Education in Britain - Ken Jones - E-Book

Education in Britain E-Book

Ken Jones

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In the decades after 1944 the four nations of Britain shared a common educational programme. By 2015, this programme had fragmented: the patterns of schooling and higher education in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England resembled each other less and less. This new edition of the popular Education in Britain traces and explains this process of divergence, as well as the arguments and conflicts that have accompanied it. With a reach that extends from the primary school to the university, and from culture to politics and economics, Ken Jones explores the achievements and limits of post-war reform and the egalitarian aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s. He registers the impact of the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s, and of the New Labour governments which were its inheritors. Turning to the twenty-first century, Jones tracks the educational consequences of devolution and austerity. The result is a book which is more attentive than any other to the ever-increasing diversity of Education in Britain. This comprehensive and accessible overview will have a wide appeal. It will also be an invaluable resource on courses in educational studies, teacher education and sociology.

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Title Page



What Does the Title Mean?


1 Post-War Settlements

Universities and Colleges

Reshaping Schooling

Secondary Education for All




Conservatism and Tradition


2 The Golden Age?

Class, Race, Generation

Wales and Northern Ireland

Becoming Modern? Post-School Education

Conservatism, Expansion and Selection


Matters Unresolved

3 Expansion, Experiment, Conflict

Labour’s Turn

Reform before the Ruskin Speech

Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Secondary School

Primary Education

Radical Shifts: The Student Movement

Perspectives on Schooling

The Reforming Momentum Slows

Conservatism Reborn

4 The Watershed: Conservatism and Educational Change

Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland



Marketization Plus


Stages of Conservative Policy

5 New Labour: The Inheritors

Knowledge and Globalization

Devolution (1): First Steps

Devolution (2): The Later Years

New Labour and History

Structures, Agents, Themes

Higher Education


6 Crisis and Opportunity

Austerity across Britain




End User License Agreement



Table of Contents

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To Idris and Safiya

Education in Britain

1944 to the Present

Second Edition

Ken Jones


Copyright © Ken Jones 2016

The right of Ken Jones to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First edition published in 2003 by Polity PressThis second edition first published in 2016 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press350 Main StreetMalden, MA 02148, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-0523-4

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Jones, Ken, 1950-Title: Education in Britain : 1944 to the present / Ken Jones.Description: Second edition. | Cambridge ; Malden, MA : Polity, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2015037703 | ISBN 9780745663227 (paperback)Subjects: LCSH: Education--Great Britain. | BISAC: EDUCATION / Philosophy & Social Aspects.Classification: LCC LA632 .J59 2016 | DDC 370.941--dc23 LC record available at

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Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

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What Does the Title Mean?


Education in Britain: 1944 to the present was first published in 2003. This, the second, edition is longer than the original, not only because it covers a longer span of time, but also because its focus has broadened beyond schooling to include further and higher education. Except for the article and the prepositions, every word of this book’s title requires explanation.

In the mid-twentieth century, when the book begins, ‘Britain’ was still used habitually and unreflectingly to designate a state and a unified territory. Sometime later in the century, linguistic habits changed. As Raymond Williams noted in the early eighties, official usage began to favour ‘United Kingdom’, while the rise of movements that insisted on the national particularity of Wales and Scotland, and in a different sense of Northern Ireland, made ‘Britain’ a more problematic term (R. Williams 1983). Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain (1977) argued that whatever unity the name evoked belonged to a period which was now over. The unity of Britain was a fragile and desperate construct – Nairn renamed it Ukania – something elaborated by a media and a political class which sought to hold on to a fictive identity in the face of changes which had already dissolved the realities of Britishness (Nairn 1988). For Nairn the emergent term ‘United Kingdom’ was not so much a neutral descriptor as a marker of these anxieties. Sharing this perception, I have generally avoided using it, though I am aware that ‘Britain’ – the obvious alternative – is not a term that that can be used unhesitatingly.

Why, then, use a superordinate term like ‘Britain’ at all. Since devolution, the specificity of education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – and the exceptionality of England in the British context – has increasingly been recognized; the tendency for English researchers to mean ‘England’, but to write ‘Britain’ or ‘UK’, is not as strong as it used to be. This is a welcome development, but it, too, is not without its problems. To produce parallel accounts of national developments can lead to overlooking the totality in which they are located, and within which they relate to each other in reciprocally formative ways. This is a point which has been forcefully made by those who criticize older models of the comparative study of education systems for their failure to comprehend the convergent effects of global policy frameworks through which the work of national systems is increasingly co-ordinated (Fenwick et al. 2014). A similar argument can be applied to the study of education in Britain: it is impossible to understand the increasingly divergent courses of the different national systems without some grasp of the ‘British totality’ to which they relate. This totality, in turn, needs to be related to an international context.

Antonio Gramsci noted that ‘international relations intertwine with … internal relations of nation-states, creating new, unique and historically concrete combinations’ (Gramsci 1971: 182). This is an insight I have tried to work with. For Britain, after 1944, international relations involved first of all a loss of military and diplomatic power, and of comparative advantage in manufacturing. The Conservative governments of the 1980s found a ‘solution’ to deindustrialization in the form of an expansion of the financial and services sectors. The consequences of industrial decline and of the new model of growth, both driven by external circumstance, have had profound effects on the ‘internal relations’ of Britain. Inequalities between its regions and constituent countries have grown. Different parts of Britain have developed increasingly divergent responses to economic change. No part of Britain is insulated from global connections, but the ‘historically concrete’ combinations of global and national differ considerably across the British state. These combinations are political as well as economic: England has jettisoned much more of the institutions and ideologies associated with post-war social reform than Wales and Scotland are willing to.

