Education in England:
a brief history

Introduction, Contents

Chapter 1 600-1800
Chapter 2 1800-1860
Towards a state system
Chapter 3 1860-1900
Class divisions
Chapter 4 1900-1944
Taking shape
Chapter 5 1944-1951
Post-war reconstruction
Chapter 6 1951-1970
The wind of change
Chapter 7 1970-1979
Recession and disenchantment
Chapter 8 1979-1990
Thatcherism: marketisation
Chapter 9 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 10 1997-2007
The Blair decade
Chapter 11 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 12 2010
What future for education in England?

Chapter 13 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
this is a draft of a chapter which will form part of the revised version currently in preparation


Organisation of this chapter


1944 Education Act
Summary of the Act
   I Central Administration
   II Statutory System
   III Independent Schools
   IV General
   V Supplemental
Commentary on the Act
   The government of education

After the war
Ellen Wilkinson
Selection: comprehensive failure
   The tripartite system
   General Certificate of Education
   Primary education
Special educational needs
Other matters
   The curriculum
   Teacher training


Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Chapter 5 : 1944-1951

Post-war reconstruction


In May 1940 Britain had been at war with Nazi Germany for eight months and Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain had lost the confidence of his party and most of the public. He was forced to resign and was replaced by Winston Churchill (pictured), who formed a coalition government with a war cabinet consisting of members of both main parties.

In October 1940 President of the Board of Education Herwald Ramsbotham (later Lord Soulbury) met with senior officers of the Board at its temporary office in the Branksome Dene Hotel at Bournemouth. Interrupted by the occasional air raid, they discussed the educational measures which would be needed to achieve the prime minister's ideal of 'establishing a state of society where the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed only by the few, shall be far more widely shared by the men and youth of the nation as a whole' (quoted in Taylor 1977:158).

The Board's proposals were set out in Education after the war, the 'Green Book' which was circulated, on a strictly confidential basis, to selected recipients in June 1941. These proposals formed the basis of much (but not all) of what would become the 1944 Education Act.

It was proposed that the existing differentiation between elementary and secondary education should be abolished and that instead there should be three stages of education: primary, secondary and further. The provision of secondary education would be a duty - not just a power - of local education authorities; all schools at the secondary stage would be subject to a single Code of Regulations 'providing for equality of treatment in such matters as accommodation, size of classes, etc'; and all secondary schools (with the exception of the direct grant grammar schools) would be free.

Rather than ending the 'dual system' (of LEA-provided and voluntary schools), further financial assistance would be offered to the voluntary schools, 'accompanied, as it must be, by such extended public control as is necessary, not simply to secure a quid pro quo, but to ensure the effective and economical organisation and development of both primary and secondary education' (quoted in Taylor 1977:159).

Rab Butler (Conservative) was appointed President of the Board of Education in the summer of 1941 and the coalition government began to make plans for an ambitious programme of 'social reconstruction' in the post-war period. Policies, though executed by ministers of one of the two parties, were jointly agreed. The 1944 Education Act (3 August 1944), based on the 1943 white paper Educational Reconstruction, formed an important part of this programme.

Communist and teachers' leader GCT Giles described the white paper as 'a drastic recasting of our educational system' (Giles 1946:21, quoted in Jones 2003:15). He and other reformers were delighted that it promised a free, common and universal system of education for students up to 18 underpinned by the principle that 'the nature of a child's education should be based on his capacity and promise and not by the circumstances of his parent' (Board of Education 1943:7).

Indeed, the importance of the Act - sometimes referred to as the Butler Act since it was Butler (pictured) who piloted the bill through parliament - cannot be overemphasised. It replaced almost all previous education legislation and set the framework for the post-war education system in England and Wales. There were similar Education Acts for Scotland (1945) and Northern Ireland (1947).

  • Cabinet Papers and other documents relating to the 1944 Education Act can be found on the National Archives website here.

    1944 Education Act

    The 1944 Act's major provisions concerned:

  • Download the Education Act 1944 (pdf text 1.8mb).

  • Download the Education (Scotland) Act 1945 (pdf text 1.5mb).

    (The equivalent Act for Northern Ireland is not currently available online).

    Summary of the Act

    Part I Central Administration

    The Act provided for the appointment of a Minister of Education and the establishment of the Ministry of Education. The Minister's duty was:

    to promote the education of the people of England and Wales and the progressive development of institutions devoted to that purpose, and to secure the effective execution by local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive educational service in every area (Section 1(1)).
    Provision was made for the appointment of a Parliamentary Secretary and other staff (1(3) and for the transfer of Board of Education property to the new Ministry (2(1)).

    Two Central Advisory Councils for Education (one for England, one for Wales) were to be established 'to advise the Minister upon such matters connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him' (4(1)).

    The Minister was required to make an annual report to Parliament on 'the exercise and performance and the powers and duties conferred and imposed upon him' (5).

    Part II The Statutory System of Education

    Local education authorities

    Every county and county borough would be the local education authority (LEA) for its area (6(1). Property and staff previously owned and employed for educational purposes would be transferred to the LEAs (6(3 and 4).

