DES Circular 4/74 (1974)

This circular was one of a series which dealt with the isssue of comprehensivisation. They were:

Circular 10/65: Harold Wilson's Labour government asked local education authorities to submit plans for reorganising their schools on comprehensive lines.

Circular 10/70: Edward Heath's Conservative government, with Margaret Thatcher as Education Secretary, allowed local authorities to decide whether or not to proceed with comprehensivisation, effectively cancelling Labour's Circular 10/65.

Circular 4/74: Harold Wilson's Labour government reinstated the requirement that local education authorities should submit plans for comprehensivisation.

Circular 11/76: Harold Wilson's Labour government explained that local authorities which had not submitted schemes for comprehensive reorganisation would now be expected to do so.

Circular 12/76: Harold Wilson's Labour government explained that arrangements made by local authorities with non-maintained schools must be 'consistent with the Government's policy of abolishing selection for secondary education'.

See also Circular 10/66 School building programmes.

The text of DES Circular 4/74 was prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 14 July 2017.

Circular 4/74 (1974)
The Organisation of Secondary Education

Department of Education and Science
London: 1974
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

Circular 4/74
(Department of Education and Science)

Circular 112/74
(Welsh Office)
16 April 1974

Joint Circular from the





1. The Government have made known their intention of developing a fully comprehensive system of secondary education and of ending selection at eleven plus or at any other stage. The Secretary of State looks to local education authorities (and to school governors*) to secure under his control and direction the effective execution of this policy. Circular 10/70 is accordingly withdrawn.

2. Local education authorities and governors will be expected to direct their efforts not only to planning the organisation of their secondary schools in such a way as to avoid the need for selection, but also towards the development of the education provided in them so that it is generally accepted as meeting the needs of all their pupils. Authorities will no doubt continue to have due regard to parents' wishes in respect of their children's education, eg in denominational schools where these are available. In Wales this issue may arise in the context of bilingual schools. It is not essential for a comprehensive school to be of very great size. There is no single ideal size for a comprehensive school. Experience has shown that some large schools work well but equally some authorities, teachers and parents prefer small schools. What is important is to ensure that the organisation adopted makes the maximum use of existing buildings and available resources.

*The contents of this Circular are addressed both to Authorities and to school governors according to their respective roles under the Education Acts.


3. Substantial progress with reorganisation has already been made. In January 1973 38% of all secondary schools in England and Wales, housing 48.4% of the pupils, were already designated comprehensive. Of the 163 authorities existing up to 31 March 1974, 72 had received approval to reorganise totally on comprehensive lines, 76 had reorganised in part, and only 15 had received no approval to reorganise. Of the 104 authorities in existence on 1 April 1974 only one has not reorganised any of the county schools in its area. These figures show the considerable efforts already made by many authorities. But the completion of the job must be accelerated.


4. Since the issue of Circular 10/65 and with growing experience of comprehensive schools, local education authorities have developed three main types of organisation:

i, All-through schools with an age range from 11 to 18.

ii. Schools with an age range of 11 to 16, leading to separate colleges for those over 16 (which have in a few cases been combined with further education establishments).

iii. Middle schools for the age range 8 to 12, or 9 to 13, leading to upper schools from 12 to 13 to 18.

Some authorities have adopted other forms of organisation involving a break in the period of secondary education between lower and upper tier comprehensive schools; and there are other possibilities.

5. The relevant advantages of the various types of organisation in any given area will depend to a great extent on practical considerations of the buildings and staff available, the geography of the area, the distribution of the population and whether it is increasing, static or declining. It is only right that authorities and voluntary school governors should have regard to these considerations. In addition there are other purely educational considerations, - for example, the deployment of staff and the arrangements for sixth form work - which involve an important element of judgement. The Secretary of State regards these considerations as a proper matter for individual local education authorities, after due consultation with local interests (on which see paragraph 8), always subject to the overriding need to eliminate all forms of selection at all stages.


6. The new local education authorities which assumed responsibilities on 1 April 1974, as well as the existing authorities in the Greater London area, will be faced with widely differing problems in secondary organisation. Where areas have not been substantially changed, the problem remaining will already be familiar to the authorities concerned. In other cases authorities may have inherited different patterns of organisation in different parts of their area, from predecessor authorities. These authorities will, no doubt, already have given preliminary consideration to the new problem with which this situation will confront them, and the action which may be needed. They will be aware from paragraph 21 of Circular No 1/73 (DES), No 22/73 (Welsh Office), that any undecided statutory proposal submitted by an authority existing before 1 April 1974 is regarded as having been submitted by the new authority for the area concerned.


