Skip to content

1944 Education Act Essay Scores

On the 3rd of August 1944, Royal Assent was given to an Education Act. It was the culmination of the work of R A ("Rab") Butler, who then became the first minister of education. Latterly Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, Butler skilfully negotiated the formulation of the act and its passage through parliament. As history has since shown, the act profoundly influenced the education system for decades to come.

To bring the story of Rab Butler right up to date, I had the pleasure earlier today of meeting the children and staff of the R A Butler schools in Saffron Walden. I was particularly delighted to be accompanied by the current MP for the area, Sir Alan Haselhurst.

May I say how deeply grateful I am to Sir Alan for hosting today's event here in the magnificent surroundings of the House of Commons. Given what a great parliamentarian Rab Butler was, I suspect that he would have been pleased. I certainly know that Lady Butler is delighted that we are celebrating her husband's legacy, and only sorry that she cannot be with us today.

Britain in 1944 and 2004

My purpose today is to reflect on the 1944 Education Act and its relevance in 2004, and to consider the extent to which the education service has met the challenges set 60 years ago by Rab Butler and his fellow parliamentarians.

But let us begin by reflecting on Britain in 1944. The country, of course, was still at war. Access to education was limited: in 1938, for example, only one fifth of all children received a formal education after age 14. But even in 1944, thoughts had turned to the cessation of hostilities. The government had recognised that the evacuation of millions of children had opened the eyes of people in city and rural communities, and it was beginning to plan for a post-war society that would be much less class-ridden than that of the pre-war era.

In such a context, the 1944 Education Act was a landmark piece of social and welfare legislation, as well as being designed to address pupils' personal and academic development. You, or maybe your parents, might recall, with affection or otherwise, free medical examinations, frozen milk in winter or the transport paid for by the local education authority. The act took into account the "whole child"; a feature it shares with the 2003 green paper, Every Child Matters, and the children bill that is currently before parliament.

Britain has had to adapt in many ways in the ensuing 60 years. We no longer have an Empire, and now play a part in an expanded community of European nations. There is a greater demand for professional skills at many levels. The school population, previously culturally homogeneous, encompasses those of many cultures and faiths. Families are more mobile. Even so, the main principles of the act are as relevant today as they were in 1944, though, in all probability, their realisation has become more challenging.

I intend to focus on three areas in particular today: the curriculum; spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and personalised learning.

The curriculum

The 1944 Act required LEAs to provide state-funded education for pupils, up to the age of 15, that incorporated, to quote, "instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes".

The first step was to provide sufficient schools. The act did not define the types of secondary school to be provided; but firm guidance by the Ministry of Education stipulated a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. However, in practice the system that developed was largely bipartite, since few technical schools were established.

During the 1960s, the act was reinterpreted and comprehensive education quickly expanded. More recently, further types of school have been developed, such as specialist schools and academies. The changes in school designation have largely catered for pupils' different ages and abilities, or been focused on raising the overall performance of schools, whilst pupils' natural propensity for the scientific, the arts, or the practical has received relatively little attention. In part this might be because, even today, we often remain unsure where pupils' aptitude lies and how to capitalise on it, even though we try to help them understand it through deft careers advice and the work of personal advisers.

The act did not attempt to control the secular curriculum, and the need for breadth and balance was implied rather than stated. The grammar school curriculum was examination led whereas it was free and unfettered in primary and secondary modern schools. The curriculum was not centrally controlled until 1988 when the Education Reform Act heralded the national curriculum. The post-16 curriculum has proved more resistant to change, with the higher certificate and subsequent A-levels remaining largely intact to this day. Despite many improvements and recent changes, I think it is fair to say that the curriculum in 2004 still does not cater sufficiently for all pupils' needs, and their varied aptitudes in particular.

We can be pleased with how aspects of the curriculum have developed as a result of the hard work of carers and teachers. The teaching of literacy and numeracy in primary schools has improved. But we must not be over-confident because the rise in standards has stalled recently. The curriculum is broader. For instance, information and communication technology, and personal, social and health education are now strong areas of the curriculum in many schools and GCSE's in vocational subjects have been taken up by six in 10 secondary schools.

It is for the pupils in the 14 to 19 age range, in particular, where we continue to work towards a meaningful solution. We have not met Rab Butler's expectation that compulsory part-time education should be provided for all young people up to the age of 18. We are not even close to achieving this goal because we have not bridged the academic/vocational divide; we have only chipped away at it.

I welcome Mike Tomlinson's most recent proposals for the curriculum and qualifications for 14 to19-year-olds, because they specify an appropriate 'core' curriculum, pay careful attention to the parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes, accredit the achievements of a wide range of learners, and recommend that the rate of pupils' journeys through the accreditation system should be dictated by their achievement rather than their age.

