1944 Education Act Essay Practice

On the 3rd of August 1944, Royal Assent was given to an Education Act. It was the culmination of the work of R A ("Rab") Butler, who then became the first minister of education. Latterly Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, Butler skilfully negotiated the formulation of the act and its passage through parliament. As history has since shown, the act profoundly influenced the education system for decades to come.

To bring the story of Rab Butler right up to date, I had the pleasure earlier today of meeting the children and staff of the R A Butler schools in Saffron Walden. I was particularly delighted to be accompanied by the current MP for the area, Sir Alan Haselhurst.

May I say how deeply grateful I am to Sir Alan for hosting today's event here in the magnificent surroundings of the House of Commons. Given what a great parliamentarian Rab Butler was, I suspect that he would have been pleased. I certainly know that Lady Butler is delighted that we are celebrating her husband's legacy, and only sorry that she cannot be with us today.

Britain in 1944 and 2004

My purpose today is to reflect on the 1944 Education Act and its relevance in 2004, and to consider the extent to which the education service has met the challenges set 60 years ago by Rab Butler and his fellow parliamentarians.

But let us begin by reflecting on Britain in 1944. The country, of course, was still at war. Access to education was limited: in 1938, for example, only one fifth of all children received a formal education after age 14. But even in 1944, thoughts had turned to the cessation of hostilities. The government had recognised that the evacuation of millions of children had opened the eyes of people in city and rural communities, and it was beginning to plan for a post-war society that would be much less class-ridden than that of the pre-war era.

In such a context, the 1944 Education Act was a landmark piece of social and welfare legislation, as well as being designed to address pupils' personal and academic development. You, or maybe your parents, might recall, with affection or otherwise, free medical examinations, frozen milk in winter or the transport paid for by the local education authority. The act took into account the "whole child"; a feature it shares with the 2003 green paper, Every Child Matters, and the children bill that is currently before parliament.

Britain has had to adapt in many ways in the ensuing 60 years. We no longer have an Empire, and now play a part in an expanded community of European nations. There is a greater demand for professional skills at many levels. The school population, previously culturally homogeneous, encompasses those of many cultures and faiths. Families are more mobile. Even so, the main principles of the act are as relevant today as they were in 1944, though, in all probability, their realisation has become more challenging.

I intend to focus on three areas in particular today: the curriculum; spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and personalised learning.

The curriculum

The 1944 Act required LEAs to provide state-funded education for pupils, up to the age of 15, that incorporated, to quote, "instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes".

The first step was to provide sufficient schools. The act did not define the types of secondary school to be provided; but firm guidance by the Ministry of Education stipulated a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. However, in practice the system that developed was largely bipartite, since few technical schools were established.

During the 1960s, the act was reinterpreted and comprehensive education quickly expanded. More recently, further types of school have been developed, such as specialist schools and academies. The changes in school designation have largely catered for pupils' different ages and abilities, or been focused on raising the overall performance of schools, whilst pupils' natural propensity for the scientific, the arts, or the practical has received relatively little attention. In part this might be because, even today, we often remain unsure where pupils' aptitude lies and how to capitalise on it, even though we try to help them understand it through deft careers advice and the work of personal advisers.

The act did not attempt to control the secular curriculum, and the need for breadth and balance was implied rather than stated. The grammar school curriculum was examination led whereas it was free and unfettered in primary and secondary modern schools. The curriculum was not centrally controlled until 1988 when the Education Reform Act heralded the national curriculum. The post-16 curriculum has proved more resistant to change, with the higher certificate and subsequent A-levels remaining largely intact to this day. Despite many improvements and recent changes, I think it is fair to say that the curriculum in 2004 still does not cater sufficiently for all pupils' needs, and their varied aptitudes in particular.

We can be pleased with how aspects of the curriculum have developed as a result of the hard work of carers and teachers. The teaching of literacy and numeracy in primary schools has improved. But we must not be over-confident because the rise in standards has stalled recently. The curriculum is broader. For instance, information and communication technology, and personal, social and health education are now strong areas of the curriculum in many schools and GCSE's in vocational subjects have been taken up by six in 10 secondary schools.

