The Shadow of War: The 1940s
Nobody starting from scratch would ever have thought up the religious clauses of the 1944 Act. W.R. Niblett (1960)
The Background to the 1944 Education Act
It has become common, though mistaken, to view the 1944 Act as the birth of religious education as a serious curriculum undertaking with a philosophical base and a clearly defined framework. This view arose because for nearly fifty years afterwards subsequent development sought to relate itself back in some way to this landmark. It was not until 1988 that further legislation affected the content and undertaking of religious education in so major a way as to displace the earlier Act almost completely from the horizon of religious educators. But the 1944 Act was not conceived in the abstract. It related to history and tradition in British education, to a present wartime situation and to planning and value judgements about the future of the nation. Debate and planning of such a forward-looking, comprehensive and considered nature has not occurred in British education since.
The year 1944 was not discontinuous with what had gone before. It was the year in which Queen Victoria's last surviving child, Princess Beatrice, died—her mother had come to the throne in 1837. Britain was still under attack as V2 rockets fell on London. Only two years previously the Battle of the Atlantic was going against Britain, with victory over Germany still a remote, even unlikely, prospect. The teachers who were to be called upon to implement the Act were the ones who had survived the rigours of war, as combatants or civilians under attack, trying to teach in the stressful circumstances of wartime dislocation. The pupils in 1944 had lived and been taught through the same upheaval. The plant—school buildings and resources—was what remained after bombing had demolished parts of the cities, while in the countryside school-building repair and refurbishment had taken a very low place in the priority of a nation on a war footing.
The War and Education
By 1939 the country already had a long-established tradition of parsimony in education, noted in the Norwood Report (1943) as a cause of poor pupil performance. After the Forster Act of 1870 spending on education only amounted to 1 per cent of the gross national product—from the then richest nation in the world. The school-leaving age was raised to 14 in 1918, but stuck there. In 1939 most education for older pupils outside the senior elementary schools was private and fee-paying; the purchase of text-books and stationery was frequently a charge on the parent and, along with the cost of uniform, acted as an efficient barrier preventing children from working-class families attaining places unless they could achieve a much coveted scholarship.
The first effect of the war on education was dislocation brought about by mass evacuation. Board of Education Circular 1469 foresaw this and recommended improvisation—the use of drama, lantern-slide lectures, singing and dancing. But it did not anticipate that many small rural primary schools had no halls, or that they were already full of local children. Circular 1474 (23 August 1939) anticipated the double shift system for schooling: morning and afternoon shifts, or alternate days. By February 1940 9 per cent of elementary school children in evacuation areas were receiving no schooling at all. For secondary children the figure was 14.5 per cent—half a million children. Those in the cities fared little better. Blitz raids and the inadequacy of school shelters led to absenteeism. The teacher's daytime duties were often compounded by night-time fire watching, sometimes on the roof of the school they taught in by day. By July 1941, 1,000 of England's 23,000 schools were wholly or partially destroyed and 3,000 more were damaged. Fortunately for human casualty most schools were hit at night. Married women returned to teaching (marriage previously meant termination of employment for most female teachers) to replace conscripted men. Retired male teachers in shortage subjects returned to battle in the classroom in secondary schools, but much specialist teaching was lost. Unqualified young teachers also served. If pupils were in schools with shared pencils (one between two or three pupils) and no blackboards or chalk, where even bus or tram tickets were brought into use for rough paper, their lot was hard. Crises encourage resilience: cookery (Home Economics) developed pupil expertise in eggless cakes, boiled cakes, potato soup, carrot pudding etc. School meals at four pence ha'penny, later five pence (approximately 2p), were intended to relieve families with children billeted on them of feeding them at mid-day. These meals, prepared under wartime rationing and limited food variety, gave birth to a new British mythology, jokes about school dinners.
Different forms of schooling arose. Nursery schools and facilities expanded to help working mothers. Several thousand city children were in house schools of eight to twelve children, a reversion to the dame schools of a previous age. More secondary children were in camping boarding schools, living under canvas for as long as three years. War brought curriculum change, not just in cookery. Gardening, including livestock keeping, was expanded. It was said to lead to improved mathematics, better animal drawing and elementary book-keeping. Local survey work was undertaken in geography or environmental studies. Autumn camps of older children helped to gather in the harvest. New youth training organizations supplemented guides, scouts, and the Christian-based Boys' and Girls' Life Brigades—the Air Training Corps (1941), Sea Cadets and Army Cadets (1942). A major advance in 'sex instruction' was applauded in 1942 when the Board of Education urged schools to keep rabbits.