    The statutory system of education

    shall be organised in three progressive stages to be known as primary education, secondary education, and further education; and it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education throughout those stages shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area (7).
    Local authorities were charged with providing primary and secondary schools
    sufficient in number, character, and equipment to afford for all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities, and aptitudes (8(1).
    LEAs were to ensure that there were separate schools for primary and secondary education; that nursery education was available for under-fives; that provision was made for 'pupils who suffer from any disability of mind or body'; and that boarding accommodation was offered where appropriate (8(2)).

    LEAs were given the power to establish primary and secondary schools, to be known as 'county schools'. Schools not established by an LEA (ie mainly church schools) were to be known as 'voluntary schools' (9). The Minister would make regulations 'prescribing the standards to which the premises of schools maintained by local education authorities are to conform' (10). Each LEA was required to produce, within a year, a 'development plan' for schools in its area (11); the Minister would then issue a 'local education order' specifying which schools the LEA was required to maintain (12). LEA proposals for opening or closing schools, or for changing their status, were to be submitted to the Minister (13). Rules were laid down regarding the closure of voluntary schools (14). The Act specified three categories of voluntary schools: controlled, aided and special agreement (15).

    Section 17 set out the arrangements for the governance of schools: a primary school was to have a body of managers, a secondary school a body of governors, each having 'an instrument' providing for its constitution. Membership of these bodies was described in sections 18 (primary schools) and 19 (secondary schools). Provision was made for the grouping of schools under one management body (20).

    In county schools (and most voluntary schools) the 'secular instruction' and matters such as the length of the school day and the dates of school terms were to be under the control of the local education authority. In aided secondary schools, this control would be exercised by the governors (23).

    The appointment of teachers would be under the control of the local education authority (24).

    Religious education

    Section 25 dealt with religious education. On collective worship (school 'assembles') it said:

    the school day in every county school and in every voluntary school shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance at the school, and the arrangements made therefor shall provide for a single act of worship attended by all such pupils unless, in the opinion of the local education authority or, in the case of a voluntary school, of the managers or governors thereof, the school premises are such as to make it impracticable to assemble them for that purpose (25(1)).
    And on religious instruction:
    religious instruction shall be given in every county school and in every voluntary school (25(2)).
    Parents had the right to withdraw their children from religious worship or instruction (25(4)).

    In county schools, collective worship

    shall not ... be distinctive of any particular religious denomination, and the religious instruction given to any pupils ... shall be given in accordance with an agreed syllabus adopted for the school or for those pupils and shall not include any catechism or formulary which is distinctive of any particular religious denomination (26).
    Controlled schools could employ 'reserved teachers', 'selected for their fitness and competence to give such religious instruction as is required to be given' (27(2)). In aided and special agreement schools, religious instruction would be under the control of the managers or governors. However, if parents desired their children to be taught according to the local agreed syllabus and there was no county school which they could reasonably be expected to attend, the aided school would have to provide such instruction (28(1)).

    LEAs were empowered to convene, and make appointments to, a standing advisory council on religious education to

    advise the authority upon matters connected with the religious instruction to be given in accordance with an agreed syllabus and, in particular, to methods of teaching, the choice of books, and the provision of lectures for teachers (29(2)).
    The Act allowed teachers a 'conscience clause':
    no person shall be disqualified by reason of his religious opinions, or of his attending or omitting to attend religious worship, from being a teacher in a county school or in any voluntary school, or from being otherwise employed for the purposes of such a school; and no teacher in any such school shall be required to give religious instruction or receive any less emolument or be deprived of, or disqualified for, any promotion or other advantage by reason of the fact that he does or does not give religious instruction or by reason of his religious opinions or of his attending or omitting to attend religious worship (30).
    Transitional arrangements

    Transitional arrangements (for the separation of primary and secondary schools and for the management and maintenance of voluntary schools) were set out in sections 31 and 32.

    Special educational treatment

    The education of 'pupils requiring special educational treatment' was dealt with in sections 33 and 34. The Minister would 'make regulations defining the several categories of pupils requiring special educational treatment' (33(1)) and LEAs would be expected to provide places in special schools for more serious cases (33(2)).

    It would be the duty of each LEA:

    to ascertain what children in their area require special educational treatment; and for the purpose of fulfilling that duty any officer of a local education authority authorised in that behalf by the authority may by notice in writing served upon the parent of any child who has attained the age of two years require him to submit the child for examination by a medical officer of the authority for advice as to whether the child is suffering from any disability of mind or body and as to the nature and extent of any such disability (34(1)).
    Where an LEA decided that special education treatment was necessary, it was required to inform the parents and provide the treatment (34(4).

    If the LEA or parents requested it, the medical officer who examined the child would issue 'a certificate in the prescribed form showing whether the child is suffering from any such disability as aforesaid and, if so, the nature and extent thereof' (34(5)).

