The Education Act: 70 years on

The Education Act of 1944 brought the education system into the modern world. It's a landmark that shouldn't be forgotten, says Gary McCulloch of the Institute of Education

1944 Education ActWhat is it with all these anniversaries? It’s the centenary of the First World War, as everyone knows, and thirty years since the miners’ strike. Next year it will be 800 years since the Magna Carta, 200 since the battle of Waterloo, and 70 since the end of the Second World War. But let’s hear it also for the Education Act of 1944 after three score years and ten.

The 1944 Act was a lot shorter than many of the Acts that have been passed since, but it packed a powerful punch. It reorganised the administration of the education system, replacing the old Board of Education with a stronger Ministry. It did away with the old division of the system into elementary and higher in favour of three progressive stages of primary, secondary and further education. Local education authorities were to be in charge of education in their own areas, supposedly in partnership with teachers and parents. The school day would start with an act of collective worship, and religious instruction was to be compulsory in all schools. Special educational needs were recognised and the compulsory school age raised from fourteen to fifteen and then sixteen. For the first time there would be secondary education for all.

Some of these reforms took a long time to come into force – the school leaving age was not raised to sixteen for another 27 years. County colleges, another favourite of the Act, never saw the light of day. Yet the 1944 Act really brought the education system into the modern world, and set a framework and an agenda for change that lasted well into the 1980s.

And there are other, maybe more important reasons for us still to remember the 1944 Act. It was passed by a Coalition Government and had broad all party support, and yet it was the outcome of a real national debate about the purposes of education. In the middle of the Second World War, on the home front passionate arguments raged about equality, citizenship and democracy, and about how education would shape the future of society.

Some of this was only hinted at in the Act itself. The curriculum of the schools and whether there should be different types of schools for different kinds of pupils were matters for serious debate, but were mentioned very little because of a fear that this might lead to dictatorship. Many also criticised the public schools for leading the country into ruin, but they were more or less left alone in the Act. When we remember the 1944 Act we should think of what it didn’t say, as much as what it did.

But this is all part of the main point. We should think of the 1944 Education Act not as a yellowing, out of date document but as part of a lively debate, not only about education but also about society, culture and politics. Times have certainly changed, but the broad issues are much the same and its contribution was important and lasting, its legacy nothing less than an education system that for the first time was designed for all.

The 1944 Act was a landmark in our history, and deserves to be remembered with all its flaws by teachers, politicians and anyone interested in debates about education. It may not be the Magna Carta, and it spilt less blood than the Battle of Waterloo, but its seventieth anniversary is still worth more than a passing nod.

Gary McCulloch is Brian Simon Professor of History of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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