1944: Butler and the Tripartite System

The Education Act of 1944 was an answer to surging social and educational demands created by the war and the widespread demands for social reform. The Education Act 1944, relating to England and Wales, was authored by Conservative Rab Butler and known as "the Butler Act", defined the modern split between primary education and secondary education at age 11; it also established the Tripartite System, consisting of grammar schools, secondary modern schools and secondary technical schools. Academically gifted students who passed the "Scholarship" exam (later replaced by a "Grading Test" and the 11+ examination) were able to attend a grammar school. Children who did not pass the selection test attended secondary modern schools or technical schools. It also represented a historic compromise between church and state. Three new categories of schools were set Voluntary Controlled schools where two thirds of the funding came from the state and one third from the church. In return the school kept the title deeds to the land, but taught an agreed religious education syllabus. These schools were favoured by the Anglicans. Voluntary Aided schools were favoured by the Roman Catholics, in return for one-third funding they agreed to become provide free education- but were their own admissions authority and could set their own religious education syllabus. Direct Grant Schools allowed former independent schools, often town grammar schools and predominantly in the north of England to accept a state grant in return for providing free education to many students but still charging for others. The state had little control on syllabus or admissions policy. The schools kept their title deeds. The school leaving age was raised to 15.

The elite system of public schools was practically unchanged. The new law was widely praised by Conservatives because it honored religion and social hierarchy, by Labour because it opened new opportunities for the working class, and by the general public because it ended the fees they had to pay. The act became a permanent part of the Post-war consensus supported by the three major parties.

Changes in government approaches towards education meant that it was no longer regarded adequate for a child to leave education aged 14, as that is the age when they were seen to really understand and appreciate the value of education, as well as being the period when adolescence was at its height. It was beginning to be seen as the worst age for a sudden switch from education to employment, with the additional year in schooling to only provide benefits for the children when they leave. Although there were concerns about the effects of having less labour from these children, it was hoped that the outcome of a larger quantity of more qualified, skilled workers would eliminate the deficit problem from the loss of unskilled labour.

The 1944 Act took effect in 1947. Education was made compulsory to age 15 in 1947. The 1944 Act had also recommended compulsory part-time education for all young people until the age of 18, but this provision was dropped so as not to overburden the post-war spending budget (as had happened similarly with the Act of 1918).

While the new law formed a part of the widely accepted Post-war consensus agreed to in general by the major parties, one part did generate controversy in the post-war years. Critics on the left attacked grammar schools as elitist because a student had to pass a test at age 11 to get in. Defenders argued that grammar schools allow pupils to obtain a good education through merit rather than through family income. No changes were made. In some areas, notably that of the London County Council, comprehensive schools had been introduced. They had no entrance test and were open to all children living in the school catchment area. However, despite tentative support for 'multilateralism' in secondaries, and a desire to raise the standard of secondary moderns to that of private institutions, from Minister for Education Ellen Wilkinson, the majority of Labour MPs were more concerned with implementing the 1944 Act; her successor George Tomlinson saw this through, although the secondary technicals remained underdeveloped.