Education in the UK

Preliminary pages
Introduction, Contents, Preface
Chapter 1 Up to 1500
Chapter 2 1500-1600
Renaissance and Reformation
Chapter 3 1600-1660
Chapter 4 1660-1750
Chapter 5 1750-1860
Towards mass education
Chapter 6 1860-1900
A state system of education
Chapter 7 1900-1923
Secondary education for some
Chapter 8 1923-1939
From Hadow to Spens
Chapter 9 1939-1945
Educational reconstruction
Chapter 10 1945-1951
Labour and the tripartite system
Chapter 11 1951-1964
The wind of change
Chapter 12 1964-1970
The golden age?
Chapter 13 1970-1974
Applying the brakes
Chapter 14 1974-1979
Progressivism under attack
Chapter 15 1979-1990
Thatcher and the New Right
Chapter 16 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 17 1997-2007
Tony Blair and New Labour
Chapter 18 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 19 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
Chapter 20 2015-2018

Organisation of this chapter


Ellen Wilkinson 1945-1947
Early days
The school leaving age
The tripartite system
   The Nation's Schools (1945)

George Tomlinson 1947-1951
The tripartite system
   The New Secondary Education (1947)
   Elitist ideology
   Development plans
   The schools
   Budget cuts
   Labour anger
   A policy for secondary education (1951)
   Effect on primary education
Other matters
   School buildings
   The curriculum
   CACE Reports
   More Acts of Parliament

The public schools

Further education

Higher education
Participation rates
Science and technology
   Percy Report 1945
   Barlow Report 1946
   Parliamentary and Scientific Committee Report 1946



Education in the UK: a history
Derek Gillard

first published June 1998
this version published May 2018

copyright Derek Gillard 2018
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Chapter 10 : 1945-1951

Labour and the tripartite system


The war in Europe ended in May 1945. Labour refused to accept Churchill's invitation to continue the coalition government until the war in the Far East was over, so for two months - from 25 May to 26 July - the Conservative Party ruled alone. Rab Butler moved to the Ministry of Labour and National Service, and Richard Law (1901-1980), a little-known Tory, became Minister of Education.

A general election was called for 5 July. Labour's ambitious electoral programme promised nationalisation of coal, gas, electricity, iron and steel, transport, and the Bank of England; the creation of what became known as 'the welfare state', based largely on the recommendations of the Beveridge Report; the establishment of the National Health Service; a major house-building programme; and implementation of the provisions of the 1944 Education Act.

The result of the election (the announcement of which was delayed until 26 July to allow for the collection of votes from armed forces stationed around the world) represented 'the greatest electoral turnabout since the famous Liberal landslide of 1906' (Simon 1991:77). Labour won 47.8 per cent of the popular vote and a Commons majority of 146 seats.

The new government, led by Clement Attlee (1883-1967) (pictured), with Hugh Dalton (1887-1962) as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) as Minister of Education, faced a monumental task: like much of Europe, Britain had emerged from the Second World War impoverished and facing a huge amount of expensive reconstruction. To make matters worse, there were also enormous economic problems including a major crisis in coal production through the exceptionally cold winter of 1946-7; fierce internal battles within the Labour Party on defence expenditure (more than a million men and women were still in the armed forces); and a severe financial crisis in which Britain faced bankruptcy, despite a US loan of almost $4bn. A wave of strikes in support of improved wages and conditions hit the London docks, and the printing and other industries.

It was against this apparently hopeless background that the Attlee government set about pursuing an extraordinarily wide-ranging and radical agenda. It spent vast sums of money on improved welfare: 'National insurance, family allowances, national health, improvements in old age pensions - all these were in being by 1948' (Lawson and Silver 1973:421). These measures had immediate and significant effects: in 1951 Rowntree and Lavers reported that, in York, those 'living in poverty' had been reduced from 31.1 per cent in 1936 to 2.77 per cent in 1950, and that the latter figure would have been 22.18 per cent had it not been for the Attlee government's welfare legislation (Lawson and Silver 1973:421).

Sir Stafford Cripps (1889-1952), who replaced Dalton as Chancellor in November 1947, 'was generally successful in protecting social services expenditure at and around the level then reached' (Simon 1991:117). But this changed towards the end of the decade, when the outbreak of the 'Cold War' against communism, involving the Berlin blockade, the formation of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), and a commitment to massive rearmament, resulted in a sudden - and huge - increase in arms expenditure.

The Cold War also led to an obsession with rooting out Communists. The McCarthyite 'witch hunts' in the US were copied, albeit to a lesser extent, in the UK. Staff at Acton Grammar School, where GCT Giles was head, became a particular target; Middlesex banned members of the Communist or Fascist parties from teaching in its schools; other authorities operated similar bans. Communists also found it difficult to obtain university appointments, particularly in extra-mural departments - 'a sensitive area since these were responsible for wide-ranging educational activities among the working class (and trade unions) and even in the colonies' (Simon 1991:124).

In the general election in February 1950, following a long and persistent campaign in the (largely right-wing) press to highlight government incompetence, Labour won a Commons majority of just five seats. The administration was 'very clearly running out of steam' (Simon 1991:140) and suffered a major setback when Aneurin Bevan, architect of the National Health Service, resigned in April 1951 in protest at the government's decision to introduce charges for dental and optical services while massively increasing expenditure on armaments.

In the summer of 1951 millions of people visited exhibitions staged as part of the Festival of Britain. Largely the idea of Herbert Morrison (1888-1965), Lord President of the Council, its centrepiece was the rebuilt South Bank in London, including the Royal Festival Hall which was officially opened on 3 May. The Festival was intended to lift people's spirits after the privations of war.

The government still enjoyed support in the country, so Attlee decided to call another election in October 1951 in the hope of securing a larger majority in the Commons. However, although Labour polled its highest ever vote, the Tories won more seats and Winston Churchill formed a new administration, marking the start of thirteen consecutive years of Tory rule. 'The Utopian perspectives of 1945 now receded into the distant past' (Simon 1991:140).

Ellen Wilkinson

Minister of Education: 3 August 1945 - 10 February 1947

Born in Manchester to parents who were 'upper working class, respectable, undramatic' (Vernon 1982:1), Wilkinson (pictured) had graduated from Manchester University, joined the Communist Party and worked for a women's suffrage organisation. She was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924 and then for Jarrow in 1935. Often seen in newsreels and photographs speaking with great passion or leading processions of hunger marchers, she became known as 'Red Ellen'.

During the Second World War Wilkinson served as a junior minister in Churchill's coalition government and supported Herbert Morrison's attempt to replace Clement Attlee as Labour leader. Despite this, Attlee appointed her Labour's first Minister of Education on 3 August 1945. Her Parliamentary Secretary was David Hardman (1901-1989), a Cambridge man 'whose strengths lay in his links with the older universities' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:315).

Her main task was to implement the provisions of the 1944 Education Act. She accepted the challenge enthusiastically and had ambitious aims, including the raising of the school leaving age to 16 and the provision of free school meals for all children. Both were ruled out on grounds of cost, though universal free school milk was introduced in August 1946.

In other respects, Wilkinson was a disappointment, partly because the huge backlog of neglect called for 'great administrative skill and tactful coaxing of officials, which were hardly Miss Wilkinson's forte' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:315); partly because she had 'moved to a distinctly more centrist position in the party during the war years' (Morgan 1984:174); and partly because of her failing health.

This was a double tragedy, for such was the confusion caused by the war, the change of administration and the large amount of administrative direction needed, that the bold expression of an imaginative forceful leadership could have been accepted without too many questions being asked; but the chance to direct educational policy into a new channel slipped away (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:316).
Worst of all, she endorsed the 'tripartite' system of secondary schools, based on the view promoted by Spens and Norwood that there were three types of child who needed different types of school - grammar, technical and secondary modern - and was therefore strongly opposed to the idea of comprehensive education. She had 'fought her way through to university from a working-class home ... and in the process developed strong loyalties to the selective secondary education which had helped her to do so' (Jones 2003:25).

As a result, the promised new kind of schooling with 'laughter in the classroom' (Ministry of Education 1947:5) was soon to be replaced by the stress of passing the eleven-plus exam so as to gain a grammar-school place.

Wilkinson suffered increasing bouts of ill-health (including asthma and pneumonia), made worse by a series of accidents. Her last known public engagement was the opening of the Old Vic Theatre School on 25 January 1947. A few days later she was admitted to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, where she died from 'heart failure following bronchitis' on 6 February at the age of 55 (Vernon 1982: 231-3).

Some have suggested that, depressed by her failure to achieve all the reforms she believed necessary, Wilkinson committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates. However, Betty Vernon argues that, while she was certainly unwell and 'did show hypochondriacal tendencies' (Vernon 1982: 234), the evidence 'in no way suggests suicide ... Ellen was not a quitter' (Vernon 1982: 235).

Early days

Many provisions of the 1944 Act had come into force on 1 April 1945 and, for local education authorities and their officers, this was a period of frenetic activity. FF Potter, Cheshire's Chief Education Officer, noted that 'a regular spate of circulars, memoranda, and regulations proceeded without pause from the ministry' (Potter 1949:133) and that the Act 'had at least trebled the volume of work in an ordinary county education department' (Potter 1949:138-9). For the large urban authorities, the pressures were probably even greater.

But there was a high level of enthusiasm and determination. In Teamwork and Beauty, the first of four autobiographical articles written in 1974, Alec Clegg (1909-1986), Director of Education for the West Riding, commented

It is difficult to write about the élan and zest of those early post-war years. ... We had been held back for eight years and all of us, central government, local committees and officials, were eager to forge ahead (The Times Educational Supplement 20 September 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:91).

The school leaving age

One of the first issues facing Ellen Wilkinson was the raising of the school leaving age to fifteen. Butler had already postponed implementation 'to a date not later than 1st April 1947'; the Attlee government now had to decide whether to adhere to this date or postpone it further. The Ministry of Education estimated that raising the age would require 200,000 additional school places and 13,000 more teachers - over and above those needed to meet natural wastage.

In a memorandum for the Cabinet, Wilkinson set out the position regarding teachers and accommodation and argued that, while there was no possibility of raising the age earlier, it could be done by 1 April 1947. 'We must make it clear', she wrote, 'that we intend to stick to this date' (quoted in Simon 1991:97-8).