It is for the pupils in the 14 to 19 age range, in particular, where we continue to work towards a meaningful solution. We have not met Rab Butler's expectation that compulsory part-time education should be provided for all young people up to the age of 18. We are not even close to achieving this goal because we have not bridged the academic/vocational divide; we have only chipped away at it.

I welcome Mike Tomlinson's most recent proposals for the curriculum and qualifications for 14 to19-year-olds, because they specify an appropriate 'core' curriculum, pay careful attention to the parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes, accredit the achievements of a wide range of learners, and recommend that the rate of pupils' journeys through the accreditation system should be dictated by their achievement rather than their age.

There are, however, difficult questions to address. We need to think carefully about choice at the age of 14. This is not straightforward. On balance, I believe it is better that young people remain in education and training, even though they may not attain the ideal of breadth and balance in their curriculum. Yet, there are real risks in such an approach if we allow premature and excessive narrowing of the curriculum, even though it may seem to be a good option at the time. Too much specialisation may inhibit choice later on in life when aspirations change and employment opportunities have shifted. I do not pretend this is easy, and we must always remind ourselves of the backdrop that England's staying on rates among 16, 17 and 18 year olds do not hold up well against European and wider OECD comparisons.

Some would argue that the greatest disappointment in the aftermath of Butler was our failure to develop technical schools as a viable option. Who knows? But it does seem rather ironic that it is only today that provision is emerging that Butler might have aspired to in his vision of technical schools. The Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon, for example, has a positive ethos that reflects its focus on performance and a curriculum that incorporates programmes relating to the performing arts industry.

Spiritual, moral, mental and physical development

The 1944 act gave local education authorities the duty to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community. So significant was this provision considered, that it was strengthened in subsequent legislation and defined as spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, or SMSC in shorthand. Providing for pupils' SMSC development is an important and, in my view, essential contemporary purpose of education.

I am, to an extent, speculating here, but I suspect that in 1944 "morality" was synonymous with behaving well, 'mental' development with the learning of facts and stats and 'physical' development with exercise and drills. Of course, times change. Take physical development, for instance. Drills have given way to dance, gymnastics, outdoor and adventurous activities and the study of health and fitness. At the same time modern living has seen the ascendancy of fast-food, computer games and television, resulting in many young people living far less physically active and healthy lifestyles. So, progress on the one hand is counterbalanced, or worse, cancelled out, by the low levels of fitness and high levels of obesity among the young.

The government's strategy for physical education and school sport is focusing on the development of more opportunities for young people within and beyond the curriculum. The quality of physical education teaching is improving. So, is this the time to recapture Butler's aspiration for the physical development of pupils and inject more of the "physical" into physical education?

Indeed, should we stop there? Should schools, supported by government, practice what they preach in personal, social and health education, by ensuring rather than encouraging pupils to follow a healthy diet while they are in school; by preventing the unnecessary use of computers; by insisting that pupils go outside when the weather is fine, and, as some schools do already, by teaching young pupils games to play? Maybe, just maybe, some features of school life in 1944 were better than they are today.

As for spiritual development, this is one of the greatest legacies of the act. In Butler's time, spiritual development was probably considered to be synonymous with the daily act of Christian worship, and this remained largely unquestioned for years. But, with the broadening of Britain's religious and cultural identity, spirituality has come into its own as encapsulating those very qualities that make us human.

As an expression of spirituality, collective worship is much more contestable now than it was in Britain in the 1940s. At that time, Butler was unequivocal that the statutory requirement for collective worship, first introduced by his 1944 Act, would be widely welcomed. But it is a plain fact that the act of collective worship is not altogether unproblematic in our schools today.

I struggle, as do my inspectors and most secondary schools, with the requirement that every school day shall include an act of collective worship on the part of all pupils. At present more than three-quarters of schools fail to meet this requirement.

Only very recently, Ofsted redefined the guidance to inspectors about reporting on compliance with statutory requirements by governing bodies and, in particular, compliance with the daily act of collective worship. I have to say that this was generally not well received by schools and governing bodies and the guidance was amended again.

Inspectors now report on governing bodies' overall performance and, separately, on their compliance with statutory requirements, rather than judging the two elements together. The former approach of judging the two together resulted in otherwise excellent governing bodies being downgraded because they did not meet the requirement for daily worship.