There are, however, difficult questions to address. We need to think carefully about choice at the age of 14. This is not straightforward. On balance, I believe it is better that young people remain in education and training, even though they may not attain the ideal of breadth and balance in their curriculum. Yet, there are real risks in such an approach if we allow premature and excessive narrowing of the curriculum, even though it may seem to be a good option at the time. Too much specialisation may inhibit choice later on in life when aspirations change and employment opportunities have shifted. I do not pretend this is easy, and we must always remind ourselves of the backdrop that England's staying on rates among 16, 17 and 18 year olds do not hold up well against European and wider OECD comparisons.

Some would argue that the greatest disappointment in the aftermath of Butler was our failure to develop technical schools as a viable option. Who knows? But it does seem rather ironic that it is only today that provision is emerging that Butler might have aspired to in his vision of technical schools. The Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon, for example, has a positive ethos that reflects its focus on performance and a curriculum that incorporates programmes relating to the performing arts industry.

Spiritual, moral, mental and physical development

The 1944 act gave local education authorities the duty to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community. So significant was this provision considered, that it was strengthened in subsequent legislation and defined as spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, or SMSC in shorthand. Providing for pupils' SMSC development is an important and, in my view, essential contemporary purpose of education.

I am, to an extent, speculating here, but I suspect that in 1944 "morality" was synonymous with behaving well, 'mental' development with the learning of facts and stats and 'physical' development with exercise and drills. Of course, times change. Take physical development, for instance. Drills have given way to dance, gymnastics, outdoor and adventurous activities and the study of health and fitness. At the same time modern living has seen the ascendancy of fast-food, computer games and television, resulting in many young people living far less physically active and healthy lifestyles. So, progress on the one hand is counterbalanced, or worse, cancelled out, by the low levels of fitness and high levels of obesity among the young.

The government's strategy for physical education and school sport is focusing on the development of more opportunities for young people within and beyond the curriculum. The quality of physical education teaching is improving. So, is this the time to recapture Butler's aspiration for the physical development of pupils and inject more of the "physical" into physical education?

Indeed, should we stop there? Should schools, supported by government, practice what they preach in personal, social and health education, by ensuring rather than encouraging pupils to follow a healthy diet while they are in school; by preventing the unnecessary use of computers; by insisting that pupils go outside when the weather is fine, and, as some schools do already, by teaching young pupils games to play? Maybe, just maybe, some features of school life in 1944 were better than they are today.

As for spiritual development, this is one of the greatest legacies of the act. In Butler's time, spiritual development was probably considered to be synonymous with the daily act of Christian worship, and this remained largely unquestioned for years. But, with the broadening of Britain's religious and cultural identity, spirituality has come into its own as encapsulating those very qualities that make us human.

As an expression of spirituality, collective worship is much more contestable now than it was in Britain in the 1940s. At that time, Butler was unequivocal that the statutory requirement for collective worship, first introduced by his 1944 Act, would be widely welcomed. But it is a plain fact that the act of collective worship is not altogether unproblematic in our schools today.

I struggle, as do my inspectors and most secondary schools, with the requirement that every school day shall include an act of collective worship on the part of all pupils. At present more than three-quarters of schools fail to meet this requirement.

Only very recently, Ofsted redefined the guidance to inspectors about reporting on compliance with statutory requirements by governing bodies and, in particular, compliance with the daily act of collective worship. I have to say that this was generally not well received by schools and governing bodies and the guidance was amended again.

Inspectors now report on governing bodies' overall performance and, separately, on their compliance with statutory requirements, rather than judging the two elements together. The former approach of judging the two together resulted in otherwise excellent governing bodies being downgraded because they did not meet the requirement for daily worship.

I have taken what I consider to be a pragmatic stance based on intent and action. I am convinced that governors who have done their best to implement the statutory requirements should be reassured, whereas those that have not should be held to account.

But we are still left with some weighty questions. What, as a society, do we think about collective worship in non-denominational state schools? Arguably, the 1988 Education Reform Act added a further layer of complexity when it added the requirement that collective worship should be wholly, or mainly, of a broadly Christian character.

Then there is the issue of the "daily" nature of the requirement. Legislation in 1988 allowed worship in small groups and helped overcome problems associated with space, but there are other practical difficulties. For example, many teachers feel uncomfortable about leading collective worship. But the issues extend beyond the practical.

How many people in this country, apart from school children, are required to attend daily worship? Are we right to be requiring from our young people levels of observance that are not matched even by the Christian faithful? Would it perhaps be better to encourage an interest in matters of a spiritual and religious nature, which fitted better into the society of which the schools and the pupils are a part? An opportunity to debate, discuss and learn as well as to worship?

And there are important issues in relation to "Britishness". I applaud the important comments made recently by Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, when he called for the creation of a stronger national British identity, irrespective of who we are and where we come from. But where does religion fit in to all of this?