The Cabinet discussed the matter in August 1945. Wilkinson pointed out that further postponement would require legislation and would be politically embarrassing. Furthermore, local authorities would not begin making the necessary preparations unless the government indicated its commitment.

James Chuter Ede (1882-1965) (pictured), now Home Secretary, strongly supported Wilkinson, but Aneurin Bevan was worried about the possible effect on the housing programme, to which local authorities had been urged to give 'immediate attention'. In the end, the Cabinet referred the matter to an ad hoc committee (Simon 1991:98).

The committee, chaired by Herbert Morrison, reported back a month later, on 4 September 1945. It argued that the raising of the school age would be seen as 'a test of the government's sincerity' and that 'for political reasons we must stick to the date provided for it in the Education Act 1944 if it is humanly possible to do so'. Despite the fact that it would result initially in a need for temporary accommodation and over-large classes, the step should be taken.

Following a short discussion, the Cabinet agreed and the Ministry announced the decision to go ahead in Circular No. 64 (27 September 1945). 'The government was thus fully committed to a measure which strained the available educational resources to the limit' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:321).

Preparations began: an Emergency Training Scheme aimed to train 70,000 teachers by providing one-year courses (mainly for ex-service personnel) in temporary colleges. (Details of this scheme can be found in Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 17 Challenge and Response, published in 1950.)

Meanwhile the Ministry of Works supplied and erected hundreds of prefabricated huts - 'sufficient were erected to make the transition to a leaving age of fifteen practicable - if severely uncomfortable for many children and teachers' (Simon 1991:101).

While the prefabricated huts were urgently needed, it was, as The Times (22 May 1946) pointed out,

foolish in the extreme to imagine that their erection will constitute a major contribution towards the raising of the standard of accommodation and amenities that is as necessary for the full application of the Education Act as the expansion of the teaching force (quoted in Simon 1991:101).
Furthermore, the building restrictions still in force in May 1946 prevented the reconstruction of existing schools to bring them up to the standard set by the Minister under Section 10 of the 1944 Act.

By the summer of 1946, the Ministry was being criticised - by local authorities and others - for delays in putting emergency measures in place to ensure sufficient teachers and accommodation, and 'hopes for the full implementation of the Act were turning sour' (Simon 1991:101). Wilkinson told the Commons that the raising of the leaving age to fifteen and the provision of free milk and meals would be in place by September 1948, and that some progress would have been made in reducing class sizes. After 1948 there would be three main tasks: the provision of better buildings, county colleges, and some major colleges of further education. However, David Hardman, the Parliamentary Secretary, sought to correct the widespread belief that the county colleges were due to open on 1 April 1950, warning that it would be 'irresponsible to fix the date on which further education to the age of 18 would be compulsory' (quoted in Simon 1991:101-2); and Wilkinson acknowledged that full implementation of the Act would take a generation.

Meanwhile, Giles argued that the state system of education had always been short of teachers:

In 1939, before the war, there were 167,000 full-time teachers in elementary schools for some 5,000,000 children. Of these eighty per cent were certificated teachers, with at least a two-year college training. Of the remaining twenty per cent, the majority were 'uncertificated', that is, they had received a secondary school education, but no training. Finally, there were some 'supplementary' teachers, from whom no academic qualifications whatever were demanded. This total of 167,000 included some 29,000 heads of schools, of whom more than 17,000 were solely responsible for a class in addition to their duties as heads. But let us take the gross figure - misleading as it is - 167,000 teachers for 5,000,000 children, an average of one teacher for more than thirty children. Compare this with the ratio at Winchester College - one teacher for eleven boys (Giles 1946:50).
It was hardly surprising, then, that the McNair Committee should conclude that 'we have not yet emancipated ourselves from the tradition of educating our children on the cheap' (McNair 1944:31).

Giles estimated that a total of 350,000 teachers would be needed 'to carry out the full provisions of the Act - an addition of eighty per cent to the pre-war establishment' (Giles 1946:50); and in a letter to The Times Educational Supplement (10 August 1946), he called for greater urgency. The 1944 Act, he wrote, still had 'the enthusiastic support of public opinion and particularly of parents and teachers', but the government's targets were 'too low' and the present pace 'too slow' (quoted in Simon 1991:102).

However, the Emergency Training Programme continued to expand: within six years, 53 training colleges had been opened and 35,000 prospective teachers had attended one-year 'crash courses'. In addition, a Further Education and Training Scheme made grants to 85,000 ex-service men and women whose education had been interrupted by the war (Lawson and Silver 1973:419-420).

In line with the recommendations of the McNair Report, thirteen Area Training Organisations (ATOs) were established in England and one in Wales in 1947 to co-ordinate the provision of teacher training. The universities kept their separate training departments and institutes, which now served as hubs for the ATOs' clusters of colleges. By the early 1950s LEAs had opened 76 new training colleges.

Alongside the shortage of teachers was the desperate need for more school buildings. In March 1943, Butler had appointed a Committee whose members represented the local education authorities, the teaching profession, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the building industry. The Committee's report, published in November 1943, made suggestions for the speeding up of school building including the adoption of a measure of standardisation.

By the autumn of 1945 it was clear that the amount of new accommodation needed by local authorities for raising the school leaving age had been greatly underestimated. Ministry officials, however, did not want the problem raised in Cabinet for fear that this would be interpreted as a plea for postponing the date for raising the leaving age. 'It was therefore thought wiser to strike a confident note' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:322).

Meanwhile, there was continuing pressure to raise the leaving age to sixteen: a deputation from the Trades Union Congress met Wilkinson in May 1946, and in a Manchester Guardian editorial (15 May 1946), RH Tawney argued that 'the minimum leaving age should be the same for all', and that the government should now announce the future date by which 'if all goes well, the minimum school-leaving age will become sixteen' (quoted in Simon 1991:98).

There was, however, a further threat to raising the leaving age to fifteen. On 10 January 1947, the Ministerial Committee on Economic Planning, chaired by Hugh Dalton, reported to the Cabinet on the economic survey for 1947. It argued that raising the leaving age on 1 April would mean 'a direct loss to the national labour force which will reach 370,000 by September, 1948', and that this would be a serious problem 'at a time when the whole economy of the country is badly overstrained'. The committee proposed postponing the measure for five months - until 1 September 1947. Such a postponement would have the added advantage that preparations 'will be much more complete' (quoted in Simon 1991:99).

Wilkinson (who was not a member of the Economic Planning committee) was by this time 'nearing the end of her life and under great stress' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:324). Rallying her failing strength, she argued vigorously against any delay in raising the leaving age. It would deprive 150,000 children of a year's education - the very children whose education had been most seriously interrupted by the war. Furthermore, they would all be children of working class families, because better-off parents would be able to pay to keep their children at school.

In a memorable appeal she pointed out that the education service had too often been the first casualty of economy campaigns and a Labour government should be the last to resort to encouraging child labour as a means of meeting a forecast of economic trouble (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:324).
In the end, the Cabinet was virtually unanimous in supporting her.

Brian Simon argues that

defeat on this issue would have had a most serious effect not only on the credibility of the minister herself but also, more importantly, on the whole status of education and the priority to be given to it - in particular in implementing the Act (Simon 1991:99-100).
Some had argued that the expansion of further education should have taken priority over the raising of the leaving age - partly because it would have been cheaper, and partly because it would have 'avoided the charge that the Minister was forcing a higher school leaving age on a run-down and largely unprepared school system' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:325).

Wilkinson - 'true to her policy of providing working-class opportunity' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:326) - had risked everything by choosing the extra year and secondary education for all as the policy her party would find most difficult to refuse.

If she had placed the priority on providing further education first it would have invited disaster when the pressure to make cuts came, with the loss of further education as well as the extra year in school (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:326).
The Cabinet battle for the leaving age was to be Wilkinson's last: she died a few weeks later, on 6 February 1947. In the event, the raising of the leaving age 'went through relatively smoothly' (Simon 1991:100).

The tripartite system

The tripartite system - of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools - had come into being on 1 April 1945, three months before Attlee came to power. It was effectively the continuation of nineteenth-century England's class-based system of education, which the reports of Spens (1938) and Norwood (1943) had justified on the grounds of 'innate intelligence'. It was a divided system,

newly cloaked in spurious educational thinking about children's minds, backed by supposedly scientific methods of measuring intelligence which would make all the necessary decisions about selecting children for different types of school (Benn and Chitty 1996:6).
The myth quickly grew that the tripartite system had been specified by the 1944 Act. As we saw in the previous chapter, this was not true. While the 1941 Green Book and the 1943 White Paper had certainly taken for granted the provision of secondary education in three different types of school, the Act itself did not specify any particular kind of secondary school. Indeed, the Act never mentioned the words 'tripartite', 'selection', 'eleven plus', 'grammar schools' or 'secondary modern schools'. It simply required that education should be provided at three levels: primary, secondary and further.

Attlee's new government, therefore, could have adopted a comprehensive policy - a move which the 1944 Act would have allowed. With its huge Commons majority, it 'had carte blanche to encourage the implementation of such a policy, had it the will and means' (Simon 1991:103).

Attlee would certainly have had the backing of his party, which was committed - by unanimous conference resolutions in 1942 and 1943 - to support 'widespread experiment with multilateral [ie comprehensive] schools' (Simon 1991:102-3). And at the party's conference in May 1945 - just a few weeks before the General Election - Alice Bacon (1909-1993), a member of the National Executive Committee and former teacher, had declared

We say that as far as secondary education is concerned, we favour multilateral schools where all children are educated in one building ... We promise that if we get power we will have a free democratic educational system on which we can build up a free and democratic country (quoted in Simon 1991:103).
Comprehensive schools were also supported by many eminent educationists, including Sir Fred Clarke, Director of the London Institute of Education, who suggested that resistance to 'multilateral' education was 'some tradition-born and half-analysed suspicion, a suspicion that the Ark of the Covenant may be handled by the unclean Gentile' (Clarke 1940:20).

But it was not to be. Indeed, not only was the Attlee government fully committed to the tripartite system, it made matters even worse by restricting entry to grammar schools, by refusing to allow secondary modern schools to run exam courses, and by rejecting proposals from several local authorities to introduce comprehensive schools.

