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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


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Out of crisis can come transformative and positive change: some lessons from history

By IOE Editor, on 19 February 2021

By Luke Sibieta, Research Fellow, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) & Education Policy Institute (EPI)

Lost learning over the pandemic is likely to lead to significant long-term costs if pupils are unable to catch-up over the coming years. I have recently argued that missing half a year of normal schooling could amount to lost lifetime earnings of about £40,000 for each child in school today, based on existing evidence on the returns to schooling. This is not a precise estimate or projection, which would be effectively impossible at present, but an illustration of the scale of the risk we face. There are also much bigger estimates of the long-run cost of lost learning that go into the trillions after accounting for potential effects on economic growth. Policymakers should be responding now in a way that recognises the high probability and risk of massive long-run costs.

The scale of the potential costs calls for radical action and a massive amount of extra resources. However, there is also a need to focus on quality. Creating more weeks or hours of schooling to even things out on a ledger would not achieve very much if it can’t deliver high-quality teaching or just leads to teachers and pupils feeling totally drained, or worse, punished. Indeed, there is a wider lesson. If the sole goal of catch-up is to get back to a hypothetical, pre-pandemic benchmark, it is unlikely to galvanise support for radical change or extra resources. Should we just be aiming to get the attainment gap back to where it was pre-crisis?

Creating more weeks or hours of schooling to even things out on a ledger would not achieve very much if it can’t deliver high-quality teaching or just leads to teachers and pupils feeling totally drained, or worse, punished.

Here, there are some very clear lessons from the last century when the country suffered massive upheaval during wars, which then directly spurred positive changes to the school and education system.

World War 1 and the 1918 Fisher Act – missed opportunity

Children’s lives were turned upside down during World War 1. Many will have seen fathers and other family members go off to fight and never return.  Many missed school to help at home whilst their mothers also took on new jobs to help the war effort. Many teenagers went off to fight and die themselves.

The disruption to schooling, however, was lessened because there wasn’t all that much schooling going on. The school leaving age was 12 and very few children went to secondary schools, which charged fees. During the war, the President of the Board of Education was H.A.L. Fisher (MP for Sheffield Hallam and whose underpants formed a key detail of Operation Mincemeat in 1943). From 1916, he toured the country and was shocked by the level and under-financing of schooling. This directly led to the 1918 Fisher Act, which raised the school leaving age to 14, with ambitions to increase it to 16 and create a system of free secondary schooling.

The economic depression of the 1920s and burdens of war debt meant that most of the main provisions were either delayed or dropped altogether. The share of pupils staying on to secondary schools only increased from 10% to 14% between 1910 and 1938.

The Fisher Act was high on ambition but ultimately represented a missed opportunity.

1944 Butler Act – the creation of free secondary schools

The 1944 Butler Act is much more well known. It formed part of more general efforts to create the welfare state in the wake of World War 2, alongside the Beveridge Report and creation of the National Health Service.

As is well known, children’s education was massively disrupted as many had to leave towns and cities as evacuees. As has been rightly pointed out, many children got much joy and new skills through these experiences, which will have also happened today. But, it is important to recall that provision of formal education would have been fairly limited in the 1940s, even without a war. Most children still left school at 14, if that, and with no formal qualifications. Universal secondary schooling was still a pipedream.

Appointed as President of the Board of Education in 1941, R.A. (Rab) Butler quickly developed an ambitious plan for reform of the school system. Convincing Churchill of the merits of the legislation was difficult at the height of the war, but was partly achieved (or assumed) through Butler’s complementing of Churchill’s cat in his bedroom. The 1944 Butler Act then created a nationwide system of free secondary schools and raised the school leaving age to 15. There were further plans to raise it to 16 when practical, though this got postponed till 1973 (that pesky war debt again). This led to the tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and secondary technical schools. The act also established the present system free school meals and (now abolished) system of free milk.

Whilst there is much debate about the role of grammar schools, it is also important to recognise the achievements of the Butler Act in creating a system of free secondary schooling and increasing years of schooling. Prior to the law, 60-70% of young people left school at age 14 or below. Studies of the increase in the school leaving age to 15 in 1947 show that it is likely to have increased adult earnings amongst those affected by about 10-14% per year. Whilst the increase in the school leaving age to 16 was delayed till 1973, many studies have shown large and positive effects on adult earnings.

The Butler Act was therefore a significant achievement in extending schooling and increasing life chances. It may have been more successful if the increase in the school leaving age to 16 had not been delayed by 25 years.

US GI Bills – creating new opportunities

Looking across the Atlantic, President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law in 1944.  This very famous piece of legislation provided a range of benefits to veterans across a range of different areas, in recognition of their sacrifice and the disruption to their education. This included very significant support for education, training and payment of college fees. A range of studies have shown positive effects amongst those were able to take advantage of the bill’s main features, and the GI Bill is almost part of the American psyche.

Be positive, radical and pay for it

Looking back through history, large disruptions to schooling and education during war time have often been followed by large transformations to the education system and extensions to schooling. However, policymakers in the UK have not always been willing to pay for the most transformative ideas.

Today, we are again facing massive disruption to schooling, of a kind not seen since World War 2. Rather than setting narrow goals to get back to a hypothetical pre-pandemic benchmark, perhaps we should also be setting positive and transformative goals. And we should be willing to pay for the resources required.

Setting such goals is a much harder question. This is partly because we have already implemented some of the obvious changes, such as raising the school leaving age to 16. This has since been increased to an education leaving age of 18 in England, though this is not seriously enforced and does not apply in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The most worthy goals for today are likely to be harder and more nuanced. At present, children from poorer families leave school 18 months behind their peers from richer families. Only about two thirds of young people aged 19-24 possess an A level equivalent qualification or higher. Perhaps we should be setting a goal for all children to leave education at age 18 with qualifications that are high-quality and reflect a broad and deep curriculum.  Achieving such a goal would require a relentless focus on high-quality teaching, joined-up action across all parts of the education system (from the early years through to colleges) and with other public services. Maybe that should be COVID’s legacy for the education system.

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