Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Callaghan Speech and Its Consequences

Assessing a turning point in English Education.

In October 1976, Labour Prime Minister Callaghan made a speech at Ruskin college which has shaped English education for forty years. Before, Prime Ministers did not discuss education. Afterward, they have hardly stopped. It has never been forgotten in the Westminster bubble. As recently as April 2016, Schools Minister Nick Gibb commented that “this year marks the 40th anniversary of Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin speech, a landmark speech in which Callaghan in many ways set the direction of reform for the next 4 decades”.

There is no doubt that Callaghan did set an agenda which is still influential to this day. As such it needs to be brought into focus and analysed for its long term effects. Did the speech set a positive course, or has its effects been mixed? Has the course now been run? SOSS, with support from Lord Watson of Invergowrie, staged a seminar chaired by Lord Watson in the House of Lords to promote a debate around the speech.

This is the record of the contributions of the four main speakers, who looked at different aspects of the legacy. Lord Donoughue was head of the Number 10 policy unit at the time of the speech and was responsible for its production, Professor Richard Pring who was active in schools at the time after a career in the Department of Education before becoming head of the Education Department at Oxford University discussed the background to the speech back to the 1944 Education Act, Lord Blunkett talked about the impact of the speech on Labour thinking, and Fiona Miller, writer and journalist, commented on the lasting impact of the speech.

The seminar opened up a wide range of issues for further debate, emphasising the importance of Callaghan’s initiative and its relevance for contemporary developments. As Fiona Millar said, it was the 1976 speech and not the 1988 Education Reform Act which was the most important development in education after the 1944 Act. Richard Pring pointed to a sea change from the key belief after 1944 that politicians should not “get their hands on education” to a belief after 1976 that they should do so. The seminar posed the questions of effect and value which arise from this sea change.

40 years after the Ruskin speech there was agreement at the seminar that it is time to take stock. What has been gained and what lost by political intervention in state schools? Is it now time for a new Great Debate on education purpose and outcomes, which Callaghan intended to be the outcome of his speech. Did this happen? If so, with what effects? What are the lessons of History on the 40 years since the Ruskin speech?

Trevor Fisher

Report of the Seminar

Symposium On Sustainable Schools Seminar On Jim Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin College Speech Held At The House Of Lords On Thursday, 17th November 2016.

The panel: Lord Bernhard Donoughue, Prime Minister Callaghan’s Head of the Policy Unit in 1976; Lord David Blunkett, former Secretary of State for Education, 1997-2001; Fiona Millar, journalist and education activist; Emeritus Professor Richard Pring, Oxford University. In the chair, Lord Mike Watson, Labour Education spokesperson in the House of Lords.

Mike Watson welcomed those attending this event and introduced the panel and SOSS organisers of the event, Trevor Fisher and Richard Sidley.

Richard Pring opened the seminar in order to set the scene and the context of the speech. He admitted that it was based very much on anecdotal evidence but there was a consensus view that in the post 1944 Education Act period civil servants, and education professionals should “be prepared to die at the first ditch, should politicians get their hands on education!” As far as the Ministry of Education was concerned its primary function was to manage resources – allocate the money and ensure that there were appropriate numbers of teachers. It was to have little or nothing to do with the curriculum! In 1960 this was described, by Education Minister, David Eccles, as the “Secret Garden”. In keeping with the post 1944 philosophy the Schools Council was created in 1964 which put teachers and other education professionals firmly in control and which spawned many projects that were “teacher led” and free from political interference. It led to the establishment of teachers’ centres around the country to enable teachers to work together in curriculum development. However by the late 1960s and early 1970s there was growing opposition through the publication of the “Black Papers” to the ideas of John Dewey, the recommendations of the Plowden Report and so called “progressive child centred education” as exemplified by the William Tyndale School scandal.

Bernard Donoughue was Head of the No 10 Policy Unit in 1976. He had worked with Jim Callaghan for several years and knew him well. When Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson in 1976, he confided in Bernard Donoghue, wondering how he could make his mark as the new Prime Minister? Donoughue agreed to produce a paper of “broad sweep” initiatives on themes of government but where education was concerned, the theme was, “restoring higher standards in education, which turned out well qualified and employable young people, (who were) NOT just socially adjusted” – a reference to the education philosopher, John Dewey. The idea of “making his mark” in education appealed to Jim Callaghan, who in British Prime Ministerial terms, was relatively uneducated having left school at 14 and never attending university. Bernard Donoughue was keen to point out that, relatively uneducated, Callaghan may have been, but he possessed a powerful mind which many colleagues, and civil servants found very intimidating.

