Idealism lost its edge to complacency

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore assesses the extent and the limitations of post-War reforms.

"The fact that we won made us feel we were better than we were - that all was well, that we could do anything - when in fact we had just scrambled through. Therefore we put off for a good long time any very serious thinking about our education system and continued to think that the training system in industry was the cat's whiskers." (Sir Geoffrey Holland, former director of the Manpower Services Commission and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education)

"The whole 1944 Education Act was . . . a major piece of wartime legislation, shaped by the bringing together of people in a common endeavour; secondary education for all derives from the war-time ethos and esprit de corps." (Baroness Blackstone, Master of Birkbeck College, London).

Idealism and complacency characterise British policy on education and training at the end of the Second World War. The historian Correlli Barnett has catalogued the negative side in The Audit of War: how the British ignored in their euphoria the undoubted evidence of continuing industrial failure - in comparison both with the Germans and with the Americans on whom our war effort had increasingly depended - and turned not to industrial reconstruction but to the creation of a new welfare state; how, in that "New Jerusalem", health and social security took precedence over education; and how, in education, despite much rhetoric about the need for more technical schools and training, developments after the 1944 Act really centred on producing more of the same: more of the liberal, academic education that had been developed and refined in the public and grammar schools.

But perhaps the post-War thrust of policy towards social reform rather than industrial reconstruction was inevitable. "There wasn't an option," says Stuart Maclure, former editor of The Times Educational Supplement. "The promise of social reform was part of the implied contract by which everyone mucked in and fought in the war. The work on education, health and welfare reforms that took place during the War was based on the assumption that there had to be a social revolution: that was a tacit agreement across a very wide range of people. "

RA Butler, who became president of the Board of Education in 1941, certainly considered his 1944 Act as primarily a social measure, which would help towards the creation of One Nation. It was to provide free secondary education for all, bringing to an end the all-age elementary schools that had provided the only education for most people before the War.

In the late 1930s, only one in five leaving those schools had received any kind of further full-time education and less than one in ten of 14 to 18-year-olds were in secondary school. Now all were to have secondary education from 11 to 15.

But other sections of the 1944 Act essential to improving Brit-ain's poor training record - providing for compulsory day-release for those leaving school at 15 and requiring local education authorities to produce development plans for further education - were never implemented. In the 15 years after the War, Mr Maclure points out, nearly all the available money was taken up by building schools and recruiting teachers for the compulsory 5-15 age range, an already Herculean task made greater by the post-War boom in the birth-rate. There was neither the money nor the impetus to make a big drive in further education - although some FE colleges were built.

Correlli Barnett is in no doubt why secondary modern schools never gained parity of esteem with grammar schools. He blames the overwhelming prestige of the academic, grammar school education, with its emphasis on classics and the liberal arts, which had dominated secondary education for the last century - and which had produced those responsible for implementing the reforms.

"The secondary modern school, though greatly expanded in numbers in the post-war era, was to remain in the eyes of parents and children alike a mere educational settling-tank for academic failures, never to achieve the excellence and reputation of the German Realschule," he writes in The Audit of War.

The 1944 Act was concerned with the structure of education. There was no attempt at detailed prescription of content: the traditional reluctance of British politicians to get involved in the curriculum had been strengthened by their horror of imitating Nazi indoctrination. They did not overcome that reluctance until 40 years later.

The 1944 Education Act and its implementation can be seen as both a major piece of social legislation and a great missed opportunity. Because the War had brought together all social groups, it produced the conviction that a decent education should be available to all, not just the privileged few. But victory also produced complacency: the assumption that the broad type of education Britain had had before the War should be perpetuated because it had been successful.

It was many years before that basic assumption was shifted. Not until 1965 was an attempt really made to break the dominance of the grammar school by the introduction of the comprehensive. Not until 1982 was central government to intervene directly in schools to promote a technical and vocational emphasis in the curriculum through the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. Not until the early 1980s - and then largely because of youth unemployment - was any serious attempt made to give young people vocational preparation through the Youth Opportunities Programme.

As for higher technical education, the first Colleges of Advanced Technology were not founded until 1960 and they did not become full technical universities until 1963 - as Correlli Barnett points out, some 70 years after their German equivalents. And higher education in general remained the preserve of a small elite until the mid-1960s, when it was expanded after the Robbins Report.

But the massive growth in secondary education after the War undoubtedly increased educational opportunities and thus social mobility for millions of children. They could go to the new, bright, one- or two-storey schools surrounded by green fields that increasingly took the place of the bombed Victorian three-deckers. Before the War, most would simply have joined the 14-year-olds cast out of the elementary school onto the heap of unskilled labour.

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