The best days of our lives

The best days of our lives

Simon Webb describes the school system immediately before major reforms after World War Two

Simon Webb, Writer and historian

Simon Webb

Writer and historian

Today, we are so used to children from all kinds of backgrounds sitting examinations and leaving school with various qualifications that it comes as something of a shock to learn that until 1945, 90 per cent of children in Britain left school at the age of fourteen with no qualifications of any kind. To gain the School Certificate, the equivalent of present-day GCSEs, it was necessary to stay at school until the age of sixteen. Since the great majority of children attended elementary schools, which catered only for teenagers up to the age of fourteen, gaining the School Certificate simply wasn’t possible for most pupils.

Entering further education without the School Certificate was all but impossible, and it was also very hard to get anything other than manual work without it. Even an ordinary clerical job could prove hard to come by without this vital piece of paper – the proof that one had been educated beyond the absolute bare minimum level. The only way to continue education to the age of sixteen was through either an independent school or a grammar school. The grammar schools were also fee paying, although a quarter of their places were set aside for scholarship pupils. In theory, this meant that any child could sit the entrance exam at eleven and gain a free place; in practice, many of these places were monopolised by middle-class families who couldn’t quite afford the fees. Very few went to working-class children whose parents were manual workers.

King Offa primary school
‘Class V’ girls at King Offa primary school in Bexhill (then the Down Council school), c1930
Page from the Down Council school log
Page from the Down Council school log

For other families, the loss of a wage was not the only financial consideration which prevented the child from taking up an offered place at a grammar school. One of the great distinguishing marks of the grammar school or private school pupil was that they wore uniforms. Children at elementary schools wore whatever their parents felt like dressing them in. Starting grammar school, though, meant a trip to an expensive shop for coats, blazers, shirts, ties, trousers, gymslips, caps, hats, games kit, shoes and so on. For many working families, it was simply not possible to find the money for such things. It was enough of a struggle to put food on the table each day without having to kit a child out in this way – this was a time when most children had just one pair of shoes and one coat. Grants were sometimes available, but getting one could be a chancy business.

The elementary schools, which almost all children attended, had their roots in the Victorian era and had originally been set up to educate children whose only prospect was to end up working on farms or in factories. They were known in the nineteenth century as ‘industrial schools’ and aimed to provide no more than basic instruction in literacy and numeracy. By the time children left elementary school, they were expected to be able to read a paragraph from a newspaper, work out the change from a shopping trip and take down simple dictation; that was it, little or nothing in the way of history, geography, science or literature. In many ways, these schools had hardly changed from the late nineteenth century up to the outbreak of war in 1939. Such schools had long outlived their day, and even before the World War Two it was obvious that the state school system needed to be overhauled.

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The 1944 Education Act, or the Butler Act, came about as a result of the wartime government’s determination to eradicate poverty, unemployment, ignorance, squalor and disease in the post-war society for which they were already preparing. The tackling of these five ‘giant evils’, as identified in the 1942 Beveridge Report, was to eventually lead to the foundation of the welfare state. Robert Austen Butler, who was appointed to the post of President of the Board of Education by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941, at the height of the Second World War, was given the responsibility of creating this.

Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson
Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson was the first woman to be Minister of Education, and oversaw the implementation of the 1944 Education Act

The scheme which Butler championed entailed raising the school leaving age first to 15 and then 16 and ensuring that every child in the country should have free access to secondary education. As originally envisaged, this would be a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. The technical schools never really took off and so what remained were grammar and secondary modern schools.

Raising the school leaving age took a little while to implement and there was considerable opposition to the idea throughout government. The new Education Secretary, Ellen Wilkinson, insisted though and from April 1947 all children were obliged by law to remain at school until the age of 15. Increasing the leaving age to 16 did not become law for another quarter of a century. Although many working-class families resented the raising of the leaving age in this way and regarded the new Act in general as government interference, there were those who saw it as a new opportunity.

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