Would we weaken that strengthening of "Britishness" if we no longer required children and young people to worship daily in the Christian tradition which is so bound up with our history and heritage? Might we strengthen it, and pupils' understanding of Christianity and other religions, by being more honest about the fact that the majority of people nowadays do not attend church although, intriguingly, observance of other faiths seems to be stronger? Is there continuing symbolic value in a common celebration of this country's heritage, and continuing practical value for pupils' education, in behaving as those of faith do by undertaking an act of worship, even though some are of no faith?

These are serious, complex and sensitive issues which should be of interest to those of faith and those of no faith because we all have a responsibility to consider how best to cultivate spiritual awareness. That is one of the reasons why I am in no way challenging the importance of religious education as a component of the basic curriculum. Indeed, I welcome the possibility of a national framework for the teaching of religious education as a further contribution to enhancing the role of the subject in the curriculum. Young people must never be denied access to that crucial body of knowledge which is encompassed in religious education.

But I would like to make two further suggestions if we are to retain and value collective worship. Firstly, we cannot ignore the fact that 76% of our secondary schools are breaking the law. I do not think they do so lightly, so we should ask what is motivating them to behave in this way. I believe that by retaining the act of collective worship, but making it less frequent, we would immediately and significantly reduce the current levels of non-compliance. In the process, I also believe that we would encourage all of those who participate to do so in a more meaningful way. So, perhaps consideration should now be given to making the requirement for collective worship weekly, or even monthly, rather than daily.

Secondly, the 10-year-old Circular on Religious Education and Collective Worship may be seen to confuse rather than help the issue, in that it stresses the need for worship to be appropriate for all pupils and explains that not all acts of worship must be "broadly Christian". But, it states that all worship should be concerned with reverence for the veneration of a divine being or power and that "broadly Christian" should contain some elements that accord a special status to Jesus Christ. Schools do not have to abide by the terms of the circular, but now is a good time to revisit that guidance and see whether we can combine the 1998 requirements with some of the flexibility of the 1944 act, and leave more room to schools in determining what that worship should involve.

The Butler act properly pointed us to the value of spiritual development. But it would be a great shame if our failure to address the issue of collective worship led to the undermining of this crucial part of pupils' development. I am convinced that we should give this matter further consideration and I hope that my comments today will stimulate further reflection, thought and debate.

Personalised learning

This leads neatly to my third point: personalised learning.

The initial response to the 1944 Act focused more on providing sufficient schools than on meeting the specific needs of individual pupils. Priorities, however, changed. The Plowden Report in 1967, for example, promoted a focus on the individual child. In the late 1980s and 1990s, priority was given to defining the content of the curriculum and testing pupil attainment.

The emphasis on special educational needs has also changed since 1944. Following the introduction of the act, testing was used to designate different groups of pupils and about half of those with special educational needs were deemed uneducable and placed in non-educational settings. It took another 30 years to bring all children into an educational setting, thanks to the Warnock report, the 1981 Education Act and the introduction of multi-agency assessment of children's needs and statements. Those deemed uneducable in 1944 are now in schools and achieving academic success equivalent to their peers, such a grades D to G at GCSE.

Over the last few years, the emphasis has shifted to promoting effective strategies for teaching through the work of the national strategies. More recently, the focus has returned to the needs and the achievement of individual pupils. In announcing "personalised learning" as a major thrust for the future, the minister of state for school standards, David Miliband, prompted further development of work that has been underway in the better schools for some time. The re-emphasis of the need to meet individual needs is very welcome, and though we have moved closer to achieving this objective in recent years, we still have some big steps to take.

We know that success is reliant on effective practice in the classroom, which in turn is determined by the quality of the interaction between the teacher, the teaching assistants and each individual pupil. The best teaching, and there is plenty of it, sets high but realistic expectations and matches the range of abilities in the class. But we must not become complacent. Encouragingly, the quality of teaching had improved in almost half the schools inspected in 2002-03, but it is worrying that it had deteriorated in a little over one in ten. Assessment needs to be effective for teachers to adequately meet the pupil's individual needs. But assessment is a particular weakness in many schools, which is why I welcome the attention being paid to assessment for learning.

We are about to embark on major change, guided by Every Child Matters, that will bring us full circle, back to the over-riding principles of the 1944 Act. These principles are to focus on the whole child, taking into account their social and welfare needs and not just their academic or other aptitudes. The gestation of the 2004 children bill has been carefully and thoughtfully managed, as was the 1944 act, which is why I suspect future historians will identify these two pieces of legislation as having had the most influence on education in the 20th and early 21st centuries.


So, overall, should we be disappointed with the progress that the education service has made since the 1944 act received royal assent? Unquestionably not. While we still have a way to go to fully meet the aspirations of the Act, LEAs, governors, headteachers, teachers and carers have worked hard and achieved much that is now taken for granted.

