified.

There must have been serpents even in this Eden, but these children didn't have a bad education. Parents' aspirations for their children to "pass" the 11-plus were understandable: everyone would prefer to pass something rather than fail it, it's humane nature. But when the dust settled, everyone got on with the real business of educating the young.

It was a straightforward, simpler business - it was a comparatively straightforward, simple world. It would not do now, but we've something to learn from the old sec mod. In all the talk of selection, we hear much of the virtues and vices of the grammar schools. Let's hear more about success stories from the past which could throw light on the future. Educational history is not bunk.

Gillian Harrison teaches English at an independent school in Oxford

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