7. While the Secretary of State is anxious to avoid placing undue burdens on new authorities at a time of transition, he is determined that all necessary steps should be taken to give effect to the Government's policy. Thanks to the impetus given by Circular 10/65, the progress already achieved makes it unnecessary in 1974 for all authorities to prepare and submit detailed plans; but the Secretary of State requires information as soon as possible and in any event not later than by the end of 1974 about the successive measures which will be taken to complete the process of reorganisation in those areas where selection procedures are still operated. The Department's territorial officers and the Welsh Education Office will be writing to the authorities concerned for this information. It should be provided by authorities after consultation with voluntary schools in their area.

8. The Secretary of State intends to expedite the process for examining and deciding upon proposals submitted to him under Section 13. He wishes to emphasise the need to ensure adequate and thorough consultation and explanation locally of schemes of reorganisation before a proposal is submitted to him and before the publication of statutory Notices. Teachers, preferably through their local associations, and parents in particular should be informed and have the opportunity of making their views known while proposals are being formulated and before they are submitted. The position of pupils at present in unreorganised schools should be safeguarded, so far as this is compatible with the progressive admission, without regard to ability, of pupils coming from primary or middle schools.

9. As a result of local government reorganisation in April 1974, there are now many new local education authorities in whose areas the schools have been organised in different patterns. It is a matter for local choice whether the pattern could remain varied or whether within one authority's area a homogeneous system should gradually be introduced. The Secretary of State leaves it to authorities and the governors of voluntary schools to decide what proposals, if any, to submit with this intention, subject to the development of a fully comprehensive system of secondary education.


10. In Circular 10/65 the Government of the day indicated that, while the plans which authorities were requested to prepare should embrace voluntary schools, it was not essential that the same pattern should be adopted for denominational and other voluntary schools in any given area as was employed for that area's county schools. In many instances the governors of voluntary schools and Diocesan authorities have responded constructively by making proposals for the purpose of ensuring that their schools, while retaining their distinctive characteristics, become comprehensive. In some cases they have been readier than the relevant local education authorities to make proposals. In other cases, however, the governors of voluntary schools have stood out against the wishes of local education authorities who maintain their schools to attain a fully comprehensive system throughout their area. The Secretary of State asks these governors to reconsider their attitude in the light of the Government's policy.

11. In the case of voluntary controlled schools, the majority of the governors are appointed by the local education authority and it would seem entirely appropriate that they should represent the authority's point of view and that, when the authority intend to implement reorganisation, they, as the majority on the governing body, should themselves propose a change of character. Such proposals will fall to be considered in the usual way under Section 13. In the case of voluntary aided schools the governors cannot expect to continue to receive the substantial financial aid which their schools enjoy through being maintained by the local education authority, if they are not prepared to cooperate with that authority in settling the general educational character of the school and its place in a local comprehensive system.


12. It is not the purpose of this Circular to enter into a discussion of the direct grant schools as such. There may however be circumstances in which a direct grant school, because of the role it already plays in providing places for local education authorities, could readily fit into a scheme of comprehensive reorganisation; in such circumstances its present status should not be regarded as an obstacle.


13. The Secretary of State recognises that careful planning and consultation will be needed to effect the complete elimination of selection and he will not be prepared to give his approval under Section 13 to proposals which are manifestly unsuitable. He is convinced that authorities and voluntary school governors can expedite the transformation of many existing schools into parts of a coherent and fully comprehensive system without special building allocations, and he expects the fullest use to be made of the available resources to facilitate reorganisation. For this purpose he would not rule out, without due consideration, proposals for a school to function as an interim measure on more than one site. In considering future proposals for individual major projects at secondary schools he will take account of the contribution they will make to reorganisation. He does not propose to include in future building programmes projects at non-comprehensive schools, whether grammar, technical or modern, except where such projects are necessary to enable the schools to become comprehensive.


14. The Secretary of State wishes to make it clear that the officers of his Department are always ready to assist local education authorities, voluntary school governors, denominational representatives and direct grant school governors, if they wish to have informal discussions. Such discussions may be particularly useful when proposals (whether in response to this Circular or under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944, as amended) are being formulated and before a decision has been taken to submit them formally to the Department. The educational system is a partnership and the Government are determined to make it work smoothly.

WD Pile

Leslie Jones

To Local Education Authorities and
the Governors of Voluntary Aided,
Special Agreement and Direct Grant