The compulsory leaving age has been raised twice: first to age 15 and then to age 16 in 1973. Voluntary participation in further education has risen dramatically. In 2002 just over three quarters of 16 year olds were voluntarily participating in full or part-time education, and just under two thirds of 17 year olds were similarly involved: a major improvement on the small numbers that completed a full secondary education to age 18 in 1939.

Universities, in total, had around 50,000 students in 1939. By 2002, almost 44% of 18-year-olds were in full-time or part-time education, and almost half of these, more than 125,000, were at an institution of higher education. Many of you here may, like me, be the first in the family to benefit from higher education, as a direct result of the aspirations laid out in the 1944 act and subsequently brought into being in different ways by successive governments.

Undoubtedly, the education service has markedly improved over the last 60 years. Our young people are better educated, they enjoy greater opportunities than ever before and their aspirations and expectations are higher than we could have dreamed of when we were their age. There is, however, a lot still to be done if we are to fulfil the vision for education outlined in the 1944 act. The children bill is about to return the child to centre stage and we must ensure each child has the best possible opportunity to achieve their potential. To do this we need to know, indeed must know, all we can about each individual and the barriers to their success, and we must gather together all the tools needed to overcome them.

It is no wonder that the 1944 act is often referred to as the Butler act, as a measure of the respect for Rab Butler's contribution to the development of state education. The fact that we continue to work towards his educational goals reflects the high quality of his forward thinking and the debt we owe him for stimulating and guiding great steps forward in educational provision in this country. It is time now for the generations who have benefited from Butler's visionary thinking to repay that debt, and seek to improve further the life chances of the generations to come.

For the tripartite education system in Germany, see Education in Germany. For the grammatical case system, see Tripartite language.

The Tripartite System was the arrangement of state-fundedsecondary education between 1945 and the 1970s in England and Wales, and from 1947 to 2009 in Northern Ireland. It was an administrative implementation of the Education Act 1944[1] and the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 1947.

State-funded secondary education was to be arranged into a structure containing three types of school, namely: grammar school, secondary technical school (sometimes described as "Technical Grammar", or "Technical High" schools) and secondary modern school. Not all education authorities implemented the tripartite system. Many authorities maintained only two types of secondary school, the grammar and the secondary modern.

Pupils were allocated to their respective types of school according to their performance in the 11-plus examination. It was the prevalent system under the Conservative governments of the 1951 to 1964 period, but was actively discouraged by the Labour government after 1965. It was formally abolished in England and Wales in 1976,[citation needed] giving way to the Comprehensive System. However, elements of similar systems persist in several English counties such as Kent and Lincolnshire which maintains the grammar school system alongside comprehensive schools. The system's merits and demerits, in particular the need and selection for grammar schools, were contentious issues at the time and remain so.

A new design for secondary education[edit]


Prior to 1944 the British secondary education system was fundamentally an ad hoc creation. Access was not universally available, and varied greatly by region. Schools had been created by local government, private charity and religious foundations. Education was often a serious drain on family resources, and subsidies for school expenses were sporadic. Secondary education was mainly the preserve of the middle classes, and in 1938 only 13% of working class 13-year-olds were still in school.[citation needed]

Many of the schools created since the 1870s were grammar schools, which offered places based on an entrance test. Places were highly desired and seen as offering a great chance at success. These schools were widely admired, and were to become a model for the tier-structured education reforms of the 1940s.

There was also a strong belief in the value and accuracy of psychometric testing. Many in the educational establishment, particularly the psychologist Sir Cyril Burt, argued that testing students was a valid way of assessing their suitability for various types of education.[2] Similar conclusions were drawn in a number of other countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Sweden, all of which operated a state-run system of selective schools.

The 1926 Hadow Report had recommended that the education system be formally split into separate stages at the age of eleven or twelve.[3] Before this point there had been no formal demarcation between primary and secondary education as known in modern society. The novelty of this break would encourage the establishment of selection at the point when pupils were changing schools.

The Butler Act[edit]

The 1944 Butler Education Act radically overhauled education in England and Wales. The Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947 set out a similar restructuring for Northern Ireland. For the first time, secondary education was to become a right, and was to be universally provided. It would also be free, with financial assistance for poor students. This was part of the major shake-up of government welfare in the wake of the Beveridge Report.

In addition to promising universal secondary education, the act intended to improve the kind of education provided. Children would be provided with the type of education which most suited their needs and abilities. Calling their creation the Tripartite System, education officials envisaged a radical technocratic system in which skill was the major factor in deciding access to education, rather than financial resources. It would meet the needs of the economy, providing intellectuals, technicians and general workers, each with the required training.

The Act was created in the abstract, making the resultant system more idealistic than practical. In particular, it assumed that adequate resources would be allocated to implement the system fully.

