A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Purpose of the inquiry

The new Education Act of 1944 placed heavy administrative burdens on the Ministry of Education. It was thought that detailed studies of public attitudes to various aspects of educational reconstruction would be of assistance in dealing with the problems arising, and the Social Survey was asked to prepare a scheme of research for this purpose.

This report is based on the second inquiry of a series suggested by the original research scheme. Its purpose is limited. It attempts to define the public’s attitude to the educational process, to ascertain the amount of public support for changes in the educational system, and the extent to which the provisions of the Education Act are known.

Studies of opinion are generally most illuminating when close attention is paid to the social background of the populations investigated and to the extent to which opinion is based on personal experience. In the present study insufficient attention has been paid to ascertaining how much informants knew at first hand of the educational process, and the findings of some sections of the report must be read with this limitation in mind. The method of personal interview, however, limited the amount of time which could be spent with each informant, and only permitted concentration on selected aspects of the problem. It is hoped that further studies will be made to find out how much the general public knows of the educational process at all stages, what goes on in the schools, what are the responsibilities of the local authorities, how much it all costs, and where the money comes from.


A representative sample of the adult civilian population between the ages of 20 and 55 was interviewed. Workers were interviewed at their places of work and housewives at home. Details of the sample are given in Appendix 1.

The purpose of the inquiry was fully explained, and informants were encouraged to take as much time as they thought necessary over each point. Some interviews were therefore lengthy. The average time taken over the interview was 45 minutes. The public’s attitude to the inquiry was co-operative and friendly.

The interview included four main groups of questions. The first group tried to find out what was the general view of the purpose of education, and the main question was put both at the beginning and end of the interview in order to study the effect of discussion on the replies. The second group of questions tried to ascertain the extent of satisfaction with the present educational system. The third group tried to measure the extent of the public’s desire for changes in the system and the kinds of change wanted. An attempt was made in this latter connection to study opinion on school curricula. The fourth group of questions was devised to measure the public’s knowledge of the Education Act and the degree of support for some of the main provisions of the Act.

The form of these questions was based on detailed preliminary studies and as they produced detailed replies from the great majority of the sample it may be said that the questions were successful.

The schedule of questions and investigators’ instructions are given as appendices to this report.


The Purpose of Education

A sample of the adult civilian population was asked to say what it thought was the purpose of education. Over 50% of the sample mentioned two or more purposes. Informants with secondary and higher education, and those in the upper economic groups, answered more freely than those in other groups; 47% of the sample described the purpose of education as “to help in after (school) life”, and 27% of all answers made were of this sort.

34% of the sample defined the purpose in comments which were grouped under the heading “to help in getting a better job” and 20% of all answers made were in this group.

28% of the sample thought the purpose of education was “to improve or develop the child’s mind generally” and 29% thought it was to help produce “good citizens”, 16% and 17% respectively of all the answers made fell into these two groups.

It appears from this that in the public mind the greatest emphasis is laid on the general training for after school life given by education. Somewhat less emphasis is placed on the effect of education in developing the child as a personality, and the economic results of improved education. Fourth in weight, though of not much less weight, is the value of education as training for citizenship.

Informants in the upper income groups put rather more emphasis than others on the value of education in developing individual personality and ability to deal with broad social responsibilities. On the other hand, informants in the lower income groups more frequently mentioned the economic results of education and its value as a preparation for personal responsibilities in adult life.

Dissatisfaction with the existing system of Education

Two-thirds of the sample were dissatisfied with their own education. Dissatisfaction was greatest in the middle economic groups and amongst those with elementary education only. The majority of the population feel that they have suffered in adult life because of the limitations of their education, and consequently would have preferred to reach a higher level than they were able to.

Parents were more satisfied with their children’s education than people were with their own, and satisfaction was highest where children had a secondary education.

There was overwhelming support for extended expenditure on education, and it appears that the general desire for improvements is related more to the dissatisfaction of informants with their own education than to dissatisfaction with their children’s education. The evidence suggests that the more experience people have of the responsibilities of adult life, the less satisfied they are with their education as a preparation for life.

The Desire to change the System of Education

About two-thirds of the sample thought that some changes in the educational system were necessary. Informants in the upper income group and with secondary or higher education made many more suggestions than those in other groups.

Much the largest body of opinion was concerned with the need for raising the school leaving age, or for “everybody to have an equal chance”. Next in importance, and of much less weight was the desire for improvements in teaching methods, or for changes in curricula.

