The Butler 1944 Education Act: both milestone and millstone

Chris Game

A ‘Legislative game-changer’ was what we were asked for. Or was it ‘Legislative Game-changer’?  No matter; this one was both. It’s exactly a half-century since the summer of ’63: Profumo and Keeler, Philby, the Great Train Robbery, the Beatles, Sindy dolls, and my leaving the boys’ grammar school, to which I’d ‘won’ a place seven years earlier by passing the compulsory 11-plus exam, and going to university. Statement of fact, but also declaration of interest.

The 1944 Education Act more than changed my life; it shaped it. It shaped me, like millions of others, into an entirely different person from the one I’d have become, born even 15 years earlier. Its shaping of me was, I like to think, positive, and certainly I’d be judged a successful product of the Act and the educational system it established. That shaping, though, included the acquisition of a disinclination to accept even good things entirely without question, which is why this account of the Act differs rather from the ‘Can’t-we-just-be-proud-that-we-created-an-entire-education-system-in-the-middle-of-wartime?’ story my father would undoubtedly have preferred.

That 11-plus exam, my result in which was far and away the most celebrated present I ever gave my parents (who believed it a measure of the discredited Cyril Burt’s Intelligence Quotient), had a flip side. It created roughly 80% of publicly defined 11-year old ‘less intelligent failures’ – like, four years later, my younger sister.

The 11-plus (we even called it the ‘Grading Test’) and the ‘tripartite’ or effectively bipartite system to which it was the key – aptitude-differentiated grammar, secondary modern, and a few technical schools – opened up each year new social divisions and reinforced old ones. Its General Certificate of Education (GCE) exams, normally taken at 16 and 18, disqualified a majority of the nation’s children from qualifications and ensured that full participation in secondary education remained, to quote one critic, “very much a minority pursuit”.  And that’s not to mention (yet) the Act’s failure even seriously to challenge the enduring wormcans of church/faith and independent/private schools. So yes, millstone as well as milestone.

That the Act was a milestone, landmark, etc. there can be no doubt. It replaced almost all previous education legislation, belatedly raised the school-leaving age to 15, and made secondary education free and universal. It established the famous three-cornered partnership for education in England and Wales: central government (Ministry of Education), with legal responsibility to set a national framework and allocate adequate resources; local education authorities (LEAs), with knowledge of local needs and responsibility for provision; and teachers with their professional expertise and responsibility for the curriculum. In setting this framework, moreover, the Act consciously sought to address pupils’ personal as well as academic development and the needs of the wider community.

The Act’s date and milestone-ness, though, were also its problems. It was a wartime coalition measure, passed by a Conservative-dominated Parliament, and at no point, therefore, did it engage with the more progressive agendas that had emerged in the inter-war years for, for example, a genuinely unified, national, publicly controlled educational system, a single multilateral, comprehensive/common secondary school, or a school leaving age of 16, rather than 15.  Indeed, the 1943 White Paper was welcomed by some as a Tory project that could divert some attention from the more radical Beveridge Report. It was very different, then, from what a 1946 Education Act might (possibly) have looked like, yet it was treated, even by Labour, as a systemic and at least generational settlement, requiring no more of post-war politicians than possibly some marginal tidying-up.

So whose milestone was it? Received wisdom (received by me, anyway) is that youngish, liberalish Conservative Education minister, R A Butler, skilfully persuaded a reluctant Churchill that legislating for major educational reform in wartime was a good idea – which is at best only part of the story.

First, Butler’s arrival in July 1941 as President of the Board of Education was less the promotion of a rising social reformer than a sideways exit from the Foreign Office of a discredited appeaser. Secondly, much of the Act, including the main decisions about secondary education, was set out in the Board’s ‘Green Book’, Education after the War, produced by civil servants under previous Board President, Herwald Ramsbotham (less German than his first name might suggest). If we sideline the always confusing label ‘policy makers’, it was these Board officials who were the principal authors of what was more a civil service Act than a political one. The role of the chief politician, Butler, was that of indispensable legislative facilitator.

Indispensable because Churchill was not so much reluctant as resistant: opposed to legislation, as a distraction from the ‘War project’, and uninterested in its content, apart from insisting that under no circumstances must it stir up divisions in the country. Butler’s singular achievement, and a huge tribute to his parliamentary and personal skills, was to get the legislative show on the road and, by evading, placating and defusing protest, keep it going through to the end.