Design of the system[edit]

The basic assumption of the Tripartite system was that all students, regardless of background, should be entitled to an education appropriate to their needs and abilities. It was also assumed that students with different abilities were suited to different curricula. It was believed that an IQ test was a legitimate way of determining a child's suitability to a particular tier.

There were to be three categories of state-run secondary schools. Each was designed with a specific purpose in mind, aiming to impart a range of skills appropriate to the needs and future careers of their pupils.

  • Grammar schools were intended to teach a highly academic curriculum, teaching students to deal with abstract concepts. There was a strong focus on intellectual subjects, such as literature, classics and complex mathematics. In addition to wholly state-funded grammar schools, a number of schools currently receiving state grants could become direct grant grammar schools, with some pupils funded by the state and the rest paying fees.
  • Secondary technical schools were designed to train children adept in mechanical and scientific subjects. The focus of the schools was on providing high academic standards in demanding subjects such as physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics, biology to create pupils that could become scientists, engineers and technicians.
  • Secondary modern schools (secondary intermediate schools in Northern Ireland[4]) would mainly train pupils in practical skills, aimed at equipping them for less skilled jobs and home management. However many secondary modern schools offered academic streams to achieve CSE, "O" levels and "A" Levels in all academic subject areas (Mathematics, Geography, English Language and Literature, Physics, Biology, Economics, etc.)

It was intended for all three branches of the system to have a parity of esteem. The appropriate type of school for each student would be determined by their performance in an examination taken in the final year of primary school.

The system in operation[edit]


The Tripartite System was arguably the least politically controversial of the great post-war welfare reforms. It had been written by a Conservative, and had received the full backing of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Many in the Labour party, meanwhile, were enthusiastic about the ability of the Tripartite System to enable social mobility. A first rate education would now be available to any capable child, not simply a rich one. The tripartite system seemed an excellent tool with which to erode class barriers.

In spite of this broad approval, the resources for implementing the system were slow in coming. The logistical difficulties of building enough secondary schools for the entire country delayed the introduction of tripartite education. It was not until 1951, and the election of a Conservative government, that the system began to be widely implemented. Some historians[who?] have argued that tripartite education was the Conservative answer to the attractions of the Welfare state, replacing collective benefits with individual opportunities. Even so, there was still a dramatic shortfall in resources for the new education system.

Very few technical schools were opened, due to the lack of money and a shortage of suitably qualified teachers. This failure to develop the technical part of the system undermined the whole structure. The tripartite system was, in effect, a two-tier system with grammar schools for the academically gifted and secondary modern schools for the others.[4]

Grammar schools received the lion's share of the money, reinforcing their image as the best part of the system, and places in grammar schools were highly sought after. Around 25% of children went to a grammar school, although there was a severe regional imbalance, with many more grammar school places available in the South than in the North, and with fewer places available for girls. This was partly the result of a historical neglect of education in the north of England, which the tripartite system did much to correct. Nevertheless, in 1963 there were grammar school places for 33% of the children in Wales and only 22% of children in the Eastern region.[5]

Modern schools were correspondingly neglected, giving them the appearance of being 'sink schools'. Although explicitly not presented as such, the secondary modern was widely perceived as the bottom tier of the tripartite system. They suffered from underinvestment and poor reputations, in spite of educating around 70% of the UK's school children. The Newsom Report of 1963, looking at the education of average and below average children, found that secondary moderns in slum areas of London left fifteen-year-olds sitting on primary school furniture and faced teachers changing as often as once a term.[6]

Existing beliefs about education and the failure to develop the technical schools led to the grammar schools being perceived as superior to the alternatives. The system failed to take into account the public perception of the different tiers. Whilst officially no tier was seen as better than the other, it was a generally held belief amongst the general public that the grammar schools were the best schools available, and entry into the other two types was considered a "failure".

Alongside this system existed a number of public schools and other fee-paying educational establishments. These organised their own intakes, and were not tied to the curricula of any of the above schools. In practice, most of these were educationally similar to grammar schools but with a full ability range amongst their pupils.

The 11-plus[edit]

Main article: Eleven-Plus exam

To allocate students between the three tiers, all students were[when?] given an exam at the age of 11. Three tests were given; one tested mathematical ability, one set an essay on a general topic and a third examined general reasoning.

Originally, these tests were intended to decide which school would be best suited to a child's needs – officially there was no "pass" or "fail" – the result determined which of the three tiers of schools the child went to. However, because of the lack of technical schools, the Eleven-Plus came to be seen as a pass-or-fail exam, either earning children a place at their local grammar school or consigning them to a secondary modern. As such, "passing" the 11-plus came to be seen as essential for success in later life.

The 11-plus has been accused of having a significant cultural bias. This was certainly true of early papers. "General reasoning" questions could be about classical composers, or the functions performed by domestic servants – subjects which children from working class backgrounds would be less able to answer.