Education is caught up in these processes, with complex effects. So far as schools and colleges are concerned, divergence is growing, as governments in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh try to design responses to specific local circumstances, often in argument with the models preferred by a Westminster government which is much more ready to endorse global policy orthodoxies involving privatization and marketization. In higher education, the picture is different. The work of ‘local’ universities is shaped by national governments, but especially at elite level, the fate of universities still depends upon funding and support from the ‘UK’ government; the link to the British state remains strong. Neither in schools and colleges, nor in universities, however, is it possible to understand education policy, and the arguments that surround it, without setting them in a British context. The course of education policy development in Wales, for instance, only makes sense if we see it as bound up with a set of arguments with its English counterpart, which is part model to be imitated, and part example to be avoided.

In short, then, ‘Britain’ in this book’s title is doubly justified. First, because understanding changes in the British state and the British economy is essential to understanding educational change; secondly, because even in a world of devolution, cross-border links remain, as do cross-border arguments and borrowings which have a formative effect on policy and the ways in which it is justified or rejected.


‘Education’ is also a problem term. In the first edition, it was synonymous with ‘schooling’, a usage which was obviously unsatisfactory. Even in this edition, where the meaning of the term is much broader, there is much ground that is not covered: given the space available, adult and informal education do not figure. There are further precisions that need to be made. Many works which feature ‘education’ in their title, use it to mean ‘education policy’. In an important sense, that is also what I am doing here. By ‘policy’, I mean the designs for schooling developed by such social actors as political parties, government ministers, civil servants, local politicians and administrators and professional associations. But the book is not limited to an account of the obvious manifestations of policy – legal frameworks, party manifestos, policy documents, mission statements, and so on. It tries to establish the wider contexts – social and cultural, economic and political – of schooling. It aims to connect exploration of policy shifts to changes and continuities at other levels of schooling: those of classroom, school culture and administrative practice. It also takes policy to be one outcome of wider developments on a site that some have called the ‘educational space’, an arena stretching beyond the policy community, in which questions of education’s meanings, values and purpose have been debated and contested. The educational space is not just a parallel world to that of policy or the everyday activity of school and college, one of commentary rather than practice. It is better understood as an area, inhabited by groups that vary greatly in their communicative power and material resources, in which the implications of practice are elaborated, in which purposes and possibilities are suggested and vetoed, criticisms made and answered. What happens in the educational space establishes conditions for policy and for practice, helping to enable some options and constrain others. In the chapters that follow, I aim to locate policy in the shifting educational space of the post-war period. The ‘Education’ of the title takes on its meanings in this broad and conflict-ridden context.

1944 to the Present

The final aspect of this work of unpicking relates to the time period to which the title refers. Like many others, I treat ‘1944’ as a crucial moment in educational history, when mass secondary education was established, and, more importantly, education systems were launched on what seemed for a time to be an unalterable trajectory of reform. For several decades, it seemed possible that such systems, shaped by professional initiative and local democratic control, would lead to ever-rising levels of student attainment, increasing access to higher levels of education and the emergence of an educated citizenry and a more equal society. For many people, ‘1944’ meant the beginning of something; to write about ‘education after 1944’ was to share, in some sense, in a spirit of historical optimism. It is difficult to write like that now. The ‘present’ referred to in the title is less a continuation of ‘1944’ than a reminder of our distance from it. The full employment policies that were the premise of educational construction have been replaced by precarity and labour market polarization; alongside these changes, the belief in education as a means of social mobility has receded. Austerity, in the sense of policies of severe limitation on public investment, is not, as it was in the post-war years, a temporary condition but is, rather, a lasting feature of policy. In England, at least, professional initiative and local democratic control have been replaced by centralization and the influence of the private sector. The period ‘1944 to the present’ signifies, therefore, a relationship of breaks and contrasts, not of development and continuity.


The book is organized chronologically, and in a conventional fashion, with the periodization of its chapters corresponding to the electoral fortunes of the major parties. Each chapter begins by presenting the wider context of education, and continues by setting out the general features of education in its period. In doing so, it discusses the ways in which cultural, social, economic and political factors have helped configure education. Sandra Taylor and her colleagues write that educational purposes have always been diverse. At any moment, there are likely to be several different sorts of purpose in circulation, which variously prioritize nation building, the preparation of students for an economic role, meeting individual needs for personal development, and so on. They suggest that the ways in which ‘these at times conflicting demands have been reconciled, and which purposes have received policy priority at any given time, are reflected in policy settlements reflecting prevailing economic, political and social circumstances’ (S. Taylor et al. 1997: 24) The concept of ‘policy settlement’ is of course fairly well established, especially in theoretical traditions which recognize a debt to Gramsci, and it has been effectively utilized in accounts of post-war social policy (Ainley 1999; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 1981; J. Clarke and Newman 1997). Settlements, according to John Clarke and Janet Newman, are not just reflections of prevailing circumstances but ‘limited and conditional reconciliations of different interests’ (J. Clarke and Newman 1997: 8). They are fairly lasting sets of arrangements, but they are never static. They have inbuilt tensions and limits. They are shaped by conflict as well as agreement. They do not last for ever.

