How effective was the welfare state in improving the lives of working-class children between 1945-1960?
During World War Two (WWII) the British government became more involved in people’s lives to help them through wartime. They organised rationing to conserve food and evacuated children. Rather than prompting resentment at government interference as it would have in previous decades’ people were grateful for the help and this prompted the rise of the welfare state. The welfare state can be defined as a system whereby the state undertakes to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. It marked a definitive move from the Victorian attitude of blaming the poor for being poor to accepting that in some situations circumstances are beyond people’s control. The Beveridge report (1942) was the catalyst for the introduction of the welfare state. Compiled by William Beveridge it identified what Beveridge called ‘five giant’ problems which impacted the British public and came under the categories of want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. The welfare state aimed to improve the lives of British citizens after WWII based around the principle of Keynesian economics which states that economic output is influenced by aggregate demand. It is undeniable that the welfare state was effective in some areas, such as in the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) however there is debate amongst historians as well as politicians on the extent of the positive impact of welfare reforms, especially on the poorest children who needed it the most.
Whilst the welfare state helped many people regardless of age or class this project will be looking at the impact the welfare state had on working-class children between its inception in 1945 and 1960. I have decided to focus on these dates to explore how effective the first wave of welfare reforms were. To analyse this I have identified three key areas which have the most impact on children’s quality of life and which the welfare state aimed to improve. These areas are housing, health and education. To illustrate the impact of the welfare state on the lives of working-class children I will be using three primary sources which demonstrate government reforms. The first is an education department document on the introduction of the 11+ (source 1), the second, two pictures which show housing in Britain before and after the introduction of council houses (source 2) and the third is a booklet explaining the ‘New National Health Service’ (source 3) to the public. These sources provide a comprehensive view of the successes and failures of the welfare state from the point of view of the government and support my argument that the intentions behind the welfare state were effective even if their execution failed overall.
‘The New National Health Service’ – Ministry of Health, Great Britain, 1948
'Extract from Education department draft circular on the introduction of 11+ exam', - Department of Education, July 1945
 Extract from Education department draft circular on the introduction of 11+ exam, July 1945
 ‘Photograph: Interior of a council house, Council Street, Ebbw Vale’ - Ministry of Housing, Great Britain, 1960
 ‘Photograph: The interior of a house in Summer Lane, Newtown, Birmingham’ – The Birmingham Mail, 1930
 ‘The New National Health Service’ – Ministry of Health, Great Britain, 1948
One of the key areas in which the welfare state wanted to improve working-class children’s lives was in education, an area where working-class children were lacking more than any other children, evidenced by the lack of job prospects for working-class children after education. By improving education, the welfare state hoped to tackle the ‘giants’ of idleness and ignorance. After WWII, it was no longer seen as adequate to leave school with only a primary school level of education as this resulted in a largely unskilled, uneducated workforce, therefore the government’s attitude towards education changed. Education was now seen as a priority and the tripartite system of education was born. The tripartite system split children into three types of school depending on their ability; grammar schools, which were for the most academically gifted children, secondary technical, for children with an aptitude for practical vocations and secondary moderns, for everyone else. The aim of the tripartite system was to improve children’s education by having them be taught in schools that suited their academic ability.
