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Radical law that transformed Northern Ireland education marks 70th birthday

By John Mulgrew

The passing of an education act for Northern Ireland which helped shape the modern school system here and brought in wide-ranging changes such as the 11-plus is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

The 1947 (Northern Ireland) Education Act brought in sweeping changes, including guaranteed free education for all children over the age of 11.

It was the then unionist government's version of the Butler Act of 1944 in England and Wales, and the Education (Scotland) Act of 1945, and was designed to increase opportunities at secondary and higher levels.

It increased the school leaving age to 15, and also brought in the transfer tests for pupils moving from primary to secondary school.

The Act was also cited as helping form a new generation of political activists, such as former SDLP stalwarts John Hume and Austin Currie, who had taken the opportunities of higher-level, university education.

The Act also included medical treatment, free milk and transport, along with books and stationery. According to Queen's University professor Graham Walker, the 1947 legislation was in keeping with "the social reform ethos of the times and the determination to build a more just society out of the trauma of war".

"The significance of the Act today might lie in how it relates to the conventional narrative of unionist rule in Northern Ireland," he said.

"It was, indeed, the discrepancy between such social improvements and the remaining petty, discriminatory and hidebound attitudes and actions of unionists in control of some local authorities that strengthened the case for equal rights and opportunities for all citizens in whatever part of the UK they happened to reside."

Meanwhile, grants were introduced for university education.

As a result of the Act, pupil numbers in secondary education doubled in less than a decade. That subsequently resulted in new schools being built to accommodate the increase.

"During the first decade - 1943 to 1953 - there were substantial achievements, many of them of a socially progressive kind," Professor Walker said.

"Besides the Education Act, there was the setting-up of a Housing Trust, the cross-community achievements of which are seldom weighed in the balance against the discrimination practised by certain local councils in respect of housing allocation.

"There were also advances made in the fight against tuberculosis, as well as the reproduction of the Attlee Labour government's welfare state and NHS legislation in Northern Ireland in the face of right-wing opposition from UUP members at the grassroots," he added.

Funding for Catholic voluntary schools was increased, and a greater number of Catholic children were able to benefit from higher education.

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