History of Grammar Schools in the UK - The Tripartite System

The Tripartite System refers to the organisation of secondary (state-funded) education in England and Wales from the mid-1940s and 1970s and from 1947 all the way to 2009 in Northern Ireland. The basis for this type of organisation of secondary education were the Education Act 1944 and the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947 that called for the creation of three types of secondary schools. Grammar schools were to be joined by secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools.

Main Goals of the Tripartite System

For the first time in history, secondary education was defined as a right which must be open/accessible to all. The Education Act 1944 and the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947 also called for secondary education to be free, while poor students were to be provided financial help. Furthermore, the schools were to adjust their curriculum and programmes to the skills and needs of the students and admit students based on their performance at Eleven plus exam rather than financial abilities of their parents.

Not as Great in Practice as in Theory

Even though the intentions of the creators of the Tripartite System were good, reorganisation of secondary education wasn’t so great in practice as in theory. Due to the lack of funds and adequately qualified/trained teachers, technical schools failed to develop as envisioned. The Tripartite System was thus more or less a two-tier system: top-performing students went to grammar schools and academically average and below-average students to modern schools. Further education was formally open to all students no matter if attending grammar, technical or modern school but university students with finished modern school were the exception rather than the rule.

Due to the failure of technical schools to develop, the Tripartite System further strengthened the long prevailing view that grammar schools provide superior secondary education. In contrast, modern schools were widely considered as inferior and a failure even though approximately 70% of all students attended modern schools. As a result, most of the funds available went to grammar schools which in turn further widened the gap.

Abolition of the Tripartite System and Afterwards

In the 1970s, the Tripartite System was abandoned in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, however, it survived until 2009. After the abolition of the Tripartite System, the majority of grammar schools converted to independent, fee-paying schools, while some were closed or became comprehensive.