Society and Church
War brought with it changes in patterns of social behaviour. 'Make do and mend' became as much a part of middle-class life—black market excepted—as it had always been of working-class life. This was a government-backed initiative to recycle clothing, making handkerchiefs and shorts from old sheets, towels from old bedspreads, unravelling unwanted sweaters to re-use the wool etc. 'Black-out material was soon covering almost as many British women as windows'. 'Slacks' became common for women. In the early war years church-going increased. So did the sale of contraceptives and—despite that—the number of illegitimate births. Many families became de facto one-parent families with the father absent at war. Conventional religious belief was opened to discussion in the popular Brains Trust. Dorothy Sayers's radio play series The Man Born to be King (December 1941) provoked protest because in it an actor played the role of Christ. But it did not destroy her standing as a leading Anglican exponent of Christianity as author of The Mind of the Maker, alongside C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Calvocoressi (1978) argued that in the inter-war years the biggest boost to British culture came not from the education system but from the BBC ('wireless' only) and the creation of Penguin Books. By the end of the war wirelesses were licensed in 9,700,000 homes, a growth of one million on the 1939 figure. Radio had become a potent wartime supplier of information and arbiter of tastes. Professor Cyril Joad's 'it depends what you mean by ... became as much a household phrase as T.T.F.N. and Mrs Mopp's 'Shall I do yer now, sir?'
The War and Religious Instruction
The April 1940 issue of Religion in Education Quarterly, in a smaller format owing to the shortage of paper, was devoted to issues arising from teaching religion in wartime. M.L. Jacks distinguished practical difficulties such as problems arising from evacuation, from intellectual and psychological difficulties: older children were questioning their attitude 'as Christians' to the war. Jacks's answer was to teach the Bible as religion rather than as ancient history, as it testifies to the indestructibility of spiritual forces and to the potential significance of the insignificant, however desperate the times may appear. Tatlow, writing on the results of evacuation, noted that girls were more anxious than boys and raised more questions about the meaning of the war, whereas boys tended to see the declaration and waging of war as inevitable and necessary. Some religious educators saw the war as a lapse.
The Bible provides the foundations that 1939 has forgotten. It reveal the true relations of men to one another and to their Creator–Father.
Planning for Post-War Education: Butler's Appointment
In 1926 the Hadow Report spoke of 'the gospel of individualism ... being pursued', suggesting that education should aim to promote social individuality, 'to offer the fullest scope to individuality while keeping steadily in view the aims of society'. 'Hitler's exploitation of youth only served to confirm our preference for this middle way'. MP Richard Acland wrote enthusiastically about educational reconstruction (1942):
We are not here concerned merely with the mastering of a few simple mental tricks called 'reading', 'writing' and 'arithmetic'. We are dealing with the introduction of a human being to the thrilling adventure of life.
Acland proposed foreign travel and exchange for teachers, which was then rare; community service for a year for all school-leavers; married women teachers returning to the classroom. 'Even headmasters could well afford to take a six months course of lorry driving as a refresher.'
Richard Austen 'Rab' Butler, MP for Saffron Walden, arrived at the Board of Education on the day before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. He was 39 years old, a product of a family that would in later times have been called Tory grandees. They had a long tradition in the public service and in the academic world. Butler himself later likened his life to the Cambridge tripos examination, divided into three parts between politics, Cambridge and India. His father, Sir Monty, had a distinguished career in imperial India, where 'Rab' had been born. At the onset of war 'Rab' was seen as a Chamberlain man and therefore suspect. Charmley (1993) suggests that as late as July 1939 Butler was still willing to support concessions to Hitler. Butler had been chafing to leave the Foreign Office where as Under-Secretary he was dealing with wartime red tape and trivia, such as arranging extra coupons for the Duke of Alba's socks. Churchill took the view that running education was a low-status job and that Butler would 'do no harm' at the Board of Education. Cosgrave (1981) argued that Butler resented that Churchill thought it surprising that a young man like him should so tamely have accepted a post away from the centre of the War Cabinet and determined as a result to make his mark there. It is unclear whether Churchill moved 'Rab' there to rid himself of a potential enemy by placing him well away from the political centre or whether he had an admiration for him and wanted to give him a chance to prove himself in an unlikely situation. Whichever was the case, it fell to Butler as President of the Board of Education to try to translate into a plan of action a vision for post-war education on a national scale. It was the only major piece of domestic reform legislation undertaken during the war. There had been no major Education Act since the Conservatives' Act of 1902. Butler wrote of his conversation with Churchill on his appointment:
I said I would like to influence the content of education but this was always difficult. Here he [Churchill] looked very earnest and said, 'Of course, not by instruction or order, but by suggestion'.
