Comprehensive Future’s steering group recently met Ian Widdows the founder of the National Association of Secondary Moderns (NASM). Ian is the Headteacher of Giles Academy, Lincolnshire, and he set up the NASM because he feels there are too many old fashioned assumptions about secondary moderns. He thinks policymakers demonstrate a limited understanding of these school’s unique circumstances.

Ian pointed out that there are just 163 grammar schools but three times as many secondary modern schools; in fact 17% of secondary schools are affected by the presence of a nearby selective school. Grammar schools have a high profile with two national bodies promoting their needs, including the influential Grammar School Heads Association. Grammar schools have a voice and Ian thought secondary moderns deserve to be heard too. The DfE have a category of schools called ‘non-selective schools in highly selective areas’ which is an impossible mouthful, but Ian proudly uses the term, ‘secondary modern’ and hopes to reinvent this phrase for modern times.

There are clearly many challenges facing secondary modern schools. Ian explained the fact that Ofsted ratings and Progress 8 league tables regularly overstate the success of grammar schools while suggesting secondary modern schools are underachieving. Grammar schools are 30 times more likely to be rated ‘Outstanding’ than secondary modern schools, but Ian has tenaciously challenged Ofsted about this odd discrepancy.

There is now a great deal of evidence that Ofsted ratings have a bias favouring schools with low numbers of deprived pupils, yet our politicians still use school ratings to support expanding selection. Ian has questioned whether Ofsted uses inspectors with experience of secondary modern schools, and suspects few inspectors have this background. There is research that suggests that most single-sex faith schools with above-average attainment will be rated ‘Outstanding’ but schools skewed to low attainers, and with many disadvantaged pupils, are much more likely to be rated ‘Requires Improvement’ than other schools. In effect, this punishes our most inclusive schools and rewards the schools that choose who they’ll teach.

We regularly hear politicians say ‘grammar schools are good schools’ and selective schools always top league tables that use Progress 8 measures. Ian challenges the accuracy of these education metrics. It is certainly worth criticising our league table culture if the “best” schools are apparently those that select the most advantaged pupils who prove they’re good at exams by passing a test at ten!

Ian invited Sean Harford, the National Director of Ofsted, to a NASM annual conference, and challenged him on the way Ofsted rate the schools in selective areas. Ofsted’s position is apparently that grammar schools are ‘Outstanding’ schools because they have better teachers. Ian suggested this was simply not true, and it certainly seems insulting to the many excellent teachers working in secondary modern schools. Ian also pointed out that if Ofsted truly believes that selective schools offer better teaching than secondary moderns this has clear implications for equity in selective areas. The schools watchdog has said nothing about this inequality – even though the government is spending £200 million expanding grammar schools.

Ian described the way grammar schools seem to ‘follow the money’ always filling with pupils through secretive appeals panels, and apparently lowering ‘standards’ whenever they have empty desks to fill. He said pupils who are doing well in his school sometimes move to the grammar school, simply because selective schools have more status. This must be hard to take when it’s the excellent teaching in his secondary modern that has inspired the pupil’s progress.

Ian pointed out that many NASM members are reluctant to call their schools secondary moderns, which is understandable, but it makes it more difficult for campaigns like ours seeking to end selection. Grammar schools are never shy about promoting their excellence, but the schools that surround them mostly keep their head down and avoid talking about the challenges, often suggesting they are comprehensive schools. Parents look at league tables and Ofsted ratings, and these make the grammar schools look like the “best” schools, we’d welcome NASM members challenging this false hierarchy.

We at Comprehensive Future have a great deal of respect for the teachers and school leaders working in secondary modern schools. The unfairness of an 11-plus school system means they face challenging circumstances, educating high proportions of pupils with SEN or disadvantaged backgrounds, plus pupils demoralised by being rejected by selective schools. Most secondary moderns do a great job boosting the aspiration of pupils who have failed the 11-plus. Ian is keen to point out that many pupils find academic success despite failing the 11-plus, many pupils progress to higher education from their secondary modern schools.

The National Association of Secondary Moderns is neutral on whether selection should end, focussing instead on improving the reputation of secondary modern schools, and ensuring policymakers take note of their needs when devising accountability measures. Comprehensive Future is sympathetic to this position, and secondary modern schools are often excellent, but, of course, we’d like every school to be a true comprehensive school! The unreliable 11-plus test is flawed in so many ways, and the school divide in selective areas damages social cohesion. Despite the great work of secondary modern schools, there is a greater gap in GCSE attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in selective areas, the system effects of selection seem to mean that secondary modern schools face circumstances where it is harder to succeed.

It’s good to know the NASM is doing such a great job to give secondary moderns a voice. Thanks to Ian Widdows for speaking to our team, and for raising awareness of the schools that politicians would rather ignore.