The Laws of Education - Full Introduction British Journal of Educational Studies

British Journal of Educational Studies

Gary McCulloch

UCL Institute of Education

This virtual issue of the British Journal of Educational Studies marks the centenary of the 1918 Education Acts, one for England and Wales and the other for Scotland, and also the thirtieth anniversary of the Education Reform Act of 1988.  These legislative measures have in themselves had an immense impact on the nature of education in the UK.  There have been a number of key articles published in the BJES over the years that focus specifically on these key events.  We take the opportunity to republish these articles in this virtual issue, and also to place them in the context of other articles published in this Journal on educational reform legislation in the 20th century.

Much has been written on Education Acts, and yet we have abused and neglected them.  The history of educational legislation has been written off as ‘Acts and facts’, and the conventional approach to writing about them has been concerned with politics at the top level, and especially with the men who were responsible for them.  It is only relatively recently that some of the history has begun to challenge this dominant image, but there remain many significant gaps in our knowledge, and a lack of new work that can help us to reach a fuller and more critical understanding.

The full texts of the main legislation affecting England and Wales can be found online (Education Act 1902; Education Act 1918; Education Act 1944; Education Reform Act 1988).  They have been events that have occurred only rarely, attracting a great deal of attention, sometimes highly critical especially in 1902 and 1988.  They have been supported by extensive more minor legislation in particular areas, and also by a wealth of documentation including circulars and reports of different kinds.  They have encompassed a period when central control over education and schooling moved from being based on steering at a distance with regard to the everyday life of schools and classrooms, to assuming detailed control over every aspect (McCulloch 2017).

Many of the articles published on the history of educational legislation in the BJES are classic papers produced during the tenure of the first Editor of the Journal, Arthur Beales, who was himself a historian, from 1952 to 1973 (McCulloch and Cowan 2018, p. 69).  With the advent of more specialist journals, the number of historical articles in the BJES tended to decline from the 1970s onwards, although there continued to be some significant contributions from time to time.  

When considered for their contributions to the developing framework of education in the UK, the Acts of 1918 and 1988 are rightly compared alongside the other two agenda-setting master-Acts of the 20th century, those of 1902 and 1944.  These latter Acts, landmarks of legislation in their own right, have each attracted several significant articles that have been published in the BJES.  Between them, the fifteen articles published on the 1902, 1918, 1944 and 1988 Acts provide a detailed commentary on the key legislation that has framed the development of the education system in the UK.

These articles are all worthy of our respect and attention, but together they are also open to critique and challenge.  Many of them can be categorised as being in the conventional style of writing about Education Acts:  written by men (indeed all fifteen of these articles were produced by men) and about men, especially those accredited as the authors of the Acts.  They are often concerned with the politics of the legislation, the rivalries between the leading figures of the political parties, and the administration that was involved.

Articles 1 to 6 below examine aspects of the Education Act of 1902, which is the most heavily featured example of twentieth-century legislation in past volumes of the BJES. These six articles tend to concentrate on a few major issues in relation to the 1902 Act to provide coherent and well developed perspectives on the authorship and key political influences of the Act, and its religious implications.  The first two articles are by Eric Eaglesham, a two-part survey first of planning the education bill (1:  Eaglesham 1960), and then of implementing the Act (2:  Eaglesham 1962).  In these articles it is the role of Sir Robert Morant that is the principal focus, first in determining the form of the bill in contention with other figures such as Sir John Gorst and Arthur Balfour, and secondly in putting the Act into operation in the years after 1902. In this latter task, as Eaglesham shows, Morant, the permanent secretary of the Board of Education, took responsibility for the 1904 Regulations (discussed separately in a BJES article by Olive Banks (Banks 1954)) and the separate development of secondary and elementary education in the early years of the twentieth century.  Eaglesham was one of the leading authorities on the 1902 Education Act in the 1950s and 1960s, and also produced another paper on the role of Morant for the BJES (Eaglesham 1963) and two key texts on the period (Eaglesham 1956, 1967). 

The third piece is in a similar vein, a later article by Tony Taylor that re-examines the role of Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservative Party (3:  Taylor 1994). This paper serves to consolidate the position taken by Eaglesham, in that it shows how the 1902 Act, despite often being described as ‘Balfour’s Act’, owed at least as much to the contribution of Morant.  Indeed, Taylor contends that Balfour had little interest in educational reform, was a reluctant reformer, and knew very little about schools or schooling.

