The Butler Act (1944): Context and Effectiveness


The problem of education has always belonged to one of the most important issues in the United Kingdom. The question was especially acute after World War II when the country required drastic changes even though in the post-war period, there were many problems to solve (McCulloch, 2005). In 1944, the government passed a fundamental law that determined the structure and development of the British education system for many decades to come (Mandler, 2014). The act is known as the Education Act of 1944, or the Butler Act (Mandler, 2014). The purpose of this paper is to analyze the Act and discuss the reasons for its successes and failures.

The context for the Act of 1944

After World War II, the United Kingdom saw crucial changes. During the war, when the threat of invasion of fascist Germany to the UK passed, the conservative government of Winston Churchill was already planning the post-war structure of the country (McCulloch, 2005). Further development of the education system was one of the most acute questions of that time (Southern, 2016). Richard Butler who was a member of the Conservative Party, in 1941, served as President of the Board of Education (Southern, 2016). During the war, this position was not significant for the state, but Butler, chairing the board, carried out one of the most radical reforms of the British educational system. The Butler Act covered the entire educational sphere: from the nutrition of schoolchildren to the formation of the central administration of the education system.

Turning to the history of the Education Act under analysis, it should be noted that the decision to implement the changes was not spontaneous. In fact, the provisions of the act had been prepared for a decade (Chitty, 2004). It was based on the recommendations developed by the Advisory Committee, which operated under the Board of Education (Chitty, 2004). In 1933, the committee was tasked with analyzing the work of schools, in particular, the organization of instruction for students from 11 to 16 years old (Mandler, 2014). Five years later, the Committee presented a report by William Spence “Secondary Education with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools” (Mandler, 2014). The report presented a characteristic of the development of British schools and recommendations for making curriculums and organizing exams.

Particular attention was paid to the issue of age-related changes. The work explored the alternations in the physical and psychological state of girls and boys aged 11 to 16 years (Southern, 2016). Moreover, the report analyzed how this factor should be taken into account when organizing the educational process (Southern, 2016). The most significant recommendation stated in the report was the creation of schools of three types (Mandler, 2014). They were grammar schools for children with academic inclinations, technical schools for children with practical skills and inclinations, and modern ones for others (Mandler, 2014). It was noted that schools of each type would fulfil their inherent purpose, as they contribute to the free growth of personality. The division was supposed to help each boy and girl to achieve the highest level of individual development to which he or she is capable.

This provision on the three types of schools caused objections from labour unions and Labour leaders who launched a campaign for unified and more equal schooling. However, decision-makers at the Ministry of Education were determined to have a divided, ramified school system (Mandler, 2014). In 1943, a report by Cyril Norwood “Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools” was presented (Southern, 2016). In this document, the division of high school into three types was justified and the detailed curriculum for secondary schools was drawn up (Southern, 2016). The need for the Tripartite system was motivated by the difference in the psychological characteristics of children and different types of thinking or mind.

Content of the Butler Act

Taking into consideration the above-described fact, it might be stated that the Butler Act reflected the decisions that were being prepared over the past decade. It was to eliminate the barriers between primary and secondary schools and change educational system management (Jones, 2016). The Board of Education was reorganized into the Ministry of Education, headed by the Minister, who delivered an annual report to Parliament (Jones, 2016). Two Central Advisory Councils were formed, subordinate to the Minister of Education, and called upon to advise officials on various educational issues (Jones, 2016). Besides, the Tripartite schooling system was introduced (Jones, 2016). Its purpose was to reveal children’s talents at an early age and give them the right development. Hence, it might be stated that in general, the initial intent of the government implemented in the Butler Act was to reorganize the educational system of the United States.

In the Act of 1944, in addition to the prerogatives of the central government, the powers of local bodies of the education system were also prescribed. It was they who mostly financed kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, and specialized schools (Jones, 2016). Schools of primary and secondary education, subordinate to local education authorities, were called county schools, and the rest were referred to as voluntary schools (Mandler, 2014). The latter was mainly educational institutions attached to churches, monasteries, and other religious organizations (Southern, 2016). The Butler Act prescribed management and financing schemes for different types of schools and suggested measures for providing students with food, transportation, and medical services.

There was a separate part of the Act devoted to independent of the government schools. The Butler Act did not provide for drastic changes in the activities of these schools, as private schools were guided by their charters (Mandler, 2014). The only thing that was prescribed in the Act was the mandatory registration of such schools. The Minister appointed a separate Commissioner for Independent Schools, whose main responsibility was to register these schools and provide the Minister with information on the activities of a particular private school (Mandler, 2014). The Act also established the procedure for handling complaints regarding these institutions.

