Government policy towards education and history teaching 1945 – early 1960s Government policy towards education after the 1944 Education Act




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Government policy towards education and history teaching 1945 – early 1960s

Government policy towards education after the 1944 Education Act

Many of the provisions of the 1944 Education Act came into force on 1 April 1945 and local education authorities started to draw up their development plans for the new education system. The incoming Labour education ministers, Ellen Wilkinson, and after her death, George Tomlinson, supported the tripartite system, although the wording of the 1944 Act did not completely preclude establishing different schemes. In 1945 the Ministry of Education also had a new Permanent Secretary, the former academic John Maud (later Lord Redcliffe-Maud) who brought with him the “ qualities of administrative skill, persuasiveness, and enthusiasm” which the ODNB suggested were vital for the role during these years. The civil servants and the ministers remained adamant about establishing a tripartite system, and government guidance recommended that 70-75% of places “should be of the modern type”, the remaining 25-20% being allocated to grammar and technical places.1 There would be ‘parity of esteem’ between the sectors so that all would be equally attractive to parents and pupils, depending on the needs and abilities of every child. Some local education authorities continued to favour multilateral (comprehensive) schools, producing plans including them; some of their plans were accepted, although many were rejected (in 1951 0.7% of state secondary school pupils were in comprehensive schools). There was also an enormous expansion of trained teachers through the emergency scheme which ran from 1944-51.

By the late 1940s a system of grammar schools was generally established across England and Wales (although provision varied enormously – parts of the north of England had a much lower proportion of grammar school places than in the south east). For the rest of the school population; as of April 1945 the old senior elementary schools were renamed ‘secondary moderns’ and the local authorities began to establish new secondary modern schools as well. Technical schools, which the White Paper and the Norwood Report had intended would take about half the selective intake, ie 10-15% of all pupils, in fact never catered for much more than about 3% – mainly boys.

Little had been planned for the secondary modern sector: the Norwood Report had said:

To consider its curriculum in detail is outside our scope, but... The aim would be to offer a general grounding and to awaken interest in many aspects of life and citizenship ... It is evident that, if such general education is to spring from the actual and real interests of the pupils - interests which are to a great extent dependent on environment - the utmost freedom must exist as regards curriculum and its treatment, which can be determined only in the light of the special circumstances of the school. We may add that we look forward to much fruitful growth and many experiments in this field of education. 2

Basically it was left up to teachers to design their own curriculum. And it was made almost impossible for secondary modern pupils to take external examinations – at least School Certificate and later General Certificate of Education subjects. According to Brian Simon and Peter Fisher there was dismay behind the scenes at the Ministry when the some of the secondary modern schools (at this point these were still mainly the pre-war senior elementary schools, renamed) immediately started to request to enter pupils for School Certificate.3 For now that their pupils’ leaving age was about to be raised to fifteen (1 April 1947) it was seen as perfectly feasible in some of these schools that some of their pupils might stay on an extra year to take the SC.

This was not at all what had been envisaged for the new system. In May 1946, Circular 103, ‘Examinations in Secondary Schools’ was issued which advocated abolishing the external examination at 15 or 16, saying that as grammar school pupils should be staying on until 17 or 18, an earlier examination would not be necessary . It was also announced that there would be regulations preventing schools other than grammar schools entering pupils for any external examination under the age of 17, and even the grammar schools doing this would require special permission from the Ministry of Education. This followed on from the idea of the White Paper and the Norwood Report, supported by the Ministry of Education officials, that grammar schools would have fewer but abler and more motivated pupils who would wherever possible stay on to eighteen – rather than the pre-war situation where half left at sixteen or earlier.

Eventually, following the recommendations of the Secondary Schools Examinations Council, the age limit for Ordinary Level was not seventeen years as had been suggested – the proposal was that no candidate might enter who was not at least 16 on Sep 1st of the examination year. However it was stated that this age limit was to be subsequently raised. And it was also recommended that to pass in the new GCE Ordinary level a pupil must reach the standard of the old credit level in the School Certificate (ie a standard well above the old School Certificate pass level). This would have the desired effect of making it very unlikely that secondary modern children would aspire to the examination, and also deter and exclude a considerable number of existing grammar school pupils. Eventually there was so much criticism of the age limit that compromises were made.

