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

February 14, 2008

This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.

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, their 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,



  1. […] RELOADED: A Brief History of Education Part 2. The 1944 Education… 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. […]

  2. Your arguments are completely valid if we lived in a perfect world. Idealists always look for the perfect world scenario and response to problems, and you are no stranger to shepherding people up this scenic but strange avenue of belief.

    Having studied engineering, I don’t always look first for the perfect world schema for possible solutions to problems. You would be laughed at if you tried other people of such an idea.

    You have failed (awful word in context of this subject) to mention the effects of comprehensive education on different fields of employment and skills. It’s OK if you’re teaching soft subjects like psychology as you will never have to do complicated things. Comprehensives are fine then. But not for anything difficult.

    LEAs in grammar school areas more often than not do much better than other areas, even similar areas in terms of socioeconomics. If overall things are better, surely that is good? And there is no dumbing down, which inevitably happens in the comprehensive system.

    Mixed ability teaching may work for soft subjects, but not for physics. The facts are not available yet, but I would presume that comprehensives cannot teach physics successfully.

    I’m not psychic, but you certainly don’t teach physics.

    • I wonder what you think you’ve read but I suggest you read my post again. The only objection I give in the above blog post to grammar schools is purely pragmatic not idealistic.

      Beyond that I certainly don’t favour dumbing down or mixed ability teaching and if you are going to claim that dumbing down is “inevitable” in the comprehensive system then I’d like to know why so many countries manage to avoid it far better than we do without resorting to selection at 11.

  3. Spelling error:

    ” … there running costs being met by LEAs but retaining control of religious education in the curriculum.”

    • Thanks, now corrected. Please feel free to point these things out. My proof-reading time is limited.

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