The questions I am most often asked

Is the book only about England and Wales?

Most of the statistics and analysis are about the schools in England and Wales. These two countries represent about 90% of the UK’s population. Many of the events and conclusions have relevance to other English-speaking countries, however – especially Chapter 9, which looks at ‘What lessons can we learn?’

Does the book discuss other types of schools?

The simple answer is ‘yes’. I lost count of how many different types of schools I encountered throughout the timeline. There is a whole chapter devoted to the ‘comprehensive era’ and much discussion of grammar and technical schools.

What value does it have to today’s children and their schools?

It is scary how today’s system of schooling and the exams children take are based on events that happened many decades ago. I concluded that there is a pattern of failure in how the education system operates that applies just as much today as it did after WWII. Issues about teacher shortages, the relevance of exams, evaluating schools’ performance and the purpose of education have existed throughout the timeline. Reducing the gap between the best and worst of schools is a problem that no government has been able to solve.

Can I skip reading the history section of the book?

I guess it is a bit like reading a novel. One option – the one my wife normally takes – is to go straight to the last few pages and find out how the story ends. Depending on whether you like the conclusion, you can then either start at the beginning or decide it’s not worth the effort. Chapter 8, ‘Much maligned or monstrous mistake?’, is the equivalent of reading the final pages. So yes, you could skip the history sections – but I think you would lose much of the book’s value. The evolution of the education system results from a recurring cycle of grand visions of what is ‘right’, doing battle with reality and invariably coming off second-best. Only by reading the history will you really understand what this means.

Why is so much of the book devoted to analysing the history of secondary schools?

It was never my intention to devote so much of the book (70%) to recounting the people and events that determined how secondary schools evolved. Unfortunately, I

found the further I delved into the history the less confidence I had in the accuracy of the existing historical accounts. To produce an accurate account of secondary moderns I needed to find the source materials, do my own analysis and draw my own conclusions. A famous author and historian (Mary Beard) said, ‘We don’t disseminate a complicated view of the past; we disseminate a simple view.’ In writing the history I wanted to understand the ‘complicated’ parts that are now forgotten.

You have never worked in education and are not an academic – isn’t that a problem?

Funnily enough, I see not being an ‘academic’ as a positive thing, not a problem, because I’m able to assess the situation from an outsider’s perspective. The rewards of my working life meant that I now have both of the advantages of academia: the resources and, above all, the time to study a subject in great detail. In addition, my varied career gave me a wealth of experience working at the most senior levels in companies and governments to see for myself how things work (or not). As I was to discover when writing the book, there is a worrying bias in the way many educational academics perceive the world. I hope that by working outside academia and not having to abide by its norms I have been able to avoid this trap.

All your other books have been about business – why write about schools?

Writing about the internet and then the business issues associated with population ageing was a marketing decision. The experience gave me deep knowledge of the subjects and credibility to work in two exciting and emerging areas of business. There are no such commercial considerations with The Secondary Mod. I did it for fun. I wanted to answer long-held questions about my own education and above all I did it to ‘put the record straight’ about the excellent teachers who worked in these schools.

Why did you include a chapter about behavioural science?

If we are not careful, the accuracy of how we recall past events deteriorates over time, and this has happened with the story of secondary moderns. Let me explain why. When studying for my MBA there were a series of lectures about ‘organisational behaviour’. I didn’t pay much attention at the time, seeing it as a ‘soft’ science, unlike the certainties of international finance or corporate law. That was a very silly and costly mistake. It would be nice to think that we accumulate knowledge and make decisions in a perfectly logical way. But that’s not how it works. Human frailty means we invariably take shortcuts and acquire biases in how we process information. Understanding why this happens provides some protection against falling into those traps. That’s why there is a chapter titled ‘The truth is what you want it to be.’

It’s a mighty long book about a single type of school.

For a couple of decades, secondary moderns educated the majority of children in England and Wales. Despite this, there is very little written about them, unlike grammar schools (which educated half the number of children). This dearth of written material is one reason for the book’s length. The other was the need to extend the timeline over 90 years and to incorporate so much newly sourced material from the National Archives.