It is the making and remaking of settlements which organizes the book. The period 1944–7 – providing secondary education, strong forms of selection and decentralized professional space – responded to the pressures of reformers, the programme of civil servants and the interests of teachers and established clear institutional forms for the elaboration of their projects. The making of this settlement is the focus of chapter 1. The partial unravelling of the 1944–7 reforms in the 1950s, under the pressure of occupational change, parental demand, labour movement discontent and professional activism, is the substance of the second chapter. The third covers the period in which the post-war settlement was both substantially revised, by Labour reforms, in the 1960s, and eventually undone, by economic pressures, social and cultural unrest and Conservative discontent, in the 1970s. Chapter 4 addresses the long period of Conservative rule from 1979, the increasing differences between the systems of the four countries, and the eviction of previously central interests from the framework of settlement as Conservatism tried to rule, as it were, alone. It treats the settlement embodied in the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the reforms to higher education of the early 1990s as a remaking of education, in which the role of some actors was weakened and a new institutional logic based on competition and centralization was established. Chapter 5 considers New Labour’s complex reworking of Thatcherism, its focus on social inclusion, its attempts to ground its reforms on the work of a managerial cadre and its promise of a rapid rise in standards. Chapter 6 discusses the large-scale ambitions of the Coalition of 2010–15 and of its Conservative successor, which used the occasion of austerity to reshape both higher education and schooling. Like New Labour, post-2010 governments have sought no professional allies in their reshaping of the system, and derived their strategy mainly from an English experience. They have offered a settlement – a definitive resolution of longstanding problems in education’s economic, social and cultural functions – without social partners. Whether this has amounted to a plausible politics of education is discussed in the book’s final pages.

In writing this revised edition, I have benefited greatly from the attention that education and social researchers have given to the different countries of Britain over the last ten years, from the stimulus of working at Goldsmiths, University of London, from 2010 to 2015, and, gratefully, from the assistance of Richard Hatcher, Hilda Kean, and Anna Traianou, who have read and commented on sections of the book.

1Post-War Settlements

Educational change was not born in wartime – many of the policies established in the 1940s had been debated and planned in earlier decades – but we cannot understand the patterns of education’s development in the mid-twentieth century, or the conflicts that took place around it, unless we grasp the political impact of the Second World War. By 1945, in almost every country that the war had touched, the defeat of fascism had seen the rise of some kind of movement of the left. Usually the left was powerful enough to reshape the economy in a more collectivist way and to strengthen whatever kind of provision had previously existed for the welfare and education of the majority of the population. These achievements left an imprint on many European societies that lasted for half a century and more.

So it was in Britain. The coalition government led between 1940 and 1945 by Winston Churchill committed itself to full employment and a more inclusive system of social security. After 1945, the Labour government of Clement Attlee took reform a good deal further. It created the National Health Service, launched a major programme of public housing and nationalized the coal industry, transport and the Bank of England. These measures were justified partly on grounds of economic effectiveness – what the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto called ‘industrial efficiency in the service of the nation’ – and partly on grounds of social justice: a ‘high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them’ (Labour Party 1945).

Linked to redistributive taxation policies, reform laid the basis for a rise in the living standards of working-class people and a reduction in inequalities of wealth. Its effects were also social and political. The role of the state, as planner of reconstruction and guarantor of ‘fairness’ and progress, was legitimized. The lifting of the threat of unemployment greatly strengthened trade unionism. The creation of new and massive institutions of health and welfare brought into existence a large professional or semi-professional class, which developed policy interests of its own. At the same time, the fact that reform was the result of decisive action at the political centre served to cement the support of the majority of the Welsh and Scottish populations for the British state. The depression of the 1930s had gravely damaged the Welsh and Scottish economies – in the inter-war period, migration reduced the population of Wales by nearly half a million (Thomas 2007). The creation of the welfare state, ‘the most important reform for raising the quality of working-class life in the twentieth century’, was manifestly the work of national government, which possessed a ‘capacity for regeneration’ which no local polity could match (K. Morgan and Mungham 2000: 28).

But this capacity was itself limited, first of all by economic circumstances. Impoverished by war, Britain was able to fund the welfare state only with financial aid acquired in late 1945 from the American government. Moreover, as the global economy recovered from the devastation of conflict, the depth of Britain’s economic problems was starkly revealed. The new American-sponsored world order was based on more open trading arrangements than had existed in the protectionist 1930s. Some British companies benefited from this. Many did not (Gamble 1981). Transport, manufacturing and extractive industries – including steel, coal, shipbuilding and engineering – experienced some limited post-war growth, as other, still more damaged national rivals took time to renew their economies. In the medium term, however, their lack of competitiveness became plain, as did the weaknesses of government industrial policy: Labour, according to Hobsbawm, ‘showed a lack of interest in planning that was quite startling’ (Hobsbawm 1994: 272).

Universities and Colleges

Educational planning was agreed to be essential, but the gap between principle and practice was a wide one, not least in higher and further education. Between 1944 and 1947, a series of reports linked the ‘manpower’ needs of specific sectors of the economy to proposals for new kinds of educational provision. Hankey (1945) identified post-war retraining needs; Percy (1945) recommended the expansion of higher technological education; Barlow (1946) addressed issues of scientific manpower and university expansion; committees chaired by Urwick (1947) and Carr-Saunders (1949) made a case for management and commercial education. The 1944 Education Act, and its Scottish counterpart (1945), meanwhile, set out plans for an extensive system of post-school education, based on local colleges and the release of students from the workplace. These schemes and proposals were not without effect, and laid down a basis on which later changes were made. Yet, overall, they were patchy and slow in their implementation. They left in place essential aspects of the existing system, which were resistant to the idea of educational planning, and often remote from any project of social reform (Bocock and Taylor 2003).