The political context of the speech was the economic turbulence of the 1970s and the increasing pressures from the IMF to sort out the British economy. Once again, the idea of improving education appealed to Callaghan. The speech was a joint effort between Donoughue and different advisors including Jill Arnott and it was shared with the then Education Minister, Fred Mulley, who urged caution on Callaghan. At this point the speech was leaked to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) where it was attacked and these attacks were personally directed at Callaghan.

The final draft was written over the summer and amended by Donoughue. When Callaghan was asked to lay a foundation stone at Ruskin College, Oxford, the Prime Minister saw this as an opportunity to deliver this important speech. Reaction in the hall was deferential but there were interruptions from “bearded leftists”! The response to the speech from the Chief HMI was to hold Bernard Donoughue personally responsible and to claim that “the Prime Minister had no right to get involved in education!” In its response the Department of Education took issue with the speech but without addressing the issues that Jim Callaghan had raised.

During the remaining period of the Callaghan premiership, little was carried through largely because education was overtaken by other issues including the economy, the LibLab Pact and the winter of discontent.

David Blunkett agreed that for the wider context and background to the speech it was necessary to go back to the Butler Act and the post war settlement. Education had not been on the Wilson agenda when Labour returned to power in 1964 as suggested by the fact that when offered the department Roy Jenkins had rejected it. Education was simply not sought out as the means of climbing the “greasy pole”. Even the impact of Tony Crossland in encouraging the spread of comprehensive schools had happened more “in passing” than driven by political zeal. However, David Blunkett did believe that the Ruskin Speech had changed the course of history by raising education as an important issue.

It took time but Margaret Thatcher understood this and with the appointments of Sir Keith Joseph who embarked on examination reform with GCSE and Ken Baker with Local Management of Schools, School Governance and the National Curriculum in 1988.

Labour initially opposed much of the Tory agenda but later accepted these reforms and changes. When Labour came to power in 1997 its areas of focus were: early years and Sure Start; building new schools; Literacy and Numeracy Strategies; innovative programmes like “Excellence in Cities” targeting resources at schools and local authorities most socially and economically deprived to raise standards; Further Education; Lifelong Learning and the Trade Union Learning Fund.

There were wide-ranging strategies to address the issues of under-achievement, “so blending the values of inclusion and being hard headed enough to improve the system”. To underpin all of this, Professor Tim Brighouse set up the Standards and Effectiveness Unit under Sir Michael Barber, with considerable support and advice from Professor Tim Brighouse, which brought theory and practice together.

David Blunkett was robust in his belief that there was a direct link with the discussions that had taken place between Callaghan and Donoughue fifty years ago and confirmed that it had been necessary then and when New Labour came to power in 1997 for Government to drive change in education.

Fiona Millar always had a soft spot for Ruskin as her parents had met there and she had re-read the Ruskin speech many times, and always noticed something new in it. She believed that 1976 and not as many believe, 1988 is the start of the story. Government “intervention” was needed for two reasons. First, in terms of the amount of public money that is spent on education and the right of the tax payer to know how it is spent. Second, because education is by nature political and goes to the heart of the society we want to see. The key is to achieve the right balance between political vision and excessive interference.

When considering the long term impact of the Ruskin speech it is striking how many issues have not been resolved. When you consider the Tawney aspiration of an education system that is best for all our children and then see the gap that exists between our best and worst off children and also that we still hear from employers that the education system does not give them the skills and attributes they need.

It seems our system is too centralised, too focussed on market solutions and the hierarchy of schools persist still. What would Jim Callaghan have made of what happens now?

More accountability had to be a good thing. Investment, a continuing focus on teaching, leadership, early years have all contributed to school improvement. Where parents are concerned, greater accountability has also helped e.g. her own children’s primary school in the 1990s when she first became a governor. No doubt that being bottom of the league tables and slated by Ofsted provides a strong incentive to improve schools and Governors have more data which is a good thing. Previously governors would have no way of knowing whether their school was doing a good job or not or how it compared with its neighbouring schools.

