In May 1940 Ellen Wilkinson became parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Pensions. In October 1940 she became joint parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Home Security. As part of this role she was given particular responsibility for air raid shelters and care of the homeless, both causes suited to her concerns. During her time in this role, Wilkinson frequently travelled, speaking to people about their experiences and taking notes on how to improve shelter conditions. She would later implement installation of new, safer air raid shelters (called "Morrison shelters").
Minister for Education
In 1945, Wilkinson became Minister for Education in Clement Attlee's government. Wilkinson was the second woman, after Margaret Bondfield, to achieve a place in the British cabinet. As Minister of Education she saw as her main task the implementation of the Education Act (1944). This Act provided universal free secondary education, and raised the minimum school leaving age from 14 to 15. Other reforms during Wilkinson's tenure as minister included free school milk, improvements in the school meals service, an increase in university scholarships, and an expansion in the provision of part-time adult education through colleges.
Ill health and death
Wilkinson's time in cabinet was often hampered by ill health, and she was not able to achieve as much as she wished. She had neglected her health during the war, and suffered from debilitating bronchial asthma. She died at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London, on 6 February 1947, of heart failure following an overdose of medication. At the same she was suffering from emphysema with pneumonia and acute bronchitis.
After Wilkinson's death was announced in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said of her:
"Active, courageous, competent, accessible, she had many of the traits at which Ministers of every Government and of every party have been taught to aim. She had a very warm sympathy for social causes of all kinds, and was fearless and vital in giving expression to them. But she also had a great pride in our country and in its flag. This was very noticeable in several of her speeches and actions, not only during the crisis of the war, but later. She always wished to see this Island great and famous, and capable of offering a decent home to all its people."