Spens (1938)

1938 Spens Report (text)

The Spens Report (1938)
Secondary Education
with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools

London: HM Stationery Office

Background notes

Historical context

The 1899 Board of Education Act established a Board of Education 'charged with the superintendence of matters relating to education in England and Wales' (section 1). It provided for the establishment of a Consultative Committee to keep a register of teachers and to advise the Board 'on any matter referred to the committee by the Board' (section 4).

The Consultative Committee produced many reports during its lifetime, including the six Hadow Reports of the 1920s and 30s. Spens was its last: following the 1944 Education Act it was replaced by the Central Advisory Council for Education (CACE).

By the late 1930s about ten per cent of elementary school pupils were being selected to go on to secondary schools. The rest either remained in 'all-age' schools or went on to senior schools. It was becoming clear that England's class-divided secondary schools were failing the nation's children. Twice as many students were going on to higher education in Germany, more than twice as many in France, over three times as many in Switzerland, and almost ten times as many in the US.

Nonetheless, the Spens report still argued for a divided and elitist system. The only difference was that, whereas in the late 19th century such divisions were openly based on class, now they were based on notions of intelligence and aptitude.

The terms of reference for this report were:

To consider and report upon the organisation and interrelation of schools, other than those administered under the Elementary Code, which provide education for pupils beyond the age of 11+; regard being had in particular to the framework and content of the education of pupils who do not remain at school beyond the age of about 16 (page iv).
The Committee began its inquiry in October 1933 after it had completed its report on Infant and Nursery Schools (the last with Henry Hadow as chair).

William Spens

Sir William ('Will') Spens (1882-1962), was educated at Rugby and read natural sciences at King's College Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of Corpus Christi College Cambridge in 1907, and spent most of his working life in Cambridge: he was elected Master of Corpus in 1927 and became Vice Chancellor of the University in 1931.

The 19 members of the Consultative Committee also included WA Brockington (Director of Education for Leicestershire) and Albert Mansbridge (one of the founders of the Workers' Educational Association), who had both served on the Committee for several of the Hadow reports.

The full Committee sat on 74 days between October 1933 and September 1938 and examined 150 witnesses. In addition, several sub-committees were appointed to consider various aspects of the reference.

The report's main recommendations

The committee's conclusions and recommendations are set out in Chapter XI.

Its most significant recommendation was that there should be three types of secondary school:

  • grammar schools for the academically able;
  • technical schools for those with a practical bent;
  • new 'modern' secondary schools for the rest;
and it was this 'tripartite system' which was set up following the 1944 Education Act - though the Act itself did not require it. (In fact, the system was never truly tripartite - technical schools were expensive to build and maintain so very few were ever opened).

The Committee called for parity between the different types of school - something which was never achieved - and acknowledged that there would be 'many benefits' if all children above the age of 11 were educated together in 'multilateral' (ie comprehensive) schools. However, it decided it 'could not advocate the adoption of multilateralism as a general policy in England and Wales' (page 291).

Spens also recommended that the school leaving age should be raised to 16. This was not implemented until 1972.

The report online

The full text of the report (including the Appendices) is presented in a single web page.

I have modernised some of the punctuation, updated a handful of spellings, corrected a few misprints, and added explanations to a few archaic words. Anything added by way of explanation is shown [in square brackets].

The larger tables in Chapter II are shown as images.

The above notes were prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 27 May 2007; they were revised on 20 November 2012.