Children deserve the very best education if they are to learn how to improve themselves and their communities. Their education must be geared to the world in which they live, prepare them for a full life, and help them to become adaptable. Above all else education must reach every child.
Unlike 1914 Englishmen didn’t rush enthusiastically into the Second World War; increasingly caught up since 1931 with the search for social equality and a better standard of living, men had to be conscripted into the armed services. When the war was over, and hopefully won, the returning servicemen would demand more genuine opportunities than had awaited their fathers’ generation. In the darkest days of 1940 England took a pounding, and most of Europe was under German control. The Americans were still uninvolved neutrals and reserves of food stuffs were down to only six weeks. Britain stood alone, and many doubted whether she would survive1. Amidst the dust, smoke and grime of the blitzed House of Commons Winston Churchill appointed R. A. Butler to the Board of Education. Churchill2, while knowing that even in the country’s darkest hour it was critical to plan for a sunnier future, was so preoccupied with the immediate that he told Butler, “I’m too old, now, to think you can improve people’s natures. You must make all the young cadets into powder monkeys, and relieve the pressure on gun sites”.
Butler3 was an able politician, the nephew and great-grandson of two former headmasters of Harrow, the son of the master of a Cambridge College with a mother who had strong family connections with India. He represented Bishops Stortford for forty years, and for most of that time he was also church warden. Very much the patrician, rather than the aristocrat, Butler has long been seen as the architect of the 1944 Education Act that finally gave England the fully national system of education it so badly needed. Or did he? And was this most polished politician, who never quite became prime minister, quite as astute as had been thought?
No one has ever doubted his idealism, commitment, or enormous energy. He faced daunting issues that needed urgent attention; the appalling shortage of secondary school places, the need to reduce class sizes which were sometimes over fifty, the deteriorating condition of church schools, and an acute shortage of teachers. His Permanent Secretary, Sir Maurice Holmes4, a former classical scholar and archetypal civil servant whose power lay in controlling all the puppet strings, provided him with copious briefings. This included his annotations on the Hadow Report5 on adolescents of 1924; the work on intelligence testing by Cyril Burt6, and the most recent report by Sir William Spens7 that argued that new secondary schools should have a common curriculum for every child. To this suggestion Holmes had taken strong exception. He urged Butler to think, as the ancient Greeks had, in terms of schools for three different types of youngsters. To advise butler a further committee was set up under Sir Cyril Norwood8, another classical scholar who was also headmaster of Harrow, to describe the characteristics of young people in ways that could lead to them being divided into ‘certain rough groupings’. Firstly, there were those “who can grasp an argument and follow a piece of connected reasoning”; secondly, those “whose interests and abilities lie markedly in the field of applied science or applied art”, and thirdly, those who are “interested only in the moment, and incapable of a long series of connected steps, to whom abstraction means little”. Butler was hedged about by Establishment figures. It seems that butler followed the advice of his civil servant; he appeared to have taken no notice of Richard Livingstone, to have accepted the validity of intelligence tests, and have quickly accepted the appropriateness of eleven as the age of transfer.
Butler also had a personal problem; privately he was as ambivalent as were many of his contemporaries as to whether a public school ethos would any longer be relevant in a future Britain, but had been warned by Churchill not to raise any questions of this kind9. So, Butler simply side stepped the issue, even when approached by the public school heads in 1941 seeking state scholarships as a way of shoring up their own rapidly collapsing financial base. Eventually Butler set up a separate commission to consider the Public School issue whose terms of reference were so weak that it didn’t report until after the Education Act had become law; using a railway metaphor Butler later regretted that this meant that the first-class carriage had been shunted off onto an immense siding. For lack of bold thinking sixty years ago it’s still there10.
In March 1944, three months before the allied landings in Normandy, Butler presented his Bill. He had done what a good minister has to do; he had built a coalition of political support that gave his Department’s proposals an easy ride11. The school leaving age would be raised immediately to fifteen, with the provision that it should be raised shortly thereafter to sixteen. Ten years of compulsory schooling would be divided at the age of eleven into a primary and secondary system. The old Revised Code of elementary education that had almost exclusively been concerned with the 3 ‘Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) was to be replaced by an all-through curriculum that would be based on the 3 ‘As’ (age, ability and aptitude). Secondary education was, in most cases, to be split into three different strands, entry to which would depend on the result of examinations at the age of eleven. An agreement was reached with the churches about the on-going maintenance of the many thousands of their schools, by offering them Aided or Voluntary Controlled status12.
The question, however, remains. Did Butler do little more than produce a 1920’s solution to what would soon be a 1950’s world? Thesis 63: 24th August 2006