Rab Butler


When Rab Butler was summoned by Churchill to be informed of his new position as President of the Board of Education, Churchill was typically forthright.

Butler’s biography explains what Churchill said:

I now want you to go the Board of Education. I think that you can leave your mark there. You will be independent. Besides,” he continued, with rising fervour, “you will be in the war. You will move poor children from here to here,” and he lifted up and evacuated imaginary children from one side of his blotting pad to the other; “this will be very difficult”. He went on: “I am too old now to think you can improve people’s nature. Everyone has to learn to defend himself. I should not object if you could introduce a note of patriotism into the schools.” And then, with a grin, recalling our conversation the previous week, “Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec.”

When Butler said that he should like to directly influence the school curriculum but that such moves were commonly frowned upon, Churchill answered earnestly: Of course not by instruction or order but by suggestion”

Want to read like an education secretary?

Though he disliked learning Classics at school, Butler decided he must gen up on the subject before entering Parliament. Here is what he read:

I travelled with Xenophon across Asia Minor and was easily absorbed into Herodotus. I studied Cicero and Demosthenes for style – only to find that I got more from a four-volume edition of the speeches of the Younger Pitt which themselves came from classics. I took Macauly’s History with me, and read the lot, Doughty for the Red Sea, Froude for Oceana, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘In the south seas’, and many new authors in Australia and New Zealand on the experiments in state organisations and profit-sharing. While in India I read books on Dufferin, Curzon, and William Bentinck, and there conceived or admitted the great ambition of my life which was to be Viceroy of India.

Are today’s Education Secretaries so well read? Does it even matter?

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.

Am now getting near the end of Rab Butler’s autobiography. The later chapters mostly cover his time as Chancellor and working in the Home and Foreign office. The chapter on his role as Education Minister retold his involvement in the 1944 Education Act and I thought it was worth recounting that process because of the insight it gives into the passing of education bills.


The 1944 Education Act is considered one of the most significant education reforms of the 20th century. But it was not supposed to be this way. Eight years earlier the 1936 Education Act laid down the same law now associated with the ’44 act: that every child should remain in school until aged 15. With a three year lead-in period the policy was due to start on 1st September 1939. On that day, Germany invaded Poland.

The perils of war rained hard on the education system. Evacuation, loss of male teachers, the use of school buildings for war ministries, all meant countless interruption. Educational operations could at best be called ‘hazy’ during this time. The poverty and lack of literacy among the inner-city children bundled off to the doorsteps of the wealthier also brought a growing awareness of England’s educational inequalities. Not for the first time education became the rally cry for anyone who wanted to improve these children’s futures, and so it was that Butler was handed the job of preparing for a better situation once the war was won. [The idea that England would not be the ultimate victors appears never to have entered Butler’s mind].

In June 1941 he published “The Green Book” – a plan for a ‘multilateral’ schooling system that would abolish ‘extreme inequality of wealth and possessions’. The NUT responded with their own “Dark Green Book” and the Directors and Secretaries Association published an “Orange Book” giving their views on the matter. Coloured books were clearly the blogging of its day.

More inclined than later secretaries to listen, Butler took the books seriously and attempted to move his position.

Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased by his actions. Churchill sent a letter on the 13th September 1941 stating:I certainly cannot contemplate a new Education Bill. Churchill was concerned that any quality education system threatening private schools would be a distraction right at the time he needed the elites most. He was probably right. Butler henceforth laid off the public schools (he had previously suggested integrating them) but continued writing his Bill.

A thornier problem was that of the ‘provided’ and ‘non-provided’ schools. In the 19th century most schools were operated by voluntary bodies who raised money from public subscriptions. From 1833 the State also provided funds to ‘assist’ the schools. By the early 1900s the largest voluntary provider, the Church of England, educated nearly two million children. However, two and a half million were also by this point educated in local government schools. If church schools needed money for new buildings, or to pay more teachers, they were given money by the state, however attending religious school was only possible if you of that faith. Taxpayers then asked: Why should the state fund schools that our child (of a different religion) cannot attend? [That it took England so long to become annoyed by this is fascinating; America had a similar debate a hundred years previously].

The debate had rumbled on, but by the 1940s Church of England schools were now the ones most in need of repair. Many had too few pupils to be economical. And the discriminatory policies the schools had towards teachers, often underpinned by racist tendencies, irked the NUT. Butler knew that in a post-WWII world, where money was tight and needs high, handing over cash for the necessary repairs to CoE schools considered discriminatory and elitist was going to split spleens.

Through intense negotiation Butler therefore got the agreement of many Anglican districts to hand over their school building to the local authority; in return, schools would teach an agreed religious studies [This move much delighted Churchill who teased Butler by calling it the ‘County Council Creed’ and asking whether Butler was planning to create a State religion.]

The Roman Catholic church, however, was less concilliatory. They called the new curriculum ‘Disembodied Christianity’ and argued they had not spent millions building schools in the 19th century to simply hand them over to the council. It was a fair point.

Butler’s next compromise bestowed two new phrases on our educational landscape. He offered Church schooles the choice of becoming either ‘controlled’ or ‘aided’. If ‘controlled’ the LEA would be responsible for all the school’s costs, the appointment of teachers, and the children would be taught the ‘County Council Creed’. If a religious school chose the ‘aided’ path then the LEA was responsible for teacher salaries and the running of the school, but managers were responsible for alterations to bring the building up to standard. On the plus side aided schools could hire and fire all teachers at will, and could teach religion as they wished.

Still, the churches would not play nicely.