In 1945, there were fewer than twenty universities in Britain, and 50,000 undergraduates. They were institutions that were both imperial and national. In the first sense, British universities were the controlling hub of a network which recruited students, trained staff, approved curricula and recognized qualifications throughout the British Empire (Pietsch 2013). In the second, they had long had a cultural and social role that was at least as important as any economic function. In Wales, the establishment of university colleges at Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff in the late nineteenth century had been vital to the development of a ‘new Welsh nation’ (G. A. Williams 1985). In Scotland, a much older group of universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews) had served a similar function, and in the process developed distinct academic characteristics – notably an undergraduate degree, the Ordinary MA, which emphasized breadth of study (Paterson 2003). Queen’s University Belfast gained university status in 1908, when Ireland was ruled by the British as a single entity. In theory secular, in practice it remained, in the post-war years, ‘strongly Protestant and unionist in outlook’ (Kearney 2007: 12), with a tendency to recruit its senior staff from England or Scotland (Rupert Taylor 1987). English universities, likewise, were central to social and political life. Oxford and Cambridge were dominant both numerically and in terms of influence. One-fifth of all undergraduates in Britain were educated at their colleges, and their graduates thickly populated the British political, administrative and academic elite. In addition, ‘Oxbridge’ supplied a set of images of university life and purpose which were deeply embedded in the views of policy-makers – as demonstrated by the Percy Committee’s model of a university: ‘a self-governing community of teachers and students, working together in one place, with substantial endowments of its own, mature enough to set its own standards of teaching, and strong enough to resist outside pressures, public or private, political or economic’ (Percy Report 1945 quoted in Shattock 2012: 10). An idealized form of the pre-war university – intimate, autonomous – was thus projected as a design for the post-war future. High-status knowledge, to which it claimed a monopoly (Salter and Tapper 1994), lay enclosed within its walls.

Though universities were increasingly dependent on central funding, they were not under state control. Legally, they were independent corporate institutions, with charitable status. Practically, the controls upon them were slight. Responsibility for such oversight that did exist was split between different ministerial departments. Government, in the form of the University Grants Committee (UGC), did not intervene in universities’ decisions about how the money they had been allocated should be spent (Shattock 2006): ‘The policy was to have no policy short of giving autonomous institutions as much or as little money as the government thinks it can afford’ (Maclure 1982: 259). Without strong pressure from government, universities tended to retain the values and the self-image of earlier years. They rejected the idea of specialization that was implied by some projects of reform. A university that emphasized science and technology, as proposed by Barlow in 1946, was seen as a contradiction in terms: the essence of a university was that it should be balanced and multi-disciplinary, focused not on ‘teaching this or that subject’ but on ‘training minds’ (Association of University Teachers, quoted in Shattock 2012: 21).

Universities were thus organized around the classic perspectives of liberal education (Rothblatt 1976), based on a body of knowledge associated with ‘old’ social classes, highly selective in their admissions policies and resistant to notions of immediate social usefulness. The transformation of this model of the university, the academic cultures in which it was located and the system of governance that protected it is an important strand of post-war history. But in the 1940s, transformation was not part of Labour’s agenda (Bocock and Taylor 2003); the party’s focus was rather on questions of expansion – an increase in the size of existing universities, and the setting up of new institutions, so that they could play a role in economic modernization. This did not mean the introduction of mass higher education, only a limited growth in student numbers, from 50,000 in 1945 to around 80,000 in 1950. But even with such a moderate approach, Attlee’s government did not find that the universities were willing partners. Oxford and Cambridge would not agree to any expansion in student numbers, though the ‘civic universities’ – such as Manchester and Sheffield – eventually did so. The UGC for a time blocked the idea of upgrading university colleges, such as Southampton and Hull, to full university status. Higher level technical colleges – Acton, Battersea and Salford, for example – increased the number of their students on degree courses, mainly by recruiting ex-servicemen (Robinson 1968); but their elevation to the status of Colleges of Advanced Technology, called for by the Percy Report, did not happen until 1956, with the publication of the White Paper on Technical Education (Ministry of Education 1956).

Policy for university education, however hesitantly it developed, affected higher education throughout Britain. As central funding from the UGC increased, so universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland saw their future as something that would be determined within a British framework (Paterson 2003). Decision-making about further education (FE), on the other hand, had a strong local dimension. In England and Wales, the 1944 Education Act made FE provision a legal obligation of local education authorities (LEAs). It required them to submit to the Minister of Education schemes of education for ‘persons beyond compulsory school age’. The LEAs could, if they wished, make such education itself compulsory. Supporters of the Act envisaged an ‘educational experiment of very wide scope and tremendous possibilities’ (Giles 1946: 91), involving the great majority of the 15–18 age group, mostly on the basis of part-time attendance in programmes of general as well as work-related education, housed within a single type of institution – the county college.

No date was specified for the general introduction of a county college system, and even in the late 1950s most post-15 year olds were untouched by further education (Crowther Report 1959: 163–5). Employers saw some sense in agreeing the day release to FE colleges of young workers involved in apprenticeship schemes. But their attitude to the general mass of the young workforce was different; since employers were not legally compelled to release such students, they refrained from doing so. The result was that ‘most of those who leave school at 15 rapidly lose all contact with education’ (Crowther Report 1959: 173). They entered employment which was low-waged and low-skilled, but which was secure enough not to encourage workers to seek higher levels of qualification (Todd 2007). In 1960, it remained as true as it was in the 1930s that further education in England and Wales was a patchwork of different kinds of scheme.

Reshaping Schooling

Schooling, much more than university and college education, was a focus of political conflict. Between 1944 and 1947, the education systems of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were substantially changed, via a series of Education Acts – in England and Wales in 1944, Scotland in 1945 and Northern Ireland in 1947 – a synchronization which says much about the existence in this period, across national territories, of key aspects of policy-making. It was in England and Wales that conflicts between different interest groups were at their sharpest and most multi-faceted, and there that the negotiating capacities of the governing class were most called for. In Scotland, politicians and civil servants were convinced both that there was a broad national consensus in favour of change, and that policies were already in place to effect it. In Northern Ireland, there was a similar commitment to change, though an awareness that its patterning would be determined as much by religious factors as by the classic themes of educational reform (Akenside 1973: 163).