    School attendance

    Section 35 dealt with compulsory attendance at primary and secondary schools and defined 'compulsory school age' as between five and fifteen years, with the hope that, as soon as it became practicable, the upper limit would be raised to sixteen. (Section 38 set the upper limit for pupils in special schools at sixteen).

    Section 36 stated that:

    It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability, and aptitude, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.
    Section 37 set out the rules relating to 'school attendance orders' which could be served by LEAs on parents who failed to comply with section 36.

    Sections 39 and 40 dealt with the enforcement of school attendance.

    Further education

    LEAs were charged with providing 'adequate facilities' for full-time and part-time education 'for persons over compulsory school age' and 'leisure-time occupation, in such organized cultural training and recreative activities as are suited to their requirements, for any persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit by the facilities provided for that purpose' (41). They were to submit their schemes for further education to the Minister (42) and set up county colleges for this purpose (43). LEAs could serve 'college attendance notices' on under-eighteens, requiring them to attend a county college for (roughly) a day a month or for eight weeks in a year (44-47).

    Supplementary provisions

    The Act required LEAs to:

    • make provision for medical inspections in schools and colleges (48);
    • provide 'milk, meals and other refreshment for pupils in attendance at schools and colleges maintained by them' (49);
    • offer boarding accommodation where appropriate (50);
    • make clothing grants (51);
    • recover the costs of boarding and clothing where parents could afford to pay (52);
    • provide 'adequate facilities for recreation and social and physical training' (53);
    • ensure the cleanliness of 'the persons and clothing of pupils' in schools and colleges (54);
    • provide transport for pupils where necessary (55);
    • make 'special arrangements' in 'extraordinary circumstances' for children to be educated 'otherwise than at school' (56); and
    • arrange for the medical examination of a child considered 'incapable of receiving education at school' (57).
    Sections 58-60 dealt with the law relating to the employment of children and young people and gave LEAs the power to prohibit or restrict such employment.

    Other miscellaneous provisions were set out in Sections 61-69:

    • no fees were to be charged for admission to schools or colleges (61);
    • the Minister could require LEAs to establish and maintain teacher training colleges (62);
    • the Minister could exempt certain buildings from building byelaws (63);
    • voluntary schools were exempt from paying rates (64);
    • voluntary school endowments would continue to be payable to the managers or governors (65);
    • LEAs could make grants to voluntary schools in certain circumstances (66);
    • disputes between LEAs and school managers or governors could be referred to the Minister (67);
    • the Minister could intervene to prevent LEAs or managers or governors from acting unreasonably (68); and
    • the Minister could make regulations relating to medical examinations (69).
    Part III Independent Schools

    Part III of the Act:

    • provided for the appointment of a Registrar of Independent Schools and laid down the conditions of registration (70);
    • provided for a school proprietor to be served with a 'notice of complaint' if the Minister considered that the school's premises, accommodation, teaching or staff were inappropriate (71);
    • allowed a proprietor to appeal against the notice, such appeals being heard by an Independent Schools Tribunal, which could annul the complaint, order that the school be struck off the register, or lay down conditions for the school remaining on the register (72);
    • set the penalty for continuing to operate a deregistered school as a fine of up to 50 and/or a prison sentence of up to three months (73);
    • allowed the Minister to remove the disqualification if he felt it was no longer necessary (74); and
    • empowered the Lord Chancellor, with the concurrence of the Lord President of the Council, to make rules relating to the practice and procedure to be followed by Independent Schools Tribunals (75).
    Part IV General

    General Principle to be observed by Minister and Local Education Authorities

    Section 76 stated that:

    In the exercise and performance of all powers and duties conferred and imposed on them by this Act the Minister and local education authorities shall have regard to the general principle that, so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents.
    Miscellaneous Provisions

    Sections 77-87 dealt with the following:

    • the inspection of schools and colleges (77):
          - regular and special inspections as required by the Minister (77(2))
          - LEA inspections by their own officers (77(3))
          - illegality of obstructing an inspection (77(4)
          - special rules relating to religious instruction (77(5 and 6));
    • the provision of LEA ancillary services to non-maintained schools (78);
    • the provision of LEA information to the Minister of Health (79);
    • the duty to keep registers of pupils and to make returns to the Minister and the LEA as required (80);
    • the power of LEAs to offer financial assistance and scholarships where appropriate (81);
    • the power of LEAs to conduct or sponsor educational research (82);
    • the power of LEAs to organise educational conferences (83);
    • the power of LEAs to provide financial assistance to a university to improve further education facilities (84);
    • the right of LEAs to accept gifts for educational purposes (85);
    • the right of the Minister to amend certain endowment schemes (86); and
    • amendments to some 19th century Acts relating to assurances of property (87).
    Administrative Provisions

    Sections 88-99 provided for:

    • the appointment by LEAs of Chief Education Officers (88);
    • the remuneration of teachers (89);
    • the compulsory purchase of land by LEAs (90);
    • the auditing of local authority accounts (91);
    • LEA reports and returns to the Minister (92);
    • the Minister's right to order a local inquiry (93);
    • the power of the Minister to intervene if an LEA or school management body failed to comply with the Act (99); and
    • various other technical matters.
    Financial Provisions

