Change and continuity: reflections on the Butler act
Speech to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1944 Education Act, given by the
chief inspector of schools, David Bell
Wednesday April 21, 2004
On the 3rd of August 1944, Royal Assent was given to an Education Act. It was the
culmination of the work of R A (“Rab”) Butler, who then became the first minister of
education. Latterly Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, Butler skilfully negotiated the
formulation of the act and its passage through parliament. As history has since shown, the
act profoundly influenced the education system for decades to come.
To bring the story of Rab Butler right up to date, I had the pleasure earlier today of meeting
the children and staff of the R A Butler schools in Saffron Walden. I was particularly
delighted to be accompanied by the current MP for the area, Sir Alan Haselhurst.
May I say how deeply grateful I am to Sir Alan for hosting today’s event here in the
magnificent surroundings of the House of Commons. Given what a great parliamentarian
Rab Butler was, I suspect that he would have been pleased. I certainly know that Lady
Butler is delighted that we are celebrating her husband’s legacy, and only sorry that she
cannot be with us today.
Britain in 1944 and 2004
My purpose today is to reflect on the 1944 Education Act and its relevance in 2004, and to
consider the extent to which the education service has met the challenges set 60 years
ago by Rab Butler and his fellow parliamentarians.
But let us begin by reflecting on Britain in 1944. The country, of course, was still at war.
Access to education was limited: in 1938, for example, only one fifth of all children
received a formal education after age 14. But even in 1944, thoughts had turned to the
cessation of hostilities. The government had recognised that the evacuation of millions of
children had opened the eyes of people in city and rural communities, and it was beginning
to plan for a post-war…