The three articles on the 1902 Act and religion highlight the religious controversies that surrounded the Act.  The first to be published (4:  Rogers 1959) explored the political and religious debates of the time, and framed the Act as in large part a decisive victory for the Church of England, in alliance with the Catholic Church, over the Liberals and Nonconformists.  Two further articles, both by D.R. Pugh but published twenty years apart, generally accepted this overview but added to the depth of the debate.  In his first article (5:  Pugh 1968) Pugh peered beneath the religious conflicts to emphasise that there remained ample scope for compromise which many clerics and politicians sought to retain.  He proposed Dr Percival, Bishop of Hereford, ‘a staunch Liberal with many Nonconformist friends’ (Pugh 1968, p. 167), and speaking for ‘quite a sizeable minority of his Church’ (Pugh 1968, p. 168), as the leader of the compromisers, and found peace breaking out in many communities around the country large and small.  In the end they lost the fight but, Pugh concludes, ‘They embodied that intrinsic moderation which is the English genius for politics, and defeat does not lessen their claim upon posterity.’ (Pugh 1968, p. 178).  Pugh’s second article (6:  Pugh 1988) takes a different tack to focus in detail on the divisions within one particular faction over the Act – the Wesleyan Methodists.  The Wesleyans, unlike other Nonconformist bodies, had denominational schools of their own, and they were split over the proposals in the 1902 bill.  Some demanded universal School Boards, while others looked for new Wesleyan schools to be built alongside Anglican schools.  In the end, they stood with the rest of the Nonconformist camp in opposing the bill.

While these papers constitute a substantial set of contributions to the history of the 1902 Act, they are generally conventional in their approach and do not include some of the features that have come to the fore in other historical literature over the last forty years.  Traditional writings in the history of education for the most part interpreted educational change in terms of gradual progress towards an improved national education system, highlighting the role of leading politicians and policy makers and of national issues around politics and religion (McCulloch 2011).  The general BJES perspective on the 1902 Act might well be said to exemplify these tendencies.

Other approaches to the 1902 Act have included posing questions about whether it represented a ‘forward’ or a ‘backward’ step, and whether it foreclosed on alternative systems becoming established.  This was the issue debated by Marjorie Cruickshank and Brian Simon in 1977, the former developing a ‘defence’ of the Act and the latter contending that it represented a ‘wrong turning’ (Cruickshank 1977; Simon 1977).  Simon’s argument was that the 1902 Act effectively consolidated an unequal education system based on social class differences, in which working class children were largely confined to elementary schools while middle class children went to secondary schools and then in some cases to higher education.  This was not a line generally entertained in the BJES.  Simon’s article was republished with a few minor amendments in 2002 in a special centenary issue of the History of Education Society Bulletin (Simon 2002), and was paired not with a defence of the Act this time, but with another critic, Mel Vlaeminke (Vlaeminke 2002).  She depicts the Act as ‘profoundly retrogressive’, especially for the loss of the higher grade schools which had spread under the aegis of many urban school boards in the late nineteenth century (see also Vlaeminke 2000).

A centenary special double issue on the 1902 Act, published by the Oxford Review of Education, examined as its key theme the changing role of local education authorities, established by the 1902 Act, over the century that followed.  In terms of the declining role of the LEAs towards the end of the twentieth century, this special issue provided a telling reminder of the significant place of the LEAs established in 1902 in many aspects of the education service.  The guest editor of the special issue, Roy Lowe, set the tone for the collection in his editorial (Lowe 2002)

In contrast with the 1902 Act, there have been only two articles in the BJES focusing on the 1918 Education Act, produced by Dennis Dean and Geoffrey Sherington respectively.  Dean’s article (7:  Dean 1970), in common with some of the papers on the 1902 Act, focused on the issue of authorship, specifically the role taken by H.A.L. Fisher as the president of the board of education leading to the passage of the Act.  Dean emphasises that Fisher was closely aligned with progressive, reconstructionist tendencies in the Coalition government towards the end of the First World War, which found themselves losing ground after the War ended.