    Sections 100-107 provided for:

    • grants by the Minister to LEAs and others, and grants by the Minister of Health in respect of medical inspections and treatment (100);
    • special provisions relating to Wales and Monmouthshire (101);
    • grants by the Minister to aided and special agreement schools of up to 50 per cent of the cost of buildings maintenance (102);
    • grants by the Minister to aided and special agreement schools of up to 50 per cent of the cost of new premises (103);
    • grants by the Minister to aided and special agreement schools for displaced pupils (104);
    • power of the Minister to make loans to aided and special agreement schools in respect of initial expenditure (105);
    • contributions between LEAs (106); and
    • 'Any expenses incurred by the Minister or by the Minister of Health in the exercise of their functions under this Act shall be defrayed out of monies provided by Parliament'. (107)
    Part V Supplemental

    Part V of the Act covered various administrative matters including:

    • the commencement of arrangements under Part II of the Act (108);
    • temporary assistance for voluntary schools (109);
    • variation of rates (110);
    • revocation and variation of orders and directions (111);
    • regulations to be laid before Parliament (112);
    • the serving of notices under the Act (113);
    • interpretation of terms used in the Act (114); and
    • other technical matters (115-122).

    There were nine Schedules to the Act:

    1 Local Administration (pdf page 93)
        Part I Joint Education Boards (93)
        Part II Education Committees (94)
        Part III Delegation of Functions of LEAs to Divisional Executives (95)
    2 Transfer to an LEA of an interest in the premises of a voluntary school (98)
    3 Special agreements in respect of certain voluntary schools (99)
    4 Meetings and proceedings of managers and governors (101)
    5 Procedure for preparing and bringing into operation an agreed syllabus for religious instruction (102)
    6 Constitution of Independent Schools Tribunals (104)
    7 Adjustment of variations of rates consequent upon commencement of Part II of this Act (104)
    8 Amendment of enactments (changes to previous Acts) (106)
    9 Enactments repealed (111)

    Commentary on the Act

    The 1944 Act was undoubtedly an enormous achievement. In its 116 pages it effectively created an entire education system. It was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that it was conceived in the depths of a horrific world war.

    The government of education

    The Act divided responsibility for education between central government, which was to set national policies and allocate resources; the local education authorities (LEAs), which were to set local policies and allocate resources to schools; and the schools themselves, whose head teachers and governing bodies would set school policies and manage the resources.

    Jones notes that some historians have seen in the 1944 Act a strengthening of central government over local control and he acknowledges that, in some respects, this was true. But he argues that:

    to stress centralisation too strongly is to miss something about the dynamic that 1944 in effect encouraged. Local authorities had some power to organise and reorganise schooling. In addition, because the Act made no stipulations about curriculum and pedagogy, teachers had considerable capacities to initiate school-level change ... these capacities were often under-used, but none the less the elements of decentralisation built into the Act were later the basis for significant initiatives of local curricular reform. (Jones 2003:20)
    Central government

    The Act replaced the Board of Education with the Ministry of Education and gave the Minister 'a creative rather than a merely controlling function, charging him with promoting education in England and Wales' (Mackinnon and Statham 1999:54). The Minister had 'the duty to secure the effective execution by the local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive education service in every area' (1944 Act, Section 1(1)). He was responsible to parliament and exercised this responsibility through the Ministry. 'The Secretary of State does not provide schools or colleges, nor employ teachers or prescribe textbooks or curricula' (Shipman 1984:39). But he (and later, she) 'can identify areas for development and place duties on local authorities' (Shipman 1984:40).

  • In 1964 the Ministry of Education was renamed the Department of Education and Science (DES) and the Minister became the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The Department's name has been changed repeatedly since then:
    1992 Department for Education (DFE)
    1995 Department for Education and Employment (DfEE)
    2001 Department for Education and Skills (DfES)
    2007 Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)
    2010 Department for Education (DfE)
    Local education authorities

    The bulk of the 1944 Act (Part II) set out the way in which the national service would be locally administered by LEAs, which were based on the counties and county borough councils, the largest of which was the London County Council (LCC). They were to build and maintain the county (state) schools and the one third of schools provided by voluntary, mostly religious, bodies. The LEAs would usually appoint and always pay the teachers. They were to allocate resources to the schools, including staff, buildings, equipment and materials.

    They would not have detailed control of the curriculum but were to 'contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education ... shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area' (1944 Act, Section 7). They were to provide sufficient places for 5-15 year olds, set the dates of school terms and the length of the school day.

    Within this framework, LEAs did have considerable autonomy:

    Over the years these local authorities have often developed distinctive styles of administration and forms of school organisation. Cross a local government boundary and you may find different ages of transfer between schools, whether from primary to secondary, primary to middle or middle to secondary. There are sixth forms in schools, consortia of schools, tertiary and sixth form colleges. Some LEAs pioneered comprehensive secondary schooling, while others doggedly fought for the survival of their grammar schools. (Shipman 1984:48)
    Every local authority was to have an Education Committee consisting of elected councillors, and was required to appoint a Chief Education Officer who would head the salaried officers of the LEA.

