The National Association of Secondary Moderns might soon be growing its membership. By how much? It is hard to say, not least because not all non-grammar schools in selective areas choose to call themselves secondary moderns (just 117 do). Also, there are schools outside selective areas that are heavily affected by the presence of a grammar in a neighbouring local authority. Following a telephone conversation with Ian Widdows, Headteacher of Giles Academy, and leading light in the secondary moderns movement, here I try to work out how many secondary moderns we really have.

But first we must define a secondary modern. It is the school that those students who do not pass their eleven plus go to. But with porous local authority borders it is very difficult to work out who is failing the eleven plus. It is possible that there are schools in fully-selective areas that are barely affected by the presence of grammars? Could a comprehensive school in a non-selective local authority be more accurately described as a secondary modern by virtue of its intake?

Secondary modern definition one: non-selective schools that recruit from the same neighbourhoods as grammars

I created a grammar recruitment index by scaling up to school level the proportion of students from a pupil’s neighbourhood who go to a grammar school. If every pupil at a school lived in a neighbourhood where 1-in-5 pupils attended a grammar then the index value would be 20%. If half the pupils at a school lived in a neighbourhood where 1-in-5 attended a grammar and the other half lived in a neighbourhood where 1-in-20 attended a grammar then the index value would be 12.5%. (For those interested, the neighbourhood is a middle super output area and I pool together five year 7 intakes for greater stability.)

The chart below shows every non-grammar school laid out on a line; from those where no pupil lives in an area where others attend grammars, through to a school in Buckinghamshire where the majority of pupils live in a neighbourhood that sends half its pupils to a grammar school.


Most schools in zero-selective areas are at the bottom of the scale and so can be called true comprehensive schools. The exceptions are some schools in Leicestershire, Cheshire West and Chester, and North Lincolnshire which have recruitment patterns that suggest they are more similar to secondary moderns by virtue of recruiting pupils from the same neighbourhoods as grammars.

At the other end of the scale are the schools in fully-selective local authorities that are widely agreed to be secondary moderns, sharing their recruitment neighbourhoods with grammar schools. But there are exceptions here too. There are a handful of non-selective schools in Lincolnshire (a place we usually categorise as fully-selective) that recruit from neighbourhoods where nobody goes to a grammar school. And there are non-selective schools in Reading that recruit from different neighbourhoods to the grammar schools there. Are any of these exceptions really secondary moderns? Surely it depends why they do not share recruitment neighbourhoods. If it is because children from these areas all take the eleven plus but do not pass then I propose they are indeed secondary moderns. If it is because those neighbourhoods have no tradition of sending their children to grammar schools but instead prefer the local school then they are more like comprehensives.

Using this approach, all bar 10 of the 117 official secondary moderns have a grammar recruitment index above 10%. These are joined by hundreds of nominally comprehensive schools to bring a total of 298, 25 of whom are in zero-selection local authorities.

Definition two: under-representation of Level 5 pupils

This second approach is rather more consequentialist and simply asks whether a school has a greater or lower share of high-attaining-on-entry (we use Level 5 at KS2) pupils than exist in the neighbourhoods they recruit from. A value of 100% means there are the same number of pupils with a Level 5 in the school as there are in the neighbourhood.

At one extreme there is a school in Lincolnshire with a value of 0%, having had no L5 pupils in the past five years. At the other extreme, there is a free school so comprehensive that its admission policy runs to 19 pages and it has 2.4 times the share of L5 pupils in the school than there are in the neighbourhoods it recruits from. (Most other ‘comprehensives’ with grammar school style intakes are well-known schools with the kind of complex admission criteria that favour the children of politicians.)


There are a number of schools in zero-selective areas that have very few L5 pupils compared to their neighbourhoods. Some are on the border of selective areas but others are affected by non-grammar school recruitment. More interesting are the set of schools in fully-selective areas that actually have more L5 pupils than the neighbourhoods they recruit from. Often in eleven-plus areas, a hierarchy of non-grammars emerges, such that one mops up the highest attainers who do not pass the eleven-plus. Others are in very small local authorities, where grammar schools are heavily populated by outsiders, leaving enough relatively high attainers to take up places at their schools.

Using this approach, 135 schools have less than half the number of L5 pupils that exist in their neighbourhood; yet just 35 of them currently call themselves secondary moderns.

Putting these approaches together

If we say that a secondary modern is a school that recruits from the same neighbourhoods as grammar schools (i.e. a grammar recruitment index of over 5%), such that it reduces its share of L5 pupils (i.e. less than 80% share of L5 pupils in neighbourhood) then there are 281 secondary moderns in the country. These schools can be seen in the top left hand corner of the chart below. (The starred schools on the right hand side are grammar schools.)


Of these schools, 26 are in zero selection local authorities, 27 in LAs with super-selectives, 58 are in LAs with relatively low shares in grammars, 170 are in fully-selective areas. Of the 117 schools that currently call themselves a secondary modern, most (97) but not all are in our list.

So, there are secondary moderns with comprehensive intakes; and there are comprehensives with secondary modern intakes! If we want to learn more about the experiences of studying and teaching in a selective system, we need to be careful to categorise schools correctly.


Want to stay up-to-date with the latest research from Education Datalab? Follow Education Datalab on Twitter to get all of Datalab’s research as it comes out.