Exactly how much of the Act was Butler's own work is open to question. Gosden (1976) argues that most of the credit should go to civil servants at the Board of Education. Behenna argues (1997) that some credit should go to Canon Edgar Hall, who was seconded from Exeter Diocese to work with 'Rab'. Butler wrote afterwards:
Towards the end of the war, the feeling was widespread among many sections of the community that in any future measure of educational reform religious instruction—and in the normal case Christian instruction—should play a larger part in the education of a child ... My general aim and intention in framing the clauses dealing with religious education in what became the Education Act of 1944 was to recognise formally this special place of religion in education ... I know that during the debates some doubts were expressed about the wisdom of making religious instruction and the corporate act of worship a specific requirement of the Act ... But these doubts sprang, I think, mainly from the thought that it was unnecessary to make compulsory something in this field which was in practice universal, and it is fair to say that they did not represent any hesitation in the minds of most members about the principle that there was in the general education of all children a vital role for religious education ... Willie Temple and I were both schoolmasters ...
Churchill had a less orthodox view of religion, writing as early as 1896 that 'one of these days ... we shall go out into the fields to seek God for ourselves ... We shall then be able to dispense with the religious toys that have agreeably fostered the development of mankind'. Writing to his mother before the Battle of Omdurman (1898) he rejected institutional Christianity, yet he was to emphasize the importance of religion and the Christian ethic in later speeches. He presented the Battle of Britain (1940) apocalyptically:
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.
He was also committed to religious instruction. In 1897 he had written that it should not be entrusted to the hands of any one sect, not even the Church of England, as 'all are partisan. I am in favour of secular instructors appointed by Government'. Churchill saw religion as 'the fundamental element in school life'. In this he was being perhaps very English, certainly very Conservative. A report of the Central Committee of the Conservative and Unionist Party (1942) had included the following:
The State must do its best to ensure that every child is given every opportunity and help towards the awakening of its religious sense though it matters much less to the State what the particular dogmatic teaching given to the child may be ... No permanent peace is possible in Europe unless the principles of the Christian religion are made the foundation of national policy and all social life.
This view was not universal. An article in the Spectator attacked the new proposals as class-based, the product of MPs, peers, Board of Education officials and teachers who had all failed to consult working-class parents. It saw as suspect the principle of compulsion, on the grounds that the local school to which the working-class parent would be compelled to send their child might be appalling. Its author, Roger Clarke, also saw compulsion as carrying a deeper danger:
They [the education reformers] would no doubt like compulsory school feeding, compulsory school dressing, compulsory school dentistry and diphtheria immunisation. Already there is talk of compulsory religious instruction (quite undenominational, quite undogmatic, of course) and of compulsory inculcation of a 'sense of social purpose.' The totalitarian trend is ... obvious.
Clarke was in a minority and he compared impending state reform of education in Britain with remarks made by Stang, the Nazi Youth Minister. The churches did not share his view. They were a forceful educational lobby, with their own concerns about pre-war decline as well as wartime damage. The number of Anglican schools had reduced from 12,000 to 9,000 in the first forty years of the twentieth century. Signs of the financial crisis in church education were reflected in the blacklist of school buildings compiled by the Board of Education just before the war. Church schools were blacklisted twice as often as council schools. Roman Catholic schools had increased, but only from 1,000 to 1,200 and they had the highest proportion of blacklisted school buildings (6 per cent). The church lobby resented paying for county schools through the rates and also having to pay to maintain their own church schools. Their hope was that the Exchequer would pay 75 per cent of the costs of church schools. Butler argued successfully for a figure of 50 per cent instead. Wheldon, the Permanent Secretary for Wales, urged against this suggesting that pouring money into failing Anglican schools would be strenuously opposed by Welsh public opinion.