At INLOGOV we’re hard-wired to sniff out underlying authoritarianism in any central-local relationship, and there were those who saw the 1944 Act as strengthening central control. Perhaps, but if that really were the framers’ objective, they could, like their 1980s’ and subsequent successors, have gone a heck of a lot further. Nor, surely, would they have created an LEA as powerful and potentially bothersome as the London County Council.

The Minister did have “the duty to secure the effective execution by the local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive education service in every area”. But she [the Act used entirely male pronouns, for pupils and the Minister, failing to anticipate the first post-war Minister being Ellen Wilkinson] did not provide and equip schools and colleges or employ teachers; that was the LEAs, the county and county borough councils. She did not set curricula or prescribe textbooks; that, at least until 1988, was the teachers.

The fact that easily the biggest section of the Act (Part II) was that setting out the how the new statutory system would be locally administered by the LEAs means, in itself, little: it might be stuffed full of controls and constraints. That’s not, though, how it reads. Each LEA would have an Education Committee of elected councillors, and would appoint a Chief Education Officer to head the salaried officers of the authority. They sound almost like self-contained mini-empires separate from the rest of the local authority, and often were. The LEAs were to build and maintain the county (state) schools and the one-third of schools provided by voluntary, mostly religious, bodies. They would usually appoint and always pay the teachers. They would allocate resources, including staff, buildings, equipment and materials.

It should be emphasised here that none of the terms and concepts mentioned in my opening paragraphs – 11-plus, selection, tripartite system, grammar schools, secondary moderns – appeared per se in the Act. It did require, however, the provision of opportunities for all pupils “in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes, and of the different periods for which they may be expected to remain at school”, and the tripartite system of grammar schools for the most able, secondary moderns for the majority, and secondary technical schools for those with a technical or scientific aptitude, was how it came to be interpreted.

Returning to LEAs, they would not have detailed control of the curriculum but were to “contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education … shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area”. They were to provide sufficient places for 5-15 year olds – and for 16-year olds as soon as the further rise in school-leaving age became ‘practicable’, which proved not to be until 1972. Within this framework, LEAs had and exercised in practice considerable autonomy, developing distinctive styles of administration and forms of school organisation, including the pioneering of comprehensive secondary schools.

The one part of the curriculum that was prescribed in the 1944 Act was religious/faith education, as a crucial part of the settlement negotiated between Butler and the mainly Christian church leaders. Like Tony Blair 60 years later, the authors of the 1944 Act – this time definitely including Butler – took the view that religious education was a public good, whose responsibility should be shared between state-run and religious schools, and they legislated an unevenly balanced ‘dual system’ to accommodate it, apparently indefinitely.

Offered the choice of ‘aided’ or ‘controlled’ status, two-thirds of religious schools opted for the former and one-third – far more than expected by either Butler or the Archbishop of Canterbury – for the somewhat greater LEA control and considerably greater cash.  In exchange, all state schools would provide non-denominational religious education, and each school day would begin with an act of collective worship.

Which brings us to Part III of the Act and Independent Schools.  If only from the point of view of my long passed word limit, it’s perhaps a good thing there was no extended debate over whether these, like religious schools, should somehow be integrated into the state system or simply abolished. In truth, there was no debate at all. The sole demanding imposition of Part III was that they be registered – and registered is what they remain today.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

2 thoughts on “The Butler 1944 Education Act: both milestone and millstone

  1. Nice piece Mister Game.
    Something I have been interested in for years is the REAL manner children were tested at that age. In the Hounslow area of London, for instance, children were asked to bring to school a/ The names of the daily newspapers their parents read, and b/ What work/business their parents were involved in! I was one asked to comply.
    I know others from different areas of London who were asked if they had a dictionary in their house; if so to bring it to school. Another freind was asked to bring in a list of the periodicals/magazines their parents took.
    These inequitable methods of selection were chosen as, in Hounslow, of the 800 children who took the 11+ exam, only about 600 passed. As there were only 120 places available at local Grammar schools an alternative ‘selection’ method had to found!
    It would appear that schools were asked to forward the result of their specific questionaires to the ‘Local Authority’ who’s final decision was the basis of WHO would be going to Grammar school.

  2. I know it was unfair; there were inevitably inequalities of outcomes. But did it work; in the admittedly restricted sense that the economy of the country was enhanced by a more competent workforce than would otherwise have been available in the post-war years? Did we see the first stirrings of a ‘rise of the meritocracy’? I’d genuinely like to know…

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