Education Act 1944
Long title An Act to reform the law relating to education in England and Wales.
Chapter 7 and 8 Geo 6 c. 31
Introduced by R.A. Butler
Territorial extent England and Wales
Royal Assent 3 August 1944
Repeal date 1 November 1996
Other legislation
Amendments Education Reform Act 1988
Repealing legislation Education Act 1996
Status: Repealed
Text of statute as originally enacted

The Education Act 1944 (7 and 8 Geo 6 c. 31) changed the education system for secondary schools in England and Wales. Called the "Butler Act" after the Conservative politician R.A. Butler, it introduced the Tripartite System of secondary education and made all schooling--especially secondary education, free for all pupils. It raised the school leaving age to 15 (though the stated intention that it should be 16 was not effected until 1972), but kept age 11 as the decision point for sending children to higher levels. Every school was required to begin the day with a nondenominational religious activity, and Anglican schools were continued. Historians consider it a "triumph for progressive reform," even though the principal sponsor was the Conservative minister and president of the Board of Education, R. A. Butler.[1] He expressed the "One Nation Conservatism" in the tradition of Disraeli, which called for paternalism by the upper class toward the working class.[2]


The new tripartite system consisted of three different types of secondary school: grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools. It allowed for the creation of comprehensive schools which would combine these strands, but initially only a few were founded. It also created a system of direct grant schools, under which a number of independent schools received a direct grant from the Ministry of Education (as distinct from local education authorities or LEAs) in exchange for accepting a number of pupils on "free places".

To assess which pupils should attend which school, they took an exam known as the 11-plus. The system was intended to allocate pupils to the schools best suited to their "abilities and aptitudes", but in practice the number of grammar schools, for the academically inclined, remained unchanged, and few technical schools or comprehensive schools were established. As a result, most pupils went to secondary modern schools, whether they were suitable or not, meaning that the majority of education funding went to the secondary modern schools.

One of the ground-breaking results of the Act was to educate and mobilise women and the working class. It opened secondary school to girls, and the working class, and as a result, a far higher percentage attended higher education after secondary school. This newly found education increased working class awareness of their disadvantaged social position and created a bitter class division between the working and middle class. Such division was illustrated in the theatrical works of John Osborne in the late 1950s.

The Act renamed the Board of Education as the Ministry of Education, giving it greater powers and a bigger budget, ended fee-paying for state secondary schools, and enforced the division between primary (5–11 years old) and secondary (11–15 years old) that many local authorities had already introduced. While defining the school leaving age as 15, it granted the government the power to raise the age to 16 "as soon as the Minister is satisfied that it has become practicable",[3] though the change was not implemented until 1973. The Act also provided for community colleges, offering education for both children and adults, a measure that was only followed through by a few LEAs such as the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges, and Coventry, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire community schools.

The Act also introduced compulsory prayer into all state-funded schools on a daily basis.[4] This clause was amended by the Education Reform Act 1988, which specified that the act of worship should be of a 'broadly Christian nature' unless such a message was deemed to be inappropriate for a particular school or group of children. The amendment also specified that the act of worship could now take place in classes, rather than the previous system of conducting worship in assemblies.

The Act was repealed on 1 November 1996 by the Education Act 1996.[5]

School milk

The Act provided free meals and milk - a third of a pint a day - in schools to all children under the age of 18. In 1968 Harold Wilson’s Labour government withdrew free milk from secondary schools. In 1971 Margaret Thatcher (then Secretary of State for Education) withdrew free school milk from children over seven, forever earning her the nickname, 'Milk Snatcher Thatcher'.[6]


Further reading

  • Brown, J.W.H. (n.d.) The Education bill. London: Watts & Co. for the Rationalist Press Association.
  • Dunford, John, Paul Sharp, The Education System in England and Wales, London: Longman, 1990, 17-24.
  • Goldin, Claudia, "The Human Capital Century and American Leadership: Virtues of the Past," The Journal of Economic History, 2001, Volume 61, Number 2.
  • Jeffereys, Kevin. "R. A. Butler, the Board of Education and the 1944 Education Act," History (1984) 69#227 pp 415-431.
  • Middleton, Nigel. "Lord Butler and the Education Act of 1944," British Journal of Educational Studies (1972) 20#2 pp 178-191
  • Simon, Brian. "The 1944 Education Act: A Conservative Measure?," History of Education. (1986) 15#1 pp 31-43

External links

  • Change and continuity: reflections on the Butler act Speech to commemorate the 6oth anniversary of the 1944 Education Act, given by the chief inspector of schools, David Bell
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