In October 1951 the Conservative Party won the general election and Florence Horsbrugh became the Minister of Education. Unlike Wilkinson and Tomlinson, she was not a member of the Cabinet until nearly two years into her three year tenure, perhaps signifying the importance placed on education in this government. Defence and rearmament were becoming increasing priorities for the British governments of the early 1950s, Labour as well as the incoming Conservative one, and to finance this the latter immediately started looking for cuts. On the domestic front, housing was the major priority, with the relevant minister, Harold MacMillan, a much more influential member of the Churchill Government than Miss Horsbrugh. RA Butler, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, saw no reason to make a special case for the education budget, despite his former stint at the Board/Ministry of Education. At first Horsbrugh accepted the need for economies and at one point it was suggested the school leaving age might be lowered back to fourteen, but eventually she refused to go any further and in fact started to suggest growth in the school building programme. This was now virtually stagnant despite the poor state of many antiquated school buildings which left many children in temporary pre-fabricated classrooms or in pre-war buildings that should have been demolished. The situation was made more critical by the growth in the birth rate in the immediate post-war years; these children were now starting school and swelling the numbers of pupils.

The arrival of the next Minister, David Eccles, coincided with an improvement in the economy so there was more money available, but he was also more successful than Miss Horsbrugh at selling the idea of education as an economic investment to his government, and he was also friendly with the incoming Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. He also made deliberate conciliatory overtures to teachers and local authorities who had resented the lack of priority for education. Eccles understood that a Conservative government looking for future electoral wins had to be visibly concerned with the modernisation of education; by the mid 1950s a more affluent, consumerist population expected its children to be educated in a way that would enable them to move on and prosper – substandard buildings and overlarge classes were not a part of this vision. In fact Eccles’ ODNB entry suggests that “during his two terms [as education minister] from 1954 to 1957 and 1959 to 1962, Eccles emerged as the major architect of the post-war expansion of education in Britain”.4 Even in 1956 when there was again pressure for cuts by Butler, Eccles held firm, and after 1956 he was able to preside over a period of relative educational growth, particularly in terms of scientific, technological and university education. His successors, Lord Hailsham and Geoffrey Lloyd shared his enthusiasm for educational expansion.

By the mid 1950s there was concern among a substantial number of parents about the selection process, which varied from authority to authority and depended on the number of grammar school places available (which also varied enormously). There was also growing criticism of the idea, pioneered by the psychologist Cyril Burt and other educationalists, that intelligence was an innate, scientifically-measurable quality, as it was now being shown that coaching and practice could substantially affect intelligence test results. By now the issues of selection and comprehensive schooling were beginning to become party political issues as in 1953 the national Labour Party committed itself strongly to a policy of non-selective education. Florence Horsbrugh was firmly in favour of grammar schools and against comprehensives, although she did allow some comprehensives to be established when this did not involve closing existing grammar schools. Eccles agreed with her but argued for a policy of improving secondary moderns and making the system more flexible so that children could move easily between different types of schools. He aimed at achieving the ‘parity of esteem’ between the different school sectors which had been envisaged in the 1940s so that parents would not feel so much disappointment and anger if their child failed to get a place in a grammar school. “To allow 4 out of 5 of our children and their parents to feel that the children who go to the secondary [modern] school start life impoverished in education would be to sow the seed of discontent throughout their lives”, he said.5 If there was not a measure of reform, “the grammar school, highly regarded for its success in coping with academic pupils, might face extinction”.6

From 1957-59 Eccles was at the Board of Trade and his successors, Hailsham and Lloyd, followed a similar policy. Lloyd issued a White Paper on secondary schools in which he sought to reassure parents about their children’s chances even if they did not pass the eleven plus. It admitted that there were “too many children of approximately equal ability who are receiving their secondary education in schools that differ widely both in quality, and in the range of courses they are able to provide…this means that a number of these children are not getting as good opportunities as they deserve”.7 However the solution was not to impose a uniform solution of comprehensivisation and the abolition of good grammar schools – rather the government was aiming to encourage a variety of schools across the country according to the different needs of each area and to ensure that all secondary schools provide “a full secondary education for each of its pupils in accordance with his [sic] ability and aptitude”, and “the widest possible range of opportunities for boys and girls of different capacities and interests”. 8 With this in mind, the government announced an expanded school building and improvement programme. The paper lauded “the remarkable growth” in the number of pupils staying on in modern schools and said the Government would do everything it could to encourage extended courses and facilities for them.

