Making progress possible – Education Acts and dumb luck with decent politicians

An old article on RA Butler, architect of Britain’s ‘great’ 1944 Education Act (who succeeded in making changes in a tricky post – a portfolio given to him by Churchill with the intention of dropping him from view), offers up a sort of historic framework for understanding changes to public Education. Just as the author of this article questioned the validity of the changes being made in Britain in 1993, we should question those being made right now in NZ…

Will the current National government be remembered for stopping progress in New Zealand education… for all but the richest, that is?

Professor Michael Barber (author of The Making of the 1944 Education Act) writes: “The average ‘life’ expectancy of an education minister is somewhere between 18 months and two years. As the cliché has it, they are either on their way up or on their way down. Education has never been one of the plum cabinet jobs; indeed it has not always earned Cabinet rank. As a result, Britain has rarely benefited from talented politicians at the height of their powers taking charge of education [we hear you Britain!]. R.A. Butler is the exception. In his late thirties, entering his political prime, he devoted four years to the country’s education problems as president of the Board of Education in a coalition government absorbed by war.

As an apostle of appeasement he had expected Churchill to sack him in 1941. Instead the great war leader [if you ignore Gallipoli] chose to becalm him in the backwater of education, or so he thought. Churchill expected his new minister to concentrate on evacuating children; ‘wiping their noses and smacking their behinds’, as he put it.

Butler, however, recognised the opportunity he had been given and seized it. ‘It is clear,’ he said in a speech in 1941, ‘that the Education Department should be busy thinking about the future, so that when there is a rift in the clouds and the blue sky appears, we shall be ready to make a dash out and take advantage of better weather.’ He was the first leading Conservative to recognise that war would radicalise the population and force all political parties to embrace major social reform. …

There was no doubt that the mobilisation of the population for war had killed forever the mean-spirited, Treasury-led, 1930s. [Bring Back Butler?!] At the outbreak of war, 80 per cent of all children received no further education after the age of 14. Nearly half of the 5-14 age group were in unreorganised all-age elementary schools.  …Only 98,000 pupils made it to grammar school each year, and payment of fees rather than merit was the chief criterion [is this what National wants for NZ in coming years? Performance pay for teachers could make it happen]. Only one 570 of the total 14-18 age group had reached university, a statistic that reveals the staggering waste of talent which resulted from government policy in the inter-war years. No wonder education reformers were frustrated.” (p1)

The equality of sacrifice demanded by war, by enemy bombing and the destruction of 25 per cent of all school buildings – and by the evacuation of city children to rural areas – transformed social expectations. The outrageous élitism of the 1930s was condemned. Those, like the National Union of Teachers, the Labour party and the Trades Union Congress, who for years had campaigned for ‘secondary education for all’, suddenly found mass support. [hear that NZEI? you need to get through to the people, not the politicians…]

The issue of the public schools was both controversial and a potential stumbling block in Butler’s push for reform (the officials who Butler needed to make the reforms happen were largely made up of Tories and graduates of public school education). As Barber explains, the public schools “were clearly élitist and their continued existence was contrary to the spirit of the times. One savage critic wrote just after Dunkirk when the continued existence of an independent Britain hung by a thread, that ‘we are where we are… owing largely, if not wholly to the privileged education, which the ruling classes have received.’” (p.2)

“Most controversial of all for Butler was the question of church schools. …The idea of state money paying for education in church schools had caused an almighty row during the 1902 Education Act. The Government had been accused of providing ‘Rome on the rates’. The same problem had been the stumbling block to every attempt at reform in the 1920s and ’30s.” Butler arrived at a compromise, though and “[t]he religious settlement proved both durable and effective. It was a remarkable achievement, which none of his predecessors had been able to accomplish. The new social climate of wartime helped of course; but overwhelmingly it was a tribute to Butler’s talents as a negotiator. His integrity was unquestioned throughout; he was clear about his objectives, but always flexible about means. He also had the ability both to articulate his thoughts, and to listen intently. Few, if any, of his successors have been so well blessed. The result was that when his Bill was introduced in January 1944 he could claim with justification, that it was widely welcomed. …It is perhaps surprising that during the second reading debate, Butler was praised from all sides of the House. …The overall tenor of debate was positive, speeches calling for refinement rather than rejection. Two themes stand out from the debate, 50 years on. First, perhaps because the country was engaged in fighting against fascism [i.e., we can’t use the same impetus], MPs throughout showed a reverence for democracy which inspires even 50 years later. Butler himself concluded on the theme of pluralism: ‘Perhaps this Bill owes its welcome to an appreciation of the synthesis between order and liberty, between the voluntary agency and the state, between the private life of a school and the public life of its district, between manual and intellectual skill, and between those better and less well endowed.'” (p.2)

Barber concludes: “Over the years the 1944 Education Act did not fulfill all the dreams of MPs of the time, nor did it solve all the educational problems that beset this country. Laws alone do not bring educational change. They either enhance or reduce the prospects. Raising educational standards is a matter for administrators, the teaching profession, parents and industry. In short it is an issue of culture. The failures of the post-war years result from an inadequate culture, not from the 1944 Education Act. / The fact is the Act established a flexible framework which made nearly 50 years of progress possible. In 2043, will we be able to say the same of the 1993 Education Act?“(p.2)

Ref: Michael Barber (1994) ‘The prime of RA Butler’ Times Educational Supplement, 14/1/1994, issue 4046, pp1-2


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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