At the outbreak of World War II on the 3rd of September 1939, the British government feared that Britain's cities would soon be targeted by the German Luftwaffe, and within three days in early September it enacted a mass evacuation scheme that had been prepared the year before. That scheme entailed a huge movement of population, relocating 1.5 million of Britain's city children, their teachers, mothers with preschool children, and pregnant women from their homes to the safety of small towns and villages in designated “reception” areas. Evacuation would empty the threatened inner cities of the most vulnerable, keeping them safe from civilian bombing.
That plan would have a swift, total, and lasting impact on formal school education. Indeed, in April 1939 a circular from the Board of Education had stated unequivocally that in the evacuated areas “schools will be closed for the whole period during which the emergency may continue….” Reception areas would house and school city children for as long as any aerial threat remained. In practice, however, the course taken by the war in its earliest stages mitigated against the evacuation's effectiveness. Crucially, and despite regular false alarms, the first months of war proved quiet on the home front. Few enemy planes materialized, and the public perception of their threat began to weaken. As a consequence, the intervening months of the conflict came quickly to be known as the “phoney war.” While this proved a relief, not least because it allowed time for the building of what had up to then been poorly prepared civilian air-raid precautions, its impact upon the mass evacuation scheme of September 1939 was damaging. Despite the efforts of government to “talk-up” the success of evacuation and its benefits for children and the hard work of teachers and the evacuation authorities in trying to keep children in the reception areas, cracks began to appear in the planning as many children soon began to trickle back. The phoney war, homesickness, and growing reports of a mixed welcome and treatment received by evacuees persuaded many parents that they wanted their children back. By January 1940 nearly half of all evacuee schoolchildren had returned home. In some cities the picture was even worse. London, for example, had just 34 percent of its evacuee children remaining in reception areas, while in the cities of Sheffield and Coventry, both heavily bombed in the coming months, the figure stood at less than 10 percent. German raids and heavy bombing on British cities finally commenced during the summer of 1940.