I have taken what I consider to be a pragmatic stance based on intent and action. I am convinced that governors who have done their best to implement the statutory requirements should be reassured, whereas those that have not should be held to account.

But we are still left with some weighty questions. What, as a society, do we think about collective worship in non-denominational state schools? Arguably, the 1988 Education Reform Act added a further layer of complexity when it added the requirement that collective worship should be wholly, or mainly, of a broadly Christian character.

Then there is the issue of the "daily" nature of the requirement. Legislation in 1988 allowed worship in small groups and helped overcome problems associated with space, but there are other practical difficulties. For example, many teachers feel uncomfortable about leading collective worship. But the issues extend beyond the practical.

How many people in this country, apart from school children, are required to attend daily worship? Are we right to be requiring from our young people levels of observance that are not matched even by the Christian faithful? Would it perhaps be better to encourage an interest in matters of a spiritual and religious nature, which fitted better into the society of which the schools and the pupils are a part? An opportunity to debate, discuss and learn as well as to worship?

And there are important issues in relation to "Britishness". I applaud the important comments made recently by Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, when he called for the creation of a stronger national British identity, irrespective of who we are and where we come from. But where does religion fit in to all of this?

Would we weaken that strengthening of "Britishness" if we no longer required children and young people to worship daily in the Christian tradition which is so bound up with our history and heritage? Might we strengthen it, and pupils' understanding of Christianity and other religions, by being more honest about the fact that the majority of people nowadays do not attend church although, intriguingly, observance of other faiths seems to be stronger? Is there continuing symbolic value in a common celebration of this country's heritage, and continuing practical value for pupils' education, in behaving as those of faith do by undertaking an act of worship, even though some are of no faith?

These are serious, complex and sensitive issues which should be of interest to those of faith and those of no faith because we all have a responsibility to consider how best to cultivate spiritual awareness. That is one of the reasons why I am in no way challenging the importance of religious education as a component of the basic curriculum. Indeed, I welcome the possibility of a national framework for the teaching of religious education as a further contribution to enhancing the role of the subject in the curriculum. Young people must never be denied access to that crucial body of knowledge which is encompassed in religious education.

But I would like to make two further suggestions if we are to retain and value collective worship. Firstly, we cannot ignore the fact that 76% of our secondary schools are breaking the law. I do not think they do so lightly, so we should ask what is motivating them to behave in this way. I believe that by retaining the act of collective worship, but making it less frequent, we would immediately and significantly reduce the current levels of non-compliance. In the process, I also believe that we would encourage all of those who participate to do so in a more meaningful way. So, perhaps consideration should now be given to making the requirement for collective worship weekly, or even monthly, rather than daily.

Secondly, the 10-year-old Circular on Religious Education and Collective Worship may be seen to confuse rather than help the issue, in that it stresses the need for worship to be appropriate for all pupils and explains that not all acts of worship must be "broadly Christian". But, it states that all worship should be concerned with reverence for the veneration of a divine being or power and that "broadly Christian" should contain some elements that accord a special status to Jesus Christ. Schools do not have to abide by the terms of the circular, but now is a good time to revisit that guidance and see whether we can combine the 1998 requirements with some of the flexibility of the 1944 act, and leave more room to schools in determining what that worship should involve.

The Butler act properly pointed us to the value of spiritual development. But it would be a great shame if our failure to address the issue of collective worship led to the undermining of this crucial part of pupils' development. I am convinced that we should give this matter further consideration and I hope that my comments today will stimulate further reflection, thought and debate.

Personalised learning

This leads neatly to my third point: personalised learning.

The initial response to the 1944 Act focused more on providing sufficient schools than on meeting the specific needs of individual pupils. Priorities, however, changed. The Plowden Report in 1967, for example, promoted a focus on the individual child. In the late 1980s and 1990s, priority was given to defining the content of the curriculum and testing pupil attainment.