The Acts, and the debates that led up to them, were complex and fundamentally contradictory events. On the one hand, they provided the focus of pressure, especially from labour movement organizations, for fundamental change. In Northern Ireland, there were calls, across religious and political divides, for social reform (Bew et al. 1995). In England and Wales, campaigners claimed there was ‘real evidence of a popular demand for a democratic system of education’, a demand expressed through alliances between the main teachers’ union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) (Giles 1946). In Scotland, the widespread desire for a system more democratic and more egalitarian than its predecessors, which would ‘suit the many as well as the old fitted the few’, was given voice at the centre of educational discussion, through the work of the advisory committee appointed by the Secretary of State (Scottish Education Department 1947: 4). On the other hand, the ways in which the Acts were interpreted by administrative elites, endorsed by the Labour leadership, worked to support existing patterns of privilege and class advantage, and selective mechanisms remained at the heart of the system. Despite the radical clamour which accompanied the passing of the legislation, notes Gareth Elwyn Jones, the 1944 Education Act as it was applied in Wales was faithful in essence to the blueprint drawn up by civil servants in 1941 (G. E. Jones 1990: 45). Likewise in Scotland, the 1945 Act did no more than codify changes that had been agreed on in the years before the war, and attempts to extend policy in ways that would achieve more fundamental change were not successful (Lloyd 1983).

‘What does the Act promise?’ asked the Communist and teachers’ leader G. C. T. Giles of legislation for England and Wales. ‘Does it wipe out … class discrimination? Does it promise for the average child something better than the disgracefully low standards of the ordinary elementary school? Does it contain any advance towards equality of opportunity?’ (Giles 1946: 20). He turned for his answers to the text of the legislation, and found there a ‘drastic recasting of our educational system’ (1946: 21). In place of the divide between mass elementary education and a secondary system that rested on selection and fee-paying, he identified a commitment to organizing public education in three stages – ‘primary education’, ‘secondary education’ and ‘further education’ – with the school-leaving age raised to 15 by 1947, and to 16 as soon as practicable thereafter. It mandated local authorities to provide nursery education, to expand provision ‘for pupils who suffer from any disability of mind of body’, and, as we have seen, it envisaged compulsory part-time education for 16–18 year olds. ‘Not less important’, wrote Giles, ‘is the extension of provision for the physical welfare of the children’ (1946: 22). Local authorities were now obliged to provide free medical treatment, as well as milk and meals for all who wanted them.

Thus far, the concerns of Giles, and of thousands of reformers like him, were satisfied: the Acts seemed to promise a free and universal system of education that involved students of all ages up to 18 in a common system, informed by the idea that the ‘nature of a child’s education should be based on his capacity and promise, not by the circumstances of his parents’ (Ministry of Education 1943: 20). But, as Giles acknowledged, this picture was more an ideal than a working model. Responding to the economic climate of the late 1940s, the Labour government made short-term choices that turned out to have longer-term consequences. The provisions of the 1944–7 Acts for compulsory part-time education after the age of 15 were never implemented. Restrictions on capital spending helped ensure that technical schools were left unbuilt. Nursery education declined steeply from its wartime peak, as financial arguments combined with a belief in the necessity of domestic maternal care to stop its growth: the 1944 Act had envisaged the expansion of nursery education, but had not made its provision mandatory; the austerity programme announced in 1947 ensured that local authorities would not use their discretion to preserve or expand it (David 1980; Whitbread 1972). The integration of students deemed to have special needs into the mainstream of the system was not pursued even to the limited extent envisaged by the designers of legislation. At the time, these failings were explained in terms of the constraints of a ‘war-crippled economy’: ‘the facts of the nation’s situation did not allow it’, wrote one commentator of the non-emergence of the post-15 county colleges planned for the late 1940s (Dent 1954: 148). But it is difficult to see finance as the only factor involved. In practice, the Act was blurred, contradicted and compromised not only by the effects of economic crisis but also by its encounter with a variety of vested interests.

Private Schooling

First among these was private education, which included schools of both lowly and elevated status. It is the fate of the high-status schools – the public schools – which concerns us here. During the war, public schools considered themselves a threatened species: teacher unions and the TUC had called for their abolition and headteachers had feared for their survival. But in fact the Acts of 1944–7 left the public schools untouched, and the notion of a universal system of state schooling was thus compromised from the first. R. A. Butler, the Conservative politician whose skill in reconciling different educational interests was celebrated and revered on all sides of the House of Commons, manoeuvred to keep the public school question out of parliamentary debate, and neither the Education Acts nor any other subsequent post-war legislation addressed it. As a result, there remained alongside the state system an elite, private, fee-paying form of education that continued to dominate university entrance and access to positions of social and political power. Under Attlee’s government, its position was secure. George Tomlinson, Attlee’s Minister of Education from 1947 to 1951, presented public school headteachers with a batch of explanations as to why the government would not move against them:

My party has issued a statement of policy in which it looks forward to the day when the schools in the state system will be so good that nobody will want their children to go to independent schools. It is obviously going to be a great many years before such consummation is achieved. At present our hands are full enough coping with the increase in the birth-rate and the movement of population to new housing estates. … Personally I do not see the sense in getting rid of something that is doing a useful job of work, or making everything conform to a common pattern. (Blackburn 1954: 193)

Postponing, thus, any reform of private education to the distant future – and compromising even this position with the suggestion that creating a ‘common pattern’ of education was undesirable, Labour’s Education Ministers also endorsed the continued existence, under various names, of ‘direct grant’ secondary schools. These were self-governing institutions, mostly in England, with a few in Wales, that were part-supported by the state in return for offering a percentage of their places free to holders of local authority scholarships. Academically very successful for more than three decades after the war, the schools served as a kind of top layer of the state secondary sector, and provided another element in the diversity so much appreciated by Tomlinson.