Examination systems and relationship to further education[edit]

Different types of schools entered their pupils for different examinations at age 16. Grammar school students would take General Certificate of Education (GCE) O-levels, while children at secondary moderns initially took no examinations at all. Instead, they worked for a Schools Certificate, which simply indicated they had remained at school until age 15. Then some of the secondary modern schools offered qualifications that were set, for example, by regional examination boards, such as the Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes and the Northern Counties Technical Examinations Council. The latter exam was taken after four years at secondary school. Such examinations were comparable with the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) which was introduced in 1965. Less demanding than GCE O-level, results in the GCE and CSE exams were graded on the same scale, with the top CSE grade, grade 1, being equivalent to a simple pass at GCE O-level.

Secondary moderns did develop O-level courses for brighter students, but in 1963 only 41,056 pupils sat them, roughly one in ten. Some of these pupils' results were very good. Indeed, during the 1960s, students from secondary modern schools who took GCE ‘O’ Levels were increasingly achieving results comparable to those being achieved by students from Grammar Schools.[7] This was remarkable given the disadvantages of secondary modern schools compared to grammar schools in providing education for GCE O Level candidates. Accordingly, the entire rationale for Tripartite streaming of students based upon the Eleven Plus Examination was called into question.

Secondary modern schools continued in existence into the 1970s, and as time progressed more attention was given to the need to provide more challenging examinations, and to adopting the same approach to mixed abilities as the modern comprehensive system which existed at the same time.

Although the Butler Act offered further education for all, including students from secondary moderns, only children who went to grammar schools had a realistic chance of getting into university. Most secondary moderns did not offer training for A-levels though many in Northern Ireland in the 1970s did offer A Levels. Although students could obtain this elsewhere, few did and in 1963 only 318 secondary modern pupils sat the exams.[8] Only grammar schools offered facilities for students who were preparing for the entrance examinations required to go to Oxbridge.


The fall of the meritocracy[edit]

In 1958 the sociologist Michael Young published a book entitled The Rise of the Meritocracy. A mock-historical account of British education viewed from the year 2033, it satirised the beliefs of those who supported the Tripartite System. Young argued that grammar schools were instituting a new elite, the meritocracy, and building an underclass to match. If allowed to continue, selective education would lead to renewed inequality and eventually revolution.

This reflected a growing dissatisfaction on the left with the results of the Tripartite System. Whereas the previous generation of Labour politicians had focused on the social mobility afforded to those who passed their eleven plus, now concern became focused upon those who were sent to secondary moderns. Once the Tripartite System had been implemented, the middle classes were found to be much more likely to win places at grammar schools. It was feared that society was being divided into a well-educated middle class elite and a working class trapped in the Modern schools, or "eggheads and serfs". To some on the left, such as Graham Savage of the LCC, it became an article of faith that the only way to bring about equality was by putting everyone through the same schools.

In July 1958 the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell formally abandoned the Tripartite system, calling for "grammar-school education for all".[9] The party's fiercest opponent of the Grammar school was Gaitskell's protégé, Anthony Crosland.

Experiments with comprehensive schools had begun in 1949, and had taken hold in a few places in the UK. Anglesey, London, Coventry, the West Riding and Leicestershire had all abolished the Tripartite System in the 50s and early 60s, for a variety of reasons. They offered an alternative to the existing system which was seized upon by its opponents. Comprehensives were held up as less divisive, and pupils were said to benefit from the abolition of selection.

Paradoxically, at the same time as Labour was attacking the Tripartite System for its inequalities, some in the middle class were increasingly upset at the social mobility it fostered. As educational testing became more exact and subject to less class bias, an increasing proportion of middle class children were being sent to secondary moderns. The Tripartite System fell victim to its own elitism, as the traditional supporters of the grammar schools began to worry about their own children's educational future.

Abolition in England and Wales[edit]

By 1965 the Tripartite System was on the way out. 65 local education authorities (LEAs) had plans to switch to comprehensive schools, and another 55 were considering it. Over the next few years this grassroots change would be reinforced by central government policy.

Labour had won the 1964 election, and Anthony Crosland became Secretary of State for Education in January 1965. He was an adamant critic of the tripartite system, and once angrily[neutrality is disputed] remarked, "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every last fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland."[10] Soon after he came to office he issued Circular 10/65. This asked LEAs to begin planning the switch from the Tripartite System to the Comprehensive System, withholding funding for new school buildings from those that did not comply. This change would be reinforced by the 1968 Education Act. By 1970, 115 LEAs had had their reorganisation plans approved. Thirteen had had theirs rejected, and a further ten had defied the Labour government and refused to submit any plans at all.

Initially the move generated little opposition. It was portrayed foremost as an effort to raise standards in secondary moderns, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson had promised that no grammar school would be closed "over my dead body". It became increasingly apparent, however, that this would not be the case.[editorializing] Some grammar schools were closed, and many were amalgamated with nearby secondary moderns.

