Technical and Secondary Technical Schools

‘It is therefore now clear that not only do technical schools not yet enter the picture in most cases but that they never will.’ Ministry of Education. 1960.
Background and scene setting
The current coalition government is proposing to reintroduce technical schools so it seems appropriate to describe the last major attempt to establish such institutions following the 1944 Education Act.
Since 1902 in England and Wales there had developed three distinctive groups of post primary schools namely Grammar, Junior Technical and Senior Elementary Schools. The system was complicated and confused and still favoured the academic subjects and in spite of a number of Educations Acts during the first half of the 20th century the situation showed little sign of real improvement. The perception was that the Grammar schools were held in the highest esteem providing the gateway to professional and executive ranks in employment. The Junior Technical group of schools were seen as ‘second best’ for those who had failed to gain a place at Grammar school. The Senior Elementary schools were seen for those who were not capable of, or interested in more advanced education. These views again reflect the class riddled social and economic culture that dominates this country and seems to want to rank every aspect in relation to class, education and wealth. Grammar schools were seen as superior to Junior Technical schools as they led to better paid employment. The Junior Technical schools, (see biography on this website), provided entry into skilled crafts and trades that had some advantages BUT not so highly prized economic and social advantages. The Senior Elementary schools offered none of these advantages and as a result occupied the lowest rank. Such distinctions sadly persisted within the tripartite system that was created after the 1944 Education Act.
The first significant attempt to improve the situation was the Spens Reports in 1938 which recommended three types of secondary schools. The Norwood Report (1941) took the Spen recommendations further and in 1943 the idea of a tripartite system of secondary education was firmly established organised around: Grammar, Technical and Modern. Therefore the Spens and Norwood Reports provided the foundation stones of the new post war educational system. However the government stressed that they did not want the system to be rigid and inflexible. It was therefore permissive and not compulsory stating ‘It would be wrong to suppose that they (Grammar, Technical and Modern schools) will necessarily remain separate and apart. Different types may be combined in one building or on one site —. In any case the free inter-change of pupils from one type of education to another must be facilitated.’ Put simply Grammar schools were those which had already been designated/recognised as ‘Secondary’ schools.
The Secondary Technical schools evolved from the Junior Technical, Junior Art and Junior Commercial schools. The Secondary Modern schools were elevated from the Senior Elementary schools. These proposals were heavily flawed e.g. it would continue to perpetuate a divided system, (see above description), that ranked and segmented pupils into different schools which in turn would be perceived as possessing different degrees of esteem in society. The system required a selection process namely the 11+ examination. However at the time it was difficult to see any alternative became of the massive time scale that any more radical or large scale re-organisation would have required. The post war reconstruction of homes, industry and public services etc would and did inevitably place massive constraints on any major government reorganisation.
Unfortunately Secondary Modern schools offered little in the way of commercial, technical and vocational education. In 1963 the Newsom Report observed that the schools combined a few academic subjects with some practical subjects such as art, crafts, bookkeeping domestic science, house crafts, metal work, needle work, technical drawing and woodwork. Very few offered such subjects as agricultural, horticultural, commercial and secretarial studies. Newsom also highlighted that even where technical and vocational components existed it was overall of poor quality and only, on average, occupied 20% of the fourth year timetables.
Secondary Technical Schools
In 1947 the Ministry of Education defined the features of the Secondary Technical School as follows: ‘the distinguishing feature is relationship to a particular industry or occupation or group of industries and occupations—-. (It) caters for a minority of able children who are likely to make their best response when the curriculum is strongly coloured by (industrial or commercial) interests, both from the point of view of a career and because subject-matter of this kind appeals to them.’ (1)
A relatively small number of authorities created Secondary Technical Schools in their areas. As the Crowther Report stated in 1958 there were over 1.5 million pupils in secondary modern schools and their equivalent, 683,000 in grammar schools and only 95,000 in secondary technical schools. The report sharply concluded that ’we do not now have, and never have had, a tripartite system.’ There were just over 300 secondary technical schools in 1947 and under 100 in 1970 although there were still approximately 30 bilateral Grammar-Technical schools and a few Technical-Modern schools. This last figure indicates that very few authorities exercised the freedom granted to them in 1943 to create bilateral arrangements.
Table 1 below shows Ministry of Education statistics show numbers of pupils between 1946 and 1947 in Secondary Grammar and Secondary Technical Schools’.
Table 1
Secondary Grammar
Number of pupils
Secondary Technical
Number of pupils
Number of Secondary Technical Schools or Departments
Source: Annual Returns from MoE.
The reasons why the secondary technical failed to reach a critical mass in terms of institutions and student numbers included the difficulty and cost of providing the correct specialist facilities, other appropriate physical resources and skilled, experienced, specialist staff coupled as usual with inadequate and sustained funding. The Ministry of Education had imposed cost limits which seriously restricted the building of appropriate accommodation. As Reese Edwards reported in 1952 after inspecting more than 200 secondary technical schools ‘Annexes consisted of pre-fabricated huts, private houses, old vicarages, parochial halls and even dance halls.’ Also a number were housed in Technical Colleges, using accommodation and equipment mainly intended for adult students. However in spite of all these problems many Secondary Technical schools achieved good reputations with former students going on to careers in scientific and technology occupations. (Person comment: Many went on to study for London University external degrees, Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (HNC/Ds) and Full Technological Certificates from CGLI at local colleges and were joined by a few former Secondary Modern pupils. I studied with many of these and they most certainly were committed to science and technology)). Sadly in the 1960s the Secondary Technical schools started to offer more academic courses similar to the Grammar schools – yet another example of academic drift! They also offered GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels which in turn brought about a few amalgamations usually resulting in bi-lateral Grammar- Technicals.
