Rab Butler's 1944 act brings free secondary education for all

Ruislip Bourne Secondary Modern School in 1948 Girls at Ruislip Bourne Secondary Modern School were among the first pupils to benefit from the new education act

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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.

A school classroom It was not until 1972 that the school leaving age was raised to 16

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.

Start Quote

RA Butler

It [the 1944 Act]completely recasts the whole law as it affects education”

End Quote RA 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.

Start Quote

[The new bill] gathers up the dreams of all educational reformists”

End Quote Sir 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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