Opposition developed, mainly on a local level in protest of the treatment of a particular grammar school. Particularly strong opposition was noted in Bristol, after the LEA ended all grammar school education in 1964.

However, there was little nationwide organisation among the defenders of the Tripartite System. The most prominent attack on the introduction of comprehensives came in the series of Black Papers (as opposed to White Papers, which are issued by the government) published in the Critical Quarterly by A.E. Dyson and C. Brian Cox. Comprehensivisation was accused of using schools "directly as tools to achieve social and political objectives", rather than for the education of pupils.[11]

Debates over the Comprehensive system seemed[according to whom?] about to become a major political issue, particularly with the election of a Conservative government in 1970. However many Tories were ambivalent on the issue. More grammar schools were closed under Margaret Thatcher than any other Education Secretary, but this was by now a local process, which was allowed to continue to avoid controversy. Her Circular 10/70 simply removed the compulsion of Circular 10/65, leaving it up to individual LEAs whether or not they would go comprehensive. The Tripartite System continued to slip quietly into the night[tone] across most of the UK.

Aftermath and legacy[edit]

The end of the Tripartite System was reinforced by the new Labour government of 1974. One of its first actions on education was Circular 4/74, reiterating Labour's intention to continue with Comprehensivisation. The 1976 Education Act forbade selection of pupils by ability, officially ending the Tripartite System.

The abolition of the grammar schools benefitted independent schools. Free, high-quality education for the brightest pupils had dramatically reduced their students, from around 10% of the school population to 5.5%[citation needed]. However, now that comprehensive equality had been instituted, a large number of parents were willing to pay to extricate their children from it[citation needed]. Most of the direct grant grammar schools converted to fully fee-paying independent schools, retaining selection of entrants. The proportion of children opting out of the state system continued to rise until recently, standing at around 8%.

Certain counties continued to defy the government and continued to operate a form of the Tripartite System. In most cases, grammar schools exist more as a better tier of institutions, while other schools are seen as ordinary, rather than modern school-style "failures". There are still 164 state-run grammar schools in England today, schooling 141,000 pupils.[12]

The 1976 Act proved the high-point of the Comprehensive movement. The Thatcher government allowed selection once again in 1979, and it has been used increasingly by individual schools eager to choose the best pupils. In 1984 Solihull attempted to reintroduce grammar schools, but was stopped by middle class opposition. In 1986 the first City Technology Colleges were proposed, arguably inspired by the Technical schools. Today, no formal attempts are being made to restore the Tripartite System, but the perceived failure of the Comprehensive System led the next Labour government to propose "Beacon Schools", "Advanced Schools" and an "escalator" or "ladder" of schools.

Secondary education in the UK has not been thoroughly overhauled since 1944, and today seems[according to whom?] to be a complex mixture of the Tripartite System and the Comprehensive.[13]

Survival of the system in Northern Ireland[edit]

This article needs to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information.(November 2013)

While vestiges of the Tripartite system persist in several English counties, the largest area where the 11-plus system remains in operation is Northern Ireland. Original proposals for switching to the Comprehensive system were put forward in 1971, but the suspension of devolution meant that they were never acted upon. As a result, each year around 16,000 pupils in the area take the 11-plus transfer test. Pupils are rated between grades A and D, with preferred access to schools being given to those with higher grades. Until 1989, around 1/3 of pupils who took the exam, or 27% of the age group, were given places in a grammar school.[4]

Under the "open enrolment" reform of 1989, grammar schools in Northern Ireland (unlike the remaining grammar schools in England) were required to accept pupils up to their capacity, which was also increased.[14] Together with falling numbers of school-age children, this has led to a significant broadening of the grammar schools' intake. By 2006, 42% of transferring children were admitted to grammar schools, and in only 7 of the 69 grammar schools was the intake limited to the top 30% of the cohort.[15]

In 2001, following the publication of the Burns Report on Post Primary Education, the decision was taken to abolish the examination. The subsequent Costello Report went further, and advocated an end to all selection in Northern Ireland's schooling.[16] The education minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, endorsed the Burns Report, as did the Social Democratic and Labour Party, while the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party politicians condemned it. When devolution was suspended in 2002, the Northern Ireland Office decided to continue the policy, although the phase-out date of the eleven plus was put back from 2004 to 2008.

