The 1944 education act was a revolutionary piece of legislation because it completely changed the way education was structured in England (Wales).
The key landmark change was the introduction of free education for all pupils, by introducing a tripartite education system (Graham 1980, p. 38). From this change, three schools were established: Grammar schools, secondary technical schools, and secondary modern schools (however, initially, only a few of these schools were established as an initial step to the implementation of the 1944 education act).
Students in primary schools were also subdivided into two groups: one group constituted of pupils from 5 years to 11 years and the other group consisted of pupils from 11 years to 15 years (Graham 1980, p. 38). In this regard, the school leaving age was set at 15 years old, but subsequent changes to the legislation increased this age to 16 years.
Courtesy of the 1944 act, community colleges were also introduced to offer education to adults and pupils, but initially, only a few higher education institutions such as Cambridgeshire Village Colleges, and Coventry, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire community schools undertook the challenge because there was a lot of initial skepticism about the idea, and its ability to sustain in the long term (Graham 1980, p. 38).
In addition, courtesy of the 1944 education legislative changes, compulsory prayer was introduced to all public schools with legislative provisions indicating that such prayers should be done within the Christian faith unless it could be established that such a provision was inappropriate for the children involved (Graham 1980, p. 38).
The same provision also allowed for such prayers to be undertaken in the classroom context (as opposed to the past mode of prayer assemblies). As a complementary change of the legislation, free milk was initially offered to pupils, below the age of 18 years, but subsequent amendments to the legislation reduced the minimum age of students who could receive the free milk to seven years; afterwards, the free milk was eliminated altogether.
Complementary to these changes, the 1944 education act also created a framework for schools to receive direct grants from the government as a form of payment to the schools, for allowing the free education system to run in their institutions (Graham 1980, p. 38).
There was a new criterion used by schools to assess which type of students would be taken to which type of school. The criterion is known as the 11-plus criterion, where depending on the performance of the pupils, students were to be taken to one of the three schools, depending on their ability and capabilities.
Regardless of these provisions, the number of grammar schools and technical schools was in mismatch with the number of pupils supposed to be admitted to such schools (Graham 1980, p. 38). However, secondary modern schools were identified to cope better with the large pupil numbers, and due to this reason, many students attended these schools, regardless of if they attained the minimum entry requirements or not.
The 1944 education act is also perceived by many experts as the basic framework which elevated the ministry of education (known then as the Board of education) by giving it immense powers to dictate the running of the country’s education system (Graham 1980, p. 38). From the understanding of the nature of the 1944 education act, this study seeks to investigate why the 1944 education act was introduced.
The main goal of the 1944 education act was to empower women and lower class citizens of England by providing them with equal access to education (Graham 1980, p. 38).
More so, the focus was centered on the girl child, but similar emphasis was also made on efforts to mobilize the working class to access employment opportunities in future by attending higher learning, through the establishment of modern secondary schools. With the advent of the 1944 education act, several consequences were realized as a result of efforts aimed at transforming the education system.
For instance, a class clash was witnessed among the working class and the middle class because there was increased awareness among the working class that they were more socially disadvantaged (at least on academic grounds) because of the existing education system, and this brew some anxiety in the country (Graham 1980, p. 38). However, these observations were a product of several factors listed below.
Sensitivity of Education in the 20th Century
In the 20th century, education was a very critical social and economic issue, not only in England, but the entire European continent (Know Britain 2011, p. 1). There was no doubt that education stood at the centre of all forms of personal prosperity and nationwide success (because of its importance in the industrial era period).
When a person pursued education on an individual level, this was perceived as a benefit of the community because such a person was bound to empower his or her community in one way or the other. However, it should not be assumed that the needs of people in the community were purely academic because neither were the needs of the community.
This fact was clearly respected in the formulation of the 1944 education act because it outlined that, “it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to continue towards the spiritual, mental and physical developments of the community” (Lawton 1975, p. 3).
From the above understanding, we see that the developers of the 1944 education act acknowledged that, for the true fulfillment of spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing of the community, each community member had to be spiritually, mentally and physically empowered.
This could not happen through any other way than by empowering children through education. It could not make any sense for the government to keep upholding a system of education which was biased towards children hailing from parents who could afford education, while those who could not afford education were not entitled to enjoy these basic rights.