Sherington’s paper (8:  Sherington 1976) develops the discussion around the 1918 Act by showing that its origins dated back to before the outbreak of war in 1914.  The war served to defer reform plans, but in the long run helped to emphasise rather than diminish the need for reform which was then taken up in a new education bill in 1917  The final Act could be seen as consolidating the existing system, especially when some of its more radical proposals such as continuation schools failed to be realised in the difficult economic circumstances after the war.  Sherington’s detailed account became widely accepted as the definitive study of the 1918 Act, confirmed five years later with the publication of his monograph on the Great War and the Education Act (Sherington 1981).

If the 1918 Act attracted surprisingly little discussion in the BJES, the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act provoked none at all.  Yet this was highly significant legislation especially with regard to proposals for secondary education for all and a higher school leaving age, as well as the end of the school boards and including provision for Catholic schools within the state-provided system (B. Kenneth 2010; Treble 2010).  The effects appear in practice to have been less than clear cut, for although school boards disappeared in 1918, according to G.S. Osborne, ‘The school board tradition lingered on after death, in that the education authorities were divorced from the general structure of local government.’ (Osborne 1966, p. 21).  Such complexities and the distance between policy and practice are still to be explored in depth.  This lacuna reflects more broadly the lack of work published in the BJES on Scottish education in the 20th century, and indeed on education in Wales.  By the same token, the scanty literature published elsewhere appears to have a relatively narrow focus that could not develop clearer connections with the broader social, economic and political context of reform. The interactions between Scotland and England in relation to educational legislation, and the disagreements between them, are also significant areas for further study (e.g. Stewart 1999).

There is no such paucity of treatment of the 1944 Education Act in the general literature, but again a rather striking lack of detailed attention in the pages of the BJES.  There are only two BJES papers that survey the legislation of 1944 in any depth.  The first, by Nigel Middleton (9:  Middleton 1972) focuses on the authorship of the Act, suggesting that the Act bears ‘the unmistakable mark of its author’ (Middleton 1972, p. 178). He emphasises the position of R.A. Butler as he recounts his political career leading to his role as president of the board of education under Winston Churchill from 1941 to 1945, and his negotiating abilities as he steered a path towards the Education Act of 1944.  This focus on authorship follows on from the interest shown in this aspect of legislation with respect to the earlier major Acts and shares in the tendencies associated with this approach.

The other BJES paper that deals with the 1944 Act in some detail takes a quite different approach by taking the Act as a point of departure and then charting the fortunes in its key themes over the following forty years leading to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s (10:  Maclure 1985).  This paper, by Stuart Maclure, the editor of the Times Educational Supplement, attempts to avoid the risk of evoking nostalgia for a lost golden age, but it clearly is critical of contemporary policies that are heading in a quite different direction under a neoliberal regime.

The wider literature on the 1944 Education Act brings out other aspects of the legislation that deserve mention.  The early work of Harold Dent gave clear clause-by-clause analysis of the text itself (Dent 1944).  Later work also emphasised Butler (Jefferys 1984) but began to link the 1944 Act to earlier legislation (Akenson 1971), and questioned whether Butler had been solely responsible (Wallace 1981).  Detailed research documented the wider context of educational reform in the Second World War (Gosden 1976, 1989) and the social changes of the time (Thom 1986, Jefferys 1987).  Brian Simon’s characteristic challenge to the 1902 Act was repeated in the case of the 1944 legislation, throwing doubt on whether it was a progressive document ushering in the welfare state but, rather, an effective handbrake on reform and reconstruction (Simon 1986).  The golden anniversary of the Act, in 1994, inspired further work including Barber (1994), McCulloch (1994), and a set of articles published in a special issue of the journal History of Education (History of Education 1995). 

As for the 1988 Education Reform Act, a contemporary piece of legislation although increasingly set in its longer-term historical context as the years roll by, the BJES has been more generous in its coverage.  One misses, perhaps, the usual emphasis on the authorship of the Act, in this case Kenneth Baker, but there are five papers, some on particular aspects and others on general themes, that the BJES has included in the past thirty years.