Neither was the system ever the tripartite one which had been promised: LEAs were reluctant to develop expensive new secondary technical schools, and even as late as 1958 these schools were providing education for less than four per cent of the secondary age group.

The system was therefore effectively a bipartite one, with grammar schools taking, on average, the 'top' twenty per cent of children and secondary modern schools taking the rest. Selection for grammar schools was made largely on the basis of the eleven plus examination, which usually consisted of tests of intelligence and attainment in English and arithmetic. In the eyes of the public, children either 'passed' and went to the grammar school or 'failed' and went to the local secondary modern. This was extremely damaging to the self-esteem of most children and most schools: it 'impacted on student identity, leading the majority to accept this judgement of mental inferiority' (Wrigley 2014:9).

The system was also grossly unfair because a child's chances of getting into a grammar school varied from county to county: in Carmarthen, for example, there were grammar school places for 50 per cent of the children, while in north-west Kent there were places for only 20 per cent (Labour Party 1951:7). And it was particularly unfair to girls, for whom the pass-mark was often higher than for boys because there were fewer girls' grammar schools.

Furthermore, there was never 'parity of esteem' between grammar and secondary modern schools. Competition for grammar-school places increased because they offered pupils the possibility of getting into university and going on to a professional career. The system thus reinforced the notion that working-class children were of lower intelligence. Giles warned that 'We cannot afford to fob off 2,000,000 out of the 2,500,000 secondary pupils with a second-rate substitute article' (Giles 1946:74), and he quoted London County Council's Education Committee on the Organisation of Secondary Education:

Education is not a matter merely of intellectual achievement. It is a matter of all-round growth and development, physical, intellectual, social and spiritual, and it seems indefensible to categorise schools on the basis of intellect only. It is, for example, a matter of first-rate importance for modern society that life in school should promote a feeling of social unity among adolescents of all kinds and degrees of ability (quoted in Giles 1946:77).
Giles noted that both Russia and the US had developed non-selective comprehensive schools for all pupils and he commented:
The advantages of this type of secondary school are obvious. It has no need of selection. It brings together in one school a cross-section of the community. It makes possible a wider and more varied curriculum, while preserving a common core of culture (Giles 1946:79).
In answer to those who feared that comprehensive or multilateral schools would mean a lowering of academic standards, Giles responded:
The answer is that the characteristics of the multilateral school are its great flexibility in organisation, the wide scope of its curriculum, and its adaptability to the attitudes, abilities and interests of the pupil, whether he be 'clever' or 'stupid', quick or slow (Giles 1946:82).
The Nation's Schools (1945)

The first Circular issued by the new Ministry - just a week after the Act had received the Royal Assent - (Circular No. 1 Education Act 1944 15 August 1944) had informed local authorities that, from 1 April 1945, they must begin to prepare development plans. It went on:

The preparation of these plans will raise many educational issues and for the assistance of authorities the Minister proposes to issue a memorandum of guidance on the aims and organisation of the various types of schools in the primary and secondary fields ... These plans should be framed, as far as practicable, on uniform lines (quoted in Simon 1991:104).

A further Circular, in May 1945, asked for these plans to be submitted by 1 April 1946. It was accompanied by the publication of Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 1 The Nation's Schools, which set out how the tripartite system was to be established.

Although it had been written and published before Labour came to power, The Nation's Schools was enthusiastically endorsed by Wilkinson. It was an extraordinary example of political 'spin'. It explained that the new 'modern' schools would be for working-class children 'whose future employment will not demand any measure of technical skill or knowledge' (Ministry of Education 1945a:21), and it presented the decision to ban them from taking exams as a positive advantage:

Free from the pressures of any external examination, these schools can work out the best and liveliest forms of secondary education suited to their pupils (Ministry of Education 1945a:21).
The booklet began by setting out the arrangements for primary education, covering the age range from two to eleven or twelve and comprising nursery schools and classes, infant schools and junior schools. In the junior schools,
The future scholar, the future technician, the potential artist, musician, craftsman or artisan, all are together in the same school, learning the same subjects and pursuing the same activities. Their capacities will be very various, and it is for the school to bring out the best from each (Ministry of Education 1945a:9).
The existing 'special place' exams were being replaced by 'improved methods of determining for children the kind of secondary education best suited to their aptitudes and abilities'. The junior schools would therefore be able 'to develop an education at once wider and less formal than it has commonly been hitherto' (Ministry of Education 1945a:10).

This was another piece of spin: the eleven-plus exam would quickly come to dominate the work of the junior schools and stifle curriculum innovation. The writers of The Nation's Schools had clearly forgotten - or ignored - the 1943 White Paper's declaration that

There is nothing to be said in favour of a system which subjects children at the age of 11 to the strain of a competitive examination on which, not only their future schooling, but their future careers may depend (Board of Education 1943:4).
GCT Giles argued that ministry officials had no idea how children should be selected for the different types of school and therefore intended to pass on this responsibility to the teachers:
It is the teachers who are to have the invidious, and so far impossible, task of selecting children for schools. It is the teachers who will then have to persuade parents, often against their own wishes and the inclinations of the child (Giles 1946:72).
The Nation's Schools went on to describe the tripartite system of secondary schools:
We have in fact a new genus of secondary education which has already developed a variety of species - different types of post-primary education, represented by the senior or modern school, the technical school and the grammar school. These three broad types, now at very different stages of development, are intended to meet the differing needs of different pupils (Ministry of Education 1945a:13).
Once again, this was spin. It must have been obvious that there would never be many technical schools - they were far too expensive - and that the system would in practice become bipartite, with those who passed the 'eleven plus' gaining valued grammar-school places, and those who failed being consigned to the secondary modern schools. It was a system designed to provide working-class children with a working-class education.

It is interesting to note the order in which The Nation's Schools described the three types of school: it was clearly hierarchical. First, the grammar schools could 'approach the future with a sense of solid achievement behind them and with an assurance that they still have a vital part to play' (Ministry of Education 1945a:16). Second, the new technical schools would cater for 'children of 11-16 selected on the basis of their general intelligence and special interests and aptitudes' (Ministry of Education 1945a:19). And last, the secondary modern schools had 'their own contribution, and a vital contribution, to make to the development of secondary education' (Ministry of Education 1945a:21) - presumably by keeping children with little intelligence and no 'special interests and aptitudes' off the streets.

The nearest the booklet came to acknowledging the comprehensive ideal was in suggesting that:

when opportunity offers, there is much to be said for bringing together separate schools of different types on the same site, or in close juxtaposition. It would then be possible to secure exchanges of staff, and to provide opportunities for the intermingling of pupils through a variety of joint activities (Ministry of Education 1945a:24).
The Nation's Schools was no more progressive when it came to the issue of co-education. It was 'neither possible nor desirable to lay down a fixed doctrine', it said. While it was, generally speaking, 'desirable and advantageous' for boys and girls to be educated together, 'the balance of advantage may be held to lie on the side of single-sex schools' (Ministry of Education 1945a:25).

The Nation's Schools was heavily criticised in The Times Educational Supplement. Giles (26 May 1945) said it contained nothing to meet the challenge of the 'changes and advances now to be made' and that it stood 'condemned by its complacent acceptance of the status quo ante Butler'. And in a leading article two months later (15 July 1945), Harold Dent wrote that 'No greater mishap could overcome the new order in English education than that there should be established in it three different grades of secondary school' (quoted in Simon 1991:105).

Despite the criticisms, the Labour government remained committed to the tripartite system. This was made clear in Circular No. 73 The Organisation of Secondary Education (12 December 1945), which stated that 70 to 75 per cent of places 'should be of the modern type', the remaining 25 to 30 per cent being allocated to grammar and technical schools 'in suitable proportions'. It went on:

it is inevitable for the immediate purposes of planning and in the light of the existing layout of schools, for local education authorities at the outset to think in terms of the three types, and to include information of the amount of accommodation allocated to each type in the development plan (quoted in Simon 1991:106).
It is clear, then, that the Ministry was taking a strong line with the local authorities. As John Maud, who was now Permanent Secretary, wrote later in his autobiography, 'Local authorities could propose what they liked, but they were given a broad hint of what would and what would not get her [the Minister's] approval' (quoted in Simon 1991:107).

Nonetheless, many local authorities - including London, Reading, Oldham, Coventry and Southend - did submit plans which involved at least some multilateral schools: Brian Simon estimates that 'well over half of the authorities ... wanted more flexible structures than under the strict tripartite mode' (Simon 1991:107).

Meanwhile, Wilkinson's commitment to the tripartite system had 'provoked a deep rift between the Minister and her more radical supporters' (Chitty 1989:25). She was attacked in the Commons, and at the 1946 party conference she suffered a major defeat and was forced to concede that The Nation's Schools would not be reprinted.

However, she and the government were determined that the policy should stand, and it was restated two years later in Circular No. 144 The Organisation of Secondary Education and in another pamphlet, The New Secondary Education, neither of which 'offered one iota of encouragement to authorities planning comprehensive schools' (Simon 1991:108).

The New Secondary Education was compiled under Wilkinson's direction but she had died by the time it was ready to go to the printers, so it was published by her successor, George Tomlinson.


In assessing Wilkinson's performance as Minister, Middleton and Weitzman argue that her lack of initiative and enterprise was 'a great disappointment to the educational world who had expected more than was possible' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:327). Her failure to appreciate - and counteract - the reactionary tone of the The Nation's Schools disturbed many Labour educationists, as did her refusal to support comprehensive schools. She was also too willing to accept the Emergency Training Scheme for teachers, which had long-term effects on standards which were already very low.

For Middleton and Weitzman, however, the greatest criticism of Wilkinson is that she failed 'to seize the national education system as it emerged from the war' and provide it with a 'bold, imaginative initiative from the top' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:328). Too much of her flagging energy was spent in fighting for the school meals service. 'In default of central leadership the officials took over and they merely picked up the threads as they had been in the 1930s' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:328).

Nonetheless, they conclude, if only because of her dying determination to achieve the raising of the school leaving age, 'it was not a stewardship without honour' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:328).