However, there are many issues that raise concern, for example, head teachers faced with the dilemma of doing what is best for their school against what is best for their pupils. Too much accountability can drive the wrong sort of behaviour e.g. bullying management, teaching to the test.

There are many unintended consequences, for example, massively increased teacher workload and the de-professionalization of teachers together with a lack of trust. The negative school culture and fear of forced academisation; the link between results and inspections which generates individual fears of job loss for heads and teachers. Issues of inclusion and segregation which have arisen from a combination of parent choice, league tables, and too many freedoms on school admissions which drive covert selection in order to advantage the school. A school curriculum which has either been down-graded by the use of some less valuable qualifications become too narrow.

With more direct government intervention has come the idea of a basic entitlement which is fundamentally good. However once again too much political interference driven by the political cycle is not. There is a need for a truly independent body to act as a counterweight to too much politically driven short term change. The fact that there is still no real value placed on vocational, practical, technical education years after the Tomlinson Report and at a time when those recommendations would have been slowly implemented is an indictment against the politicians

It was probably the case that when Callaghan made his Ruskin speech he was calling for a modest extension of government involvement. But from our perspective today, it has spiralled out of control. For example, before 1988 which heralded the biggest post Ruskin changes the Secretary of State had three basics powers (Removal of wartime air raid shelters; determination of teacher training numbers; approval of opening and closure of schools.) After 1988 it rose to 250 powers. In 2016 it is 2500 powers and there is significant education legislation every two years!

Nothing that goes on in schools is not the business of government, whereas local government has virtually no say in its local schools. Add in over 5000 schools directly contracted to the DFE, with different funding agreements and you might say Callaghan’s ideas have been taken to the extreme. The “diversity of schools” on offer does not necessarily raise standards but offers huge opportunity for unethical and even criminal behaviour, as we have seen recently. The deliberate and ideologically driven fragmentation of the school system presents huge problems of oversight and accountability.

Concluding Comments.

Fiona Millar believed we needed a local system holding schools to account. Take back control of teacher training and ally schools with universities. Move away from OFSTED and towards school peer review and broader range of measures to judge how well a school is doing. Also needed to address the need for better technical, practical, vocational education.

David Blunkett agreed with everything that Fiona Millar had said and would abolish OFQUAL. Accountability was a very big issue but we should avoid re-writing history.

Bernhard Donoughue believed that Callaghan genuinely wanted to do more than just make “his mark”. Donoughue believed that Jim Callaghan wanted to do something to address employers’ concerns and believed government had to do something about them.

Richard Pring said that lessons can and should be learnt from history! He wanted to see previous forms of school assessment reconsidered. There needed to be national projects leading into the National Curriculum. Teachers must be given a greater role. We need a Royal Commission to reflect and consider on the state system of education not piecemeal “reform” driven by political agendas.

Mike Watson closed by thanking everyone, speakers and audience for their contribution to a stimulating seminar which had provided much food for thought.

Report by Richard Sidley


B7 The School Revolution Briefing introduced

English education is in the middle of a Revolution, driven by the Conservatives and supported across the Westminster Bubble. All that currently exists is being undermined to allow a Brave New World to emerge. Starting from the government video The Schools Revolution, still the only official statement, this pamphlet looks at some of the key issues raised by the radical new agenda and its contradictions. The core of the Revolution – the Academy/Free Schools programme – is proposed as the means of raising standards. Independent observers cannot find conclusive evidence. The Education Select Committee of MPs drawn across all parties concluded earlier this year that

“Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change… there is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. The DfE should commission such research as a matter of urgency”

The research has not been conducted. The need for this to take place before the Academies Bill 2015 operates is vital.

It is equally vital to examine the chains of schools, replacing Local Authorities (LAs), increasingly favoured by government who will not allow OFSTED inspectors to report on them. Democratically elected councils are inspected, why not chains of schools?

