Education became a key site for debates over the reform of society after 1945. Radical reforms occurred, particularly in the fields of secondary education and higher education. The 1944 Butler Education Act (implemented in 1948) raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15 and made secondary education compulsory for all children. Previously, most children had attended ‘all-age’ elementary schools, which educated children from the ages of 4 or 5 to 14. The Butler Act introduced ‘tripartite’ secondary education. This meant that all children attended primary schools and then went to specialised secondary schools depending on the results of their ‘eleven-plus’ examination results. The exam, taken at the age of ten or eleven, was meant to determine a pupil’s ability and aptitude for different tasks, identifying the type of secondary schooling best matched to their potential. Those who did very well in the exam (which was entirely academic) went to grammar schools which provided resources for university entrance. Those who did reasonably well were meant to go to technical schools, equipping them for some of the new postwar occupations like technical drawing and town planning. Those who didn’t do so well – the vast majority, over 70% of the population – went to secondary modern schools, which provided a basic academic education and lots of vocational training in, for example, woodwork (boys) or cookery (girls).
The exam was immediately controversial. Debate raged over whether exams could really detect people’s ‘ability’, whether it was right to select people at the young age of eleven for such different sorts of education, and also over the arbitrary nature of selection: some districts had more grammar schools than others, so more children ‘passed’ the exam in these; most areas never had the resources to open technical schools; and in most of the UK 70% or more children were educated in poorly resourced secondary modern schools.
The 11-plus exam was never nationwide. Areas of Scotland and Wales chose not to introduce the exam. Some Local Education Authorities in England, notably Coventry and Inner London, introduced comprehensive schools as early as the 1940s. By the 1960s support had grown for comprehensive secondary education (non-selective schools, whose intake was drawn from the local area) and in 1966 the Labour government strongly encouraged Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to introduce comprehensive schools. Most did, but in a piecemeal fashion, and some did not (particularly in affluent and Conservative areas of England). Consequently, secondary education varied immensely across the country.
Meanwhile, university education underwent great reform. Maintenance grants were introduced, and the Robbins Report led to the opening of many new universities in the 1960s. However, the intake of students remained predominantly middle-class. This led to concern over the extent to which education was really a vehicle for social mobility. This debate exercised politicians, journalists and social scientists throughout the period, partly because ‘equality of opportunity’ was so central to the aims of the postwar social reforms and welfare state. Interestingly, working-class participation in higher education began to increase in the early 1970s – just as the first generation of comprehensively-educated schoolchildren were reaching their late teens.