From education to employment

The Inter War Years: The Rise of ‘Secondary and Further Education For All

Stephen Lambert

In this article, Stephen writes “In the inter-war years there were calls for greater social equality and education for all beyond the age of 14. Did these developments bring about equality of opportunity for all?”

Secondary and Further Education For All. Did it bring about equality of educational opportunity in the North of England?

Although the vast majority of children were educated in elementary schools  drilled in the three Rs up to the age of 11 or 12 by 1918 (mostly in classes of 40), central government focus turned to secondary and technical education by the turn of the decade. There were three main reasons for this. One – there was a need for greater economic efficiency.

The First World War had exposed weaknesses in British scientific and technical education. 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 Trade Union and Labour movement there were calls for greater social equality with the  democratic socialist writer R.H. Tawney demanding more adult education alongside ”secondary education for all”.

At this stage access to ”proper secondary,” further and higher education for working-class children was strictly limited. Social reformers ,like Tawney, saw post-13 education as a mechanism to challenge class based inequalities which scarred much of the UK especially in the North of England.

The 1918 Fisher Act

The Fisher Act 1918 was a major part of the State’s post-war reconstructions plans. It was far reaching in the scope of its intent. The school leaving age was raised to 14. Compulsory day release continuation classes were brought in allowing the under-18s to attend school or college for two half days a week.

This idea came about from a concern that young people should not be seen solely as wage-earners, but as ”workmen and citizens in training”. This was short-lived. Continuation schools fell victim to the 1922 ‘Geddes Act’ and public expenditure cuts with the exception of Rugby. (Hill 1984) The policy also faced  stiff opposition from several employers. (Sanderson in Page and Silburn 1999)

On a positive note many local authorities set up adult education classes delivered in ‘Evening Institutes’. Meanwhile a ground breaking report on Adult Education was published a year later and the term the ‘mature student’ was coined.

Throughout the early 1920s  the council funded and trade union Workers Educational Association (WEA) expanded its provision for adults with thousands of ex-servicemen getting the chance of going to university. For the late Nigel Todd (Former Regional Director NE WEA) many former adult educated soldiers sought to change the world by channelling their energies into the League of Nations while the NUS was set up to help ”restore international peace” in a troubled world. (Todd 2021)

Sir Henry Hadow’s 1926 report

The inter-war period saw some reorganisation of education for the ”adolescent.”  Sir Henry Hadow was appointed by Charles Trevelyan MP (Newcastle Central, Labour), President of the Board of Education ,to look into post-elementary for young people and produced his influential report in 1926. (Trevelyan 2006) For Hadow, secondary education should begin at 11 and be free.

Two types of ‘secondary school’ were advocated: 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 till the age of 15. During the period a minority of pupils aged 13 might transfer to ‘junior technical’ schools whose age of entry was later than other schools. (Sanderson 1999) Hadow stressed the need for ‘parity of esteem’ between schools and recommended that the leaving age be raised to 15. (Stevenson, 2004)

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  some backward looking Local Education Authorities. 

Although progress was slow throughout the era the historian Judith Gardiner points out that by 1938 two-thirds of children were getting some sort of secondary education. Yet as the Oxford University academic Selina Todd argues only 14 % of youngsters were continuing their education till the age of 16 following a prescribed  secondary curriculum with an opportunity to sit public examinations. (Todd 2015)

In reality secondary education and grammar schools in particular were dominated by the middle classes who could afford the fees and their children’s maintenance costs. In the North East only a minority of working class children were participating in meaningful secondary till the age of 16 financially aided by council scholarships and free places. As the social historian John Stevenson notes County Durham was one of a few LEAS who offered up to 100% free places.

The 1938 Spens Report

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’. (Stevenson 2004)

Five years later Norwood 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 than 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. As Menter and his colleagues note the State recognised that  low-income families who had suffered during the war deserved a better future.- ”there was a concern to encourage the spiritual, mental and physical well-being  of the community.” (Bartlett and Burton 2016)

Several policy thinkers and Labour politicians like Ellen Wilkinson MP for Jarrow were calling for more social justice alongside more economic efficiency. Even Prime Minister Winston Churchill stressed the need for the privileges of the few to be shared by the many after the war. In 1942 Sir William Beveridge identified ”ignorance” as one of the five giants to be conquered if general welfare was to be improved.

The 1944 Butler Education Act

In 1944 the important Butler Education Act was passed which represented a major stage of secondary education with the formal establishment of the post-war tripartite system with a commitment to further education from the age of 16 to 18.  (Fraser 2017) 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”. (Sanderson 1999)

For many critics like Selina Todd Butler’s Act perpetuated the selective tripartite system which had existed since 1918.

The 11+ exam

The 11+ exam was unfair and culturally biased towards the middle classes. It was an unreliable indictor of future educational achievement. Working class access to grammar schools remained small compared to the pre-war period. Equality of opportunity was not fully realised, with few technical schools built after the war, mostly in industrial towns like North Shields, Hebburn and Sunderland. In practice the post-war secondary system till the 1970s was bi-partitite rather than tripartite. (Todd 2021)


Further and adult education saw some further development throughout the ‘Thirties’. The WEA, set up at the turn of the 20th century, was becoming a prominent feature in many industrial towns and cities. By 1934 60,000  adult learners were attending night classes run by the WEA – the most well known in the North East were the Art classes in the mining town of Ashington, Northumberland (Pitman Painters). By 1936 over two million students across England and Wales were enrolled on part-time courses in Technical Colleges like Gateshead and South Shields controlled by LEAS. (Stevenson 2004)

The rise of private secondary schools

Despite the development of state secondary and further education, private schools used by the upper/upper-middle class, continued to flourish across Tyneside and elsewhere. This reflected the rising incomes of both professionals and ‘black coated workers’. 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 the city’s Royal Grammar school being the most prominent. For Bill Dennison and Tony Edwards Newcastle had a ”relatively high density of private secondary schools”. (Goddard and Robinson 1987)

 It was not till well after the war that working-class students started to access further and higher education in any great numbers.

By Stephen Lambert, Founder & Director: Education4Democracy CIC.

Author Bio

BORN and brought up in Newcastle Upon Tyne, Stephen runs Education4Democracy, a social enterprise company having been a senior lecturer in two North East FE colleges.

Stephen is a Newcastle City Councillor and is Vice-Chair of the Jobs, Skills and Economy Scrutiny Committee. He is a community governor at Kenton School and holds the Post-16 Portfolio.

Stephen is an established citizen journalist and has published widely on employment and educational related issues in the Journal, Chronicle, Sunday Sun, Northern Echo, Newsquest and the Northumberland Gazette. He has also contributed to social media sites such as FE News and North -East By-lines.

Bibliography and References:

a) Sanderson, M (1999) in  Page, R and Silburn, R, British Social Welfare in the Twentieth Century

b) Stevenson, J (2004), British Society 1914-45

c) Trevelyan, L (2006), A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and their World

d) Todd, S (2015), The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class

e) Hill, CP, (1984), British Economic and Social History

f)  Fraser, D (2017), The Evolution of the British Welfare State

g) Goddard, J & Robinson, F (1987), Post-Industrial Tyneside

h) Bartlett, S & Burton, D (2016), Introduction to Education Studies

i) Todd,S (2021), Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth

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