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?
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.
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