George Tomlinson

Minister of Education: 10 February 1947 - 2 November 1951

Tomlinson (1890-1952) had attended Rishton Wesleyan Elementary School in Lancashire until the age of twelve, when he began working at a cotton mill. After the First World War he was elected to Farnworth (Lancashire) Urban District Council, becoming Chair of the Education Committee in 1928. In 1938 he was elected MP for Farnworth and held the seat until his death. When the Attlee government came to power, he was appointed Minister of Works.

As Minister of Education, Tomlinson was skilled in public relations and good at 'smoothing over difficulties with hard-pressed local authorities' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:331). He tried to convince the Chancellor of the Exchequer that money provided for education 'isn't spent - it is just invested', and that 'it is not economical or common sense to train a teacher and then put him in charge of such a large class that all he can do is prevent the children from breaking the furniture' (quoted in Middleton and Weitzman 1976:331).

In many ways, however, he was even more disappointing than Wilkinson. He was equally committed to the tripartite system, telling the Commons in 1947 that 'it is no part of our policy to reduce in any way the status or standing of the grammar school'; and warning, in 1950, that members of the Labour Party were 'kidding themselves if they think that the comprehensive idea has any popular appeal' (quoted in Chitty 1989:26).

His attitude to discussion of the school curriculum 'appears to have been one of complete indifference' (Chitty 1989:26). Indeed, such was his limited vision of his role as Minister, that 'the general lines of government policy were invariably determined by Ministry officials' (Chitty 1989:26).

The tripartite system

The New Secondary Education (1947)

The New Secondary Education was another exercise in political spin. It began by emphasising the 'common features of secondary schools' - good libraries and instructional equipment, a focus on citizenship, the value of a school community, opportunities for creativity and physical activity, the importance of spiritual values, clear thinking, and 'education through interest' (Ministry of Education 1947:13).

Only after nine pages of material to which no one could object do we find the section on 'Different types of secondary education'. Here, all the old arguments are again rehearsed: 'Everyone knows that no two children are alike. Schools must be different, too, or the Education Act of 1944 will not achieve success' (Ministry of Education 1947:22).

Once again there is a nod in the direction of comprehensive provision - but still in separate schools:

There is much to be said for what is sometimes called the 'campus plan'. In this, a number of schools varying in character and tradition are built on a single large site, and make common use of many facilities and amenities, such as playing-fields, swimming-baths and dining-halls. They constitute a kind of federation of schools, each one developing its own individual character, yet each making its contribution to the life of the larger unit (Ministry of Education 1947:24).
The booklet then deals with the three types of secondary school. Significantly, however, the order is changed this time: secondary modern schools are dealt with second - sandwiched between grammar and technical schools - rather than last, as in The Nation's Schools. This was obviously an attempt to deny that there was a hierarchy of schools - even though it quickly became clear that there was:
Despite the rhetoric of 'separate but equal', the hierarchy of schools was never in doubt. Funding was seriously unequal, since the grammar schools benefited from extremely generous allocations attached to sixth formers. While the grammar school curriculum continued much as before ... the secondary modern curriculum was constrained by a belief that its pupils were innately limited in intellectual capacity, the earlier school leaving age (14, later 15) and the absence of a final qualification (Wrigley 2014:8).

The pupils who attend grammar schools, declared The New Secondary Education, are 'very like the boys and girls in other schools' - except, of course, that, in order to 'wrestle successfully with intellectual questions', they had to have 'a high measure of general intelligence' (Ministry of Education 1947:25-6).

In the secondary modern school there would be a 'very wide range of ability': some children would 'learn easily and others very slowly' (Ministry of Education 1947:34). The booklet failed to mention at this point that those who could 'learn easily' would be banned from taking exams and obtaining qualifications, though it later justified the ban on the basis that:

In schools that have to cope with the wide ranges of ability and aptitude that are found in all modern schools, it is impracticable to combine a system of external examinations, which presupposes a measure of uniformity, with the fundamental conception of modern school education, which insists on variety (Ministry of Education 1947:46).
Meanwhile, the distinguishing feature of secondary technical schools was their 'relationship to a particular industry or occupation or group of industries and occupations', while not being in any sense 'narrowly vocational' (Ministry of Education 1947:47). These schools would cater for 'a minority of able children who are likely to make their best response when the curriculum is strongly coloured by these interests' (Ministry of Education 1947:48).

Perhaps the most outrageous example of political spin is in the section on the selection of pupils at age 11, where the booklet argues that:

To assume that the 'top layer' in intelligence will always go to the grammar school would be contrary to the purpose of the 1944 Act. It should be possible for the brightest and ablest pupils to go to whichever type of secondary school will best accord with their interests, their special aptitudes and the kinds of career they have in view (Ministry of Education 1947:54).
Did Ministry officials seriously believe that parents of able children would choose to send them to one of the new secondary modern schools, which were already suffering from a poor public image?
These were the schools where the reluctant child stayed on an extra year. They were the recipients of the emergency trained teachers. Too often as part of Hadow-style reorganisation they were housed in buildings which had been known as elementary and board schools, with teachers still present from the older period. Many of the facilities were obviously makeshift with too small playgrounds further limited by the erection of huts (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:330).
With regard to the process of selection, the booklet noted that some local education authorities and schools had already experimented with methods of 'recognising and assessing various kinds of aptitude'. There was room for 'a great deal of serious investigation along these lines' (Ministry of Education 1947:54).

The New Secondary Education 'clearly reflected Ministry thinking over a considerable period, and was reprinted unaltered as late as 1958' (Chitty 1989:26).

Elitist ideology

Some in the grammar schools, anxious about the growing demand for comprehensive education, began to fight back by formulating and propagating 'an unashamedly elitist ideology' (Simon 1991:125). They included John Garrett, head of Bristol Grammar School, a direct grant school. In one of a series of articles in The Sunday Times (13 April 1947), he claimed that the grammar schools were suffering as a result of the reforms, and were enduring a 'campaign of vilification' (quoted in Simon 1991:126).

Garrett's theme was taken much further by Dr Eric James, head of Manchester Grammar School, another direct grant school, who argued that the grammar school should be defended because it provided an education appropriate to a meritocratic elite. In an article in The Times Educational Supplement (1 February 1947) he declared that the purpose of the grammar school was to provide 'an education of the fullest kind for the academically most gifted section of the population'. It was a dangerous delusion 'to believe that our problems can be solved by any except those capable of dealing with principles, abstractions, and general relationships - that is to say, by any but the academically most gifted'. He condemned the notion of a common (comprehensive) school, which, he argued, would inevitably lead to 'grave social, educational and cultural evils' and would result in 'a retardation in the progress of the most gifted children' which would be 'a national disaster' (quoted in Simon 1991:127).

Similar views were held by Sir Richard Livingstone, former Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. In a presidential address to the Conference of Educational Associations in January 1947, he claimed that the function of education was to foster aristocracy: 'a national elite based on true merit'; and he dismissed comprehensive schools as 'sentimentally inclusive' (quoted in Simon 1991:128).

And in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, published in 1949, the poet TS Eliot argued:

To aim to make everyone share in the appreciation of the fruits of the more conscious part of culture is to adulterate and cheapen what you give. For it is an essential condition of the preservation of the quality of the culture of the minority, that it should continue to be a minority culture (Eliot 1949:106-7, quoted in Simon 1991:128-9).
Development plans

Such elitist arguments clearly supported the tripartite system of secondary schools which the Ministry was pressing local authorities to adopt. And most were doing so, as a Fabian survey revealed in April 1947. A third of authorities had submitted development plans by then and, in terms of the overall number of schools and pupils involved, it was clear that three-quarters of secondary education would be based on the tripartite system. The author of the survey, Joan Thompson, concluded that the general picture was of:

the overwhelming preponderance of the modern school [and] acceptance of the policy of segregating secondary pupils into grammar, modern and technical schools (quoted in Simon 1991:130).
The exceptions included four county boroughs which had opted for multilateral schools for all or most of their pupils, and some other authorities which were planning to establish bilateral schools (largely grammar-modern). Schemes involving bilateral schools were approved for a handful of rural areas, including Anglesey and parts of the West Riding.

However, the most significant comprehensive scheme was that of London, which was planning 67 multilateral schools to take 91 per cent of its secondary pupils. The London School Plan (which covered nursery and primary schools as well as secondary) was published in 1947 and submitted to the Minister in 1949. A 64-page booklet Replanning London Schools was published simultaneously, explaining the background to, and contents of, the Plan.

The plan was bitterly criticised by elitists such as the Head of Watford Grammar School, who complained that the LCC was marching 'blindly forward under the Comprehensive banner, undeterred by criticism from the profession or by the anguish of parents' (quoted in Lawson and Silver 1973:424).

The London School Plan received ministerial approval - in principle - in February 1950. However, there was a crucial proviso: proposals relating to individual schools would be 'subject to further consideration' when submitted for approval (Simon 1991:131).

Brian Simon suggests that it would have been surprising if the plan had been rejected because London had a number of advantages:

  • London County Council had important links with the Labour Party leadership;
  • the plan demonstrated a high degree of professionalism;
  • many London schools had been destroyed during the war and therefore needed rebuilding;
  • some opposition (Tory) Councillors wanted to see how comprehensive schools would work in practice; and
  • London's Chief Education Officer, Graham Savage, was on good terms with ministry officials.
Elsewhere, 'the strict tripartite system was now effectively imposed on England's schools' (Simon 1991:131). In 1948, for example, Tomlinson rejected Middlesex County Council's plan for a fully comprehensive system.

In other parts of the UK it was a different story. In the Fyfe Report on Secondary Education, published in 1947, the Scottish Advisory Council on Education criticised the tripartite system and gave four 'decisive reasons against its adoption in Scotland':

(1) It is so unrelated to our existing system, with its multilateral secondary schools, both senior and junior, that it would mean not a development but a revolution.

(2) The whole scheme rests on an assumption which teacher and psychologist alike must challenge - that children of twelve sort themselves out neatly into three categories to which these three types of school correspond. It is difficult enough to assess general ability at that age: how much harder to determine specific bents and aptitudes with the degree of accuracy that would justify this threefold classification.

(3) Status does not come with the attaching of a name or by a wave of the administrative wand, and the discussion to date has left the position of the modern school neither defined nor secure. Indeed, it seems clear to many that the modern school will in practice mean little more than what is left, once the grammar and technical types have been housed elsewhere, and that the scheme will end not in tripartite equality but in a dualism of academic and technical, plus a permanently depressed element.

