Although by 1918 the vast majority of children were educated in elementary schools up to the age of 12 or 14 (mostly in classes of 40 on Tyneside), central government’s focus had turned to secondary education by the early 1920s. The main reasons for this were: one, there was a need for greater economic efficiency; and two, a need for an educated electorate. The 1918 Representation of The People Act gave the vote to all men over 21 and women aged over 30. Within the Labour movement there were calls for greater social equality, with the socialist writer Tawney demanding ”secondary education for all” and adult further education.
Hadow reports: education for the adolescent
The inter-war period saw some reorganisation of education for the ‘adolescent.’ Hadow was appointed by the Labour government to look into post-elementary education for young people and produced his influential report in 1926. For Hadow, secondary education should begin at 11 and be free. Two types of ‘secondary school’ were suggested: existing secondary or ‘higher’ schools were to be rebranded as ‘grammar schools’ providing a more academic education, while the others were to be renamed ‘modern’ schools in which children would remain until the age of 15.
During the 1920s a minority of pupils aged 13 might transfer to junior technical schools whose age of entry was later than other schools. Hadow stressed the need for ‘parity of esteem’ between schools and recommended that the school leaving age be raised to 15.
Although the report represented major policy change with significant future results, Hadow’s planned reorganisation was delayed till the 1930s due to economic factors, public expenditure cuts, and backward-looking Local Education Authorities (LEAs).
Secondary education reforms, 1938 – 1944
Although progress was slow throughout the era both Sanderson and Gardiner point out that by 1938 two-thirds of children were getting some sort of secondary education. Yet as the historian Selina Todd argues only 14% of youngsters were continuing their education until the age of 15 or 16. In reality, secondary education, and grammar schools in particular, were dominated by the middle classes who could afford the fees. In the North-East only a minority of working-class children were accessing secondary education to age 15, helped by council scholarships and free places. County Durham was one of a few LEAs who offered up to 100% free places.
In 1938 the Government published the Spens Report which concerned itself primarily with secondary grammar and technical schools. Spens argued against the concept of a common secondary school (comprehensive) for all on the grounds of size. Rather, he argued there should be selective secondary schools for ‘brighter’ children which would be more vocational; schooling geared to boys and girls ”who desired to enter industry and commerce at 16.” Spens recommended three types of secondary school: the grammar, the technical, and ‘modern’ with selection at 11 and based on the principle of ‘parity of esteem’.
Five years later the Norwood Committee reaffirmed the need for a tripartite system of secondary education with the three types of school to cater for three types of intelligence: academic, practical, and that which dealt with ”concrete things and with ideas”.
Meanwhile the evacuation of children to the countryside revealed low standards of life and schooling, with over half a million youngsters receiving no education past the age of 11. Several policy thinkers and Labour politicians, like Ellen Wilkinson MP for Jarrow, were calling for more social justice alongside more economic efficiency. Even Churchill stressed the need for the privileges of the few to be shared by the many after the war. In 1942 Beveridge identified ”ignorance” as one of the five giants to be conquered if general welfare was to be improved.
In 1944 the important Butler Education Act was passed and represented a major stage of secondary education, with the formal establishment of the post-war tripartite system. Yet Sanderson argues the Act’s importance has been overstated. Although the school leaving age did rise to 15 in 1947, the Act itself required little of LEAs beyond the provision of education appropriate to a child’s ”aptitude, age, and ability”.
Historical perspective, and assessment of secondary education reforms. Equality of opportunity?
For many critics like Todd, Butler’s Act perpetuated the selective tripartite system which had existed since 1918. The 11+ exam was unfair and biased towards the middle classes. Working class access to grammar schools remained small compared to the pre-war period. Equality of opportunity was not fully realised with a consequent wastage of working class talent. Few technical schools were built after the war, mostly in industrial towns like North Shields, Hebburn, and Sunderland. In practice the post war secondary system until the 1970s was bi-partite rather than tripartite.
Despite the development of state secondary education, fee-paying private schools used by the upper/upper-middle class continued to flourish across Tyneside and elsewhere. This reflected the rising incomes of both ‘black-coated workers’ and professionals. Nationally, the number of privately educated pupils rose from 22,000 in 1918 to 204,000 by 1940. On Tyneside in 1936 eight secondary schools were ”under trusts or private management” with Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School being the most prominent. For Bill Dennison and Tony Edwards, Newcastle had a ”relatively high density of private secondary schools.”
It was not until well after the war that working-class students started to access further and higher education in any great numbers.