School in the 1960s in the UK

Watering cans, vintage and modern vintage style
Cranhill Secondary School, Glasgow 1967
Image by Phillip Capper licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

What was school like in the 1960s?

Big changes were happening in state education in the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade most children went to either grammar or secondary modern schools. Selection was at age 11 by the 11+ examination.

There were few comprehensive schools in 1960, but by the end of the 1960s, 26% of children of secondary school age went to comprehensive schools.

There was fierce debate amongst educationalists and politicians about whether to keep selection or abolish it.

What was school like in the 1960s compared to today?

Facts about school in the 1960s

(*) Percentages are for children aged 12 at maintained schools

At what age did you start school in the 1960s?

School started at age 5 in the 1960s. Children started school at the beginning of the term in which they had their 5th birthday. They were usually aged 4 when they first entered the school gates.

What was the school leaving age in the 1960s?

The school leaving age throughout the 1960s was 15.

Children were able to leave in the term following their 15th birthday. Those old enough were known as 'Easter leavers'. The last year of school was the 4th rather than the 5th year for many children in the 1960s.

Leavers at 15 left school with no qualifications.

Trinity Comprehensive School for Girls, Southwark, London, opened in 1962
Trinity Comprehensive School for Girls, Southwark, London, opened in 1962. Today it is called Ark Globe Academy
Image 1 - information

Types of school

In the 1960s there were primary and secondary schools as there are today. The age range at primary school was 5 to 11 and at secondary school 11 to 18.

Primary schools were organised into infants and juniors, as they were in the 1950s.

Children stayed at school beyond age 15 to study GCE O-levels, CSEs (from 1965) and from 16 to 18 to study GCE A-levels.

For many children going to state school in the 1960s there was an examination taken in the spring term at primary school at age 11, the 11-plus. It decided whether they went to grammar school, a technical school or a secondary modern.

In some areas the 11+ had been abolished and children went to a comprehensive school. In some there was a combination of grammar and comprehensives.

The Labour Government from 1964 pushed for an end to selection at age 11 and promoted comprehensive schools. In 1965 the Government published a circular which requested local authorities submit plans to convert to the comprehensive system. Some were eager; some complied; others delayed. The result was a wide variety of provision in different areas.

Were comprehensives or grammars better?

This is still a controversial topic today. There is no clear winner. There was a huge amount of literature produced about the 11+ and why it was a bad for some children. There was very little objective research into which type of school system was better overall.

There was much wrong with the 11+. 11 was a young age to make the selection. This age may have come from the pre-War era when the school leaving age was 14. There would have been very little point of having an examination at age 13 to select secondary schools when most pupils would leave the following year.

There was evidence that it was not accurate.

GCE results steadily improved throughout the 1960s, mostly under the tripartite system. They hardly increased at all in the 1970s under mainly comprehensive regimes.

How many children went to grammar schools in the 1960s?

This table shows the number of children at each type of school at two dates in the 1960s

Secondary modern58%47%

Source: Secondary school reorganization in England and Wales, by Alun Griffiths, published Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1971, page 13


Some of the most popular subjects taken at GCE Ordinary level in the 1960s included:

Source: Derived from London University (Exam board) GCE results published in 'The Grammar School' by Robin Davis, published by Penguin 1967, pages 138-9

Scarf, tie and blazer badge from Wolverhampton Grammar Technical School c1966
Scarf, tie and blazer badge from Wolverhampton Grammar Technical School c1966

School uniform

School uniform was compulsory in grammar schools. Some secondary moderns also had school uniform; some did not. Pupils' attitude to uniform in secondary moderns was laxer than would be tolerated today. In the 1960s older boys at secondary moderns got away with jeans and winklepickers instead of smart trousers and black shoes. Some swapped the school blazer for a sports jacket or pullover.

In some schools girls wore blazers. In others the uniform was a skirt, cardigan, blouse and tie. Girls often wore summer dresses in the summer term. Traditional-style gymslips were much less common in the 1960s.

Discipline and punishments

Corporal punishment was still common in schools in the 1960s. The ultimate sanction was the cane administered by the head. In the film Kes (1969), Billy Casper and his friends get caned for smoking. The brutal headmaster thinks nothing of caning boys, although he admits it will do no good.

Form teachers also administered punishment using rulers, gym shoes and in one school wooden 'whackers' made by the woodwork master.[2]

Detention and lines were also common for lesser offences. Prefects also doled out punishments in many schools.

Films and TV about schools in the 1960s

Not just about schools Kes (1969) based on Barry Hines' book 'A Kestrel for a Knave' featured scenes filmed at St Helen's County Secondary School, Carlton Road Barnsley. It was a typical newly-built secondary modern.


[1] 'Education: historical statistics' by Paul Bolton, House of Commons Library, last updated 27 November 2012, page 19

[2] 'Life in a secondary modern school' by John Partridge, published by Penguin in 1968, page 111

Image information

[Image 1] Published as part of the Britain an Official Handbook in 1962 under Crown Copyright. Duration of copyright is fifty years after publication. So this image is public domain.

By Steven Braggs, May 2021

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I went to a Secondary Modern school in the Black Country from 1959 to 1963. On the first assembly the Headmaster said that they didn't do external exams, like GSE, because you didn't need them on the factory floor. At that time about 22% of grammar school kids went to University and 8% of Sec Mod kids went. Believe me, in the Black Country it was about 5% Grammer kids and 1% Sec Mod kids......why? Because it's was on no ones radar. You left school and brought in a wage. Simple as that.

Stephen young

Stepney green secondary school

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