The second set of interests with which the makers of the Education Acts had to deal were religious ones. In Wales, Anglicanism was not the established church, nor a powerful force in education. Scotland had already seen a religious settlement in 1918, in which Catholic schools gained state funding while retaining control over the appointment of teachers and institutional ethos. But in England and Northern Ireland, religious questions expressed themselves with greater force. In England, since the 1870 Education Act, the Anglican Church had controlled the great majority of rural elementary schools, as well as many in urban areas. They were often the epitome of low-level mass education. As Butler pointed out in 1941 to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 90 per cent of them were housed in pre-1900 buildings, and were ‘appallingly old and out of date’ (Butler 1971: 98) – ‘pigsty schools’, as Giles called them (Giles 1946: 35). The church could not afford their upkeep, and, if government attempted simply to subsidize the church in its running of the schools, the political costs would be unsustainable – there was already a long history of nonconformist and secular opposition to the financial links between public funds and the church sector (Chadwick 1997).

Butler’s solution was to trade influence for cash – public funding of church schools in return for majority local authority representation on governing bodies. At the same time, he pledged that religious education and religious worship, organized on non-denominational lines, would be at the centre of state schooling. The church accepted this bargain, though even so, there remained many Anglican schools that chose to be funded less generously, so as to retain greater control over appointments and the curriculum. Catholicism, especially in Northern Ireland, presented a different set of issues, ideological as well as financial. The religious question was closely tied to the very existence of the state that been founded through the partition of Ireland in 1920 – which Catholics, a minority in the new state, opposed. The Catholic hierarchy regarded the Unionist regime at Stormont as an ‘oppressor state’. It had opposed wartime conscription, because Catholics had no interest in ‘fighting for our oppressor’ (Akenside 1973: 170). It was Catholic doctrine ‘that all the teaching and the whole organization of the school and its textbooks in every branch [should] be regulated by the Christian spirit under the direction and material supervision of the Church’ (Akenside 1973: 170). From this position, there were no grounds on which the state could legitimately claim influence over Catholic schooling, and the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland rejected a Butler-like compromise of extra funding in return for greater state influence on the governing bodies of school. Catholic schools therefore received a lower level of state funding, with the difference being made up by intensive moneyraising campaigns among the faithful (James Gallagher 2007).

At the same time, Protestant churches and the Orange Order pressed the Unionist government not to resource Catholic education. ‘Institutions are being set up’, warned the working-class Protestant politician Harry Midgley, ‘which will be seats of power in the future, and now they are increasingly looking to public funds for the support of these institutions’ (Farren 1992:75). Organized grassroots Unionism welcomed educational reform as an extension of opportunity, but at the same time it was determined to limit the operation of that opportunity so as largely to exclude Catholic-run schooling. State-provided schools remained de facto Protestant schools, susceptible to religious influence, but fully funded by government. Catholic, ‘voluntary’ schools ‘were firmly outside the system’, enjoying only limited support from state funds (Cormack and Osborne 1995), and educational expansion was organized in ways that favoured Protestant/Unionist interests. There was an under-provision of grammar schools in Catholic areas; new secondary modern schools were located, overwhelmingly, in Protestant rather than Catholic neighbourhoods and the travel and boarding costs of children at Catholic grammar schools were not subsidized (Farren 1992). This system of institutionalized sectarianism was overseen by Harry Midgley, who became Minister of Education in 1949. Opposed to the recruitment of teachers from the Irish Republic, hostile to the sale of land for the purposes of building Catholic schools, lavish in his support for the elite schools of the Protestant majority, Midgley remained in post till 1957 (McGrath 1997).

Secondary Education for All

Having looked at the post-war settlement in general terms, we can now consider its central feature. The main reason that the legislative provisions for inequality survived political scrutiny so easily – Butler (1971) noted the absence of any sharpness in parliamentary debate about the 1944 Act – was that the new laws delivered what reformers had long been demanding: secondary education for all. This had been the Labour Party’s objective since the 1920s, and had increasingly been advocated by official reports. In 1926, the Hadow Report had called for the raising of the school-leaving age to 15, and the general establishment of post-primary education. At the end of the 1930s, repeating the call, the Spens Report had argued that ‘the existing arrangements … for … education above the age of 11+ … have ceased to correspond with the actual structure of modern society and with … economic facts’ (Spens Report 1938: 353) and plans had been made to raise the school-leaving age in 1939. The legislation of 1944–7 was a war-delayed response to these long-held positions. It claimed to shift British schooling from a nineteenth-century system in which secondary education was available only to a minority, to one in which it would be the birthright of all children – the means for securing economic advance and building an inclusive national community. This was reform’s central promise, and the basis of its mass appeal. It was also the locus of its ambiguities and the source of the conflicts which later came to surround it. Understanding the 1944–7 settlement, therefore, requires analysing what was involved in ‘secondary education for all’, both organizationally and in terms of the kinds of learning it sought to promote.

