The 1944 Education Act was a major change to the education system of England and Wales. It introduced secondary education for all, raised the school leaving age to 15, and provided school meals and milk for all children. Alongside the 1946 National Health Service Act, the Education Act is widely regarded as one of the original pillars of the welfare state. It is perhaps ironic, then, that the Act was pushed through Parliament by a Conservative Minister, R.A. Butler.
A Conservative may have been the principal sponsor of the Education Act, but it was to be the Labour government of 1945-51 which was to oversee its implementation. A ‘crash course' teacher training certificate was introduced to train the new teachers needed, and a massive new school building programme undertaken. A ‘tripartite' system of secondary education was introduced, with grammar schools for those deemed to be academically able, secondary modern schools to teach ‘practical' subjects, and secondary technical schools to offer mechanical, scientific and engineering skills. An ‘eleven plus' aptitude test taken by all children at age 11 would decide which school a child attended.
The impact and legacy of the 1944 Education Act upon working class people has been a subject of debate. By removing the right of state-funded secondary schools to charge fees, and by raising the leaving age, many more working class children received a secondary education, and a much higher percentage went on to further and higher education than they had before 1944. Historians have generally regarded the 1944 Education Act as one of the most socially progressive pieces of legislation ever enacted in Britain.
However, it has also been argued that it introduced a system of education which was weighed against working class children. Unlike some of their middle class counterparts, many working class children did not have the access to extra private ‘coaching' for the eleven plus exam, and those who did not pass the exam and go to grammar school often felt they had received a lesser education at the secondary modern schools. Secondary moderns generally offered CSEs, rather than the more prestigious ‘O' Level offered by grammar schools, and did not offer ‘A' Levels. They came to be seen by some as a ‘school for failures' which prepared its pupils for factory or menial jobs only. Secondary technical schools never really got off the ground. Few were built, and only a small percentage of children ever attended one. Furthermore, by allowing fee-paying independent schools to remain, it is arguable that the 1944 Education Act still left in place a system whereby the most well resourced schools were the preserve of the wealthy.