Again, it is important to understand at this point that, education did not only reflect the passing of academic information from teachers to the pupils ,but rather, it involved the transmission of spiritual, mental and physically fulfilling information to the pupils. The nourishment of children with spiritual and mental information was especially seen to be of high importance in 20th century England, and it had to be enshrined in the education system of the country (Know Britain 2011, p. 1).
The importance of this fact could be seen from the stipulation of how each day at school should begin (with prayers) (in the 1944 education act). This fact was reinforced by the assertion that “the school day in every county school and in every voluntary school shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance” (Know Britain 2011, p. 1).
The importance for a comprehensive system of education was however not designed to be appropriate for 20th century England (only); it was also designed to be applicable to periods past the 20th century, as was envisioned from the education reform act of 1998 which reiterated the importance of a holistic system of education. There are no “grey” areas to the admissibility of this provision because all social classes, political groups and genders agreed that this was to be the case (Know Britain 2011, p. 1).
Due to the importance of spirituality, mental health and physical health to the wellbeing of a community, it was therefore decided that, every child had the right to be empowered in the above ways, and there was no better way to do this than to make the provision through mandatory education; or at least providing every child the access to these privileges (Know Britain 2011, p. 1).
Insensitivity of the Needs of the Education System
Initially, the England education system was insensitive to the needs of the population by having a very simplistic form of education, where students only passed through elementary schools, and after that, the only other option to personal growth was working. There was no provision for pupils to further their education; except for those who had the money to do so.
Academic careers were therefore only limited to those people who had money. Due to this reason, the 1944 legislation was introduced, to give an opportunity to pupils who wanted to pursue an academic career by providing them with a chance to enter grammar school, if they passed the 11-plus test.
The examination was however very simplistic because it only tested pupils in two subject areas only: mathematics and English (Know Britain 2011, p. 1). This simplistic nature of examination was often frowned upon because it neglected other subjects and at some point, it did not receive much support from educationists because it redefined the success of schools through the performance of only the two subjects identified above (Know Britain 2011, p. 1).
However, elementary schools significantly changed their curriculum to offer the 11-plus test at the end of the study period (usually after the age of 11). Unlike previous times, the future of a child was determined from the child’s choice, at the age of 11 onwards, but initially, the future of a child was already determined at the age of 11.
From this understanding, it was therefore obvious to note that, the 1944 education system gave a chance for children to pursue a career at the age of 11. This abolished the previous financial barrier that prevented “ordinary” children from pursuing their educational pursuits, past the elementary level.
After the industrial revolution periods of the 19th and 19th century, capitalism set in Europe, where resources were privately owned (Hill 2010). Though income distribution has been perfected in most parts of the world (but other places still lag behind), the education system seemed to complement the unjust nature of capitalism in Europe, and more specifically, England, during the 20th century.
Capitalism seemed to give a few people the power to control most of the country’s resources, while a greater majority of the population either worked for these people or controlled very few resources. In some historical literature, it was believed that the wealthy controlled 80% of the country’s resources while the poor only controlled 20% of the country’s resources (Hill 2010).
This inequality was largely brought about by an unjust education system, which either bore elites or frustrated those who could not afford it (out of the system). The minority population consisted of the elite in the society and they had an upper hand regarding most aspects of the country’s operations, including policies, legislation, resource allocation and such like aspects.
However, it was not easy for someone to join the elite in the society without passing through the education system, and possibly going through the world’s best institutions. In the 20th century, there were very few opportunities for the poor to join the elite because they did not have the money to further their education beyond the elementary level (Hill 2010). Furthermore, the best educational institutions were the most expensive in the country and only those who had money had access to such institutions.
Even those people who had substantial amounts of money could not have the best education because they only got what they paid for. Quality education was therefore only a preserve of the rich and children who accessed this education system got into the best institutions, got the best jobs in the country and ultimately, they were paid the highest wages (Hill 2010). Those who failed to access quality education never got high paying jobs, and were therefore locked in an endless cycle of poverty.
The same cycle was safely guarded by the rich because it was easy for them to secure their wealth through the injustices of the education system. In other words, the rich took their children to the best learning institutions across the globe, and this enabled their children to get the best jobs, and ultimately the highest incomes. This system safeguarded their wealth.