It should be noted that many educational standards were enshrined in the Act of 1944 for the first time and were progressive. One of them was a clearly defined structure of the education system: elementary school, high school and further education (county colleges) (Mandler, 2014). Other important provisions were free and compulsory education for children aged 5 to 15 and offering medical services to students for free (Southern, 2016). Besides, all changes and educational reforms planned and implemented by the British authorities at that time were further developed based on the Butler Act. Thus, the 1944 Act served as a milestone in British educational law establishing the post-war education system.

Effectiveness of the Butler Act

As for the impact of the Educational Act of 1944, it was positive in many ways but had its weak points, too. The Butler Act served as a foundation for the modern educational system of Great Britain with its main advantages being a clear separation between the levels of education and free education for all children. It served as the main reason for the success of the Act. However, what proved to be weak was the selection procedure to allocate children to the schools according to their talents (Southern, 2016). The exam known as “eleven-plus” that English boys and girls were to take at the age of 11 was criticized for not reflecting children’s abilities properly (Southern, 2016). Besides, there was an opinion that during the selection, parents’ choice should be taken into consideration, too (Chitty, 2004). The problem described above is closely connected with the constraints suggested by the 1944 Butler Act. They were well-navigated and there were not enough opportunities for a person who failed to perform well at eleven-plus to enter a university. All in all, many people believed that the allocation of children should have been conducted at a later age, and this fact might be regarded as the major ground for the failure of the Act.

Speaking about the compromises of the Act of 1944, it might be stated that the Act itself was a compromise. One reason for this is that the law can be regarded as a cross-party product that made a combination of private- and state-owned capitals and led to the establishment of a mixed economy (Chitty, 2004). Besides, the Butler Act continued church involvement in the educational process. The religious compromise was partly expressed in the acts of 1870 and 1902 (Chitty, 2004). However, it was the Act of 1944 that established collective worship and religious instruction in state-aided primary and secondary educational institutions. The involvement of church authorities in education encouraged by the Act is a controversial issue but considering the mindset of people and the situation of that time, it might be justifiable. In fact, after the hardships of war and during the difficult period of recovery, people wanted to find consolation which was provided by religion.

One more important factor to consider while analyzing the effects of the Butler Act is luck. In fact, the United Kingdom, as well as other states, experienced severe difficulties in the post-war period which was not the best time for changes (Mandler, 2014). The elected Labour government of C. Attleey had to overcome the consequences of World War II: rebuild cities, reconstruct the economy, and create jobs for young men returning from the army (Mandler, 2014). Many of these problems were related to education; it was necessary to restore facilities for schools and colleges, build new ones, solve the problem of the lack of teachers, and organize retraining courses. Therefore, the reorganization of the educational system of the United Kingdom was conducted under unfavourable conditions which negatively affected its results by not allowing its full implementation. For example, due to the difficulties noted, some provisions of the Education Act of 1944 did not enter into force until 1947, such as the clause regarding the age of graduation (Mandler, 2014). This consequence could be foreseen and cannot be called bad luck.

The conservative government of W. Churchill preferred not to carry out new radical reforms. On coming to power in 1951, they decided to act within the framework of the existing legislation and the Tripartite System of schools despite the fact it had been criticized (Jones, 2016). In fact, the dissatisfaction with the allocation of 11-year-old children to schools of the three types was growing (Southern, 2016). The reason was that the economic situation was changing to the positive which contributed to the financial well-being of British citizens (Southern, 2016). Hence, people wanted better educational opportunities for their children. However, in 1954, Education Minister D. Ackles justified the Tripartite System (Chitty, 2004). According to him, in education, the government needed to choose between justice and equality, since it is impossible to apply both of these principles at once (Chitty, 2004). The supporters of unified schooling preferred equality while Her Majesty’s existing government chose justice.


To sum up, it is significant to press the point that the Bulter Act of 1944 was one of the most important legislations of the post-war period. Its initial purpose was to reorganize education in the United Kingdom. In fact, the Act brought crucial changes to the educational system of the country by clearly defining the levels of education. Besides, it completed the process of church involvement in education and created a new management structure of schools and other educational institutions. Thus, it might be stated that the Act played a key role in the formation of the modern educational system of the UK. However, the allocation of 11-year-old children to schools of the three types arouse dissatisfaction and proved to be weak because it prevented children from having equal opportunities to enter universities.

Reference List

Chitty, C. (2004) Education policy in Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jones, K. (2016) Education in Britain: 1944 to the present. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Mandler, P. (2014) ‘Educating the nation I: schools’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 24, pp. 5–28.

McCulloch, G. (ed.) (2005) The RoutledgeFalmer reader in history of education. London: Psychology Press.

Southern, A. (2016) ‘Education in post-War Britain’, in The Ministry of Education film experiment. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 11–33).

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