Let's not hear it for the sec mod

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
Gillian Harrison's feature "Let's hear it for the sec mod" (TES, July 19) gives warm applause to the schools which took 11-plus failures. It is downright condescending because it has to be. So it's all right that the central purpose of grammar schools - academic teaching - cannot be offered by sec mods? She tells us that staff stayed at the same school for years "and taught your elder brother, your uncle, even your father". How cosy.

She cites the drama teacher who could, "breathe new life into the most stolid child", "proper assemblies", "attention to the needs of the whole child", and "the art teacher who created an atmosphere of passionate absorption". These happened in grammar schools too. She obviously passed her 11-plus but she admits the sec mods were not for academic learning, "the boys had satisfying jobs in prospect, pretty well-paid, skilled jobs like their older male relations". These lads had career opportunities slammed shut all around them, madam.

Gillian Harrison's lofty view could only have been written by someone who had never been a pupil in one of these schools. She would like us all to believe that the pupils and their parents were grateful and satisfied with a sec mod education. That is miles from reality. Children wept openly when they failed the test. Anyone who buys her sanitised view is seriously misguided.

Her father was a naval architect but the shipyard closed. He became a teacher in a sec mod. She admits "he couldn't use much of his real knowledge", but that was OK for a sec mod. In a grammar school he would need to be a specialist.

Back in the 1950s you had to pass all three papers of the 11-plus - maths, English and verbal reasoning. I remember it was raining. I had spent most of the time when I was ill at primary school, reading books like Children of the New Forest and I was absent often enough to read a lot of novels. I remember sailing through the English paper and the verbal reasoning and having the time to double-check each one. I never finished the maths, because lots of it was difficult and unfamiliar. I also remember standing in the assembly hall of the sec mod and being directed to class 1C. Class 1A did metalwork and drama, but woodwork was beneath them. We did woodwork, thank God, and I learned high standards of craftsmanship and kept my sanity. None of the teachers had a degree and many accepted their inevitable lot of teaching the lower orders, some with abrasive bad grace. You knew they'd rather be at the grammar school with its higher status. I wanted to be there too and felt condemned. Failing the 11-plus has haunted me to this day.

Like Gillian Harrison I lived in Cheshire so I had a go at the 13-plus for grammar school. It was a replay of the 11-plus. Time was up for the maths paper before I was two-thirds through. I had learned no maths at all in those two years. Two years later I passed the 15-plus by interview so the maths handicap didn't count.

Grammar school gave us academic knowledge. It was intoxicating, exciting, real work and the teachers loved their subjects. Coming from sec mods meant we had missed out on a foreign language. We were dining on scraps but we were grateful. I passed lots of O-levels and got 3 good A-levels but without a foreign language there was no university place. I went to one of the top teacher training colleges but those who had passed the 11-plus went to university. We were supposed to study academic subjects to a high level. But we knew what the real work was like from mates at the university.

These were the early years of the BEd. Rewrite that in lower case and its derisory worth appears. The university let us have the crumbs of a pass degree, determined to demonstrate our inferior status.

Gillian Harrison has had everything handed to her - a grammar school education and a fulfilling job in an easy school. She is privileged so she can write praising those worse off. I know this because I too taught in a grammar school. It was my first job and my A-level candidates always gained the best grades in the county. But it was not enough. A BEd degree diminished in currency as the supply increased. I took an MA (with distinction) to offset the downslide and at last I was beating people with real degrees for jobs. But it took too long. The ex-grammar school types are now heads and deputies while I am a head of department.

In the real world high achievement matters. Grammar schools certainly succeeded but success can only be seen against failure. The sec mod failed me and there's nothing smug about that.

John Wilson is a head of department at a Hertfordshire school

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