(4) But even if the tripartite scheme were wholly feasible, is it educationally desirable? If education is much more than instruction, is in fact life and preparation for life, can it be wisdom thus to segregate the types from an early age? On the contrary, we hold that school becomes colourful, rich and rewarding just in proportion as the boy who reads Homer, the boy who makes wireless sets and the boy without marked aptitude for either are within its living unity a constant stimulus and supplement one to another (Fyfe 1947:31).

Similarly, in The Future of Secondary Education in Wales (1949), the Welsh Advisory Council recommended either multilateral schools, or a dual system consisting of grammar-technical and modern-technical schools. 'It is worth noting', says Brian Simon, 'that no such enquiry was carried through by the Advisory Council for England at that time (nor later)' (Simon 1991:148).

The schools

Secondary modern schools

On 1 April 1945 the old senior elementary schools were renamed 'secondary modern', and a new type of school, with a leaving age (from April 1947) of fifteen came into being - 'as it were, by a stroke of the pen' (Simon 1991:131-2).

The secondary modern schools - where most of the nation's children were to be educated - would have to fight for that parity of esteem and status which they had been promised but which Norwood had said could 'only be won by the school itself' (Norwood 1943:14). It would prove an impossible task: they were very much the poor relations in the educational world, and were 'cut off from any organic links with full-time higher education' (Simon 1991:132).

Grammar schools

In 1951, the year in which the first of the new General Certificate of Education (GCE) exams were taken, the government set out its thinking on grammar schools in Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 19 The Road to the Sixth Form. It argued that the tripartite system

enables teachers, administrators and parents to see more clearly than before the special distinguishing character of education of the grammar school type (Ministry of Education 1951:1).
It declared that the grammar school's purpose was 'the fullest possible education for gifted children' (Ministry of Education 1951:53), and it sought to justify the minimum age of 16 for taking GCE Ordinary Level ('O' Level) exams, the imposition of which, it acknowledged, had 'aroused much controversy' (Ministry of Education 1951:13).

It stressed the importance of a continuous course up to age 18 when the new Advanced Level ('A' Level) GCE would be taken (in 1938 half of grammar-school pupils had left at 16 or earlier) and, to the annoyance of many grammar school teachers, it proposed that pupils should sit both O and A Level exams at 18:

Pupils who take their main subjects at Advanced level (towards the end of their school career) will not need to take them beforehand at Ordinary level, and they will be able to concentrate from the beginning upon a steady and unbroken progress to their ultimate objective in these subjects (Ministry of Education 1951:13).

The Road to the Sixth Form was extraordinarily elitist in tone:

Scattered with quotations from Horace, Juvenal and Virgil - not to speak of Milton, Shakespeare and Defoe - this pamphlet reflected the elitist ideology ... in its constant reiteration of the special quality and needs of 'gifted children' (who are, however, nowhere defined) (Simon 1991:134).
Secondary technical schools

As to the secondary technical schools, it had been envisaged, both in the Norwood Report and in the White Paper, that these schools should take about half the selective intake - around fifteen per cent of pupils - though this was never precisely laid down.

In the immediate post-war period there were 317 technical schools or departments catering for around 66,000 pupils - about three per cent of the total. The Fabian survey mentioned above showed that local authorities were planning to double this to six per cent. 'There is no contemporary indication that the Ministry, in approving local authority plans, insisted on a higher proportion of technical school provision' (Simon 1991:135).

In fact, by the end of the Labour government in 1951, the number of technical schools had actually fallen to 291, although the number of pupils in them had risen to 74,927 (Simon 1991:135). Technical schools continued to cater for around three per cent of the child population - mainly boys.

There was, in fact, no serious attempt to establish a strictly tripartite system in spite of the rhetoric ... What was in fact established was, to all intents and purposes, a bipartite system of grammar/modern schools, with a few frills around the edges (Simon 1991:135).
Budget cuts

As the tripartite system took shape, hopes for a better future began to fade.

In letters to The Times Educational Supplement Shena Simon (3 April 1949) argued that very little of the 1944 Act had been implemented and few had benefited, and GCT Giles (11 November 1949) noted that between 31 December 1945 and 4 April 1949 only 38 new primary schools and thirteen new secondary schools had been built - despite Tomlinson's estimate that 3,000 new schools would be needed by 1952. Furthermore, argued Giles, 'the undemocratic structure of education remains substantially unchanged. There are still two systems of education in Britain, one for the privileged few and one for the unprivileged many' (quoted in Simon 1991:121).

The position was made worse by the developing Cold War, which entailed huge increases in defence spending, and by a new economic crisis in 1949, when the country once again faced bankruptcy. Inevitably, education spending was cut.

Two Circulars (209 and 210) were issued on 28 October 1949: the first imposed a 12.5 per cent reduction on the average cost of new primary and secondary school places; the second asked local education authorities to 'exercise the strictest economy' and cut administrative staff; called for a reduction in school transport expenditure; increased the price of school meals from 5d to 6d; and raised fees for further education students (Simon 1991:120-1).

Tomlinson announced that there would be 'some slowing down of our advance' (quoted in Simon 1991:121), and in the following year (1950) building costs were again reduced. 'The squeeze was by now harshly applied; prospects for the future looked bleak indeed' (Simon 1991:121).

Labour anger

Meanwhile, there was growing anger in the Labour Party at the Ministry's refusal to countenance comprehensive schools. Delegates at the party's 1947 conference unanimously agreed a resolution which urged the minister

To take great care that he does not perpetuate under the new Education Act the undemocratic traditions of English secondary education (quoted in Simon 1991:108).
It went on:
This Conference draws attention to the fact that on four occasions during the last five years it has passed resolutions emphasising the need for the rapid development of a ... common secondary school ... It calls upon the minister to review the educational system in order to give real equality of opportunity to all the nation's children (quoted in Simon 1991:108).

A similar motion was passed at the party's conference in Margate in October 1950:

This Conference calls upon the Government to implement the Labour Party's declared policy of the comprehensive school, in secondary education, and to ensure that the Ministry of Education do everything to assist those local education authorities who are including such schools in their development plans; and that, due regard being paid to local circumstances, permission to proceed with comprehensive schools be not withheld on grounds of size alone (Labour Party 1951:2).
Following the conference, a sub-committee was asked to produce a report on secondary education, and this was published in June 1951 'for the information and guidance of the Labour Movement' (Labour Party 1951:2).

A policy for secondary education (1951)

A policy for secondary education began by arguing that 'the tri-partite system was never planned on educational lines but developed accidentally' (Labour Party 1951:4). 'Accidentally' seems an odd word to use in this context: it was no accident that three types of child had been identified who conveniently fitted into the three types of school which already existed - the grammar schools, technical schools and the old elementary schools, now renamed secondary modern.

The pamphlet then noted that the 1944 Act had 'left the way open for comprehensive schools where local education authorities wished to establish them and where Ministerial sanction was forthcoming' (Labour Party 1951:5) - though it failed to mention that such sanctions had so far been very rare.

It warned of the dangers of selection at 11 and the limitations of testing, concluding that 'It is wrong therefore, to base a child's future education and subsequent career upon any form of test taken at this early age' (Labour Party 1951:7). Furthermore, primary schools were 'tending more and more to measure their success by the number of pupils who reach the grammar school' (Labour Party 1951:7).

It went on to define the difference between multilateral and comprehensive schools:

The multilateral school is one which maintains the tri-partite system with the three streams housed in one building or in separate buildings on one site. Clear sub-division of streams remains, however.

The comprehensive school caters for all children through a system based on a central core of subjects common to all, from which branch classes in specialised subjects taken according to the desires, aptitudes and capacities of the children (Labour Party 1951:8-9).

After some consideration of the size and organisation of schools, the pamphlet suggested strategies for coping with the changeover period.

It concluded:

At present local education authorities have power to select the type of school to be developed within their area, subject to approval by the Ministry of Education in England and the Department of Education for Scotland. This local autonomy should be preserved. It would be wrong to impose a pattern of education upon local authorities. It is felt though, that more could be done, given greater understanding and knowledge of the issues involved, than has been achieved in the past few years, great though the advances have been in many directions. It is hoped that this report will clarify the issues and give the impetus towards the creation of an educational system which will give equality of opportunity and status to all (Labour Party 1951:15).
Effect on primary education

The tripartite system had a damaging effect on the new primary schools, which quickly came to be judged on their success in coaching pupils to pass the eleven plus. 'Once again, the fate of the junior school and its educational role depended on developments at the upper levels' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:38).

The 11 Plus exams, on the basis of which grammar school places were awarded, also restricted the upper primary curriculum. Ironically, given that its 'general intelligence' paper was supposed to measure something fixed and innate, most final year classes spent a lot of time practising test papers to improve scores. Thus the majority of curriculum time was consumed by rapid and accurate processing in English and arithmetic and the artificial logic of 'intelligence' tests. This also led many primary schools to stream pupils by 'ability' (Wrigley 2014:9).
So the eleven plus - and the continued existence of large classes through the late 1940s and 1950s - forced the new primary schools to continue with the class teaching approach inherited from the elementary schools, with its emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy. 'In fact the tradition derived from 1870 was still dominant' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:36).

A more progressive style of primary education was, however, pioneered by some. In Story of a School (Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 14, 1949), for example, AL Stone, who had been appointed head teacher of Steward Street Junior School in Birmingham in 1940, described how it was possible to introduce enlightened teaching methods even in the most unpromising environment:

Of the 240 [children] who attended, the majority lived in back-to-back houses, very few of which had bathrooms. A number of children were living in rooms or in houses in which there was no glass in the windows; most of the houses in some way or other were suffering from the effects of raids. ... For the first six months many of the school's hours were spent in the air-raid shelters. The school itself was bounded by factories on three sides. The playground was entirely overlooked by factory windows and nowhere was there the possibility of encouraging a blade of grass to grow. The nearest park was half a mile away and there were no open spaces in the near vicinity where children could play in safety. The majority of them played in the back streets, or crept into forbidden premises of neighbouring timber and builders' yards which afforded excellent opportunities for all kinds of imaginative play, but from which, all too soon and all too painfully, they were, without fail, ejected (Ministry of Education 1949:7).
Yet despite this apparently hopeless background,
The obvious fact was that the children in this school, with but little conscious awareness of what was beautiful, had within them, as their birthright, an ability to create true beauty within all the media of the arts. And what I want to point out here and now is that the beauty which came from these children could not have been superimposed by environment or by specially selected teachers, for we were just an ordinary inartistic lot of people, but the desire to create came because we allowed it to live, and because, maybe, in some way we could understand why it was there. We could not say where it was going or what it was to be. All we knew was that we were trying to give the children the freedom which would break down the inhibitions already developed, freedom which would enable them to go ahead and do those things which would be best for their own development (Ministry of Education 1949:8).


