‘A landmark has been set up in English education’Times Educational Supplement, 1944
Such was the general reception to the Butler Act of 1944. The paper’s editor went on to comment that ‘there shall be equality of opportunity, and diversity of provision without impairment of the social unity’.
So why did the Butler Act promise such wide-reaching changes to education and how successful were they in reality? Up until this point state education provided for children aged five through to fourteen in one ‘elementary sector’. Butler, however, recommended a division in education between ‘primary’ (five to eleven) and ‘secondary’ (eleven to fifteen). Some local authorities were already offering state funded secondary education, but with this Act the intention was to ensure fairer and widespread access, particularly for girls and, more broadly, children from working class families.
Although the Act was passed during the Second World War, it wasn’t until the war ended that the full sweep of changes could be made. Despite the severe economic constraints of the post-war years the then Minister of Education, Ellen Wilkinson, ensured the raising of the school age took effect from April 1947, as well as introducing free school milk.
The new secondary sector was to be made up of a mix of grammar schools, secondary moderns and secondary technical schools – with the idea that they would all have equal standing. In reality this was not the case. Grammar schools continued to carry greater prestige, attracting more financial resources and a more middle-class intake. The secondary technical schools were few in number and the intention – to train youngsters for work – never really worked out.
Another element of the Butler Act that proved controversial was the ’11-plus’ examination, intended to determine which strand of secondary education each child was most suited to. A pass meant the child went to the grammar school, failure meant attending the local secondary modern. Opinion was divided – many believed it helped ensure a fair system, others argued that to label children as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ so early on in their life would stay with them forever.
Harry Webb (aka Cliff Richard) said of his 11-plus experience:
‘that failure permanently ruined my confidence in any kind of written examination’Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
There were other critical factors to overcome for the whole education system. The teaching profession had also been decimated, with young men sent off to fight, many never to return, leaving women to fill the role. This in itself was not always popular, with men returning after the war expecting to walk back into their job. Many existing schools needed to be repaired or rebuilt following wartime bombings, while new buildings needed to be found for new schools.
And, as we can see from the photo below, all these problems were compounded by the post-war baby boom, meaning often that classes were held in village or church halls while waiting for new prefab buildings to be made available.
So many of the problems with the school system encountered during the late 1940s would continue well into the 1950s and beyond, but more of that in later posts!