Many more people expressed views on changes in curricula when asked direct questions on the subject. Well over half of the sample wanted some kind of change in the content of schooling, and twice as many informants were interested in adding to existing curricula as wanted subjects omitted. The chief groups of subjects on which informants desired more time to be spent were Current Affairs, Sex Education and Hygiene, Modem Languages, Domestic Science and technical or vocational subjects. The main reasons given for increasing the amount of time spent on particular subjects were practical reasons such as “essential things to know”, “to help child in after life”; “to help in getting a job”, and for reducing the time spent, such reasons as “no practical value” were given.

However, no single subject was indicated as deserving a changed position in curricula by more than 19% of the sample. Thus although a considerable proportion think that changes should be made, there is not general agreement on what the changes should be. To complete the picture of opinion on current curricula, informants were asked to say how great a part they thought different subjects should play in education. There was general approval for a large part to be played in the education of both boys and girls by English, Mathematics and Arithmetic, Handcrafts and Physical Exercises. A smaller degree of approval, but still majority approval, was given to Modern Languages. Current Affairs, History, Geography and scientific subjects, were thought to be of more importance for boys than for girls. Artistic subjects were thought to be of more importance for girls.

There were notable differences of opinion between the different economic groups on the part particular subjects should play in education.

Relatively few people wanted present subjects taught differently. The changes suggested in curricula clearly arise out of what people consider to be the needs of everyday life. Also the desire for change in the present educational system is related more to people’s dissatisfaction with their own education than to dissatisfaction with the education their children are receiving. These facts suggest that the support for change in the present system of education is based not so much on precise knowledge of the present system, as on the desire for social improvement. The criticisms arise out of people’s experiences as adults trying to make a secure place for themselves in society. This agrees with the ideas expressed about the purpose of education. It will be remembered that emphasis was laid on the value of education as “a help in after school life”.

Public Knowledge and Opinion of the Education Act

The foregoing sections give a picture of the ground on which opinion on the new Act develops.

A large proportion of the population are unaware of the potentialities of the new Act, and in the poorer groups of the population, that is to say, the very sections the Act may be expected to benefit most, less than a third knew of any of the changes introduced by the Act. Further, of the 45% of the sample claiming to know about the Act a very large proportion had limited knowledge only.

The changes which have made the deepest impression are the raising of the school leaving age (mentioned by a third of the sample) and free secondary education for all (mentioned by 13% of the sample).

However, knowledge of the Act seems to be related only to a minor degree to support for improvements in the existing system of education. Almost as large a proportion of those knowing about the Act as of those not knowing about it supported additional expenditure on education, and when informants were asked direct questions about certain points in the Act clear majority support was given.

There was unqualified majority support for the raising of the school leaving age, and additional support from sections of the sample whose approval was qualified by certain considerations. Thus, about a quarter of the sample approved of the principle “provided the financial conditions of the parents were considered”. A quarter of the sample, on the other, hand, thought that this provision should apply to some children only.

There was clear majority support (65%) for the provision of free secondary education for all children. A further quarter of the sample qualified their approval with references to the need for changing the content of curricula, for selecting children who will benefit from this extended schooling, or for ensuring that parents suffer no financial hardship.

There was similarly majority approval for the idea of children spending part of their school lives away from home. Approval was chiefly based on the belief that such a practice would teach them “independence” or “to take more notice of others”.


It appears that whilst there is general support for developments in the educational system, precise knowledge of the new Education Act and its potentialities is possessed only by a minority. In so far as the implementing of the Act depends on general awareness of the changes which it makes possible, it seems necessary to take steps to inform the general public of the provisions of the Act. This is all the more necessary because in some areas the structure of the existing system of education may be considerably changed under the provisions of the Act, and because its effect on the economic and social structure of the country may be marked.

Any such programme to inform the general public of the provisions of the Act would need to take into account the existing background of opinion on education. People are likely to understand better the changes which the Act makes possible if they are shown how these changes will help to prepare children for adult responsibilities. Moreover it will need to be made clear that changes must be made in the structure of the educational system if this is to be achieved.

It has been shown that existing support for change in the educational system is associated with widespread feelings that individuals have suffered in adult life because of limitation in their education. It is nevertheless clear from the evidence given that most members of the public would be receptive to a presentation of the Education Act which showed the relationship of its main provisions to the broad social setting and the changes which are taking place therein.

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