Why was the Attlee government - which was radical in many respects - so determined not to introduce comprehensive education? There are, perhaps, four main reasons.

First, the notion that there were three types of child who required three different types of school - which had grown out of the deeply-ingrained English class system - was still widely accepted. It had only recently been endorsed by the Spens and Norwood Reports and taken for granted in the 1941 Green Book and the 1943 White Paper.

Second, there was Wilkinson herself. She had come from a humble background but had had the benefit of a grammar school education. She believed that this had been her 'ladder of opportunity'. She 'embodied Labour's instinctive faith in the grammar schools, the bright working-class child's alternative to Eton and Winchester' (Morgan 1984:174); and did not accept the view of those on the left that the tripartite system was socially and educationally divisive.

However, she was not alone in this view. It was 'endorsed throughout the Cabinet, where such public-school products as Attlee of Haileybury, Cripps of Winchester, and Dalton of Eton lent their voices to the perpetuation of elitism' (Morgan 1984:175); and it was supported by Labour-controlled local authorities, who urged the government to protect the selective grammar schools so that they could 'surpass the public schools by example and academic excellence' (Morgan 1984:175).

Third, there was a clear economic argument for opting for the tripartite system: the grammar schools already existed; the various trade schools could easily be adapted to form the technical schools; and the larger elementary schools could become the new secondary modern schools - in many cases, simply by renaming them. To have created a national system of comprehensive schools would have been hugely more expensive.

Finally, the wheels had already been set in motion before Labour came to power: a number of crucial decisions had been taken and there had been a

highly systematic and determined approach by ministry officials, through three different governments (the wartime coalition, the Tory caretaking government which succeeded it and the Labour government) having the objective of ensuring that local authorities should, generally, frame their development plans in terms of the tripartite structure, and not in terms of comprehensive schooling (Simon 1991:103).
Yet it could have been done - after all, this was a government which found vast sums of money for welfare and defence.

During the Attlee government's six years in power, just thirteen comprehensive schools were opened and hardly any Labour MPs voiced their support for them (Chitty 1989:27). The Ministry's report for 1951 showed that in England and Wales only 11,830 pupils - 0.7 per cent of all secondary school pupils in the maintained sector - were in comprehensive schools (Simon 1991:141).

Comprehensive education was not an issue in the 1950 general election and was 'of only minor importance in the second election of 1951' (Chitty 1989:29). However, with the publication of A policy for secondary education, the Labour Party had finally embraced the comprehensive ideal, 'thereby turning the issue into one of party politics' (Chitty 1989:29). Despite the party's new policy, however, 'Labour leaders continued, throughout the 1950s, to defend the retention of the grammar school' (Lawson and Silver 1973:423).

When the Attlee government fell, The Times Educational Supplement (19 October 1951) noted (approvingly) that it was 'extremely doubtful whether Mr. Tomlinson ever once lifted a hand' to increase the number of comprehensive schools (quoted in Chitty 1989:26-27).

However, the tide of opinion was beginning to turn:

Criticisms of the 'eleven-plus' examination, with its marked elements of unfairness, social and cultural, and of the inadequacies of the secondary-modern school (which the vast majority of children attended) ... continued to mount (Morgan 1984:176).
The selective tripartite system had not opened up opportunities: the proportion of children attending grammar and technical schools had barely changed by 1951. Brian Simon argues that:
the hierarchical structure, established during the last century, emerged unscathed, if modified in detail. A closely knit 'system' of public schools, if briefly threatened, now again retained primacy. The two levels of 'grammar' schools, direct grant and maintained, existing before the war with roots further back, still catered for different elements among the middle classes ... The senior elementary schools, now 'secondary modern', were overwhelmingly attended by the working class, among whom manual workers still preponderated. Gender discrimination characteristic of pre-war schooling was also now reproduced anew (Simon 1991:142-3).

Other matters

School buildings

In October 1947 George Tomlinson announced a 24m operational building programme, of which 11m was for 200 projects necessitated by the raising the leaving age (Simon 1991:101). In the three years from 1945 to 1948, 20m was spent on school building works in England and Wales; 3m in Scotland. In the two years 1947 and 1948 6,000 extra classrooms and practical rooms were constructed.

This heavy expenditure needed to implement the Education Act of 1944 should not be taken as an indication of great advance but rather as the extent of the neglect of the service between the wars. Even this sum did not make provision for the extra new schools needed on the new housing estates, which were being planned in every area to meet the chronic shortage of homes (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:319).
Schools were built - albeit slowly - on the new estates, but there were no new nursery schools, and reconstruction of the old senior elementary schools to convert them into secondary modern schools ground to a halt.

Two factors increased the pressures: the raising of the school leaving age and the rapid - and unexpected - increase in the post-war birth rate. The former often meant that pupils spent their last year either in the top class of an unreorganised all-age school with no specialist teaching, or in a prefabricated classroom. The latter resulted in many junior and infant schools having temporary classrooms. As Shena Simon, a member of Manchester's Education Committee and Chair of the Education Advisory Committee of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), wrote in a letter to The Times Educational Supplement (3 April 1949), 'Classes of 50 and 60 in buildings many of which had been on the official blacklist since before the war, and others which ought to be on it now, are common' (quoted in Simon 1991:118).

The curriculum

Apart from requiring the provision of religious education, the 1944 Act had left control of the school curriculum and resourcing to the LEAs, the governors and head teachers. The post-war Labour government reinforced the notion that there should be no central control of the curriculum by adopting 'a strange laissez-faire approach to this aspect of education' (Lawton 1980:22).

As The New Secondary Education put it:

Neither the subjects of the curriculum, nor the time spent on each, nor the way they are to be taught is laid down by the Ministry of Education. Education in this country is a partnership between the Ministry, the local education authorities, the managers and governors of schools, and the teachers. The headmaster or headmistress is responsible for framing the curriculum and drawing up the syllabus of his or her own school. He may get advice and guidance - possibly criticism - from His Majesty's Inspectors, but never direction (Ministry of Education 1947:34-5).
The Minister, then, had no legal right to determine the content of education and, in the phrase first used by Conservative Minister of Education Sir David Eccles in 1960, s/he was not expected to enter 'the secret garden of the curriculum'.

Head teachers were very much in control in their schools, and the years from 1944 to the beginning of the 1960s 'may therefore be seen as the Golden Age of teacher control (or non-control) of the curriculum' (Lawton 1980:22). Education was rarely the subject of debate at Cabinet level until the 1980s.


School Certificate

However, in the case of examinations, the Ministry soon began to take control.

The raising of the leaving age to fifteen (on 1 April 1947), and the likelihood of a further rise to sixteen, should have enabled many more children to enter the School Certificate examination. Indeed, some of the new secondary modern schools quickly began planning suitable courses, and the first applications to enter their pupils for the School Certificate were submitted to the Ministry early in 1946.

The Ministry appears to have been taken aback: officials feared that 'increasing numbers would qualify for the universities and professions, leading to disequilibrium in the labour market, disappointed expectations and, as a result, to social instability' (Simon 1991:111).

Circular No. 103 Examinations in Secondary Schools, issued in May 1946, had 'an air almost of panic' (Simon 1991:112). It argued that external exams at age 16 should be replaced with 'objective Intelligence Tests', or that the School Certificate should be radically reformed. The minister would seek the advice of the Secondary School Examinations Council (SSEC).

But the most significant announcement came at the end of the Circular: new regulations were to be issued which would prevent schools other than grammar schools from entering under-17s for external examinations.

In other words, the secondary modern schools were quite simply debarred from entering pupils for School Certificate unless they could persuade them to stay two years beyond the new statutory leaving age (and even then they would require special permission from the ministry). Schools actively planning to enter pupils had, quite simply, been forestalled (Simon 1991:112).
A few weeks later Circular No. 113 Secondary School Examination Council (26 June 1946) announced that the Minister was assuming full responsibility 'for the direction of policy and general arrangements in regard to school examinations' (quoted in Simon 1991:112). The SSEC would be reconstituted with greater Ministry control: it would be chaired by Sir Maurice Holmes, formerly Permanent Secretary; HMI RH Barrow (who had written much of the Norwood Report) would be Secretary; and there would now be five Ministry representatives (there had previously been none). The Council would be asked to make proposals for a new examination - and for this task, 'four further high ministry officials were included' (Simon 1991:112).

General Certificate of Education

The SSEC's report on Examinations in Secondary Schools was published in September 1947. It proposed a new examination - the General Certificate of Education (GCE). On the question of whether there should be a lower age limit for the exam, the Council was deadlocked: 'Outward unanimity was only finally achieved in order to prevent a complete breakdown' (Simon 1991:113).

In Circular No. 168 (23 April 1948) the Minister accepted the report in principle, and the GCE examination was introduced in 1951. Unlike the old School Certificate, which had required pupils to pass in a group of subjects in order to 'matriculate', the GCE allowed them to pass in individual subjects. It was designed for the top 25 per cent of the ability range - in other words, those who attended grammar schools or independent (public or private fee-paying) schools. GCE exams were normally taken at 16 (Ordinary Level) and 18 (Advanced Level).

The Ministry's plans had apparently been thwarted: 'the external examination at sixteen remained, and with it the danger of the modern schools achieving a new status' (Simon 1991:113). However, 'a bargain had been struck to achieve the official ends by different means' (Simon 1991:113): the standard required for a pass in the GCE was raised to that which had been needed for the 'credit level' in the old School Certificate. It was clearly hoped that this would effectively exclude secondary modern children - 'a miscalculation, as it transpired' (Simon 1991:113) - and reduce the number of successful pupils in grammar schools - 'a correct prediction' (Simon 1991:113).

