The Long Road To The 1944 Education Act – Part 2

Today’s post continues on from Part 1…..

Rab Butler faced a dilemma. After 40 years of waiting he was now being offered the chance of his dream job as Viceroy of India. Turn it down and the job would unlikely be offered again. Take it and the 1944 Education Act, a bill he had toiled at, might fall apart.

In the end, the decision was simple. Churchill and Butler had never been good friends, with the two clashing on issues of Empire and India. Butler was unconvinced he could implement any satisfactory changes when they would need to pass via Churchill. Butler also thought it unlikely that he was Churchill’s first choice for the role, meaning there was always the possibility it would be pulled away in the last minute. Hence, he declined.

Unfortunately, Churchill would still prove to be a blockade for Butler: he needed his approval on the Education Bill, even though he had specifically said he would not consider such reforms while the war was ongoing. In March 1943 Butler was asked to spend the night at Chequers. Once there Churhill read aloud a prepared speech about Britain’s post-war future, in which he described education’s role.  On finishing, Churchill told Butler he must re-write it overnight and make it better (even though Churchill would not release him from social activities until 1am). In the original speech Churchill promised national school standards and an immediate raising of the the leaving age. Butler’s rewrite softened the leaving age (it would instead be ‘progressively prolonged’) and added the new religious arrangements.

Churchill called for him the following morning:

…at a quarter to eleven my presence was demanded and I found him in bed, smoking a cigar, 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, since it provided him with a hot-water bottle and saved fuel and power. Didn’t I agree? I said not really, but that it was a very beautiful cat. This seemed to please him.

Churchill looked at the new speech and Butler revealed his intentionto draft a new Education Bill encompassing the church school changes. Churchill ignored his comment.

Heartened by Churchill declining the opportunity to outright stop the idea Butler moved forward and in January 1944 moved the Second Reading of the bill in the House of Commons. Some attacks were raised, but only a few. Butler’s careful costings and claims that it would ‘take a generation to implement’ helped calm fears.

By August 1944 the Bill was through and Butler received a telegram:

“Pray accept my congratulations. You have added a notable Act to the Statute Book and won a lasting place in the history of British Education. Winston S. Churchill”

Henceforth, every child had the right to a free secondary education for at least four years (eventually five). Though the school system was initially split across grammars, moderns and technical, Butler’s view was that the buildings would gradually combine onto one site (known in original documents as ‘multilateral’ schools rather than comprehensive). The Act also included provision for a progression toward compulsory part-time education up to the age of 18; a policy that has yet to fully come to fruition.

No doubt Butler was chomping at the bit to implement the new school plans he had worked so hard to complete. Unfortunately, the 1945 General Election loomed on the horizon.

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