Prior to the education act children could attend grammar schools however they had to pay for it meaning only the wealthy could afford to send their children to grammar schools, almost guaranteeing working-class children a second-class education. This changed with the act and the introduction of the 11+ test which would 'assess intelligence and indicate aptitude’. Source 1, which lays out the specifics of the 11+ test, shows an active attempt by the government to improve the education of all children, including working-class children, as the source demonstrates that they truly meant for grammar schools to be for any intelligent child. This suggests that regardless of what the 11+ system became it began life as a genuine attempt by the government to improve the education of working-class children and to begin with this system worked for many working-class children who would have otherwise left school aged fourteen and begun manual labour occupations. It gave them a wider variety of opportunities and expanded the type of work they could do. For example, Welsh children of miners were more likely to go on to managerial positions if they attended grammar schools than if they attended secondary moderns showing that the welfare states introduction of grammar schools was beneficial to at least some working-class children as it improved social mobility. However, The Gurney-Dixon Report identified that even if children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers got into grammar schools they were more likely to leave early without gaining qualifications demonstrating that grammar schools were not beneficial for all working-class children and were in fact more beneficial for middle class children as working-class children were still more likely to occupy lower paid positions than their working-class counter parts despite grammar school attendance. A potential reason for this is that working-class children typically started secondary school with a narrow knowledge of school subjects due to typically worse primary schools suggesting that the introduction of the tripartite system did little to help working-class children as the problems with their education started before secondary school.Problems in primary schools also meant that children from working-class families were less likely to pass the 11+ exam in the first place as they were often less educated than middle class children through no fault of their own and therefore as Richard Aldrich points out ‘the education system was strengthening class inequality’. One area in which the welfare state did help working-class children was with the introduction of Ellen Wilkinson’s ‘Free Milk Act 1948’ which issued one-third of a pint of free milk to pupils under the age of eighteen. This was done under the theory that, per John Boyd Orr, there was a link between under-nourishment and under-achievement in schools. As working-class children were far more likely to be under-nourished than middle class children due to low family incomes this act would meet children’s physiological needs allowing them to be more engaged in school and perform better. Overall, notwithstanding the good intentions of the welfare state to improve education for working-class children it was primarily effective in helping middle-class children through the introduction of free grammar schools which, despite being open to all classes, were mainly attended by middle-class children who were more likely to pass the entrance exam. Whilst the free milk act did enable working-class children to focus better in school it was also provided to middle class children suggesting the welfare state did little to specifically help working-class children to improve their lives.
 ‘Early Leaving: A report for the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) – Sir Samuel Gurney-Dixon, Ministry of Education, 1954, http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/gurneydixon/gurneydixon.html
 ‘Education and policy in England in the twentieth century’ – Richard Asquith, Dennis Dean, Peter Gordon, Routledge, 1991
 ‘Food, Health and Income: Report on a Survey of Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income’ – Baron John Boyd Orr, Macmillan London, 2nd edition, 1937
|Slum housing Summer Lane, Newtown, Birmingham, 1930|
|Picture B: Council House, Council Street, Ebbw Valley, 1960|
Another area the welfare state aimed to improve was the area of housing, aiming to deal with the ‘giants’ of squalor and disease which were rampant in working-class areas where overcrowded slum housing with no indoor plumbing was common. After WWII, there was a shortage of housing due to the large numbers of houses destroyed by bombing and the spike in the population after the war which meant more houses were needed. As Picture A demonstrates housing in the 1930s and beyond was horrendous. People were living in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions that meant disease spread easily. As seen in picture A mould was common in houses and bedrooms were small. Children living in such conditions are 25% more likely to develop health conditions, such as asthma, suffer from mental health problems and have low educational attainment and higher risk of unemployment. It was therefore essential for this type of housing to be tackled by the welfare state to improve the lives of working-class children. One attempt to solve this problem was the New Towns Act 1946 which created new towns to deal with overcrowding in city centres. Twenty-eight new towns were built between 1940 and 1960 including the towns of East Kilbride and Livingstone. The new towns were spacious and within easy reach of facilities such as parks, leisure centres and schools. These new towns improved the lives of the working-class children who moved to them as crime rates were lower than in the city centres and the new house designs meant children were not living in dangerous, overcrowded conditions. It also meant that many children now had access to parks and leisure centres which they could not previously access which improved their quality of life. However, the new towns were, according to Edward Boyle, ‘only a partial success’ and many children remained in insalubrious slum housing with their families. The government’s next solution was council houses, most which were built in the 1950s and 1960s with the aim of providing decent housing for working-class families. Source 2, picture b shows the inside of one of these council houses. In contrast to the bedroom of the slum house in picture a picture b shows a clean, well-furnished bedroom and the single bed in the room suggests the room was only occupied by one person, a distinction from the over filled rooms in slum houses. These pictures would suggest that the welfare state was effective in improving the lives of working-class children as it lifted them and their families out of squalor and placed them in clean, safe housing. The welfare state also planned for these new council estates to come with facilities such as laundries, crèches, playgrounds and schools. These were effective in providing safe places for working-class children to live, play and be educated and throughout the 1950s crime remained relatively low. In this way, the welfare state was effective in combatting squalor. However, Nick Hedges photographs, taken in London and Glasgow in the 1960s show a different story. The squalor shown in the photos suggests that the government were far from effective in tackling housing problems as children continued to suffer and live in appalling conditions even well into the 1960s when millions of council houses had already been built. This demonstrates that the welfare state failed many working-class children who continued to live in poverty well into the second half of the 20th century. Overall, whilst it initially seemed as though the welfare state’s response to the housing crisis was effective in improving the lives of working-class children, seen in the improvement of council housing, it became apparent by the 1960s that the government’s initial wave of housing reforms was a ‘social failure’ for the majority of working-class children.