In establishing secondary education for all, neither the 1944 Act nor its Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts specified the institutional forms that secondary schooling should take. It was the duty of every local education authority, according to the Act, to ensure that schools existed in their area ‘sufficient in number, character and equipment to afford all pupils opportunities offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes’ (Ministry of Education 1944: 8(1)). Beyond this, it was silent. However, there already existed policy resources, ideological positions and administrative preferences strong enough to stipulate very clearly the institutional character of the new system. The Spens Report had sketched a system based on a tripartite division into modern schools, grammar schools and technical high schools. The Norwood Committee in 1943 had decided that these distinctions corresponded to the facts of social existence. Individuals had ‘enough in common as regards capacities and interests’ to justify the separation of individuals into ‘certain rough groupings’ (Norwood Report 1943: 1). In first place, there was the type of student ‘who can grasp an argument or follow a piece of connected reasoning’, who was ‘interested in causes’, ‘sensitive to language as expression of thought’ and perceived ‘the relatedness of related things, in development, in structure, in a coherent body of knowledge’. This was the kind of student suited to, and developed by, the grammar school. Second came the pupil ‘whose interests and abilities lie markedly in the field of applied science or applied art’, and who was destined therefore for the technical school. Then came a third grouping, composed of students who ‘deal more easily with concrete things’ rather than with ideas. Into this group fell those who were ‘interested in things as they are’:

His mind must turn its knowledge or its curiosity to immediate test; and his test is essentially practical. He may see clearly along one line of study or interest … but he often fails to relate his knowledge or skill to other branches of activity. Because he is interested only in the moment he may be incapable of a long series of connected steps; relevance to present concerns is the only way of awakening interest; abstractions mean little to him. (Norwood Report 1943: 2)

Plainly, then, far more was involved in the reconstructions of 1944–7 than the setting up of an institutional system: what was also at stake was the role of education in forming distinct types of individual, who inhabited different mental and emotional universes. The civil servants who shaped the thinking of the Ministry of Education had a similar tripartite view of the child population, but their vision was more explicitly hierarchical than Norwood’s. Deriving their authority from classical philosophy, they referred habitually (Ozga and Gewirtz 1994) to the divisions of humanity established by Socrates in Plato’s Republic (c. 380 bc). ‘You are all of you in this land brothers,’ he wants to tell the citizens of his imagined society, using terms perfectly compatible with wartime rhetorics of community. ‘But when God fashioned you, he added gold in the composition of those who are qualified to be Rulers; he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and the rest’ (Plato 1955: 160).

Plato’s myth, of course, involves not just the identification of particular almost-fixed types of human being. It also attempts, by naturalizing difference, and suggesting that it is an intrinsic feature of the social order, to strengthen social unity. From this angle, there was no contradiction between appealing to social unity and identifying fixed differences. Harold Dent, editor of the Times Educational Supplement, who demanded ‘radical changes in the social order’, based around ‘a planned society infused with a democratic spirit’, managed to reconcile his democratic impulses with support for Norwood, in which he found a ‘reasoned philosophy of education’ (Simon 1991: 54).

In this perspective, reform appeared not as a matter of fundamentals. It became – as Sir Maurice Holmes, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Education, put it in 1943 – a matter of ‘tempering and blurring’ class distinctions which had otherwise lost none of their force or authority (Thom 1986: 101). Yet, clear-headed though it was as an account of policy-making intentions, Holmes’s approach contained little that was in popular terms persuasive, either to educationalists or to parents. Norwood, from this point of view, provides a much better sense of the justifications which surrounded and dignified selective arrangements. For, during and after the war, measures of differentiated expansion were combined with a heavy ideological investment in justifying the appropriateness of the separate types of education in terms of the ways in which they corresponded to the interests and capacities of different groups of students. In this context, two types of discourse became important. The first was that of ‘intelligence’. Selection for the tripartite system took the form of tests in reading, writing and ‘aptitude’, the last of which owed its place to the pre-war development of techniques of testing for IQ. By the end of the 1940s, most local authorities used IQ tests, on the grounds that they provided a fair means of selection for secondary school and an accurate identification of those children who would benefit from a grammar school education (Thom 1986). Accompanying this scientifically underpinned discourse of fairness was another kind of justification, which took on a passionately child-centred tone. It is this second discourse which is key to understanding how Labour politicians were able to reconcile themselves to the limitations of a tripartite system.


Lecturing at Cambridge in 1949, the sociologist T. H. Marshall contrasted education in the early part of the century with the system envisaged by the 1944 Act. Before the war: ‘The state decided what it could afford to spend on free secondary and higher education, and the children competed for the limited number of places provided. There was no pretence that all who could benefit from more advanced education would get it, and there was no recognition of any absolute right to be educated according to one’s capacities’ (T. H. Marshall 1963: 112). Turning to the 1944 legislation, Marshall observed the emergence of a different principle – the passage (quoted above) ‘which says that the supply of secondary schools will not be considered adequate unless they “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”’ (1963: 112).

Respect for individual rights, he noted, could hardly be more strongly expressed; ‘yet I wonder whether it will work out like that in practice.’ For Marshall, there was an irresolvable tension between the language of rights and individual development, on the one hand, and the occupational order, on the other: he saw ‘no relaxation of the bonds that tie education to occupation’, and observed on the contrary ‘the great and increasing respect’ which was paid to ‘certificates, matriculations, degrees and diplomas as qualifications for employment’ (1963: 113). These bonds demanded a balance between occupational demand and educational supply, and would therefore set limits to the number of places at grammar and technical schools. The future of schooling would not be one in which ‘the pupil would be treated entirely as an end in himself’; the school was an instrument of social stratification in a necessarily unequal society, and the educational right it conferred on the citizen was not absolute – the fullest possible development of the individual – but qualified, ‘the equal right to be regarded as unequal’ (1963: 114).