The emphasis on special educational needs has also changed since 1944. Following the introduction of the act, testing was used to designate different groups of pupils and about half of those with special educational needs were deemed uneducable and placed in non-educational settings. It took another 30 years to bring all children into an educational setting, thanks to the Warnock report, the 1981 Education Act and the introduction of multi-agency assessment of children's needs and statements. Those deemed uneducable in 1944 are now in schools and achieving academic success equivalent to their peers, such a grades D to G at GCSE.

Over the last few years, the emphasis has shifted to promoting effective strategies for teaching through the work of the national strategies. More recently, the focus has returned to the needs and the achievement of individual pupils. In announcing "personalised learning" as a major thrust for the future, the minister of state for school standards, David Miliband, prompted further development of work that has been underway in the better schools for some time. The re-emphasis of the need to meet individual needs is very welcome, and though we have moved closer to achieving this objective in recent years, we still have some big steps to take.

We know that success is reliant on effective practice in the classroom, which in turn is determined by the quality of the interaction between the teacher, the teaching assistants and each individual pupil. The best teaching, and there is plenty of it, sets high but realistic expectations and matches the range of abilities in the class. But we must not become complacent. Encouragingly, the quality of teaching had improved in almost half the schools inspected in 2002-03, but it is worrying that it had deteriorated in a little over one in ten. Assessment needs to be effective for teachers to adequately meet the pupil's individual needs. But assessment is a particular weakness in many schools, which is why I welcome the attention being paid to assessment for learning.

We are about to embark on major change, guided by Every Child Matters, that will bring us full circle, back to the over-riding principles of the 1944 Act. These principles are to focus on the whole child, taking into account their social and welfare needs and not just their academic or other aptitudes. The gestation of the 2004 children bill has been carefully and thoughtfully managed, as was the 1944 act, which is why I suspect future historians will identify these two pieces of legislation as having had the most influence on education in the 20th and early 21st centuries.


So, overall, should we be disappointed with the progress that the education service has made since the 1944 act received royal assent? Unquestionably not. While we still have a way to go to fully meet the aspirations of the Act, LEAs, governors, headteachers, teachers and carers have worked hard and achieved much that is now taken for granted.

The compulsory leaving age has been raised twice: first to age 15 and then to age 16 in 1973. Voluntary participation in further education has risen dramatically. In 2002 just over three quarters of 16 year olds were voluntarily participating in full or part-time education, and just under two thirds of 17 year olds were similarly involved: a major improvement on the small numbers that completed a full secondary education to age 18 in 1939.

Universities, in total, had around 50,000 students in 1939. By 2002, almost 44% of 18-year-olds were in full-time or part-time education, and almost half of these, more than 125,000, were at an institution of higher education. Many of you here may, like me, be the first in the family to benefit from higher education, as a direct result of the aspirations laid out in the 1944 act and subsequently brought into being in different ways by successive governments.

Undoubtedly, the education service has markedly improved over the last 60 years. Our young people are better educated, they enjoy greater opportunities than ever before and their aspirations and expectations are higher than we could have dreamed of when we were their age. There is, however, a lot still to be done if we are to fulfil the vision for education outlined in the 1944 act. The children bill is about to return the child to centre stage and we must ensure each child has the best possible opportunity to achieve their potential. To do this we need to know, indeed must know, all we can about each individual and the barriers to their success, and we must gather together all the tools needed to overcome them.

It is no wonder that the 1944 act is often referred to as the Butler act, as a measure of the respect for Rab Butler's contribution to the development of state education. The fact that we continue to work towards his educational goals reflects the high quality of his forward thinking and the debt we owe him for stimulating and guiding great steps forward in educational provision in this country. It is time now for the generations who have benefited from Butler's visionary thinking to repay that debt, and seek to improve further the life chances of the generations to come.

Seventy years ago on 19 January, the 1944 Education Act cleared its second reading in the House of Commons - for the first time there would be secondary education for all.

The 1930s had been a decade of frustration for education reformers, spending had been tight and governments lacked ambition in relation to education.

In 1938 around 80% of children left school at age 14, most having only ever attended an all-age elementary school.

Fewer than one in every 100 in each cohort made it to university.

'New Jerusalem'

When war began in 1939 most people assumed that any thought of education reform would be postponed by the coalition government for the duration of the conflict.

As a young MP Winston Churchill had experienced the huge furore over the 1902 Education Act and had no intention of dividing public opinion when the country was fighting for its survival.