Increasingly children in secondary moderns were taking public examinations, including O Levels even though this had not been the intention when they were set up. The idea had originally been that secondary modern schools would be free to develop their curricula without the constraints of external examinations and indeed, as described earlier, they would not be allowed to enter pupils for such examinations. However by 1949 the official view on this was changing, and by late 1950 Fisher showed that Ministry policy had settled in favour of allowing secondary modern school pupils to stay on to take GCE examinations “provided that the curriculum for the remaining pupils of the school did not become distorted.9 Fisher states that 1952 “marked the start of substantial growth in demand both for the introduction of the GCE into modern schools and for a more appropriate external school-leaving examination for the majority of secondary school pupils”.10 Throughout the 1950s there was continuing debate about the merits of bringing in external examinations for a wider range of pupils and if so, what form they might take. There were concerns about imposing regulation and uniformity on schools, stifling the lively courses found in the ‘best’ modern schools. And if an examination was designed for a wider group than those just below GCE level it might result in a dilution of standards. However the Association of Education Committees which represented local authority education committees, and to a lesser extent, the NUT, were actively engaged in campaigning for a wider set of examinations.

Although in theory ‘modern’ schools were being given unprecedented freedom to create their own innovative curricula designed for the particular needs of their individual pupils; in practice many were still housed in the dilapidated buildings of the old senior or senior elementary schools and were seen in much the same way as those schools had been. Val Brooks comments that: “In retrospect, a dereliction of duty seems to lurk just beneath the surface in this championing of freedom”.11 Many secondary modern schools used external examinations to booster morale and give their pupils a sense of purpose. Ironically many of their pupils faced more external examinations than grammar school pupils as many local authorities ran 12+ and 13+ examinations to re-consider pupils for grammar and technical schools. As an example:

PR Heaton, a head teacher at a boys’ secondary modern in Harrow, described in an IoE lecture in early 1957 the demoralisation left in the wake of this continuing ‘creaming off’ process but showed how, almost by accident, a few boys, having done some of the RSA examinations [Royal Society of Arts – see next paragraph] at the end of the fourth year, stayed on and did some GCE O level exams in the fifth year. Some of them passed, and the following year a much larger group took them. The resulting change in the school psyche was marked: “whereas a few years ago every boy in the first year wished to take the over-age twelve-plus test, the candidates now are less than 4 per cent of the intake”.12 The fifth year now included up to a third of the original intake. Heaton said: “I get the impression that the children feel that the door is open to them”.13 The possibility of taking the GCE examinations opened up expectations and possibilities to the pupils where previously they had seen only a dead end in their education; parents who once had given up on their sons’ education once they had exhausted the 12+ and 13+ now really wanted them to stay on. Homework was now done by virtually every child in the school despite not being compulsory.

Brooks quotes similar experiences from other head teachers. There was criticism that the concentration on external examinations would disadvantage those who would not be able to attempt them but the heads were adamant that this was not the case. Heaton said: “If that began to happen the very first people to cry out about it would be the teaching staff”.14

By 1958 over a quarter of secondary modern schools were entering candidates for the GCE Ordinary Level examination and over half were entering pupils for some kind of external examinations (ie including GCE, but also those run by a range of organisations including the Royal Society of Arts, the College of Preceptors, regional bodies linked to further education colleges, the Pitman Examinations’ Institute , the General Nursing Council and others.15 In fact Brooks comments that by the late 1950s, “the situation was becoming as chaotic and bewildering as that found by the Consultative Committee [on Examinations] in 1911!”.16). The educational establishment at the Ministry of Education remained unenthusiastic about external examinations in secondary modern schools although it did not actively obstruct them. However clearly the reality of the situation meant that the growth of such examinations could not be ignored and there was pressure for an official response. In 1958 the SSEC appointed a sub-committee to advise and report on the possibility of establishing alternative examinations (the Beloe Committee).

In 1959 the Crowther Report was published on education for girls and boys aged 15 to 18. This was the report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (CACE) which had been established under the 1944 Education Act as the successor to the Consultative Committee which had previously advised the Board of Education. It called for the school leaving age to be raised to sixteen (which finally happened in 1972), for compulsory part-time education for early school leavers (as had been promised in both the Fisher and Butler Education Acts but never implemented), and a widening of the scope of sixth forms so that they did not just concentrate on pupils intending to go to university. It did not endorse comprehensive schooling as such but recognised that changes must be made to ensure more opportunities for more children. It pointed out that society was changing and people’s expectations and standards of living were rising; educational provision must improve in line with this.