Opinion is divided on the wisdom of the decision. The Burns Report itself called the 11-plus system socially divisive and argued that it placed unreasonable pressures on teachers.[17] Critics of the status quo in Northern Ireland say that primary education is overly focused on passing the 11-plus. Half of all students receive some kind of private tuition before going to the exam. Many pupils also say that the exam is a great source of stress.[18]

Nevertheless, the existing system has produced good results. GCSE grades are much higher than in England and Wales. The number gaining five GCSEs at grades A-C, the standard measure of a good education, is ten percentage points higher.[19] AS and A level results are also better. Access to universities is more equitable, with 41.3% of those from the bottom four socioeconomic groups going to university, as opposed to a national average of 28.4%.[20]

Public opinion appears divided on the question. In a 2004 poll the people of Northern Ireland supported the abolition of the 11-plus by 55% to 41%. But they opposed the abolition of selective education 31% to 67%. There is widespread agreement that whatever the failings of the existing system, it is fair.[21]

The last eleven plus will take place in 2008, for the intake of September 2009. It is proposed that the replacement system have an additional transfer point at age 14, with the possibility of differentiated provision from that point. A school might, for example, specialise in providing an academic pathway from age 14. The choice of the appropriate type of school for each student is to be based on a range of measures, including performance in secondary school but excluding a separate test.[22]

A consortium of 25 grammar schools have announced their intention to run a common entry test for 2009 admissions.[23] One Catholic grammar school, Lumen Christi College, has also announced its intention to run its own tests.[24]


Main article: Debates on the grammar school

The debate about the tripartite system still continues years after its abolition was initiated, and has evolved into a debate about the pros and cons of selective education in general. In general, the left-wing such as the Labour Party oppose selective education, whereas the right-wing such as the Conservative Party have traditionally supported it.

See also[edit]



7 Gillard, D., 'Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England's schools', (2008) (see the section '1945-1960: Doubts and concerns')

External links[edit]

Children's views

Arguments in favour

Arguments against

Studies of remnants of the system

  1. ^ Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 9 March 1972. col. 1638–1639. .
  2. ^Hadow, W.H.Psychological tests of educable capacity and their possible use in the public system of education, London: HM Stationery Office, 1924.
  3. ^Hadow, W.H.The Education of the Adolescent, London: HM Stationery Office, 1926.
  4. ^ abcGallagher, A.M. Majority Minority Review 1: Education and Religion in Northern Ireland, Coleraine: University of Ulster, 1989.
  5. ^Sampson, Anthony. Anatomy of Britain Today, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965.
  6. ^Newsom, John. Half our future, A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England), London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1963.
  7. ^Gillard, D., ‘Us and Them: a history of pupil grouping policies in England's schools’, (2008) (see the section ‘1945-1960: Doubts and concerns’)
  8. ^Sampson, Anatomy, p194.
  9. ^Gaitskell, Hugh. Letter to The Times 5 July 1958, quoted by Chitty.
  10. ^Crosland, Susan. Tony Crosland, London : Cape, 1982.
  11. ^Pedley, R.R. "Comprehensive Disaster", in C.B. Cox & A.E. Dyson (eds), Fight for Education: a Black Paper, London: Critical Quarterly Society, 1969, pp45-48, quoted by Chitty.
  12. ^Chitty, Clyde. "The Right to a Comprehensive Education", Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture 2002, revised and reprinted in Forum 45:1 (2003) pp12-16.
  13. ^Brighouse, Tim. "Comprehensive Schools Then, Now and in the Future: is it time to draw a line in the sand and create a new ideal?", Forum 45:1 (2003) pp3-11.
  14. ^Maurin, Eric; McNally, Sandra (August 2007). "Educational Effects of Widening Access to the Academic Track: A Natural Experiment"(PDF). Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics, Discussion Paper 85. Retrieved 2008-04-04. 
  15. ^Ruane, Caitríona (31 January 2008). "Education Minister's Statement for the Stormont Education Committee"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 3 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-04. 
  16. ^Costello, Steve (January 2004). "Future Post-Primary Arrangements in Northern Ireland: Advice from the Post-Primary Review Working Group". Retrieved 2008-04-04. [dead link]
  17. ^Burns, Gerry (October 2001). "Education for the 21st Century: Report by the Post-Primary Review Body". Archived from the original on 14 March 2009. Retrieved 2008-04-04. 
  18. ^Taggart, Maggie. "Consensus needed over Burns Report", BBC News, 2 May 2002.
  19. ^Portillo, Michael. "The lesson of grammars is elitism benefits us all", The Times, 31 July 2005.
  20. ^St John's College JCR Committee. "Review of Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland: Access IssuesArchived 15 May 2005 at the Wayback Machine.", 2004.
  21. ^Taggart, Maggie. "Majority 'favour academic selection'", BBC News, 26 January 2004.
  22. ^"Minister Ruane outlines education reforms" (Press release). Department of Education, Northern Ireland. 4 December 2007. Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. 
  23. ^Smith, Lisa (17 December 2007). "'Test' schools accept D grade pupils". Belfast Telegraph. [permanent dead link]
  24. ^Allen, William (17 March 2008). "Top grammar plans own '11-plus'". Belfast Telegraph. [permanent dead link]