In the meantime, poor people were denied access to education because they could not afford it and therefore only landed semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, which paid very little money (Hill 2010). In this regard, they could not pay for good education for their children and their children subsequently fell into the same cycle of poverty. This population group worked as semi-skilled and unskilled workers in industries controlled by the elite, and unfortunately, the rich determined their income (Hill 2010).
The 1944 education changes broke this cycle because there was already a sense of hopelessness among the poor because they could not access equal opportunities for growth (Hill 2010). This cycle was broken in the sense that, the poor were given an opportunity to further their education by breaking down the financial barrier that existed between them and the rich.
In this regard, the playing field was evened and poor children could compete with rich children for educational opportunities, and ultimately employment opportunities. Though there are some traces of the former system still existent in the European society today, the latter scenario seems to be largely the case.
As mentioned in earlier sections of this study, the 1944 education changes were partially aimed at eliminating the gender inequalities that existent in Europe during the 20th century.
There were very limited opportunities for women to pursue higher education (and in some cases, pursue education in totality) because of the existent socio-cultural barriers. Boys therefore had an upper hand in overcoming the educational barrier, especially among poor families because parents often preferred to educate their sons, as opposed to their daughters, through higher education (Jacob 1996, p. 160).
This inequality was evidenced because higher education was quite expensive for poor families and still, access to higher education was still limited for everyone. For the few parents who could afford higher education, there was a strong bias to educate the boy child as opposed to the girl child, while girls were majorly perceived as homemakers.
Statistics have even gone further to show that, gender was a predictor of the level of educational attainment a child was to attain because boys were more likely to attain higher levels of education than girls (Jacob 1996, p. 160).
The gender inequality existent in 20th century England also seems to follow the same pattern as the social class inequality that existed in Europe during the time. This is because few employment opportunities (especially in managerial positions) were given to women, and this implied that even women who had the opportunity to work could not work in high paying positions (Jacob 1996, p. 160).
Just like the poor, women worked in low paying jobs, and usually in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, thereby denying them the opportunity to pursue the same employment opportunities as men. In this regard, only men were financially capable of educating their children and since they were gender-biased as well, they preferred to educate their sons as opposed to their daughters (Jacob 1996, p. 160).
The 1944 education act therefore evened the opportunity for both girls and boys to pursue higher education by removing the financial barrier that often, when coupled with socio-cultural factors, limited the girls’ access to education, past the elementary level.
In this regard, it is increasingly important to note that, the 1944 educational act was designed to provide an opportunity for women to pursue higher levels of education by empowering them through education. Since education was now free, there was no excuse for the girl child to shy away from pursuing higher levels of education.
The act therefore played a very significant role in the fight for gender equality in England because as noted in earlier section of this study, education is the key to success and denying the girl child an opportunity to pursue education amounted to denying the girl child the opportunity for personal growth, employment opportunities and an opportunity to grow spiritually, physically and mentally.
Though many strides have been made, with regards to gender equality (based on equal access to education) there is still much to be done to place women at par, in getting employment opportunities, especially in high positions of governance such as politics (BBC 2006, p. 1).
This study acknowledges the input of the 1944 education act in revolutionizing England’s education system, but in the same regard, this study acknowledges that, the same legislation was a product of several injustices which existed in England at the time. The injustices varied from social to economic challenges, but collectively, they seemed to curtail the chance of every citizen to pursue a high quality of life through education.
Specifically, such injustices seemed to hit the girl child the hardest because she was subject to economic and social barriers. The poor were discriminated against in a similar fashion. The legislation was therefore designed to address these challenges and provide an equal opportunity for all citizens to have a high quality of life.
BBC. (2006) Gender Equality ‘is Decades Away’. (online). Available at:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4582878.stm (Accessed 1 July 2011).
Graham, I. (1980) The Comprehensive School 1944-1970: The Politics Of Secondary School Reorganization. London, Taylor & Francis.
Hill, A. (2010) The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets. New York, Moody Publishers.
Jacob, J. (1996) Gender Inequality and Higher Education. Annu. Rev. Sociol, 22, 153–85.
Know Britain. (2011) Education in England (Iii). (online). Available at:
http://www.know-britain.com/general/education_in_england_3.html (Accessed 1 July 2011).
Lawton, D. (1975) Class, Culture and the Curriculum. London, Routledge.