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The schools that Britain forgot

Technical High Schools were for bright students who wanted to get their hands dirty. Credit: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Technical High Schools were for bright students who wanted to get their hands dirty. Credit: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images

September 9, 2019   5 mins

Last week, children across the country headed back to school; we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, our writers share some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.


This year is the 75th anniversary of the 1944 Education Act. Among other things, Rab Butler’s landmark legislation established universal access to secondary education. In the post-war years, the state system was made up of two unequal parts – the selective grammar schools for children who took and passed the 11 plus exam; and secondary moderns for the majority who didn’t. 1965 marked the start of a new phase – the introduction of comprehensives, which supposedly abolished the great divide.

Of course, that’s to massively over-simplify what really happened. Nothing in the world of UK education is straightforward. After all, this is a country where ‘public schools’ are in fact private. As for comprehensives, their introduction wasn’t comprehensive. There’s always been a degree of devolution in the state system, which is why the grammar schools survived in some parts of the country.

The biggest pocket of resistance was, and still is, the county of Kent – which is where I grew up. My secondary school was Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys, which sounds posh, but wasn’t. In fact, it’s real name (i.e. the one that most people used most of the time) was the unposh-sounding ‘Tech’.

That’s because it didn’t start off as a grammar, but a ‘secondary technical’ or ‘technical high’ school – an all-but-forgotten experiment that exposes one of the great failures of British education policy.


The old bipartite system of grammars and secondary moderns was originally meant to be a tripartite system.

The grammars, modelled on the public (i.e. private) schools, were there to supply recruits to a broadened-out ruling class, which in the 20th century had become more meritocratic than aristocratic. The secondary moderns were all about schooling the workers, white collar as well as blue – and, ideally, both literate and numerate. To this updated version of the class system was added a third element, one that didn’t really fit in with the old categories of rulers and ruled.

Winston Churchill once said that scientists should be “on tap, but not on top”. He was certainly right that the country needed a lot of them – plus engineers and technologists too. Both commerce and industry would grind to a halt without the advanced application of the arts and sciences, so an army of highly skilled workers was required. But where would this new technical class come from?

The grammars and the public (private) schools, with their traditional focus on the classics, were not seen as best suited to the purpose. It being the 20th century, scientific and technical subjects weren’t excluded from the curriculum, but their teaching was more a matter of abstract knowledge than applicable know-how. There was also a lingering hint of British intellectual snobbery – a sense that the kind of technical education demanded by the modern world was nevertheless unbefitting of gentlefolk.

Hence the logic of the technical schools – a place for bright kids who wouldn’t mind getting their hands dirty. The tripartite system of post-war secondary education was thus a class hierarchy – with the technical high schools making up the middle layer.


Well, that was the theory; in practice, the middle layer got squeezed out. Implementation of the 1944 Act was left to local authorities, and provision tended to polarise between the grammars and the secondary moderns. Even before the advent of the comprehensives, the technical schools never accounted for more than 3% of the secondary school population.

Once again, Kent was an outlier. The county made a serious attempt to make the tripartite system work, setting up all three types of school. This is how my school came into being – established in 1956 as Tunbridge Wells Technical High School for Boys (or ‘Tech’ for short). However, by the time I got there, in the early 80s, it had become a grammar in all but name. The subsequent name change was a mere formality.

It was also symbolic of the erosion of class distinctions – especially those between the traditional and technical professions. The British have long had a tendency to associate the word ‘engineer’ with greasy overalls, but in the post-war years the penny began to drop – we would need more than Oxbridge-educated classicists to prosper in the modern world. With the UK losing ground to the resurgent German, Japanese and French economies, our leaders decided that we had to embrace the “white heat of technology“.

Of course, the way in which the establishment conferred esteem upon the relevant occupations was to drag more and more of them into the academic route of A levels followed by higher education. Thus instead of sending their alumni directly into employment or to technical colleges, the secondary technical schools were increasingly supplying the universities. Amid all that technological white heat, the distinction with the traditional grammars had evaporated.


In many ways, what I received at Tech was a conventional academic education. And yet the school’s origins set it apart from the older grammar schools. The architecture was post-war plate glass, not Victorian red brick. There was no Latin or Greek, but quite a lot of woodwork and metalwork. There was a school uniform, but no ‘houses’. Corporal punishment was still legal at the time, but seldom used – the theoretical possibility served as sufficient deterrent.

There were prefects, but without much power – and as younger boys we weren’t afraid of them. Bullying, if it happened at all, was almost always verbal, very rarely physical. If it did happen, the thing to do was fight back: the teachers would intervene, but not make a big thing about it. Overall there was about as much order as one could reasonably expect from 800 boys.

Looking back, I can see how Tech pulled off a balancing act – academic rigour without stuffiness, aspiration without pretension, discipline without terror.

Of course, it helped that we were in a prosperous part of the country – one that did well out of the Thatcher revolution. However, we weren’t, most of us, sons of privilege – at least not class privilege.

As boys tend to do, we’d ask each other what our dads did for a living, and, as far as I can remember, it was jobs like postman, fire fighter, land surveyor, customs officer, sub postmaster. There weren’t many lawyers, doctors or even teachers among our folks.

If we ended up going to university, we were usually the first in our family to do so. And yet there was no particular fuss made about that fact. Nor was there much fuss made about not going to university – a degree was just one among many options to be taken as appropriate (and, it must be said, without loading our young shoulders with student debt). We weren’t burdened with overly pushy parents or teachers either. On the other hand, there was no hostility to academic achievement among the pupils. You could be picked on for many reasons – but not for being a swot.


In recent years, the grammar schools of Kent have become a political football. Various Right wingers promise to ‘bring back’ grammar schools (to places that don’t have them), while various Left wingers promise to abolish them. For my part, I’ll always be grateful to a school that pushed me when I needed it, but without ever crushing me. The unstuffy grammar school that Tech had become suited me well.

Still, I regret the disappearance of the old technical high schools. Not because setting children on a fixed route aged 11 or 13 was ever the right way forward, but because the techs represented a serious, systematic attempt to cater for the needs of intelligent, but practically-minded, children.

While other countries, notably Germany and Switzerland, have created impressive systems of technical education, Britain lags behind. The academically-minded benefit from the UK’s world-beating universities, but many parts of our country are held back by some of the lowest skill levels in western Europe.

To quote the words that often appeared on my school reports, we “must try harder”.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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