 ‘Anatomy of Britain Today’ – Anthony Sampson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, p.194–195
 ‘Chance of a lifetime: The impact of bad housing on children’s lives’ – Lisa Harker, Shelter UK, September 2006
 ‘Modern Britain third edition: A social history 1780-2011’ – Edward Royle, Bloomsbury academic, 3rd ed. 2012, p.40
 ‘The crime rate was far from low 25 years ago’ – Phillip Johnston, The Guardian Newspaper, 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1526911/The-crime-rate-was-far-from-low-25-years-ago.html
 ‘Make life worth living: Nick Hedges photography for Shelter, 1968-1972’ – Science Museum Exhibition, 2014-2015
 ‘Modern Britain third edition: A social history 1780-2011’ – Edward Royle, Bloomsbury academic, 3rd ed. 2012, p. 40
The health of the nation was one of the biggest concerns after WWII for a government eager to avoid another Spanish Flu type incident. Britain underwent a series of medical changes after WWII with the most major change being the introduction of the NHS in 1948 by the health minister Aneurin Bevan. The NHS was based on three founding /principles; ‘that it meets the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery and that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay’.
The NHS was the most effective ways that the welfare state improved the lives of working-class children. Prior to the introduction of the NHS most working-class families could not afford medical treatment for their children and so were largely depended on home remedies or treatments from charities. This meant that children were more likely to suffer serious repercussions from minor illnesses and to have their quality of life significantly reduced by the presence of disease. The poor quality of housing they lived in also meant that disease spread easily and therefore medical treatment was frequently necessary but unattainable. Source 3 details the many services provided by the NHS and it is important to remember that many of these services, including maternity care, mental health care treatment and dental care would have been out of reach for many working-class families, showing the necessity and importance of the NHS. The NHS meant that medical treatment was now easily attainable for all families and this dramatically improved the lives of children as they not only had access to medical treatment but with the rise of the ‘Home Health services’ detailed in source 3 parents now had greater access to knowledge on how to raise healthy children through health visitors or visiting midwives. Source 3 states that people can now ‘choose his or her own doctor’ and they would become the ‘family doctor’. The concept of the family doctor meant that GP services were now more personal and this improved the health of children as a regular doctor would be more likely to notice if there was something wrong with the child. It would also make visits to the doctor less frightening for children as there would be a level of consistency for children and this would improve their emotional welfare. The NHS also saw a rise in children being vaccinated due to the increase in information and the development of new vaccines. For example, in 1955 the Polio vaccine was created and following this cases of polio fell ‘dramatically’ in the UK. Polio used to effect children in large numbers, causing them in many cases to become paralysed or to have to live with the aid of an iron lung, reducing their quality of life. The introduction of the NHS and the polio vaccine nearly eradicated this danger to children, showing the success of the welfare state in reducing disease amongst children. However, underdeveloped hospitals hindered the advancement of the NHS and the 1950s introduction of payment for dental care undermined what the NHS stood for. Despite this the NHS is one of the greatest achievements of the welfare state seen in the fact that the life expectancy from year of birth amongst men and women has steadily increased since the NHS began. The welfare state drastically improved the health of working-class children through the NHS which allowed them access to medical care which would have previously been financially out of reach of most working-class families.
 ‘NHS Choices: Principles and values that guide the NHS’ - http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/thenhs/about/Pages/nhscoreprinciples.aspx
 ‘NHS Choices: Polio’ - http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polio/Pages/Introduction.aspx
 ‘Private or NHS general dental service in the United Kingdom: A study of public perceptions and experiences’ – Maria Hancock, Michael Calnan and Graham Manley, Journal of public health medicine, vol. 21, no. 4, p.417
 ‘Chapter 4: Mortality, 2010-based NPP Reference Volume’ – The Office for National Statistics, 2012
Overall, despite the good intentions behind the reforms, the initial wave of the welfare state was ineffective in improving the lives of working-class children. Whilst the NHS was a clear success and improved children’s lives in allowing them better access to medical care and life-saving vaccinations the rest of the welfare reforms which were designed to improve working-class lives were unsuccessful. The education reforms which came in the form of the tripartite system disadvantaged working-class children by forcing them into substandard secondary modern schools as their middle-class counterparts were more likely to pass the grammar school entrance exam. The welfare state also failed to help working-class children in the form of housing reforms. Despite the New Towns Act and the introduction of council houses many working-class families remained living in unsafe slum housing well into the sixties which proved detrimental to the health of working-class children. The failures of the welfare state are highlighted in the poem ‘Timothy Winters’ by Charles Causley which describes a boy living in abject poverty who had ‘never even heard of the welfare state’ and ‘sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor’ demonstrating that despite the best efforts of the welfare state it failed to help most working-class children and this was apparent to the public, both working and middle-class.