He said he did not want to "wipe children's noses and smack their behinds" during the conflict.

However the war itself ignited the campaign for secondary education for all.

People wanted to believe that after the war Britain would be a better place - a New Jerusalem was a phrase of the time - a country worth fighting for.

The evacuation of three million working-class children from the big cities to the countryside forced people of all backgrounds to recognise the dire state of affairs.

Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the National Union of Teachers joined the campaign.

It was not just urchins from the East End that had been removed from a blitzed London, civil servants from the Ministry of Education had also been evacuated.

Holed up in a Bournemouth hotel, they began to plan for education after the war and wrote what became the first Green Paper in British history, proposing three types of secondary school - grammar schools for the academic, technical schools for those skilled with their hands and secondary modern schools for the rest.

Local authority power

Enter the hero of the story; Richard Austen Butler, known as RA Butler or Rab to his friends, was a young, talented Conservative MP.

In the summer of 1941 Churchill removed him from the Foreign Office and made him President of the Board of Education, the post that is now known as secretary of state for education.

To Churchill this was a political backwater but Butler immediately realised he had a chance to make his name.

Supported by an excellent Labour deputy, James Chuter Ede, he set out to build consensus on a piece of legislation that Churchill would allow him to take through Parliament during the war.

Butler accepted the Green Paper's proposals with minor refinements for the three types of secondary school.


  • Replaced all previous education law
  • Board of Education replaced by Ministry of Education
  • All maintained schooling to be free
  • Three-tier secondary state schooling - grammar (entrance based on 11+ test), secondary modern and technical - ie selective state schooling
  • Further education through county colleges for school-leavers to 18 years of age

There was a minority in government who supported comprehensive schools, but they were prepared to compromise to make the long-cherished dream of secondary education for all possible.

Butler decided that the local education authorities should be strengthened and put in charge of implementing the reforms.

On the curriculum, Churchill had asked him "to introduce a note of patriotism into the schools… tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec". Butler ignored him. He decided against specifying the curriculum at all - it would be left to the teachers to decide.

Church schools deal

Finally, Butler worked on the toughest problem of all - ensuring the support of the churches for his proposals.

He knew that if he fell out with the Anglicans or the Catholics, it would scupper everything, as Churchill would never countenance a huge row with either.

In the end he reached a deal with them - the state would pay for their schools, including helping to repair the many inadequate buildings.

Anglicans and Catholics would be able to determine the nature of the school's daily act of worship but parents could choose to opt their child out of it if they chose.

Religious education would be required in every school in the country, but teachers would have to be appointed on merit, not religious inclination.

It [the 1944 Act]completely recasts the whole law as it affects educationRA Butler

With the major controversies resolved by 1943, the biggest challenge of all remained; persuading a war-fatigued Churchill to go ahead with legislation.

'Very beautiful cat'

During a period that Churchill later called "the Hinge of Fate" - encompassing the second battle of El Alamein, Stalingrad and preparation for the Normandy Landings - Butler was invited to Chequers, the prime minister's country home.

On the night of 11 March 1943 he sensed his moment had come.

The visit had all the hallmarks of disaster. Churchill gave Butler a draft speech on home affairs and asked for his comments but, instead of discussing it, insisted on watching a film on Tsarist Russia.

The next morning Butler was up early but was shaken when officials told him the prime minister might not have time to see him. Eventually, just before 11:00, Butler was summoned to the great man's presence.

Butler recalled later: "I found him in bed, smoking a Corona, with a black cat curled up on his feet. He began aggressively by claiming that the cat did more for the war effort than I did… Didn't I agree?"

Butler was a master politician and and his diplomacy paved the way for the 1944 Education Act.

"Not really, but it is a very beautiful cat," he replied.

He then told Churchill he was drafting an Education Bill to which Churchill replied "very interesting." This was good enough for Butler.

[The new bill] gathers up the dreams of all educational reformistsSir Geoffrey Shakespeare

In July 1943 he published his White Paper, titled Educational Reconstruction, detailing the content of the proposed legislation to widespread acclaim.

The Times called it "new and fundamentally sound." Its mission was "to secure for children a happier childhood and a better start in life".