  • For more on the role of the chief education officer see my article The Chief Education Officer: the real master of local educational provision?.

    The schools

    The Act established a nationwide system of free, compulsory schooling from age 5 to 15. (The school leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1947 and the Act said it should be raised to 16 as soon as practicable).

    Pupils could be taught in LEA schools ('county maintained schools'), schools maintained by other organisations or, in certain circumstances, (under Section 56 of the Act) 'otherwise'. (The phrase 'or otherwise' came to be used by parents who did not wish their children to attend school but preferred to educate them at home. An organisation supporting such parents is known as 'Education Otherwise').


    The main reason why the 1944 Act was considered less radical than many had hoped it would be was its failure to resolve two problems: the church schools and private education.

    The church schools

    Since the 1870 Education Act, the Church of England had controlled most rural elementary schools and many urban ones. 'They were in many cases the epitome of low-level mass education' (Jones 2003:18). Almost all were housed in Victorian buildings which the church could not afford to maintain - Giles called them 'pigsty schools' (Giles 1946:35 quoted in Jones 2003:18). The government could have opted simply to subsidise them, but would have faced strong opposition from nonconformists and secularists who objected to public funds being used to support the church. 'Butler's solution was to trade influence for cash - public funding of church schools in return for majority local authority representation on governing bodies' (Jones 2003:18).

    The Act thus categorised church schools as voluntary 'aided' (where the church had greater control) or 'controlled' (where the LEA had greater control). Aided schools were offered 50 per cent of their building and maintenance costs from state funds; controlled schools 100 per cent. Both Rab Butler and Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple assumed that only about 500 of the 9,000 Church of England schools would opt for voluntary aided status. In fact, around 3,000 of them did - along with all the Roman Catholic and Jewish schools.

  • The proportion of church school building costs funded by the taxpayer rose to 75 per cent in 1959; to 80 per cent in 1967; to 85 per cent in 1974; and to 90 per cent in 2001.

    As part of his deal with the churches, Butler also promised that state schools would be required to provide non-denominational religious education and a daily act of worship. LEAs were required to have an Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education, to be compiled by elected politicians, local church leaders, and teachers and other education professionals. All county and controlled schools were required to teach this syllabus, but in aided schools religious education was left to the discretion of the churches. Parents were given the right to withdraw their children from religious education and worship if they wished.

    In the years following the 1944 Act, most Church of England aided schools taught the local Agreed Syllabus but supplemented it. Roman Catholic schools ignored the Agreed Syllabus and sought to indoctrinate their pupils through a more confessional style of religious instruction, 'very much concentrated on introducing children to the Catholic community of faith' (Gates 2005:23).

    Thus the 1944 Act cemented the church schools into the state system of education. This was hardly surprising: the churches provided about a third of all school places and to have removed them from the picture altogether would have been inordinately expensive at a time when the country's infrastructure had been devastated by Nazi bombs. However, the Act could have stated that this was the long-term aim and perhaps even suggested a possible timescale.

    The failure to tackle the church school problem in 1944 and the willingness of subsequent governments (especially Blair's) to kowtow to the religious lobby have led to the current scandal of religious extremists being given taxpayers' money to indoctrinate the nation's children.

    Private education

    This was another area where hopes for the Act ran high. The 1944 Fleming Committee had examined how the independent schools might be integrated into the state system, but it was not to be. The Act did nothing about the private schools, other than to require them to be registered.

    Thus the 1944 Act sought to provide a decent education for all children, but it failed to tackle the twin problems of religious and class divisions in society. As Williams (1961:149-150) put it:

    One has only to compare the simple class thinking of the Taunton Commission's recommended grades with the Hadow, Spens, and Norwood reports, and the practical effects of the 1944 Education Act, to see the essential continuity, despite changes in the economy, of a pattern of thinking drawn from a rigid class society, with its grading by birth leading to occupation, and then assimilated to a changing society, with a new system of grading.

    But perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh in our judgement of an Act created during the horrors of a world war. Despite the points argued above, it is worth noting that the 1944 Act was, in many respects, progressive and forward-looking.

    For example, it extended the concept of education to include those older and younger than the school age and 'the community's needs for culture and recreation' (Mackinnon and Statham 1999:54).

    It aimed to provide a comprehensive School Health Service by requiring the provision of school meals, free milk, medical and dental treatment, and various support services including transport and clothing grants.

    And it established two Central Advisory Councils for Education (one for England, one for Wales) to advise the Minister. It was this body which would later produce the 1959 Crowther Report on the education of 15 to 18 year olds, the 1963 Newsom Report on the education of less able children, and, most famously of all, the 1967 Plowden Report on Children and their Primary Schools.

  • Various sections of the 1944 Act were replaced by later legislation and it was repealed in its entirety by the 1996 Education Act.

    After the war

    Like much of Europe, Britain emerged from the second world war impoverished and facing a huge amount of expensive reconstruction.