Marshall’s clarity was at odds with the purposes ascribed to education from other positions. The reforms of 1944–7 were attended by a discourse of hope, in which education came to stand for the development of a different kind of human being, embedded in a national community organized around values of democracy and citizenship. Ellen Wilkinson, Minister of Education from 1945 to 1947, wrote of the new kind of schooling that would be created, with ‘laughter in the classroom, self-confidence growing every day, eager interest instead of bored uniformity’ (Wilkinson 1947: 5). The Times Educational Supplement imagined children as ‘wards of the state’, each of whom would be given by benign authority ‘the fullest opportunity to develop every innate power’ (Thom 1986: 102). Texts used in the education of primary teachers imagined how this principle could be realized by the close aligning of children’s school lives with their presumed interests outside the school, so that their ‘vigour and delight in activity, natural curiosity and desire for experience’ could be harnessed to educational goals (Daniels, quoted in Cunningham 1988: 40). These free individuals were to become what Wilkinson called ‘the citizens of the future’, the ‘Britons’ who would ‘stride high’ into the ‘new scientific age’. A burgeoning individuality was in this way linked to a national community in which social bonds were stronger and class divisions weaker: R. A. Butler imagined that the school had created one nation, not two (Butler 1971: 96). Tom Johnston, Secretary of State for Scotland, concerned for the ‘future generation of the race’, considered it ‘most urgent’ to promote in schools a sense of common citizenship (Lloyd 1983: 108–11). Finally, if we believe Harold Dent’s account of the ‘tremendous spiritual uplift’ that teachers experienced with the abolition of the elementary school in 1945, and the establishment of a common pay scale for teachers in all types of school, then they, too, had solid grounds for sharing in the jubilation of the epoch (Dent 1954: 69).

Within such a context, there was a concerted attempt by politicians to mediate between the irreducibly selective and segregated nature of institutional arrangements noted by Marshall, and the hopes that accompanied the extension of mass education. Much here turned upon the ways in which the possibilities of mass secondary modern education were interpreted. Formally speaking, secondary modern education was introduced in 1945, and the school-leaving age everywhere except in Northern Ireland was raised from 14 to 15 in 1947. This did not mean, of course, that ‘all-age’ schools immediately disappeared – in fact, they lingered on, especially in rural areas, until the early 1960s. Nor was the new type of mass school suddenly made free from the physical constraints of the old. Rather, these schools inherited a legacy of poor building and unprepared teaching staff, such that in all material terms their status was evidently an inferior one. Yet the expectations placed upon them were, at first, immense, and widespread – even R. H. Tawney, one of the main instigators of Labour’s commitment to secondary education for all, thought that the secondary moderns, ‘if wisely planned’, were ‘likely to provide the education best calculated to give the majority of boys and girls a hopeful start in life’ (Barker 1972: 80).

Labour’s first Education Minister was Ellen Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s political background was in the socialist education movements of the 1920s and the workers’ hunger marches of the 1930s, and she brought from this experience a passionate if not always convincing belief that the road to educational improvement lay through a revaluing of the dignity of labour – via the work of the secondary modern. With her Parliamentary Secretary, David Hardman, she sought to convince public opinion that all secondary schools, of whatever kind, now enjoyed parity of esteem. Parents must be convinced, she reminded her civil servants in 1946, ‘that the grammar school is now a specialised type of secondary school and not the real thing, any others being substitutes’ (McCulloch 1998: 62). This was not a view that was universally shared. It was challenged in Parliament by the Labour left, and by evidence to the government’s Central Advisory Council on Education, which suggested that the new system was not based so much on parity as on ‘three social grades, arranged in … order of prestige and preference’ (McCulloch 1998: 70). One of Wilkinson’s last acts before her death in 1947 was to compose an eloquent foreword to the Ministry’s pamphlet on The New Secondary Education in which she attempted a socialist defence of the tripartite system, based on an attempt to value all forms of education, like all forms of labour, as contributions to the social good. She linked the existence of different types of school to an argument about the uniqueness of the individual child, and the necessity of developing forms of education that could relate to individual needs and interests. ‘These plans’, she wrote, ‘put the child first. … Their variety is designed to suit different children, not different income groups’ (Wilkinson 1947: 3). Wilkinson contrasted this approach with that of her critics in the National Association of Labour Teachers, who were calling for a ‘grammar school education for all’ (Hansard 1946c). ‘No child’, she argued, ‘must be forced into an academic education which bores it to rebellion, merely because that type of grammar school education is considered more socially desirable by parents’ (Wilkinson 1947: 4). She went further, to call not just for a revaluation of types of education, but also for a revaluation of the hierarchies of the labour process – the hierarchies which underpinned differentation in schooling. Manual work, in this perspective, took on a new meaning: in the war and amid the difficulties of post-war reconstruction, the ‘British people are learning the hard way how dependent is a civilised community on its farmers, transporters and miners, its manual and technical workers’ (1947: 4).

The rest of the pamphlet, composed by civil servants, reiterates Wilkinson’s personal concerns at greater length, basing itself, on the one hand, on a commitment to differentiation and, on the other, to the kind of child-centredness long associated with the progressive movement in education. The first involves a Norwood-like belief that, while ‘some are attracted by the abstract approach to learning’, others, the majority, ‘learn most easily by dealing with concrete things’ (Ministry of Education 1947: 23). The second reveals something of the complex dynamic of post-war mass education, in which differentiation is combined with claims about the needs of the individual, the full development of the student’s personality and the freedom of the teacher. The focus of the secondary modern, the pamphlet asserts, should be ‘the development of the whole child’, and ‘everyone knows’ ‘that no two children are alike’ (1947: 31, 22). Consequently, ‘the curriculum must be made to fit the child, not the child the curriculum’ (1947: 22). The pamphlet thus announces a break with a past that is imagined as being dominated by deskbound, rote learning. Secondary moderns must not be pale shadows of the grammar school, and must break from academic models of learning: ‘lacking’, as the Ministry of Education put it, ‘the traditions and privileged position of the … grammar school their future is their own to make’ (Ministry of Education 1943: 29). From now on, experimentation, guided by teachers enjoying an autonomy in curriculum development, and encouraged to approach learning through activity rather than through books, will be the norm. As the modern schools develop, promises the pamphlet, ‘parents will see that they are good’ (Ministry of Education 1947: 47).