Table 2 shows the number of pupils taking GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in the 1950s and 60s in Secondary Technical Schools.
Table 2
GCE ‘O’ level
GCE ‘A’ level
Source: G.F. Taylor. ‘Selection for junior and secondary technical education.’ Vocational Aspects. 20. No 47, Autumn 1968. Pages 330/331.
Secondary Technical Schools continued to exist beyond the introduction of the comprehensive system and table 3 shows the number of pupils in such schools and the comprehensives between 1950 and 1985.
Table 3
Pupils in Secondary Technical Schools in England and Wales
As a % of all pupils in maintained secondary schools in England and Wales
% of pupils in comprehensive schools
Source: B. Simon. ‘Education and the Social Order 1940-1990.’ London. 1991. Pages 583-5,
The vocational aspects of the curriculum in Secondary Technical schools were provided through so-called bias courses. The vocational options on these courses were increased as pupils progressed through their years of attendance. A general basic course was pursued for the first two or three years, (very similar to that of a Grammar school), followed by bias courses and other alternative courses with vocational and technical themes. Not all courses led to examinations but many were entered for General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations.
Typical timetables for Secondary Technical schools for the bias courses which typically occupied a third of the weekly timetable are given below.
Girls’ School-Bias Courses:
Art, Biology, English, French, Housecraft, Mathematics, Music
Accounts, French, Office Practice, Shorthand, Typing
Biology, Chemistry, Elementary Physiology, Human Biology, Physics
Boys’ School-Bias Courses:
English, German, Mathematics, Science
Bricklaying, Building Science, Carpentry and Joinery, Design and Colour, Painting and Decorating, Plumbing,
Additional Mathematics, Engineering Drawing, Mechanics, Workshop Practice,
The proportion of time spent on these specialist courses increased in the final year of studies. The sixth form in the Secondary Technical School often differed from that offered in Grammar Schools. Pupils could take more GCE ‘O’ levels or other subjects for professional purposes including foreign languages and commercial and technical qualifications offered by such awarding bodies as RSA, CGLI, Pitman’s etc.
Eventually the 11+ began to be questioned and even in 1958 the Crowther Report stated ‘more and more people are coming to believe that it is wrong to label children for all time at 11.’ This finally led to the majority of authorities introducing comprehensive schools. So Secondary Technical Schools were absorbed into the comprehensive system along with the secondary moderns. What commercial, technical and vocational education existed in comprehensives was largely based on the residuals of provision from the secondary modern schools namely domestic science, metalwork woodwork etc. Another classic case of a false dawn and missed opportunity to introduce meaningful curriculum into secondary schools!  Spens had wanted a healthy and thriving secondary technical school sector but it was not to be and was stifled in the two/three decades after the war. The failure resonated over the subsequent decades and contributed to the continuing defects in England’s neglect of technical and vocational education and training system which is more fully described on this website. Over the past decades innumerable attempts have been made to introduce technical and vocational studies into schools e.g. the plethora of MSC schemes and programmes, TVEI, GNVQ, New Deal programmes, vocational ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels etc. – all have failed as the history of technical education and this website shows. Also included in these attempts are City Technology Colleges (CTCs), specialist schools, academies and now the new proposal to reintroduce technical schools. I fear these and other initiatives are doomed to fail or should that be doomed to succeed?
Key questions need to be asked by the government such as:
·         What is the primary purpose e.g. preparing young people for FE, HE, apprenticeships or direct entry into employment?
·         What relationship will these schools have to the economy – bearing in mind the government has indicated a desire to restructure and rebalance the manufacturing base and economy of the country -old industry/dirty jobs or new industry technologically and scientifically-driven occupations?
·         What will be the age of the students when they embark on their technical studies 11, 13 or 16?
·         What students will they attract/recruit and how will they be selected?
·         How specialised will the studies be?
·         What qualifications will be available to the students and at what level?
·         What will be the rationale of the new technical schools compared with, say, CTCs or specialist schools?
·         What will be the relationship with existing FE colleges and private providers?
·         What will be the relationships and links with apprenticeship programmes and employers?
·         Where will the specialist staff come from to teach at these technical schools?
·         In the time of austerity where will the funding come from to purchase the expensive technological facilities, equipment, workshops, laboratories and specialist staff to match the demands of the highly skilled future? *
This proposal must be carefully thought through and whatever happens it must not repeat the mistakes of the past. It will not be a cheap option and must not be about cast off equipment, facilities and staff.
*FE Colleges are already experiencing massive cuts to their budgets (in some cases 20 %+) and making many staff redundant. They will watch with great interest how these new technical schools are funded.
Picture below is in a workshop at South West Ham Secondary Technical School.
(1)   The New Secondary Education. MoE, 1947 pages 47/48.
Two excellent books on this subject:
Sanderson. M. ‘The Missing Stratum. Technical School Education in England 1900-1990s.’ Athlone Press. ISBN 0 485 11442 9. 1994.
Edwards. R. ‘The Secondary Technical School.’ ULP. 1960.




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