    Labour won the general election in July 1945 with a Commons majority of 146, so it was Clement Attlee's government which faced this monumental task. Nevertheless, it set about pursuing an extraordinarily wide-ranging and radical agenda which included the creation of the National Health Service and what came to be known as 'the welfare state', as well as implementing the 1944 Education Act.

    Ellen Wilkinson

    The first post-war Minister of Education was Ellen Wilkinson (pictured), whose main task was to implement the provisions of the 1944 Education Act. She accepted the challenge enthusiastically, seeing opportunities for a new kind of schooling with 'laughter in the classroom, self-confidence growing every day, eager interest instead of bored uniformity' (Wilkinson 1947:5, quoted in Jones 2003:24).

    Wilkinson had 'fought her way through to university from a working-class home ... and in the process developed strong loyalties to the selective secondary education which had helped her to do so' (Jones 2003:25).

    She had ambitious aims and wanted, among other things, to raise the school leaving age to 16 and to provide meals for all children free of charge. Both were ruled out on grounds of cost. Universal free school milk was introduced, however, in August 1946.

  • For more on the history of school meals see my article Food for Thought: child nutrition, the school dinner and the food industry.

    Sadly, Wilkinson's early enthusiasm did not last and she became so depressed by her failure to achieve all the reforms she believed necessary that she took an overdose of barbiturates and died on 6 February 1947. George Tomlinson became the new Minister.

    Selection: comprehensive failure

    The concept of comprehensive education (in which all children attend a common school rather than being divided by selection between secondary modern, grammar, specialist schools etc) came late to Britain.

    Many in the Labour Party hoped that the new government would get rid of elitism and pursue a common education for all children, something the 1944 Act would have allowed.

    Regrettably, the Attlee government's radicalism did not extend to tackling the class-ridden divisiveness of Britain's secondary school provision. Private schools and 'direct grant' secondary schools were left untouched, so 'the notion of a universal system of state schooling was thus compromised from the first' (Jones 2003:16). Neither was there any attempt to introduce comprehensive education - indeed, it was Attlee's government which promoted the 'tripartite' system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools.

    The tripartite system

    In circular No. 73 (12 December 1945) the government told local authorities to 'think in terms of three types' of state school for the new secondary education. An accompanying booklet, The Nation's Schools, explained that the new 'modern' schools would be for working-class children 'whose future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge' (MoE 1945, quoted in Benn and Chitty 1996:5).

    Labour Party members were furious and Wilkinson withdrew the document. But as a result of intense pressure from education officials, the policy remained the same and was restated in The New Secondary Education (1947).

    Once again, Britain contented itself with a move others had taken a generation before, simply making secondary education free and available to all. It put right the failure to move between the two world wars but it did little to establish a system that would be appropriate for life after the second, when the education system had to prepare for the internationalisation of every aspect of culture, work and production. (Benn and Chitty 1996:6)
    So instead of radical reform, the Labour government continued with a divided system, 'newly cloaked in spurious educational thinking about children's minds, backed by supposedly scientific methods of measuring intelligence which would make all the necessary decisions about selecting children for different types of school' (Benn and Chitty 1996:6).

    The myth quickly grew that this system was what the writers of the 1944 Act had intended. This was not true. Section 8 of the Act required the provision of opportunities for all pupils 'in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes, and of the different periods for which they may be expected to remain at school'.

    This was interpreted as meaning the tripartite system of secondary education, with grammar schools for the most able, secondary modern schools for the majority, and secondary technical schools for those with a technical or scientific aptitude.

    In fact, the Act did not specify any particular kind of secondary school, as J Chuter Ede, Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education, had pointed out in a speech reported in The Times of 14 April 1944:

    I do not know where people get the idea about three types of school, because I have gone through the Bill with a small toothcomb, and I can find only one school for senior pupils - and that is a secondary school. What you like to make of it will depend on the way you serve the precise needs of the individual area in the country. (quoted in Chitty and Dunford 1999:20)
    The tripartite system, then, was not required by the Act. Indeed, the Act itself never mentioned the words 'tripartite', 'selection', 'eleven plus', 'grammar schools' or 'secondary modern schools'. It simply required that education should be provided at three levels: primary, secondary and further.

    The tripartite system was no more than the continuation of the 19th century class-based system of English education which had been promoted, shamefully, by the reports of Spens (1938) and Norwood (1943).

    The Attlee government made matters worse by restricting entry to grammar schools, by refusing to allow secondary modern schools to run exam courses, and by rejecting proposals from several local authorities to introduce comprehensive schools.

    The result was that there was no 'parity of esteem' between grammar and secondary modern schools. Competition for grammar school places increased as these schools offered pupils the opportunity of a place at university and thereafter a professional career. The tripartite system thus reinforced the notion that working class children were of lower intelligence.

    Neither was the system ever really the 'tripartite' one which had been promised. The LEAs were reluctant to develop expensive new secondary technical schools, and even as late as 1958 these schools were providing education for less than 4 per cent of the secondary age group.

