A Brief History of Education Part 2: The 1944 Education Act

November 26, 2006

In order to explain the system we now have I intend to start looking where it came from. State secondary education is relatively new to Britain. For much of the nineteenth century there was limited provision of any state education at all. Most schools were private or run by Churches and religious societies. The state could assist in providing education (including funding religious societies), but wouldn’t provide it directly. Gradually its influence grew. In 1839 HMI was created. Public funding for schools and compulsory education until the age of twelve were introduced in the 1870s under the authority of school boards. Fees for elementary schools were removed in 1891. In 1902 school boards were replaced with Local Education Authorities under the control of county and borough councils who were also able to fund church schools. For most of the first half of the twentieth century the education system consisted of all age elementary schools but with what we’d today consider to be secondary education reserved for the minority. This minority attended private grammar schools. As well as those paying to attend them there were a proportion granted scholarships to attend, first under the 1907 Free Places Scheme that funded the most able students regardless of background and later (in 1932) the means tested Specialist Places Scheme.

The 1944 Education Act sought to provide education for all, from the ages of 5-14 (to be raised to 15 in the next few years). Secondary education was to begin at the age of 11. It also created the system by which there was a ministry responsible for schools but they were administered by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The curriculum, the dates of term, the length of the school day, remained under local control. The Act also created provision for Church Schools, which were to be brought into the state system under a number of arrangements, there running costs being met by LEAs but retaining control of religious education in the curriculum.

Although not required by the Act the grammar schools were to be preserved by the development of a “Tripartite” system in which students were to be placed in three types of schools. In addition to the grammars there were to be technical schools and secondary modern schools. Grammars schools were to take the most able 20% of the population (identified by the 11-plus exams) and were better funded than the other schools and more of their teachers had degrees. Technical schools were originally meant to provide for a similar proportion of the population but in practice never accounted for more than a few percent of the school population, less even than those remaining in unreformed elementary schools. Access to higher education was limited largely to grammar school students and a handful of students from technical schools.

The Act was at least partly inspired by Plato’s view of men of gold, silver and bronze and over the years that followed became widely seen as perpetuating class divisions by providing huge variations in educational opportunities. Sure enough the grammars remained overwhelmingly middle class with the proportion of working boys entering grammar schools actually falling after the 1944 Act. Moreover working class children, particularly girls, were far more likely to leave grammar schools early for working life. Different LEAs used difference entrance criteria but many adopted forms of intelligence testing – assuming that intelligence was fixed and measurable to the point where a persons potential was predetermined by the age of 11. Multiple injustices became apparent. Grammar school places were largely fixed meaning that difficulty of entrance to a grammar school varied according to how many children were in a particular cohort. Many LEAs wished to have equal numbers of boys and girls entering grammars, resulting in a higher level of academic being required for girls than boys. The proportion of grammar school places and the level of ability required to enter them also differed between LEAs. The arbitrary nature of testing for grammar schools became a source of resentment.

These forces eventually saw the grammar system replace largely by the comprehensive system we have today. However we still have a considerable legacy from the 1944 Act. A few LEAs remain committed to the selective model. Many more while mainly having comprehensives still have a few grammar schools. While there are less than two hundred grammar schools they dominate state school entrance to top universities and remain contentious. Moreover the experience of grammar school has shaped our education landscape. Any proposal to provide different education to children of different abilities, and any diversity in schooling is condemned as a return to selection. Many people who are discontent with the current education system see a return to selection as the answer. I would not join them. The injustices of the system are clear. We do not need a highly educated minority, we need a high standard of education for all. A two tier system would be even more untenable now that it was. Selection created not just an elite of students but an elite of teachers too. It is simply not credible to believe we could once more re-divide the teaching profession and a wider society along those old fault lines. It is tempting only because our current system is failing to the extent that teachers and parents will always look for an alternative. Instead of designing an escape route for a small minority of teachers and students, we should be looking at saving all students and all teachers from what secondary education has become.


Chitty, Clyde, Education Policy in Britain, PalGrave Macmillan, 2004
Fitz, John; Davies, Brian and Evans, John. Education Policy and Social Reproduction, Routledge, 2006
Lawton, Dennis, Education and Labour Party Ideology 1900-2001 and Beyond, RoutledgeFalmer, 2005
McKenzie, Janet, Changing Education: a Sociology of Education Since 1944, Pearson Education Limited 2001,

Efforts to start a discussion on this entry have been made on INFET (Blog Update) by me and by somebody else on the Reading Reform Foundation Message Board



  1. Would you not say that, in a sense, the major ideas in contemporary education are within-classroom selection? By this, I mean that an individual teacher has to serve different needs within one room, rather than students being split up into different institutions by (tricky to assess) scholastic merit. Differentiation, and all that jazz, is nicer because it is arguing that student needs are the wellspring of their treatment, rather than their performance on tests – so it’s for their own good. Also, it allows a student to be within an environment in which they can succeed – rather than stuck in a school which has certain expectations of the students, meaning that those who work to become high-flyers are stuck, a student can pull their finger out and get the resources they need to do well.

    On the down side, this system is a lot of work for the teacher. It also covers up the seemingly indisputable fact that the main predictor of a student’s success is their social background. This means that a good school is a middle-class one, and a poor school a working-class one. It is not to each student according to their needs, as all schools are not equal. So we are back to a form of educational inequality.

    The only escape route that I can see is to foster a culture in which learning and education are important, so that as many children as possible desire it and work hard. Then they will do well, there will be no peer pressure to skive, and we will have a ‘learning community’ in the true sense of the term. As long as vast swathes of the population are allowed to fail, expected to fail, and see no reason not to fail, then we will have people that do not want to learn messing around in schools which cannot provide teaching. There is always going to be selection going on, whether purposefully or accidentally, when there are widely differing ideas about the worth of education amongst different social classes, and no amount of Must Could Should will change that.

  2. You could start with removing benefits for those who won’t work.

  3. As opposed to those who can’t work? And how will you tell the difference?

  4. Inclusive practice is a valid educational strategy that does away with the post war life sentences placed on young people dumped into institutions.

    That said, Inclusion is not appropriate for every child with disabilities and we should maintain a nationally funded framework of special schools. These institutions are a life line for students who cannot cope in a mainstream classroom of around 30 students with a correspondingly low level of adult one to one support. This is especially true of secondary school where the class changes 5 times a day.

    The Special Educational Needs Coordinator is, in my view, the best and most informed decision-maker as to which students are appropriate for a mainstream setting. School leaders are heavily influenced by league tables (particularly Progress 8). Local authorities face huge budget constraints creating an obvious conflict of interest. However the current SENCO role lacks the legal force required. While the 2014 Code of Practice recommends the SENCO sits on the Senior Leadership Team it does not require it. Not does it ring-fence time and capacity for the SENCO which has led to a drastic lack of capacity.

    Legislation since the 1944 Act has consistently placed the SENCO at the heart of identification of need and coordination of provision. The legal framework has been big on expectation and lofty ideals but very weak on empowering the SENCO to deliver. As a result we continue to debate the cost and moral implications of Inclusion. Progress has been made but we could be doing so much more.

  5. […] A Brief History of Education Part 2: The 1944 Education Act […]

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