The ‘opt out schools’ are not the only key problem posed by the Schools Revolution. This pamphlet looks at the way schools are being turned into Examination Factories, dominated by test results, and at the contradictions in the Academy-Free School opt out programme. In theory this is about giving power to individual schools, but in practice is transferring power to unaccountable figures in national – and international – Chains of Schools. There are serious risks of schools running out of supplies of teachers, buildings and money. Additionally, Conservative election claims that school budgets are protected from austerity are now in doubt – the TES (28th August) reports estimates of cuts over the next five years of 12 per cent in real terms.

Undermining the rhetoric of freedom is a an agenda of government control, with Primary Schools ordered to teach phonics and Secondary schools to teach the Ebac. Far from being a Brave New World, how close is the Schools Revolution to being an Orwellian nightmare? Is it not time to suspend the Revolution for a Royal Commission on improving schools to avoid the profound risk of long term damage to English schools?

Further reading

Department of Education Comparison of Different Types of School, (DfE Website), July 14th 2014.

House of Commons Education Committee, Academies & Free Schools, HC 258 27th January 2015

Mansell Warwick, Education by Numbers, Politicos 2007

National Union of Teachers Exam Factories? Merryn Hutchings with Dr Naveed Kazmi, 2015

Wolf, Alison – Heading for the Precipice – can further and Higher education funding policies be sustained? Kings College London, June 2015

Further copies of this pamphlet and discussion material from SOSS, at enquries(at)

Published by the Symposium on Sustainable Schools, edited by Trevor Fisher. Editorial Board Richard Pring, Michael Bassey, Richard Sidley, Trevor Fisher.

What is the School Revolution? 
Can it be sustained?
Education with a Conservative agenda

Education virtually vanished from the election campaign in the spring of 2015, and the current Conservative agenda was hardly questioned in the media. However there is no doubt that the School Revolution, as it has been called by The Spectator magazine, is accelerating, largely unscrutinised. The Education and Adoption Bill, the first major legislation of the new government, gives politicians more and more power to interfere in schools. What are they doing? Why is a system which once only had three effective powers in the ministry now operating over two thousand? And how can real debate about schools be started when the media carries little positive news and even less comment?

The School Revolution is not a simple process and some of the changes are contradictory. The driver is said to be school autonomy, but politicians interfere. For example, primary schools have to use the phonics method for teaching literacy, while in secondary schools Ebacc subjects will be compulsory. Academies are claimed to be autonomous by becoming independent of local authorities but many of the new governing bodies – academy chains – put stringent demands on the teachers in their schools.

A Revolution from the top

No blueprint for the School Revolution exists, but changes to structures and practices are imposed from the top. Nick Gibb, Schools Minister in the new government, told The Times on June 6th 2015 that the reason for the new Bill was “liberating teachers from the dead hand of the local authorities and these failed orthodoxies that have suffocated teachers”. Labour may have no problem with this statement, but would not be happy with the attack on what he called “education faculties of universities (which) have atrophied intellectually”… he stopped just short of calling them The Blob, and avoided the question of Qualified Teacher Status which Labour supports while the Tories do not. Alas Labour does not question the right of ministers to make arbitrary and untested changes. The SOSS exam pamphlet pointed out the problems of initiating untested reforms over school examinations. There is much else that is dogmatic – state schools are becoming exam factories.

Bringing the Revolution into focus

As the revolution accelerates under an untrammeled Conservative party, is is becoming essential to bring the critical factors in the system into focus. In The Times interview, Gibb attacked worksheets for “adding hugely to a teacher’s workload”. The big issue over workload is the impact of initiatives, inspection regimes and the meeting of targets – all leading to teachers leaving the profession: 40% now leave in the first five years. Teacher supply is becoming critical. The control mechanisms, notably performance tables, make for a high stress experience. The January 2015 tables saw high performing schools drop to the bottom as the International GCSE (IGCSE – taken by a number of schools) was arbitrarily ruled out. 

There is also a major crisis coming over education spending particularly in post 16 and the FE and college sector. With school building also failing to match increased pupil numbers and the free school policy diverting cash into areas which have no shortage of places, dogma supplants need. But there was no debate on education development in the 2015 election.

The current developments arise from the forty-year long development of an educational consensus which developed out of the Black Papers. While the history has been complex, the root cause of the problem is central power and unchecked interference in schools and colleges. In 1944 the Secretary of State for Education had just three powers, now Nicky Morgan wields over two thousand and is adding more.