There was criticism of the decision to set the minimum age for taking the GCE at sixteen. In an article in The Times Educational Supplement (3 July 1948), Russell Meiggs, Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, wrote:

It has been widely maintained that the minimum age was fixed at sixteen in order to prevent the new secondary modern schools from taking the examination ... This is a political and not an educational argument and a firm denial would prevent the clouding of debate. What is needed is a thorough revision of the reform on educational grounds (quoted in Simon 1991:114).
James Petch, secretary to the Joint Northern Matriculation Board, argued (in 1953) that the Ministry had secured its domination 'by imposing a new examination and endeavouring to control the details of its working' (Petch 1953:164), including the imposition of an age limit.

And in its 1960 report on Secondary School Examinations other than the GCE, the Beloe Committee commented that

The Council [SSEC] hoped that by fixing a minimum age of 16 (with an intention of raising the minimum to a still higher age at a later date) and by proposing a pass standard equivalent to the old School Certificate Credit, they had devised an examination which would in practice be beyond the reach of any but those in selective courses (Beloe 1960:7).
Tomlinson remained adamant, despite being unable to provide any serious educational argument to support the measure. Its significance was clear, however:
a strong barrier had been placed between grammar and modern schools which were supposed, following the Act, to be of equal status. By erecting this barrier in this manner, and at this particular point in time, the government perpetuated in a new form the old separation between elementary and secondary schools. The divided structure of the pre-1944 Act situation was now to persist, if in a new form (Simon 1991:115).
Concerns about the new exam were raised again following its introduction in 1951, as Angela Best pointed out in the Daily Mirror (14 February 1952) when the first GCE results were published. There were three main concerns:
  • the new exams were harder than the old School Certificate (the pass mark had been raised);
  • the lower age limit of 16 for entry to the exam was rigidly imposed; and
  • there was no grading - candidates either passed or failed (this was of particular concern to teachers).
(Angela Best's Daily Mirror article (reproduced by kind permission from Mirrorpix) can be seen here.)

Central Advisory Councils for Education Reports

As a result of the 1944 Education Act, two Central Advisory Councils for Education (one for England, one for Wales) were established 'to advise the Minister upon such matters connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him' (1944 Act, Section 4(1)). These Councils replaced the Consultative Committee which had been set up under the 1899 Board of Education Act.

CACE (England) produced its first two reports - School and Life (1947) and Out of School (1948) under the chairmanship of Sir Fred Clarke. (It conducted several other investigations between 1948 and 1954, but the reports of these investigations were never published.)

In February 1945 the newly-established Council proposed the following terms of reference for its first report, School and Life:

The subject to which the Council proposes to address itself first is the transition from life at school to independent life. It will examine the content and methods of education in those schools from which the actual transition is made, and proceed to the influence of earlier education from the nursery school onwards, and at the other end of the scale to the special problems of part-time education. The general purpose of the enquiry will be an appreciation and criticism of existing education as a preparation for a useful and satisfying life (Clarke 1947:6)
The report made many recommendations, including increased funding for schools, the replacement of unsuitable buildings, reduced class sizes, better facilities for technical education, adequate provision for women and girls, and more activities for children under fourteen out of school hours.

Regarding education and employment, the Council argued that 'schools should not attempt to prepare their pupils for particular types of employment' (Clarke 1947:89). The educational system could best serve the needs of industry by providing a general education for all.

The Council was also concerned to see increased expenditure on the School Health Service which, it said, had already contributed greatly to the improvement in children's health.

The Report concluded:

A living tradition is always being thought out afresh. The educational task is to mobilise fresh moral resources to meet increasing demands, as well as to maintain good standards. The essence of the task is to develop the sense of personal responsibility, and to strengthen the individual's instinct for freedom against influences that tend to stifle it (Clarke 1947:94).
The second Clarke Report, Out of School (1948), urged the Minister to
make an urgent appeal to local education authorities to apply their powers under the Education Acts so as to increase and improve by every possible means facilities for the play and recreation of children out of school hours (Clarke 1948:19).
Local authorities should set up out-of-school sub-committees, which would include representatives of voluntary bodies, teachers, parents and others, to plan and supervise the provision of facilities such as libraries, playing fields and swimming baths. The Arts Council and other appropriate bodies should be invited to provide concerts, plays and exhibitions for children out of school hours.

Training should be provided for both paid and unpaid workers, with a variety of courses to meet different needs.

There should also be courses for parents:

Local education authorities, in making provision for Adult Education, should arrange for parents' courses, demonstrations, and film shows dealing with the development and interests of children (Clarke 1948:22).
A third report by the Council, The Education of the Young Worker, was submitted to the Minister in 1948. CACE went on to produce the following reports: The Council produced no further reports after Plowden and was effectively abolished.

More Acts of Parliament

The 1946 Education Act (22 May) made amendments to the 1944 Education Act relating to various matters including religious worship in aided and special agreement schools, clothing grants for boarders and nursery-school pupils, and the qualification of teachers for membership of local authorities and their committees.

The 1948 Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (30 June) extended the range of pupils who could be provided with clothing by an LEA, and allowed an LEA to cancel a report that a child was 'incapable of receiving education at school owing to disability of mind' if recommended to do so by the local health authority.

The 1948 Children Act (30 June) set out the duties of local authorities and voluntary organisations in relation to the care and welfare of children without parents or whose parents were unfit or unable to take care of them.

The 1948 Employment and Training Act (13 July) established the Youth Employment Service.

The 1948 Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act (30 July 1948) made provisions regarding the registration and inspection of nurseries and child-minders.

The public schools

In the inter-war years the public schools had suffered financial problems, declining public esteem, and falling pupil numbers. During the Second World War their right to exist at all had been called into question and the fact that they had survived was largely due to the political skills of Rab Butler.

In the immediate post-war years, the public schools benefited from the increasing affluence of the upper and middle classes: pupil numbers rose, so the schools saw no need to reserve a quarter of their places for pupils to be paid for by the state, as proposed in the Fleming Report's Scheme B.

Some schools, however, were anxious to gain financial support from the taxpayer without conceding control, and they achieved this with the help of Wilkinson and Tomlinson. In 1946 the Ministry issued three Circulars (83, 90 and 120) which, among other things, encouraged local authorities to pay for places in boarding schools (most of which were privately owned), not only for children with special needs but also - where parents wished - for 'normal' children. As a result, a number of arrangements were made between schools such as Eton, Harrow and Mill Hill for boys and Westonbirt and Wycombe Abbey for girls, and local authorities including Dorset and Middlesex.

The policy was sharply criticised by the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT). The WEA published a memorandum on the issue early in 1947 and a deputation of WEA and NUT officials saw Tomlinson in March 1948. 'Nothing of substance was, however, achieved at the subsequent exchange of views' (Simon 1991:137).

The WEA pointed out that the government had said nothing about the Fleming proposals since taking office, yet it was now actively encouraging arrangements which had been neither agreed or announced. A committee under Sir Maurice Holmes had been set up secretly to discuss the issue with the Headmasters' Conference (of public school heads) but Ministry officials had apparently decided that its proposals were unlikely to be supported by Ellen Wilkinson and nothing more was heard of them. However, it had clearly been suggested - perhaps by an adviser to the Minister - that individual schools might privately approach specific local authorities to make arrangements about bursaries (Simon 1991:137).

Such arrangements required some alteration of administrative procedures: local authorities already had the power to pay for boarding school places for specific categories of pupils - but not for 'normal' children. Circulars 90 and 120 conceded this power.

In its memorandum, the WEA argued that

the continued existence of a highly privileged system of schools occupying the key positions which are at present held by the public schools, will militate seriously against the development of a democratic educational system' (quoted in Simon 1991:138).
It concluded that no arrangements should be allowed between local authorities and independent schools 'until the minister has reached a decision on the recommendations of the Fleming Committee and made a statement thereon' (quoted in Simon 1991:138). No such statement was ever made

In the event, few arrangements with individual schools were ever made because the public schools no longer needed state funds: 'The rhetoric so many of the heads had generated early in the war, as to the need to overcome the undemocratic and divisive nature of this system of schooling, was now forgotten' (Simon 1991:138).

Under Labour, then, the public schools were left 'quite untouched' (Morgan 1984:178). Eton, Harrow, and the rest

flourished as never before, their charitable status and endowed income quite unaffected by the Inland Revenue. Much of the cricket programme at Lord's in the month of July was taken up with public-school contests on the pre-war pattern of ostentation. George Tomlinson was deeply impressed by a visit he paid to Eton in 1947 (Morgan 1984:178).
The rehabilitation of the public schools received royal endorsement in 1948, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth - with much publicity - paid an official visit to Marlborough College; and in 1950 Tomlinson assured preparatory school heads that 'the latest government statement of educational policy made no suggestion of absorbing them into the state system' (The Times Educational Supplement 15 September 1950 quoted in Simon 1991:139).

With regard to the 232 direct grant grammar schools in existence before the war, Ellen Wilkinson announced her intention to abolish fees, as had been recommended by the Fleming Committee, but this was never done. By June 1946 some of the direct grant schools had joined the independent sector; others had been transferred to local authority control. But the remaining 164 survived - despite the protests of many in the labour movement - as a separate category of schools supported out of public funds but charging fees (Simon 1991:139).

Further education

The 1944 Education Act required LEAs to provide 'full-time and part-time education for persons over compulsory school age'; and 'leisure-time occupation, in such organised cultural training and recreative activities as are suited to their requirements, for any persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit by the facilities provided for that purpose' (Section 41).

As part of this provision, LEAs were

to establish and maintain county colleges, that is to say, centres approved by the Minister for providing for young persons who are not in full-time attendance at any school or other educational institution such further education including physical practical and vocational training, as will enable them to develop their various aptitudes and capacities and will prepare them for the responsibilities of citizenship (Section 43).
In Pamphlet No. 3,
Youth's Opportunity (1945), the Ministry set out its proposals for the county colleges. They would aim:
I. (a) To help young people to understand how to live a healthy life;
(b) To give opportunities for regular physical exercise and to develop physical skills.