The first (11:  Hill 1989) returns to another favourite territory of the BJES in respect of educational legislation, that of religion.   Hill argued in the immediate aftermath of the Act that it was important to emphasise its spiritual dimension in order to offset the narrowly discipline-based approach and instrumental, economy-driven objectives that appeared to underpin it.  This in turn, he hoped, would allow attention to be given to spiritual development across the curriculum, contribute to multicultural education, and encourage extra-curricular activities.  The second piece on the 1988 legislation (12:  Copeland 1991) takes us into less familiar terrain, special educational needs, and he found it difficult to mitigate against the anticipated consequences of the Act.  Copeland was worried that the new Act was much less generous in its approach to SEN than the Education Act of 1981 had been, and that this would lead to a personal deficiency model of pupils with SEN.  This might amount to a crude labelling of children, alongside greater gradation of schools and financial shortages.  Such anxieties were well represented elsewhere in other literature (see e.g. Flude and Hammer 1990).

James Tooley’s review of the Act and its reception (13:  Tooley 1992) again reminds us of the increased politicisation of education in the late twentieth century, as he assails the critics of the Act, described as the ‘pink-tank’, for left-wing political bias.  He gives a forthright defence of the Act against the critique of the Institute for Public Policy Research as presented by David Miliband (Miliband 1991).

The collection closes with two of the most distinguished commentators of educational trends in the past generation, Michael Barber (14:  Barber 1994) and Richard Pring (15:  Pring 2012).  Barber’s article is framed around the rhetorical device of an imaginary future history, in 2004, recording dramatic improvements in educational performance resulting from new policy choices.  Its counterpoint was the settlement created by the 1944 Act which he sees as having been broken up by the 1988 Act and subsequent legislation in the early 1990s.  Now, he argued, was the opportunity to create a new settlement based on a fresh partnership based on pressure and support, partnership and direction, diversity and equity, and the known and unknown universe.  Barber’s paper was an early statement of New Labour ideals that were to be put into practice by Tony Blair as prime minister from 1997 – without quite the immediate impact that Barber had anticipated.

Finally, Pring’s paper also sees the 1988 Act as bringing an end to the postwar settlement represented by the 1944 Act. Pring, however, appears less optimistic about the future than Barber had been, admittedly drawing, in 2012, from the experience of the New Labour years.  He is highly critical of current trends in the framework of policy, observing caustically for example that ‘we have shifted from a democratic system of education, locally administered, to the most centralised system in Western Europe since Germany in the 1930s’ (Pring 2012, p. 37). He also laments the loss of teacher autonomy under the 1988 Act and the withering of an impartial civil service which appear to have taken place with little public debate.

The articles of Barber and Pring together also highlight long term changes in the governance of education, as opposed to the snap shot often linked to individual Education Acts.  This allows for greater recognition of continuity and change in framing the education system.  Potentially it should also give greater scope for recognising the contributions made by relatively minor Acts in particular areas of educational provision besides the stellar and somewhat overpowering influence of the four main Acts.  The patterns of failed educational legislation, and the interactions between legislative and non-statutory provision in steering the education system at a distance, are further themes that would be well worth exploring in greater detail (e.g. Dean 1969).  Greater recognition of these patterns can also help to avoid the historian’s usual trap of mentally leaping in time from one major Act to another.   

The anniversaries of these key Education Acts may be taken as starting points for broader discussion of continuities and changes in legislation involving the regime of power, control and regulation of education.  This can also include consideration of the international context and of the relationship between educational legislation and other social legislation and reform.

Overall, the BJES has hosted a magisterial set of articles that together provides much of the established literature on the educational legislation of the twentieth century.  Yet it has been literature largely of a classic kind that invites revision, and highlights large gaps that require urgent scholarly attention.  It must be hoped that the anniversaries of the present day, as well as the sesquicentenary of the 1870 Elementary Education Act that is impending in 2020, will inspire a new generation of detailed research, and collectively a new literature on the framework of our education system that is appropriate in answering the new questions raised in the twenty-first century.

GARY McCULLOCH is the Brian Simon professor of history of education at UCL Institute of Education London.  His recent publications include A Social History of Educational Studies and Research (with Steven Cowan) and The Struggle for the History of Education.


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Banks, O. (1954) ‘Morant and the secondary school regulations of 1904’, BJES, 3/1, pp. 33-41

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Dean, D.W. (1969) ‘The difficulties of a Labour educational policy:  the failure of the Trevelyan Bill, 1929-31’, BJES, 17/3, pp. 286-300

Dent, H. (1944) The Education Act, 1944:  Provisions, Possibilities and some Problems, London, University of London Press

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