How did WW2 affect schools in London?

We recently interviewed Jonathan Boff about the ‘Blitz spirit’ for the HistoryExtra podcast, in which he explored how ordinary people coped with the privations of World War II. Following the school closures across the UK and US, our content director David Musgrove asked what parallels could be found between wartime measures and the current school closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19…

Children play as air raid wardens during the Blitz in London

David Musgrove: As schools close both in the UK and the US, there is a social dislocation that this imposes on the population, obviously a very live issue now. What parallels are there in either the First or Second World War and the public response to it?

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Jonathan Boff: Obviously there’s a slight difference, in the sense that schools were not closed in either world war because of a fear of spreading disease, as they have been today. But actually, there are some really interesting parallels with the Second World War.

As many people will know, for cities that were in danger of air attacks the first plan for children in the event of war was that they should be evacuated to the countryside. Large numbers of children were evacuated, and the schools were also evacuated. For example, large numbers of schools were evacuated from West Ham, I think, to Oxford.


You can listen to the full interview with Jonathan here:


But a lot of the children did not go: their parents didn’t want them to go, or they didn’t want to go. So, you had a situation where the schools were in Oxford and the children were in many cases still in the East End, and that caused severe dislocation. Many fathers were out at work and many of their mothers were also out at work, but the schools weren’t running. So the children were missing free milk and free meals, which were very important, particularly in poor areas. There were estimates that as many as a million children might have been effectively ‘running wild’ in London by the middle of September 1939.

You had a situation where the schools were in Oxford and the children were in many cases still in the East End, and that caused severe dislocation

Increasingly as the war went on, and when the Blitz started [in September 1940], schools were being requisitioned for civil defence, and therefore were closing down. As many as two thirds of all the schools in London, about 60 per cent of those in Manchester, were closed down for that reason. Of course, many were bombed as well; something like 20 per cent of schools in London were damaged in the course of the war. In West Ham, for instance, where there was supposed to be 60 council schools, at the worst point there were only 16 of them open.

Children being evacuated from the city during the London Blitz
Children being evacuated from the city during the London Blitz. (Photo by Hans Wild/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Juvenile delinquency rates went through the roof – convictions for juvenile delinquency went up by a third between 1939 and 1941 – and generally, educational provision was badly disrupted. So, by January 1940, about a quarter of children in London were receiving full-time education; another quarter were having part-time education; and a quarter were being home-schooled, either in their own homes or perhaps in the homes of family members with sort-of wandering schoolmasters going around for an hour or so a day, marking homework and so on. And then probably about a quarter – something like 430,000 children – were getting no education at all. It was a serious problem. If you’ve ever seen the movie Hope and Glory [1987], there are some lovely scenes about what it was like to be a schoolboy in London during the Second World War. (I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens in the last shot.)

By the end of the war (in some places), there were seven-year-olds at school who were unable to read and write as a result of the poor standard education they received. One of the consequences of that was the 1944 Education Act, the famous act which extended secondary education for free to every pupil in the country, up to the age of 15. It was planned to become 16, but that took longer. The historian Angus Calder has described it as the most signal measure of social reform that became law during the war itself; essentially, the most important gesture towards democracy in the 20th century.

As a result of the crisis in education that occurred as a result of the war, everyone agreed that something needed to be done, and that bill, I think, was passed without division in the House of Commons. And so it was that major reforms were brought in after the war.

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Dr Jonathan Boff is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham. His books include Winning and Losing on the Western Front (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and the German Army on the Western Front (Oxford University Press, April 2018).