Four years later another CACE report was published; this was known as the Newsom report, commissioned by David Eccles in 1961, and chaired by John Newsom, “to advise him on the education of pupils aged 13 to 16 of average and less than average ability”.17 This also called for more resources, financial and other, to be put into their education. Again it said that it did not necessarily recommend reorganisation of the pattern of secondary education but improvements in education must be made, including raising the school leaving age. It pointed out that:

there is some evidence that young people of the same ability who attend recognised private schools and remain there in small classes until well beyond the statutory leaving age can achieve standards very different from those normally found...From this we deduce that it is not possible to generalise about the capacity of the average and below average until we have had an opportunity of keeping them at school for a longer period and in smaller classes.18

By 1961, although a number of local education authorities had introduced comprehensive schools when they could get permission from the minister, the percentage of all 13 year olds in maintained schools attending them in England and Wales was 5.9%, compared to 73.2% in modern schools, 19.7% in grammars, 3.2% in technical schools and 3.8% in all-age schools (those elementary schools still waiting to be re-organised, usually in very poor premises). 19 However by now the move towards comprehensivisation was beginning to gain momentum among local education authorities, including some Conservative ones in underpopulated rural areas where an effective fully tripartite system was hard to attain; middle schools for 9-13 or 14 year olds were also introduced in some areas. The Minister of Education from 1962-64, the liberal conservative, Edward Boyle, who had already been a junior education minister in the late 1950s, recalled that in 1963 his officials estimated that 90 out of 163 local education authorities had either completed or were working on reorganisation in all or part of their areas – and not all of these were Labour-controlled.20 Boyle’s foreword to the Newsom Report in 1963 is famous for what was seen as a rejection of fixed intelligence levels, the concept which had underlaid so much of educational policy in the 1930s and 40s, and for the encouragement of potential in all children:

Their potentialities are no less real, and of no less importance, because they do not readily lend themselves to measurement by the conventional criteria of academic achievement. The essential point is that all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence, and of developing their talents and abilities to the full.21

Boyle’s ODNB entry says that following this, “he naturally therefore welcomed comprehensive schools, but at the same time, as a staunch believer in academic standards, could not also accept the demise of the grammar school”. So at Conservative party conferences in 1962 and 63 Boyle gave a cautious welcome to the new schools and sought to allay the fears of the faithful about losing their grammar schools. Slightly ironically, on the other side, the Labour Party, while officially embracing a move to universal comprehensive secondary education, was not quite as keen about it at all levels of the party as appeared, although Anthony Crosland, the Labour Government’s second Education Secretary of State (from January 1965), was a complete enthusiast. In the short, first Labour government with a small majority it was anyway politic to go fairly softly on the issue and Michael Stewart, the first Labour Secretary of State for Education, from October 1964, was firm on the need for change but conciliatory in his approach to it.

Although there was much popular support for the new system there was also a strong and vociferous body of opposition, particularly where setting up a comprehensive system meant the demise of long-established grammar schools. Crosland too, avoided a heavy-handed approach; there was no legislation proposed at this stage to compel change, and Circular, 10/65, issued on the subject in July 1965 by what was now the Department of Education and Science, did not prescribe a set system although it made various suggestions and requested rather than required local authorities to submit plans “for the reorganisation of secondary education in their areas on comprehensive lines”. The Circular declared that the Government’s “objective [was] to end selection at eleven plus and to eliminate separatism in secondary education.” It quoted the motion passed in the House of Commons endorsing this policy on 21 January 1965:

That this House, conscious of the need to raise educational standards at all levels, and regretting that the realisation of this objective is impeded by the separation of children into different types of secondary schools, notes with approval the efforts of local authorities to reorganise secondary education on comprehensive lines which will preserve all that is valuable in grammar school education for those children who now receive it and make it available to more children; recognises that the method and timing of such reorganisation should vary to meet local needs; and believes that the time is now ripe for a declaration of national policy.22

Government policy towards history teaching after the 1944 Education Act

The 1944 Education Act gave control over the administration of all state schools (except voluntary aided secondary ones) to the local education authority. Decisions about curriculum content and teaching methods were left to the headteacher and staff, under the theoretical oversight of the school’s governing body. Inevitably the teaching staff did not act in a vacuum; they were influenced and advised by HMIs and local authority inspectors, examination requirements, university entrance regulations, the ability and preferences of teachers, and the wishes and ability of the pupils. There was, as Clyde Chitty emphasised, no specific guidance from central government.23 In practice this did not change things: as we saw in earlier chapters, recommendations and suggestions had been made in various reports and circulars in the first half of the twentieth century about how history should be taught in the different types of post-primary or elementary school but none of these had been enforced except through the comments in HMI reports.

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