At least, not until Butler revealed the hard facts. Over 90% of Church Schools were 40+ years old and the Church simply did not have enough money for their upkeep. They, and Rab, knew it. Butler’s deal was a solid one: the ones who shifted to the LEA got their curriculum and retained choice over their leaders but the building costs were sucked up by the LEA who could quell the baying crowds by explaining that they now had control over recruitment, admissions, etc.

All was exciting and the passing of the Act finally looked assured. It was only then that Butler got a phone call. He had finally – after years of waiting – been considered for the role of Viceroy to India, his dream job, and was asked if he might wish to take it?

Of course he wanted to go. It was what he had dreamed about for so long. But the Bill was in a fragile way. Without him it was entirely possible that it would fall apart. What on earth was he to do?……

Rab ButlerAfter struggling at sport and failing his Eton entrance exam, Rab Butler (future Education Minister) focussed on improving his mind.  But how?

1. Square your marks – Butler’s Classics teacher gave tests out of 6 and then required students to ‘square’ their marks. This meant that a respectable four out of 16 only resulted in one receiving 16 out of 36 after squaring. The squaring motivated Butler to push for those two extra points.

2. Be clever, with an interest – Butler focused on modern languages, literature and history instead of Classics. He did so because he was told “be captivated by your subject”. His subsequent Cambridge First suggests it was a smart move.

3. If you must learn something, do it properly – When Butler learned French he forced himself to read Gautier, the French writer with the widest vocabulary. Each day Butler would write down new words encountered, rehearse them, and then recount them the next day. When Butler wanted to learn German, he moved to Austria.

4. Focus on your strengths – Butler made ‘seriousness’ a motif in his debating skills as a way of hiding his lack of humour. He later secured a position as President of the Cambridge Union. He used the same focus to pull off a First in History after planning in advance precisely how he would spend his entire final year. Even though Butler was gravely ill for one his finals exams he achieved top marks for the paper and was awarded a University Fellowship.

5. Don’t just learn from books – Classical smarts were important to Butler but he also realised it wasn’t everything. He would later remark that his policies for employment were more influenced by the sight of desperate men queuing day-after-day at the labour markets than it was by anything he read.

Rab Butler’s childhood stories of living in India involve elephant rides, camping under hot skies, and the fact that no English person ever remained there once they hit sixty.

Butler recounts one particular incident that notably impacted his future opinions:

One day when out riding round Jakko, I ordered my sais to let go of the reins. Galloping around a corner, I was thrown and hopelessly broke my right arm. The sais did not catch up and the first to pass was a Sikh who ‘passed by on the other side’ and left me. All my life, especially when I was Under-Secretary for India, I was quite unjustly cautious of Sikhs.

Butler’s arm was so badly broken he later suffered with Volkmann’s Contractions, leaving him with a permanently weakened handshake and a lifetime of therapy. However, his pain was not his family’s main concern:

My father’s sorrow was terrible. He was brought up in the public school tradition and felt that my whole future as an athlete would be prejudiced. Indeed this proved to be so.

Butler’s family therefore turned their attention to schooling:

I fancied myself an Eton scholarship, and so did my mother, but my schoolmaster was very discouraging. However I went up and sat the papers. At the end of the second day a man in a gown read the names of those who were requested to stay and continue. Mine was not included. I went and spoke to him asking if there had been a mistake; he said there had not. My mother, who met me on the bridge in the High Street, hid her disappointment and cheerfully insisted that we must buy a camera immediately. So I took a picture of her on the bridge, but this did not come out either, due to faulty exposure.

If Butler had been told on that day of his many future achievements one wonders if he would have believed it.

Acknowledgements page from Rab Butler’s “Art of The Possible” Biography.

Not one of the most exciting in the acknowledgement series, but big question:  Who are the Shephard family, and why do they own so many cartoons?

I am indebted to those whom I had given the bulk of my political papers, and the copyright therein, for making these papers available to me and to Peter Goldman, and for dealing with the business aspects of the publication of this book.

We are indebted to Lucia Santa Cruz for assisting with historical aspects, especially in the chapter on the Munich period,  and to Robin Allen for research work, particularly in connection with the reform of the Conservative Party after the defeat of 1945, also to Michael Fraser for political advice. I make grateful acknowledgements to the many others who have kindly read individual chapters and commented upon them. My secretary, Julia Fish, has provided much help with the preparation of the sheets for publication, and to her too I offer my gratitude.

For permission to reproduce cartoons to David Low, Vicky, Giles, and Ernest Shephard I am obliged to the David Low Trustees, the Evening Standard, the Daily ExpressPunch and Associated Newspapers Ltd.

Chapter titles give the flavour of a life. Here’s Butler’s:

















Rab ButlerRichard Austen Butler, Baron Butler of Safron Walden

Born: 9 December 1902, Attock Serai, British India

Died: 8 March 1982 (79), Great Yeldham, Essex

Party: Conservative

Dates as Education Minister: 20 July 1941  – 25 May 1945 (1405 days)

Age when Minister: 38 yrs (7m) – 42 yrs (5m)

Educated first in British India, ‘Rab’ Butler was later taught at Marlborough College and then Pembroke College, Cambridge. Like many other Education Secretaries after him, he was the President of the Cambridge Union Society.

In his Parliamentary career, Butler first acted as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs before taking up the position as President of the Board of Education, then later the newly-invented role of Minister for Education. During his office Butler passed the landmark 1944 Education Act, the foundation for compulsory secondary schooling for all. After education, Butler subsequently served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister. He was the Saffron Walden MP for over 36 years.

Is he a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Yes. Oh yes.

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