Education Act 1944

Education Act 1944, legislation that radically changed the structure of education in England and Wales. Rab Butler, as Minister of Education, championed the progression of the Act, and it is after him that the Act is commonly known: “The Butler Act”. The Act affected education in four main ways.

Education Act 1944

First, it increased the role and powers of the Minister of Education. Before 1944, the Minister was simply responsible for “the superintendence of certain matters relating to education in England and Wales”. Under the 1944 Act, the Minister was charged with a positive duty to “promote” education and to “secure the effective execution by local authorities, under his control and direction” of the national policy for education. These strengthened ministerial powers created an education system that came to be known as “a national service, locally administered”.

Second, the administration of education was itself re-shaped: 169 of the 315 local education authorities that existed before 1944 were abolished on April 1, 1945. That left the local administration of all forms of public education in the hands of 146 county councils and county borough councils.

Third, the Act restructured the school system. Previously, publicly funded schools and colleges were either “elementary” or “higher”. “Higher” institutions included everything that was not elementary. So secondary schools, to which about 20 per cent of children went at the age of 11, and junior technical schools, to which only about 1 percent of children were admitted, were both distinguished from “elementary” schools, attended by nearly 80 per cent of the school population. Compulsory education ended at the age of 14 so the country’s 11-to-14-year-olds were in two overlapping systems leading to a very different job or further education opportunities. The Act put an end to this. It organized schools “in three progressive stages to be known as primary education, secondary education, and further education”. This structural change often described as “secondary education for all” was perhaps the Act’s greatest achievement. Part of that achievement, at a time of great economic difficulty, was to raise the school leaving age, initially from 14 to 15, in 1947.

Finally, Butler, the government minister responsible for seeing the Education Bill through parliament, brought about a compromise between schools maintained by councils and denominational schools. The essence of this “dual control” system, which still exists, was that nearly all church (denominational) schools chose either to become “controlled” or “aided”. Controlled schools were entirely funded by the local council, whereas the governors or managers of aided schools remained responsible for capital expenditure on the fabric of the buildings, which they continued to own, and had increased rights over staffing and the curriculum (see Religious Schools).

Much of the framework of the 1944 Education Act remained in place until the end of the 20th century. Although it achieved much, the Act left two important issues unresolved. One was the structure of the newly created secondary schools. Initially, the emphasis was on a tripartite system: grammar schools for some, technical schools for a very few, and secondary modern schools for most. Selection of these schools was managed by local education authorities. The 11+ tests, as they came to be known, were taken in the last year of primary education by all children, and usually consisted of a general intelligence test, a test of attainment in English and arithmetic, and a report from each child’s primary school teacher. As the pattern of schools that followed the 1944 Act has increasingly been replaced by schools that combine all three elements in one “comprehensive” school, by January 2000 the 11+ examination was retained only in the areas served by the 164 remaining grammar schools. Specialisms within comprehensive schools have, however, been encouraged, and aptitude testing related to specialisms, such as music, foreign languages, and technology, has steadily increased.

A second unresolved issue was the school curriculum. The Act deliberately left the curriculum to be determined locally by schools and local education authorities. It was not until 1988 that the notion of a national curriculum, defining a common entitlement for all children in whatever type of school they were enrolled, was given legislative force.

Contributed By:
Peter Anthony Newsam

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