Change in education should demand debate and factual analysis. It is alarming they are missing at the current time. Is it time to take politicians out of education? Should this be at the heart of the Great Debate now needed about the School Revolution? 

Jointly signed to promote debate by Michael Bassey, Trevor Fisher, Richard Sidley and Richard Pring July 10th 2015

Education missing in the election campaign 2015

The 2015 General Election saw education policies in the manifestos, but not in the election campaign. The disturbing absence of education from the election debate was alarmingly clear.

The Independent editorial of April 2nd suggested that
“In all the sound and fury that this election campaign has produced, it is astonishing and rather sinister how little has been said about our creaking state education system…. the political leaders have so far avoided wading in to questions affecting the future of more than eight million children now in state primary or secondary schools.”**

The situation did not change in the final weeks of the campaign. None of the parties was prepared to place at the centre of debate the wide issues of how state education is developing, though this is a vital service costing £40 billion per year. The sidelining of education was not because of lack of public interest.

On April 22nd, YouGov published a poll of issues in the election and their perceived priority. Education topped the list of issues that the public did not think had been discussed properly, 40% of respondents citing Education as the most neglected topic – along with the enviroment. These are disturbing outcomes for Greens and Educationalists. In both areas hard working and talented activists work to raise the profile of the topics. They do not make enough impact in the Westminster Bubble.

The Conservatives had had to remove Michael Gove from the Education brief because of his controversial policies, yet Labour hardly challenged his successor Nicky Morgan – though she had the same policies. The Lib Dems made no attempt to promote education despite their unswerving support for Gove and Nicky Morgan, and the media failed to see any issues in education as important. Gove’s personality had been newsworthy, but the same policies under Morgan hardly featured in media coverage of the election. Education was not an election priority, but scarcely because English education is uncontroversial. While radical changes happen at a brutal pace, there is little serious debate about them. This situation demands scrutiny beyond the particular changes and the specific issues the reforms target.

Not just England and Wales

The lack of objective debate is not just our problem. The OECD pointed out in January that reform without evaluation is an international problem, only 10 per cent of the current reforms arising from the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement as the Finnish expert Pasi Sahlberg has called it – are properly evaluated. Politicians spend huge amounts of money on largely untested ‘miracle cures’. It is almost an inevitable reflex of politicians being in charge: they will not expose their pet schemes to possible failure. Nor do they question the assumptions that underlie their reform programmes, still less the globalisation theories which underpin them. This is now the challenge for post election debate in the progressive educational movement.

The Consensus and its uneasy foundations

For those in education who believe the current consensus is dangerously flawed and the ideas of the comprehensive and progressive movement need reasserting and updating to raise the political profile of education, the big issues are now how to challenge the fundamentals of the current Westminster consensus and the wider GERM movement. The perspective will be historical, examining developments back at least to the Black Papers of the 1970s. This is the broad aim of SOSS.

The debate will be promoted within a broad spectrum of ideas promoted by the Reclaim Education Alliance and other action groups. The web sites listed below give some of the forums which already exist, though SOSS is entirely independent and experimental in seeking to promote ways to challenge the ideas of the Westminster Bubble. It aims as well to give focussed and in depth attention to particular pressing issues, and has already published two pamphlets on School Exam Reform plus a pamphlet on the London Challenge and School Improvement. These are available via the Publications section.

It must never happen again that a General Election campaign can largely marginalise education policy. Current policies demand debate, with the history of the cross party consensus requiring rigorous scrutiny. Too much depends on a few voices within the Bubble. Now the election has led to a Tory Majority government the issues touched on by the Independent will become even sharper. New ways to address them urgently need to be developed. The consensus inside the Westminster Bubble though not monolithic is too complacent, dogmatic and prone to ignore warning voices. What is to replace it?

Relevant web sites and campaigns reccomended in the post election situation.

Socialist Educational Association AT

Reclaim Education Alliance AT

Reclaim Schools Alliance AT
(supporting the National Union of Teachers Stand Up For Education manifesto.

**the full editorial can be read at

* SOSS stands for Symposium on Sustainable Schools. The current methods of running English Education. are not sustainable.

To take part in the debate, please contact the Symposium on Sustainable Schools at Viewpoint, PO Box 3599 ST16 9RD, or here on the web.