‘British women and the secondary modern school, 1946-1972’ – Laura Carter, Institute of Historical Research London, Life Cycles Seminar

Posted on March 15, 2022

15 March 2022 - 17 h 30 min - 19 h 00 min

Laura Carter will give a conference at the Institute of Historical Research London (Life Cycles Seminar) entitled ‘British women and the secondary modern school, 1946-1972’ (5:30-7pm, GMT).


Between the late 1940s and early 1970s the majority of teenage girls in Britain attended secondary modern schools, peaking at 59% of the female school-aged population in England and Wales in 1962. Yet, histories of the meaning and experience of education for this generation continue to neglect this constituent of postwar women, favouring grammar-school leavers and returners to higher education, whose testimonies tend to be more prominent and accessible. This paper draws upon a set of fifty-eight newly-mined life histories from the 1946 British Birth Cohort Study and the Newcastle Thousand Families 1947 Birth Cohort to recapture the perspectives of ordinary women who attended secondary modern schools in England, Wales, and Scotland between c.1957 and c.1963. Using these longitudinal sources, I argue that British women who attended postwar secondary modern schools developed attitudes to education gradually, across their life course, and that these attitudes cannot be understood through a focus on the missed opportunities of grammar school and/or higher education alone. 

Instead, I diagnose postwar secondary modern women with the ‘hairdresser blues’, a formulation which encapsulates their collective expectations, disappointments, and regrets born out of the closely interlinked experiences of work, schooling, and early parenthood in Britain from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. As adults and as mothers, these women’s educational attitudes were defined by the cumulative realisation that a secondary modern education might not even be able to make you into a hairdresser. I ultimately suggest that it was more often the ‘hairdresser blues’ than ‘missing out’ on the prestigious grammar school that politicised secondary modern schools for the women who actually attended them.


It will take place online. All are welcome but registration is required.

Register here