 ‘Collected Poems 1951-2000, Timothy Winters’ – Charles Causley, Picador, 2000, p. 65
The biggest initial challenge I faced during the project was choosing my topic. Whilst I knew I wanted to focus on working-class social history as this is an area that particularly interests me I was unsure which period I wanted to focus on. I was originally going to write my project on the Victorian working classes in London, however I found it difficult to find sources for this topic and after visiting the Modern Records Centre and discovering their wide variety of sources on the welfare state I instead decided to focus on that.
Thanks to the MRC as well as the national archives finding sources for my project was one of the easiest aspects of the project. There was a wide variety of sources to choose from and the most difficult part was reading through the large number of sources to find the most useful ones. One issue I did face with the sources was the fact that most of the sources were government documents which gave me a restricted view of the welfare state as the government would have been reluctant to criticise its own reforms. It also limited me as most of the sources only showed the plans for reform and not the after-effects. Nevertheless, this improved my research skills as I was forced to do more thorough research to find out the effects of welfare reforms and this included analysing photographs which I had not done in detail before. I also struggled to find sources within the narrow timeframe I set myself and therefore some of my primary sources came from outside of this timeframe. Whilst this may appear controversial I believe primary sources from outside the timeframe are essential in showing the long-term effects of the welfare state on the lives of working-class children.
The project improved upon how I interpret secondary sources. As the timeframe and the effects of the welfare state are relatively recent many of the secondary sources on the subject are biased to some extent as many of the authors personally experienced the effects of the welfare state and therefore it was important for me to acknowledge and consider prejudices when looking at secondary sources.
Extract from Education department draft circular on the introduction of 11+ exam, July 1945
‘Photograph: Interior of a council house, Council Street, Ebbw Vale’ - Ministry of Housing, Great Britain, 1960
‘Photograph: The interior of a house in Summer Lane, Newtown, Birmingham’ – The Birmingham Mail, 1930
‘The New National Health Service’ – Ministry of Health, Great Britain, 1948
‘Early Leaving: A report for the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) – Sir Samuel Gurney-Dixon, Ministry of Education, 1954, http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/gurneydixon/gurneydixon.html
‘Education and policy in England in the twentieth century’ – Richard Asquith, Dennis Dean, Peter Gordon, Routledge, 1991
‘Food, Health and Income: Report on a Survey of Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income’ – Baron John Boyd Orr, Macmillan London, 2nd edition, 1937
‘Anatomy of Britain Today’ – Anthony Sampson, Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, p.194–195
‘Chance of a lifetime: The impact of bad housing on children’s lives’ – Lisa Harker, Shelter UK, September 2006
‘Modern Britain third edition: A social history 1780-2011’ – Edward Royle, Bloomsbury academic, 3rd ed. 2012, p.40
‘The crime rate was far from low 25 years ago’ – Phillip Johnston, The Guardian Newspaper, 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1526911/The-crime-rate-was-far-from-low-25-years-ago.html
‘Make life worth living: Nick Hedges photography for Shelter, 1968-1972’ – Science Museum Exhibition, 2014-2015
‘Modern Britain third edition: A social history 1780-2011’ – Edward Royle, Bloomsbury academic, 3rd ed. 2012, p. 40
‘NHS Choices: Principles and values that guide the NHS’ - http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/thenhs/about/Pages/nhscoreprinciples.aspx
‘NHS Choices: Polio’ - http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polio/Pages/Introduction.aspx
‘Private or NHS general dental service in the United Kingdom: A study of public perceptions and experiences’ – Maria Hancock, Michael Calnan and Graham Manley, Journal of public health medicine, vol. 21, no. 4, p.417
‘Chapter 4: Mortality, 2010-based NPP Reference Volume’ – The Office for National Statistics, 2012
‘Collected Poems 1951-2000, Timothy Winters’ – Charles Causley, Picador, 2000, p. 65