    The system was therefore effectively a bipartite one, with grammar schools taking, on average, the 'top' twenty per cent of children and secondary modern schools taking the rest. Selection for grammar schools was made largely on the basis of the 'eleven plus' examination, which usually consisted of tests of intelligence and attainment in English and arithmetic. In the eyes of the public, children either 'passed' it and went to the grammar school or 'failed' it and went to the local secondary modern. The system thus caused great damage to the self-esteem of most children and most schools.

    This appalling system was based on the notion of the IQ (intelligence quotient) promoted by the now-discredited educational psychologist Cyril Burt. Burt had stated his definition of 'human intelligence' in How the mind works, a book based on his series of talks broadcast in 1933:

    By the term 'intelligence', the psychologist understands inborn, all-round intellectual ability. It is inherited, or at least innate, not due to teaching or training; it is intellectual, not emotional or moral, and remains uninfluenced by industry or zeal; it is general, not specific, ie it is not limited to any particular kind of work, but enters into all we do or say or think. Of all our mental qualities, it is the most far-reaching. Fortunately, it can be measured with accuracy and ease. (Burt 1933:28-9, quoted in Chitty 2004:26)
  • For more on Burt and intelligence tests see the 1924 Hadow Report Psychological Tests of Educable Ability.

    General Certificate of Education

    Whatever its origins, the effect of the tripartite system was to disqualify a majority of the nation's children from access to qualifications.

    The General Certificate of Education (GCE) was introduced in 1951, replacing the old School Certificate ('matriculation'). It was designed for the top 25 per cent of the ability range. GCE exams were normally taken at 16 (Ordinary Level) and 18 (Advanced Level), mostly in the grammar schools and the independent (public or private fee-paying) schools.

    The introduction of the new exam was not without controversy, as Angela Best pointed out in the Daily Mirror (14 February 1952) when the results of the first GCE exams were published. There were three main concerns:

    • a widespread perception that the new exams were harder than those they replaced (this may have been because the pass mark was set higher);
    • a rigid lower age-limit of 16 was imposed for entry to the exam; and
    • lack of grading - candidates either passed or failed (this was of particular concern to teachers).
  • Read the Daily Mirror article here (JPG image 1108 x 1404 pixels). (Reproduced by kind permission from Mirrorpix).

    Primary education

    The tripartite system also had a damaging effect on the new primary schools, the success of whose pupils in the eleven plus quickly became the measure by which the schools were judged. 'Once again, the fate of the junior school and its educational role depended on developments at the upper levels' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:38).

    So the eleven plus - and the continued existence of large classes through the late 1940s and 1950s - forced the new primary schools to continue with the class teaching approach inherited from the elementary schools, with its emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy. 'In fact the tradition derived from 1870 was still dominant' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:36).

    Progressive primary education would have to wait for the 1960s.

    Special educational needs

    Prior to the 1944 Act, the education of handicapped children was treated as an entirely separate category of provision. Now, special educational provision was to be included in LEAs' development plans for primary and secondary education. The less seriously handicapped might be catered for in ordinary schools, while those with more serious disabilities would, wherever practicable, continue to be educated in special schools. (The 1953 Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act extended these requirements to independent schools).

    In 1928 the Wood Committee had stressed the unity of ordinary and special education. The philosophy underpinning the 1944 Act had been explained during the debate on the Bill by Chuter Ede:

    May I say that I do not want to insert in the Bill any words which make it appear that the normal way to deal with a child who suffers from any of these disabilities is to be put into a special school where he will be segregated. Whilst we desire to see adequate provision of special schools we also desire to see as many children as possible retained in the normal stream of school life. (Parliamentary Debates: Hansard Vol. 398 Col 703 21 March 1944, quoted in Warnock 1978:33)
    The Act required LEAs to ascertain all types of disability: the Handicapped Pupils and School Health Service Regulations 1945 defined eleven categories of pupils: blind, partially sighted, deaf, partially deaf, delicate, diabetic, educationally subnormal, epileptic, maladjusted, physically handicapped and those with speech defects. Blind, deaf, epileptic, physically handicapped and aphasic children were considered seriously disabled and were to be educated in special schools. Children with other disabilities might attend ordinary schools if adequate provision for them was available (see Warnock 1978:19-20).

    As a result of the Act's rigid categories of special need:

    children were to be diagnosed, principally by medical authorities, and then assigned to particular disability groups with which particular institutions and curriculum forms were associated. ... Intelligence testing and medical examination were thus crucial to the workings of special education, and - just as in the tripartite system - inclusion was a heavily qualified principle, while exclusion was justified on quasi-scientific grounds. (Jones 2003:31)
    Post-war planning of special educational provision proceeded on two main assumptions: that special educational treatment would be required for up to 17 per cent of the school population; and that ordinary schools would have the major share in providing it.

