The Education Act of 1944
King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon 1945-1963


The 1944 Education Act, a review
by Peter Bullock


The 1944 Education Act was instigated mainly by two members of parliament, Mr R A Butler and Mr J Chuter Ede. It was the result of a strong demand during the Second World War, mostly from teachers and social workers, for educational reform. The demand may have been caused (or, if not, was certainly intensified) by the realisation that deplorable ignorance existed among many poor children who were evacuated from towns and cities during the worst years of the bombing. Before 1944, educational provision in England and Wales had been haphazard, varying tremendously from one area to another. The Act was meant to provide a sound education consistent throughout England and Wales.

One promise of the Act was secondary education for all, available free. The Act created a Minister of Education (the first was R A Butler) whose duty it was to see that every local authority provided the statutory educational service in its area. The school-leaving age was raised from 14 to 15. The intention was to raise it to 16 as soon as possible (though this, in fact, did not happen until 1973). In addition to education, school meals would be provided at cost price for those who wanted them and free milk would be available.

Independent (fee-paying) schools could still exist, but local authorities were enabled to pay fees for pupils at fee-paying schools, particularly if the need for a pupil to board, because of family circumstances, could be proven. (Most boarding schools were independent: other provision of boarding education existed but was rare - KES Stratford had a boarding department until the late 1930s). They were also enabled to give grants and scholarships to students in further and higher education (e.g. grants to students going to university). Local authorities were also able to give maintenance grants to poorer parents, now forced to keep their children at school until 15. The maintenance grant might be specifically for buying school uniform or for assistance in buying school meals. Unfortunately, despite the intended uniformity of the provisions of the Act, these grants varied considerably for many years from one local authority to another.

Local authorities would have other social and welfare functions, such as the provision of free medical and dental treatment for pupils. (It must be remembered that the 1944 Act preceded the introduction of the National Health Service). Special education would have to be available for handicapped children. Opportunities for leisure and recreational activities would be provided (e.g. local authorities providing school playing fields and musical instrument tuition).

Many schools which had, before 1944, charged fees for some pupils and had had a large degree of independence, (such as many grammar schools, including KES Stratford, and many denominational schools) were brought into the state system as voluntary controlled (to some, a contradiction in terms) or voluntary aided schools. In a controlled school, the local authority would appoint two-thirds of the school's governors and all of the staff, but the appointment of a head teacher could be made only after consultation with the governors. In aided schools (like KES Stratford), the governors themselves would appoint two-thirds of the board of governors, would appoint staff, including the head teacher, any appointment, however, having to be approved by the local authority. (This 'rubber-stamping' was usually a mere formality unless the authority had some very serious objection to the appointment). In controlled and aided schools, as in schools totally maintained by the local authority, staff salaries would be paid by the local authority. Teachers' salaries would now be paid according to scales agreed by the Burnham Committee and approved by the minister. (The Burnham Committee had existed since 1919 but, under the 1944 Act, gained statutory recognition).

In a later addition to the Act, direct grant schools were created: these were previously independent schools with a high academic reputation. They would still be independent of local authority control but, in return for a direct grant from the government, would have to offer twenty-five per cent of the places free.

Free places at other types of selective schools were to be provided by the Act: technical, commercial and art schools. Such schools existed in some areas before 1944 but they were now to be created in all areas. The idea was to offer a specialised education to children with particular aptitudes. These schools would, of course, also offer the same general education as other schools. Sadly, this part of the Act was never fully implemented and some areas never had any such schools. (As late as 1963, there were only 204 technical schools in England and Wales, and fewer art and commercial schools). If you lived in a city like Birmingham in the 1940s and 1950s, you were fortunate in having a wide choice of specialised, selective schools, as well as grammar schools, but, in many areas, there were only grammar (selective) and secondary modern (non-selective) schools. With the advent of the comprehensive ideal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, specialised schools such as those mentioned earlier, were absorbed into large comprehensive schools, which, in theory, would satisfy the needs of each individual child. (In 1965, Circular 10/65, issued by the Ministry of Education, instructed all local authorities to submit to the Ministry plans for reorganising education within their areas on comprehensive lines). The development of comprehensive education was not seen as an annulment of the 1944 Act, but merely as a modification of it.

Nevertheless, selection continues to this day in a few areas. In 1944, the Act suggested that about twenty-five per cent of children should be selected at eleven-plus for grammar school education. The percentage would vary from one authority to another, especially as twenty-five per cent was only a 'suggestion'. The percentage to be selected for technical, art and commercial education was never laid down, and, as I have said, never took place at all in some areas.

For boys entering KES Stratford (and any such school) after 1944, no fees would be payable: text books and stationery, formerly provided by the boys, would now be issued by the school and paid for by the local education authority. Boys would study a curriculum similar to that in other grammar schools, consisting of English, maths, the sciences, history, geography, scripture (later to renamed RE or RS), French, Latin, music, art, woodwork, PT (later called PE), games, consisting of at least rugby, cricket, athletics and cross-country running. There would be the chance of learning a second modern language (e.g. Spanish) after two or three years and, in later times, economics would be introduced as an optional subject. What constituted a suitable and appropriate curriculum was a matter of consensus among schools - there would be no mandatory national curriculum until the late 1980s.

The 1944 Act introduced compulsory registration and inspection of all schools (independent or otherwise). There would be no more "Dotheboys Halls"! However, it was 1957 before this part of the Act was implemented with regard to independent schools.

The Act was certainly a revolutionary one and formed the basis of our present education system. Of course, there have been amendments to the Act, and sometimes shortage of money has caused some of its provisions to be delayed in their implementation or even to be conveniently forgotten. Regrettably, flagrant disregard of the Act has sometimes occurred: for instance, one Midland county council was, among others, in the 1980s charging parents for their children's instrument tuition. One parent successfully challenged the authority, demanding free tuition for his child on the grounds that the 1944 Act had never been repealed. However, many of us can say that we have benefited in our lives from what was called 'Educational Reconstruction' back in 1943 when the draft of the Act was first presented to parliament.


copyright © Peter Bullock, Head of English, 1972-1992
writing in 2002

A contemporary guide to the Act
A contemporary guide to the new act


Related article

KES Gallery 1945-1963



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