II. To develop their knowledge and understanding so that, when they reach 18, boys and girls shall have
(a) learned to concentrate on a piece of work and to carry it out systematically and thoroughly;
(b) learned to use their leisure to find out more about subjects that already interest them and acquire a desire to explore new fields;
(c) received a stimulus to the imagination through the enjoyment of music, drama, art and literature and the excitement of scientific discovery;
(d) improved their knowledge of the English language and their power to use it (in Wales, both English and Welsh);
(e) acquired an appreciation of the place and responsibilities of the family in a healthy community;
(f) obtained a good knowledge of conditions in their own country, and how they can help to improve them;
(g) learned more about the people of other countries;
(h) learned something of the leadership and co-operative service necessary for good citizenship in a democratic community.

III. To develop their characters so that they will
(a) be honourable, tolerant and kindly in dealing with their fellows;
(b) have an independent and balanced outlook on life (Ministry of Education 1945b:30-31).

'For the first time in its history', noted Giles, 'the nation accepts a measure of responsibility for the general welfare of its young people, even after they leave school' - a responsibility which was being 'widely and generously interpreted' (Giles 1946:91). He was, however, disappointed by the Ministry's announcement that the county colleges would not come into being until 1950. 'Is it really necessary to wait five years?' he asked (Giles 1946:94).

Sadly, the severe winter of 1946-7 (the worst since the 1880s), caused huge financial losses, and further economic difficulties led to a 30 per cent devaluation of the pound in September 1949. The county colleges were the first educational casualty of the crisis. The 1944 Act had set no starting date and, despite the post-war Labour government's good intentions, the colleges never materialised: 'part-time compulsory education in county colleges for young workers was a promise that was not kept' (Jones 2003:67).

Higher education

Participation rates

As noted in chapter 8, before the Second World War England had had a lower university participation rate than any other comparable country. The situation was no better after the war. Figures for England and Wales show that in 1946 only 15 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds, less than seven per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds and just 2.3 per cent of 18-year-olds were in full-time education. In the same year, the US had 85 per cent of its 15 to 16-year-olds and 67 per cent of its 16 to 17-year-olds in full-time schooling (Giles 1946:97).

Giles argued that 'The meagre maintenance allowance at present available is quite insufficient', and that the number of scholarships was 'grossly inadequate' to meet the rising demand (Giles 1946:98). 'The policy of equal opportunity has been accepted in the lower levels of the educational system', he noted, 'but it has yet to be applied in the universities' (Giles 1946:100).

However, under the Labour government the universities benefited from an extension of local authority grants - the total number of students rose from 50,000 to 83,000 - but they remained relatively unchanged in terms of the social make-up of their intake: 'their largely middle-class character continued undisturbed', with Oxford and Cambridge retaining their 'pre-war social cachet and class-based assumptions' (Morgan 1984:179). Oxford's undergraduate population increased, but it was still 'overwhelmingly drawn from the public schools' (Morgan 1984:179).

Science and technology

With regard to the teaching, higher education - especially at the older universities - 'changed scarcely at all in the years of Labour government' (Morgan 1984:179). There was still an emphasis on the arts, rather than on science and technology. The Second World War, however, had highlighted Britain's need for more scientists and technologists, and two committees were appointed to consider the matter.

Percy Report 1945

In April 1944 Minister of Education Rab Butler appointed Lord Eustace Percy, who had been President of the Board of Education in the 1920s, to chair a Special Committee on Higher Technological Education, whose terms of reference were:

Having regard to the requirements of Industry, to consider the needs of higher technological education in England and Wales and the respective contributions to be made thereto by Universities and Technical Colleges; and to make recommendations, among other things, as to the means for maintaining appropriate collaboration between Universities and Technical Colleges in this field (Percy 1945:3).
The Committee submitted its report on 19 July 1945 to Richard Law, who had succeeded Butler as Minister. Law was in turn followed by Ellen Wilkinson, and it was she who published the report.

The Percy Report proposed that a 'limited number' of technical colleges should be expanded and have their status and prestige raised by offering degree-standard courses. By this means, 'an alternative structure should be developed alongside the universities' (Simon 1991:91).

Barlow Report 1946

In a Commons debate in April 1944, Attlee, then Deputy Prime Minister in the wartime coalition government, had acknowledged the need for 'much greater expenditure both on fundamental research and on teaching at the universities ... it would be rather a futile thing to be passing a great education bill through the house and to neglect the universities at the top' (Hansard House of Commons 19 April 1944 Vol 399 cols 305, 311).

Five months after the election, Herbert Morrison appointed a committee to consider university expansion and, in particular, the provision of courses for scientists. Chaired by Sir James Barlow, Under-Secretary at the Treasury, its brief was

to consider the policies which should govern the use and development of our scientific man-power and resources during the next ten years and to submit a report on very broad lines at an early date so as to facilitate forward planning in those fields which are dependent upon the use of scientific man-power (Barlow 1946:3).

The Committee submitted its report, Scientific Man-Power, to Morrison on 13 April 1946. It noted that in May 1945 the University Grants Committee (UGC) had asked the universities to prepare expansion plans. It regretted that Oxford and Cambridge had been unable to suggest any expansion beyond the 11,000 students they had had in 1938-39 but accepted that 'any expansion would have to be of modest proportions if it was not to affect the character of Oxford and Cambridge'. On the other hand, London University had proposed an expansion of 53 per cent, the English civic universities (including Leeds, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham) 86 per cent, the University of Wales 50 per cent, and the Scottish universities 32 per cent, giving an overall proposed expansion of 45 per cent (Barlow 1946:15).

This was not enough, said the Committee, and it proposed a doubling of the output of scientists (to 5,000 a year) as well as 'a substantial expansion' in the number of students studying the humanities - these 'should not be sacrificed to the need for an increased output of scientists and technologists' (Barlow 1946:23). Even then, the Committee concluded, 'When all possible measures have been taken to expand the output of graduates the nation will certainly be seriously short of scientists in 1950 and is unlikely to have an adequate supply by 1955' (Barlow 1946:25).

The Committee made a number of recommendations concerning buildings, teachers and equipment; stressed the importance of adequate on-going funding; urged the University Colleges of Nottingham, Southampton, Exeter, Hull and Leicester to 'aim at earning full university status at the earliest possible date' (Barlow 1946:16); strongly supported the foundation of 'at least one new University' (Barlow 1946:17); and supported the Percy Committee's proposal that 'there should be developed at a selected and limited number of Technical Colleges, full-time technological courses of University degree standard' (Barlow 1946:23).

With regard to the formulation of university policy, the Committee called for the UGC to have a greater role:

it is clear that the University Grants Committee was originally intended to be a somewhat passive body whose main function was to criticise proposals put forward by the Universities and which was not itself expected to make any attempt to suggest possible developments involving expenditure to University authorities. We gladly recognise that the Committee has not in fact been content to accept so passive a role but we think that circumstances demand that it should increasingly concern itself with positive University policy. It may be desirable for this purpose to revise its terms of reference and strengthen its machinery (Barlow 1946:21).
In July 1946, three months after the publication of the Barlow Report, Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton announced that the government and the universities had committed themselves to a new relationship: the government accepting its role in the expansion of higher education; the universities recognising their national responsibilities. As part of this new relationship, the UGC's role would be expanded: in future it would assist in 'the preparation and execution of such plans for the development of the universities' as may be required 'to ensure that they are fully adequate to national needs' (quoted in Simon 1991:95).

Parliamentary and Scientific Committee Report 1946

Barlow's recommendations (other than the proposal for a new university) were endorsed a few months later, in December 1946, when the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee - an unofficial but influential group of 200 MPs and peers, with representatives of 70 scientific and technical institutes - published its report on Universities and the Increase of Scientific Manpower.

The Committee recommended that the total number of students should rise to 108,000 over the next five years and proposed the establishment of a Council of Higher Education, to include student members, as a forum for discussion.

It estimated that the capital cost of university expansion over the next decade would be 100 million, and that annual expenditure would need to rise to about 30 million. The highest priority should be given to providing more university accommodation in order to 'secure that rapid and sustained increase in scientific manpower which is so vital to the well being and prosperity of the British Commonwealth in the years that lie ahead' (quoted in Simon 1991:94).


Brian Simon argues that, with its commitment to the tripartite system and its failure to tackle the public schools, the post-war Labour government's education policy was 'basically one of consensus': it had had 'the complete approval of the Tory Party' (Simon 1991:141). There had been no serious challenge to the status quo. 'The experience of the Labour government', he concludes, 'once again highlighted the role of education in the mediation of class relationships within a capitalist society' (Simon 1991:143).

Kenneth Morgan notes that there was no serious discussion of educational policy at ministerial level once the raising of the school-leaving age had been agreed in the first few weeks of the government's existence, and that 'it is hard to avoid the view that education was an area where the Labour government failed to provide any new ideas or inspiration' (Morgan 1984:177).

Nonetheless, Labour could legitimately take pride in

the new impetus provided at the elementary level, the large increase in the school population, the improved conditions for teachers (though equal pay for women teachers remained as far away as ever, partly through the gulf between the NUT and the National Association of Schoolmasters), the new investment in school buildings, and the expanded educational budgets that made all these things possible (Morgan 1984:179).
Furthermore, in a period of great - and often unfulfilled - expectations, there had been 'a singular renaissance in educational thinking and practice' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:331). Many of the Ministry's own pamphlets, notably Story of a School, were 'essays on educational policy written simply with sincerity' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:331).

As a result of these pamphlets, the ethos in schools changed: 'Within a decade the authoritarian relationship between teachers and children had changed to one of leadership with the teachers harnessing the energies and interests of the children' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:332). Thus the movement which had been launched in nursery schools at the start of the century by Rachel and Margaret McMillan moved slowly up through the school, affecting primary school teaching in the 1950s.

The Attlee government had faced extraordinary challenges: the devastation of much of the country's infrastructure, major economic problems and financial crises, and the start of a very expensive Cold War. In spite of all this, it laid the foundations of the welfare state and the National Health Service. In education, it had to implement a completely new legislative framework for the nation's schools.

Overall, it was probably as successful as it could have been, given the circumstances. Its greatest failure was its steadfast refusal to make the ideal of comprehensive education a reality.


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Chapter 9 | Chapter 11