The legislation was also aimed at opening the way to "a more closely knit society", reflecting the social solidarity of wartime.

Interestingly it did not recommend the 11-plus test as a means of selecting children for the grammar schools; it said that children should be "classified" according to school records and parental aspirations, only "supplemented" by intelligence tests such as the 11-plus.

Passage through Parliament

The Bill received its formal first reading in December 1943. The second reading, where it would be debated for the first time in the House of Commons was set for 19 January 1944.

On that day Butler introduced the the bill in a 75-minute speech in which he said it "completely recasts the whole law as it affects education". His speech received overwhelming support in the subsequent debate.

Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare put it most eloquently, saying the Bill "gathers up the dreams of all educational reformists."

The passage of the Bill through Parliament should have been a formality. Even the churches had fallen in line.

However, Churchill's coalition government suffered its only parliamentary defeat of the entire war on a totally unexpected amendment.

Equal pay

Thelma Cazalet Kier, Conservative MP for Islington East, introduced an amendment proposing equal pay for women teachers.

Until then it had been accepted practice that men were paid roughly 20% more for the same work. The government opposed it on the grounds that it would be too expensive. Even so the amendment was carried by one vote, with 37 Tories supporting it.


  • 1945 - Disabled Pupils and School Health Regulations created extensive increase in special schooling
  • 1947 - School leaving age increased to 15
  • 1972 - School leaving age increased to 16
  • 1986 - GCSEs replaced GCE O-levels for 15-16 yr-olds; National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) to promote vocational training in schools and colleges
  • 1988 - Education Reform Act introduced National Curriculum and Local Management of Schools; Start of national testing (SATs) at seven, 11 and 14; League tables published showing school performance
  • 2000 - First City Academies opened
  • 2010 - Coalition government began education overhaul, including more academies and introduction of parent-managed/initiated free schools

As Butler pointed out, the government would have won had the "less sprightly" ministers, such as the chancellor, Sir John Anderson - who didn't make it from their offices to Parliament in time to vote - been "more fleet of foot".

Churchill was furious. He was also "desperately tired", as the head of the armed services noted, and insisted on a vote of confidence to overturn the amendment .

The war was still in the balance, Churchill's majority was over 400, and so the rebels were humiliated.

The Bill was back on track but women teachers had to wait until 29 December 1975, when the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force, to be paid the same as their male equivalents.

By 3 August 1944 the Bill received Royal Assent. Secondary education for all was at last a reality.

Churchill was gracious, writing to Butler: "Pray accept my congratulations. You have… won a lasting place in the history of British education."

A year later World War Two was over and following the subsequent 1945 Labour election victory Churchill and Butler were no longer in office, allowing the new government to proceed with implementing the act.

Legislation 'not enough'

Over a 20-year period the promises of the act were kept. By 1948 the school leaving age had been raised to 15.

In 1947 there were 5.5 million children in maintained schools; by 1967 the number was 9.1 million. The number of teachers increased from under 200,000 to exceeding 400,000.

Even so it was all desperately slow. The school leaving age wasn't raised to 16 until 1972, the same year in which the last pre-war all-age elementary school was reorganised.

In spite of Butler's hopes, the 11-plus, a simple intelligence test taken once at the end of primary schooling, did come to determine whether a child went to grammar school.

That in turn had a huge influence over lifetime opportunity, since grammar schools were the only route to a university education for those who could not afford private education

Worse still, few technical schools opened, so around 80% of children ended up attending secondary modern schools of dubious quality.

Butler's education act was a historic step forward, but the lesson of the 30 years or so that followed is that legislation alone is not enough; unless governments really prioritise education, it inevitably gets neglected.

Post-Butler, secretaries of state for education have come and gone roughly every two years, not long enough to make a significant difference.

The only two worthy of a mention alongside Butler are Kenneth Baker (Conservative, 1986-1989) and David Blunkett (Labour, 1997-2001), both of whom made significant advances over a three or four-year period.

It is too early to tell whether the current minister, Tory Michael Gove, will join this exclusive club.

Sir Michael Barber is the author of 'The Making of the 1944 Education Act' and is now Chief Education Advisor for Pearson.

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