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In the 20th century Education became a sensitive social, economic and political issue in most European countries. England was no exception. In the history of English education the most important piece of legislation of the twentieth century was the Education Act of 1944, also known as the "Butler Act". It replaced all previous legislation.

It became increasingly clear that education was of vital importance to the nation and to the individual and the legislation passed necessarily reflected this conviction. It also reflected political tendencies, as well as the social and economic needs of the nation.

Education of the individual is the foundation of the education of the community. The individual's needs are not merely academic and neither are those of the community. This comes out quite clearly in the 1944 Education Act:

"it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to continue towards the spiritual, mental and physical developments of the community"
(1944 Education Act Part II, 7)

If education is to foster the "spiritual, mental and physical" well-being of the community it has to be focused on the "spiritual, mental and physical" well-being of each individual member of that community; education has to be child-centred.

Education not only has to do with communicating academic information but also involves the whole of the person: academic ability, spiritual, physical and vocational needs. It is clearly noticeable in the history of education in England that religion and spiritual values are seen to be of paramount importance. Once again the 1944 Education Act stresses this by stating how the day at school should begin:

"the school day in every county school and in every voluntary school shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance"

In England these dimensions of a pupil's life have all been considered to be the principal concerns of education throughout the ages, not only in the 20th century.

The same principal was also reiterated in the Education Reform Act 1988 where it states the need for a broadly based curriculum which:

"promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society"

These views are shared by all social classes and political parties. With equal conviction any form of "political indoctrination" has been banned from schools (the second 1986 Education Act). School texts obviously reflect this policy.



What follows cannot be considered a complete description of the educational system in England. The system was and still is more complex than it seems here. What follows merely offers the essential elements, the "backbone" of the system. There is enough information to facilitate comparisons with systems of education in other countries.

Unified or diversified Secondary education?

While there were only Elementary Schools for children between the ages of 5 and 13 problems were limited. There was only one way forward after school - the working world. There was no possibility of an academic career except for those who could afford it.

The general nature of education changed when it became possible for a restricted number of pupils to gain free places in a Grammar School if they passed an examination at the age of 11. The Elementary School began to consider preparing for the examination as its main function. The examination tested the ability of the children in two subjects only: English and Arithmetic. Other subjects, therefore, tended to become neglected. Furthermore, the reputation of the school depended mainly on its success rate at this examination.

The examination formed the basis of what is known as the 11plus (11+) examination. It led to divisions in schools (streaming), in the country (social class distinctions) and also led to irreconcilable political attitudes (Labour v. Conservative) with the Conservative in favour of this selection process and Labour against it. All the opposition against the 11+ exam and the selection process has led to the idea of the modern comprehensive system cherished by Labour and rejected by Conservatives.

Whatever were the arguments for and against the examination it was true that the future life of a child was decided at about 11. Pupils who didn't sit or who failed the 11+ examination could only gain access to a Secondary Modern School and later perhaps to a Technical School.



The tripartite system

Before the introduction of Comprehensive Schools the state education system in England was essentially tripartite and was made up of

  • Grammar Schools

  • Secondary Modern Schools

  • Secondary Technical Schools


Grammar Schools.

This type of school catered essentially for those who were interested in pursuing their studies beyond the O-level GCE stage. It provided an academic education for pupils between the ages of 12 and 19. Their pupils came through the selective process of the 11+ examination and therefore these schools had the most academically gifted children. Most of the pupils entered university after school.

It was, rightly or wrongly, seen as a middle class institution.


Secondary Modern Schools

Here the pupils normally attended a four year course leading to the School Leaving Certificate. The course usually offered instruction in English, at least one other language, geography, history, mathematics, science, drawing, manual instruction or domestic subjects, and physical exercise. When pupils left school they normally entered into the working world.

The choice of curriculum was not influenced by future academic achievement but was child centred. It developed out of the interests, needs and ability of the children and as they later went to work it obviously had a practical dimension. As there was no external examination to be taken at the end of the course the pupils were not under pressure.

What caused things to change? There was a possibility of staying on for a further year and in the 1950s there was a growing tendency to do so. Those who continued into the 5th year could sit the General Certificate of Education (GCE).

As a result of the increasing number of pupils taking the GCE the need was felt for a more specific examination adapted to the Secondary Modern School. In 1963 we have the introduction of a new type of external examination, the Certificate of Secondary Education (C.S.E.) for fifth year pupils.


Secondary Technical Schools

This was the less popular alternative to the Secondary Modern School. Those who failed the 11+ went to a Secondary Modern School but at the age of 12 or 13 could gain a place at a Secondary Technical School.

It is difficult to imagine why it was not successful since this type of school was closely linked to the world of industry and commerce. It provided a general education with special emphasis on technical subjects. It was definitely more in touch with reality than Grammar Schools and certainly more specifically geared to preparing the pupils for their trade after leaving school.

However, there was a lack of qualified teachers and this must be seen as one cause for its lack of success. Perhaps also there was a marked psychological deterrent. The pupils who had already faced one examination failure (11+) perhaps did not feel inclined to go through the humiliating experience of another possible failure at such an early age. Besides, they had already overcome the pressure of the 11+ exam and now felt psychologically relieved.


The present system

Between the ages of 5 and 11 children attend the primary school and then progress to secondary school level, which normally means entry into a Comprehensive School.

The tripartite system of secondary education has practically disappeared and has been replaced by the Comprehensive School.

Among the Comprehensive Schools are also the Voluntary denominational schools. Particularly strong are the Roman Catholic Comprehensive Schools.


What is a comprehensive school?

When we say that it incorporates everything in the tripartite system we have said all. For the sake of clarity we might give the official definition: the Comprehensive School is a school

"intended to provide all the secondary education of all the children in a given area without an organization in three sides"

These schools take all pupils regardless of ability (except those children with special needs who attend special schools). They therefore cater for children from a variety of social backgrounds, hence the name "comprehensive". There is no examination or any other selection process for entry.

Comprehensive Schools, however, have not eliminated distinctions. There is what is called "streaming" and "setting" according to learning ability. This means that students are grouped together in order to achieve a degree of uniformity in classes.

86.8% of pupils in England attend comprehensive schools. There are, however, other types of school: 5.2% attend middle, deemed secondary; 2.6% attend Secondary Modern; 4.2% Secondary Grammar; 0.1% Technical Schools.




After four years of secondary school, at about the age of 16, pupils sit the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examination. This is taken in a wide range of subjects according to the pupils' ability. Usually four to eight or even as many as ten subjects. The exams are marked by an independent body.

Two years later the students sit another examination called the General Certificate of Education (GCE) (A Level) again based on a selection of subjects chosen by each candidate (usually three to five and including a science subject and an arts subject). Access to universities is based on the number of examinations taken and the grades achieved. The exact requirements are fixed by the individual universities and vary according to the type of degree course you want to follow.


National Grammar Schools Association This site aims to promote the Grammar Schools in Britain

Education Unlimited A useful site for the latest news in the field of education.

Robert Walsh


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