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Voluntary and comprehensive schools

Voluntary schools

Following the Second World War, denominational voluntary schools remained an obstacle to school reorganisation and general secondary education, as many were still all-age elementary schools. Butler's formula had been that churches should provide 50 per cent of capital costs in order to acquire 'assisted' status. It they could not do so, the school became 'controlled' and lost its managerial autonomy to the Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Before the 1950 election, the Catholic Church claimed increased public assistance. The Cabinet, however, decided against changing the funding formula, and tried instead to ease the conditions under which aid could be claimed.

The question of funding was raised again in the late 1950s. The Catholic and Anglican churches requested government funding under the 'aided' status to be raised to 75 per cent. The Catholic Church also wanted the extension of the arrangement to include existing primary schools. This fitted well with the Conservatives' drive for educational expansion at this time, and the Education Act 1959 incorporated these provisions. However, by 1962 there were still nearly 800 single-age schools in Britain, the large majority of them denominational.

Major reform

The major reform envisaged by the Butler Act was finally completed by the Labour Government after 1964, with the virtual elimination of single-age schools. Labour policy was also aimed at allowing the denominational schools to join the developing comprehensive schools system. The Education Act 1967 increased the grant for new 'aided' schools to 80 per cent. It also widened the circumstances under which a grant could be made, so that all new places were covered and there were liberalised building grants for 'controlled' schools. The Education Act 1975, under a later Labour government, raised the grant to 85 per cent.

The move to comprehensive schools

During the 1950s concerns emerged about the tripartite division between secondary, grammar and technical schools. The academic and social roles of the secondary school were not clear and many experts and laypeople were critical of the 11-plus grammar school entrance examination.

By the mid-1950s, the Conservative Government accepted the case for comprehensive schools in areas not served effectively by existing schools. Conservative policy aimed at the 'progressive' development of secondary schools and the improvement of selection. Cabinet members felt that references to comprehensives in the 1958 White Paper would be a 'political embarrassment'. Nevertheless, by 1962, 152 comprehensive schools had been established.

Following Labour's victory in the 1964 election, the Cabinet eliminated the 11-plus examination and established a comprehensive secondary system to end separation. LEAs were requested to submit plans for the reorganisation of secondary schools along comprehensive lines. Grammar schools were asked to continue providing their 'traditional' form of education but also to cater for a wider range of children. It was envisaged that public schools would be more closely integrated into the state system. At the same time, the Secretary of State began to plan for the impact of raising the school leaving age to 16 in 1970.

In favour of comprehensives

There was considerable resistance to the transition to comprehensives. In 1970 the new Education Secretary, Edward Short, prepared a bill compelling LEAs to undertake comprehensive reorganisation schemes, but the bill was lost with the victory of the Conservatives under Edward Heath. As Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher wanted a mixed system, but the majority was in favour of comprehensive schools, which doubled between 1970 and 1974. The focus of policy moved away from the issue of segregation in secondary education. In 1972 the Cabinet agreed a programme of expansion and improvement in nursery and special primary schools, as well as in secondary schools.


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