    These intentions were not fulfilled: special educational treatment came to acquire a much narrower connotation than official guidance suggested and its provision in ordinary schools failed to develop on the scale envisaged, partly because in the decade after the war LEAs were hard-pressed to maintain the fabric of the education service. Much school accommodation had been destroyed; many surviving buildings were in a bad state; building materials were scarce; extra accommodation was needed to cope with the raising the school leaving age; secondary modern schools had large classes; and there were shortages of suitably trained teachers and other professionals (see Warnock 1978:33-40).

    Other matters

    The curriculum

    The 1944 Act had given governors and head teachers control of the school curriculum and resourcing. It had said virtually nothing about the content of the curriculum (other than religious education): 'secular instruction' was a matter for the LEA and the schools. The Act's authors clearly had not anticipated national government interfering in the curriculum. Indeed, it had not given the minister the legal right to determine the content of education and, in the phrase first used by Conservative minister of education Sir David Eccles in 1960, he was not expected to enter 'the secret garden of the curriculum'.

    In the years following the Act central government did exercise indirect influence through HMIs, and later, through DES participation in the Schools Council, and through government sponsored research projects like the one on comprehensive education. But, as Anthony Crosland (Secretary of State 1965-67) commented, 'the nearer one comes to the professional content of education, the more indirect the Minister's influence is' (Kogan 1971:172).

    For the time being, then, head teachers were very much in control in the schools, and education would rarely be the subject of debate at Cabinet level until the 1980s.

    Teacher training

    One of the most urgent problems facing the new Ministry of Education after the war was the shortage of teachers. The problem was exacerbated by the raising of the school leaving age to 15 (as recommended by Hadow in 1926 and implemented in April 1947) and the reorganisation of secondary education. An emergency training programme was introduced in 1945, with 53 training colleges opened by 1950.

    In line with the recommendations of the 1944 McNair Report, in 1947 13 Area Training Organisations (ATOs) were established in England and one in Wales to co-ordinate the provision of teacher training. The universities kept their separate training departments and institutes, which now served as hubs for the ATOs' clusters of colleges. By the early 1950s LEAs had opened 76 new training colleges.


    In the higher education sector the Percy Report (1945) made recommendations about technological education in colleges and universities and the Barlow Report (1946) recommended more university places for science students.

    The Central Advisory Councils for Education (CACE), set up under the 1944 Act, produced two early reports. The Clarke Report (1947) School and Life looked at the transition from school to working life and made many recommendations, including a plea for increased funding for schools. This was followed by a second Clarke Report (1948) Out of School which recommended government spending on out of school facilities for children and parents.

    The 1946 Education Act (22 May 1946) made amendments to the 1944 Education Act relating to voluntary and controlled schools, religious worship in aided and special agreement schools, clothing grants for boarders and nursery school pupils, and the qualification of teachers for membership of local authorities and their committees.

  • Download the Education Act 1946 (pdf text 280kb).

    The 1948 Employment and Training Act established the Youth Employment Service. (This Act is not currently available online).

    The 1948 Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (30 June 1948) extended the range of pupils who could be provided with clothing by an LEA, and allowed an LEA to cancel a report that a child was 'incapable of receiving education at school owing to disability of mind' if recommended to do so by the local health authority.

  • Download the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1948 (pdf text 292kb).

    The 1948 Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act (30 July 1948) made provisions regarding the registration and inspection of nurseries and child-minders.

  • Download the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 (pdf text 200kb).


    Benn C and Chitty C (1996) Thirty years on: is comprehensive education alive and well or struggling to survive? London: David Fulton Publishers

    Board of Education (1943) White Paper Educational Reconstruction Cmd. 6458 London: HMSO

    Burt C (1933) How the mind works London: Allen and Unwin

    Chitty C (2004) Education policy in Britain Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

    Chitty C and Dunford J (eds) (1999) State schools: New Labour and the Conservative legacy London: Woburn Press

    Galton M, Simon B and Croll P (1980) Inside the primary classroom (The ORACLE Report) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

    Gates B (2005) 'Faith schools and colleges of education since 1800' in R Gardner, J Cairns and D Lawton (eds) (2005) Faith schools: consensus or conflict? Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer 14-35

    Giles GCT (1946) The new school tie London: Pilot Press

    Jones K (2003) Education in Britain: 1944 to the present Cambridge: Polity Press

    Kogan M (1971) The politics of education: Edward Boyle and Anthony Crosland in conversation with Maurice Kogan Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

    Mackinnon D and Statham J (1999) Education in the UK: facts and figures (3rd edn) London: Hodder and Stoughton/Open University

    MoE (1945) The Nation's Schools: Their Plans and Purposes Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 1 London: HMSO

    Norwood (1943) Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools Report of the Committee of the Secondary School Examinations Council London: HMSO

    Shipman M (1984) Education as a public service London: Harper and Row

    Spens (1938) Secondary Education with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

    Taylor (1977) A New Partnership for Our Schools Report of the Committee of Enquiry London: HMSO

    Warnock (1978) Special Educational Needs Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the education of handicapped children and young people. Cmnd. 7212 London: HMSO

    Wilkinson E (1947) Foreword The new secondary education London: HMSO

    Williams R (1961) The Long Revolution London: Chatto and Windus

    Chapter 4 | Chapter 6