70 years after the Education Act, debate still rages on the school leaving age

Here ‘til we’re 16? Really, sir? Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Seventy years on from its passage into law, the Education Act of 1944 is often remembered as a monument to political consensus – the art of the possible, in the words of its chief architect, R A “Rab” Butler. It achieved cross-party support under a coalition government which had a military victory over Adolf Hitler in World War II as its principal objective. The Education Act probably seemed a limited, compromise measure, but also just a sideshow to the momentous events that were taking place on the world stage.

Yet the Education Act, which was given Royal Assent on August 3 1944, was also the product of a genuine debate about the future of education in a postwar society. Many of the measures that it included had long attracted controversy and often bitter opposition, even if they have now found general acceptance.

For instance, the act ushered in secondary education for all children for the first time. This was a proposal that had been supported by the Labour Party since the 1920s but denounced by many politicians and business leaders, on the grounds that it was not only too expensive but also educationally unsound and socially problematic.

Even in 1943, as part of the preparations for the act, a committee set up by the Board of Education argued forcefully that there were three different groups in society that therefore required three different types of secondary school – an approach that underpinned the postwar development of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary modern schools.

Raising the school leaving age

A closely related provision of the 1944 act, in section 35, was its support for an increase in the school leaving age, which had stood at 14 since the end of World War I. It proposed the leaving age should be raised immediately to 15, and that it should be increased again, to 16, as soon as this became practicable.

Such an idea had been anathema to business interests. In the aftermath of a war and with a lack of teachers and schools it also raised serious practical difficulties. Nevertheless, the first instalment of this reform was delivered under Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government from 1947, disfigured though it was by the prefabricated huts that were brought in to house the extra secondary school children.

It was still unclear in the postwar period whether raising the leaving age had won over public opinion as a popular cause. The second stage in this reform, an increase to 16, was actually delayed for a further 25 years, until 1972, when Margaret Thatcher finally presided over this additional step as education secretary.

Even then, however, it remained a controversial measure, partly because of the resources needed to put it into practice, but also because a number of teachers were unwilling to retain unruly and alienated pupils, some of whom they felt would learn little more in an additional year at school than they had managed in the previous ten.

Lessons for today

What are the lessons of this delayed provision of the 1944 Act after 70 years? Recent research on the history of raising the school leaving age in this country by Tom Woodin, Steven Cowan and myself at the Institute of Education in London, argues that despite all the obstacles and opposition, increasing the leaving age was a crucial achievement that has led in turn to the further expansion of post-16 education and also higher education over the past decade.

This is a particularly important issue for the present day because the 2008 Education and Skills Act provided for further increases in what is now called the education participation age, making participation in education or training compulsory for all up to 17 from 2013 and 18 from 2015.

Many economists, industrialists and educationists continue to raise objections to this policy on a number of grounds. Arguing in The Guardian, former editor Peter Preston called the extension “Two more futile years”, while Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, argued instead that the school leaving age should be cut to 14 instead, and former trade minister Digby Jones that the age rule should be relaxed to connect getting a skill with earning money.

The protracted debate over implementing the 1944 act provisions in this area is again highly instructive. The extended period that was needed for the 1944 Act to come into full effect highlights the slippage that can so often take place between the policy and the practice. It was a matter of high policy, with agonised discussions taking place at cabinet level within governments throughout the 1960s as the treasury warned of dire economic consequences if it were ever allowed to come into force.

The Conservative government of the 1950s toyed with the idea of returning the leaving age to 14. From the 1960s, the Guardian newspaper, once so strongly in favour with the educational reformer R H Tawney writing its leading articles, became conspicuously ambivalent.

Raising the school leaving age, a crucial move towards equality of opportunity, remains a significant example of the struggle and controversies involved in educational change over the longer term. It reveals the close connections between politics and economics on the one hand, and curriculum and educational structures on the other. The 1944 act was no mere sideshow, but a vital reform in the making of a modern society.