Educational context

Increasing access

At the beginning of the twentieth century, attendance at school was compulsory between the ages of five and twelve, after which children would be expected to enter the labour market. 1900 saw the introduction of higher elementary schools, which provided education from the age of ten to the age of thirteen. Over 1000 were opened in the period up to the First World War. In 1918, the age of compulsory education was raised to fourteen, and in 1947 it was further raised to fifteen. It was hoped that this would produce a larger quantity of more qualified, skilled workers. In 1973, the upper age of compulsory education was raised again, to sixteen.

Grammar and comprehensive schools

Most children attended elementary or primary schools from the age of five until eleven, then higher elementary or secondary schools from the age of eleven onwards. There developed three types of the latter.
Some grammar schools dated back hundreds of years and, for most of their lives, they were funded by charging fees to students. In the period between the two World Wars, most of them accepted government funding and began to offer free education. From 1944, they became part of a tripartite system of secondary education:
  • Academically gifted pupils who passed an exam at the age of eleven (known as the ‘Eleven Plus’) went to grammar schools, from which many then had the chance to enter further or higher education
  • Those who did not pass the exam attended either technical schools or secondary modern schools which placed greater emphasis on preparing students to enter paid employment.
This arrangement was controversial. Some people argued that it was elitist, and that it was unfair to segregate children from the age of eleven.
In 1965, a Labour government began to dismantle this system. Against much opposition, they set about replacing the three different types of school with comprehensive schools. Each of these schools would provide an education to the full range of pupils. A minority of grammar schools survived this process, but most became comprehensives.

University education

At the start of the twentieth century, there were fewer than twenty universities in the United Kingdom, with the old-established Oxford and Cambridge the largest and most well-known. Only students from wealthy homes could afford to attend higher education. 
In the years up to the First World War, six civic universities were founded in the major industrial cities of England e.g. Birmingham. The process continued after the war and, between the 1920s and 1950s, a further six universities were established e.g. in Nottingham.
In the years following the Second World War, university education expanded dramatically. This expansion was made possible by financial support provided to students. They paid no tuition fees and received a grant towards their living costs. As a result, young people from a wider range of social backgrounds were able to benefit from a university education.
University of BathThe 1960s saw another surge in the number of universities. Nine completely new universities (e.g. York) were established and ten Colleges of Advanced Technology were converted into universities. An even greater increase in numbers came in the 1990s, when over seventy former colleges and polytechnics were converted into universities. As a wider section of the population became familiar with university life, so a new literary genre developed, the campus novel (for example, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, David Lodge’s Nice Work).
A consequence of the massive expansion of university education was that the money available to support students had to be spread more thinly. Eventually, grants were replaced by repayable loans and tuition fees were introduced. Although these changes led to the cancellation of some courses, demand for a university education continued to be buoyant and more and more employers made degree level education a necessary qualification for entry into the workplace.

Literacy and public libraries

Between 1900 and 2000, the percentage of literate British adults rose from 85-90% at the start of the century to 99% by its end. The expansion of education in the twentieth century was supported by a network of public libraries. The idea of libraries funded from taxes developed in the nineteenth century with the rapid growth of towns and cities. As the twentieth century progressed, all town and city councils provided a library service. As road transport improved, mobile libraries were developed for remote rural areas. 
The library service allowed students of all ages to enhance their studies by providing free access to literature, to academic writings and to reference books. For many they provided a quiet haven away from cramped or over-crowded living conditions, and supported the access of less well-off students to further and higher education. Library resources also helped members of the wider public to develop their general knowledge.
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