The Butler Education Act: 70 Years On

The Butler Education Act became legislation 70 years ago this week. This important Act made education free for all and established our system based on local education authorities. It also legislated for independent schools and gave schools the freedom to develop their work in accordance with the professional judgement of the teachers within individual educational institutions.

It also made a pertinent and clear statement about the development of the whole child (and community).

“The statutory system of public education shall be organised in three progressive stages to be known as primary education, secondary education, and further education; and it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental, and physical development of the community by securing that efficient education throughout those stages shall be available to meet the needs of the population of their area. Primary and Secondary Education.”

In addition to this, it said

“The schools available for an area shall not be deemed to be sufficient unless they are sufficient in number, character, and equipment to afford for all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities, and aptitudes, and of the different periods for which they may be expected to remain at school, including practical instruction and training appropriate to their respective needs.”

butler act

Oh the freedom! Oh the foresight!

This seminal political intervention into education understood, valued and respected the teaching profession. Under the guidance of Local Authorities, it gave schools the freedom to teach what they wanted, how they wanted under the conditions within the two quotes above. Most importantly, it established – in law – the vital statement that education should contribute towards the “spiritual, moral, mental and physical development” of pupils and their communities.

This cannot be stressed enough for we all know the history, and we all know that three quarters of that statement have lost significant ground to the “mental” development of the child – i.e. knowledge, facts and testing. However, this statement, or one similar to it, has been reiterated in every education act and every redesigned National Curriculum since, and was a driving force behind the Every Child Matters agenda.

So if, in the midst of World War Two, a Conservative politician could see the virtue of a more holistic approach to education, how have we ever got to the stage 70 years on when we’ve regressed so much?

There was an interesting account of the Butler Act and the subsequent history in the Guardian this week that is worth a read:

A subsequent Radio Four programme by the author of the Guardian piece, Roy Blatchford, was also broadcast, entitled “Teachers versus Government: 70 Years of Education Policy”

Listen to this programme here.

Whilst both the article and the programme were interesting and highlighted some specific areas of “battle” between teachers and politicians, and whilst it recognised that “if Baker was controlling, Blair and Blunkett were even more centrist and interventionist”, it didn’t convey the entire picture of education over the last 70 years and paid little heed to the progressive educational movement that consistently recognised that all-important statement in the Butler Act regarding the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the child.

Whilst there was mention of the William Tyndale School revolt and the militant Stockwell teachers in the 70s, it made no reference to the Plowden report and all the positive interventions that took place as an outcome. If we are ever going to progress in education, we have to acknowledge that there was some astoundingly good child-centred education over the decades that was not a free-for-all, which did excite and invigorate children and young people – instilling in them a love of learning, and which has been crushed to oblivion by the concentration on tests and league tables at the direct expense of the spiritual, moral and physical development of the child.

One could argue that “spiritual, moral, social and cultural” (SMSC) is an integral part of education because it’s within the judgement criteria for Ofsted, but isn’t that a sad statement in itself – that we are now in a situation that we can only justify the inclusion of such an educational approach because it has been deemed worthy of a sentence of comment in Ofsted reports!

The reality is that some school managers and some inspectors have a very simplified understanding of what SMSC entails, and that if you have an act of worship and some after-school activities, then you are doing the right thing regarding SMSC.

Wrong! SMSC or Butler’s phrase should be running clearly and evidently through every aspect of education – something that the progressives (who are adamantly and vociferously enthusiastic about literacy and numeracy) have clearly understood and tried to nurture in their own practice.

The radio programme admitted that political intervention has gone to the absolute extreme with the directives that come from Mr Gove and his team but it did little to suggest there was any alternative to this, and gave the impression that we should all be resigned to this intervention from politicians.

Again, this is wrong. There is an alternative and just as teachers should have stood loudly to confront Ken Baker, with his thousands of learning objectives that were impossible to deliver in the time allocated, then so too should we stand up united and say that enough is enough. We can’t tolerate this intervention any longer.

Also, as Zoe Williams in her recent Guardian article suggests, there is an alternative to strike action. There is an alternative to this ridiculous testing regime that is so detrimental to the holistic needs of the child and it seems that there is a turning tide where parents have had enough as well as teachers. (An astounding 97% of parents polled in a recent YouGov study said they did not totally trust Gove with their children’s education.)

Quoting David Blunkett as well as Ken Baker, the programme said that there was no alternative to the Academies programme and that this divisive system should remain, bringing us potentially full circle back to the tripartite system introduced under the 1944 Education Act – the one aspect of education that was rightly challenged and eradicated with the introduction of the Comprehensive system.

But there is an alternative, and one way to start to look at that alternative would be to review and really dig deep into the meaning of an education system that provides “spiritual, moral, mental and physical” development of the child with “variety and instruction” in the type of quality education they receive. We should also look at the overriding intention within the Butler Act – that education should be free for all, and follow this to the natural conclusion that this should be equal and fair, not divisive to the extent that different schools receive different funding from different streams according to their governance.

Our children deserve a reinvention of education where politicians, teachers, parents and pupils all agree on the aims of education, and we would almost guarantee that it would be focused on the whole development of the child and not merely academic attainment.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Butler Education Act: 70 Years On

  1. Tim Taylor says:

    Have you read “The Idiot Teacher” about Teddy O’Neill? Its on my Top Ten Favourite books on education


Please leave a comment - and tell others about 3Di!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s