Education in the UK

Preliminary pages
Introduction, Contents, Preface
Chapter 1 Up to 1500
Chapter 2 1500-1600
Renaissance and Reformation
Chapter 3 1600-1660
Chapter 4 1660-1750
Chapter 5 1750-1860
Towards mass education
Chapter 6 1860-1900
A state system of education
Chapter 7 1900-1923
Secondary education for some
Chapter 8 1923-1939
From Hadow to Spens
Chapter 9 1939-1945
Educational reconstruction
Chapter 10 1945-1951
Labour and the tripartite system
Chapter 11 1951-1964
The wind of change
Chapter 12 1964-1970
The golden age?
Chapter 13 1970-1974
Applying the brakes
Chapter 14 1974-1979
Progressivism under attack
Chapter 15 1979-1990
Thatcher and the New Right
Chapter 16 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 17 1997-2007
Tony Blair and New Labour
Chapter 18 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 19 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
Chapter 20 2015-2018

Organisation of this chapter

Edward Heath
The economy
   Margaret Thatcher
   Consensus under threat

The rise of the New Right
Black Paper Three
The preservationists

Circular 10/70
The direct grant schools

Other school matters
School building
The school leaving age

Further and higher education
The Open University
1972 James Report
1972 White Paper
DES Circular 7/73




Education in the UK: a history
Derek Gillard

first published June 1998
this version published May 2018

copyright Derek Gillard 2018
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Chapter 13 : 1970-1974

Applying the brakes


Edward Heath

The Conservatives, led by Edward (Ted) Heath (1916-2005) (pictured), won the election held on 18 June 1970 with a Commons majority of 30.

Heath's father was a successful carpenter, his mother a lady's maid. He attended Chatham House Grammar School in Ramsgate and then, with the aid of a county scholarship, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College Oxford. During the second world war he served in the army, taking part in the D-Day landings.

He was elected MP for Bexley in 1950. Macmillan recognised his strongly pro-European views by appointing him, in 1960, to lead the UK's first application to join the European Economic Community (the attempt was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle). In 1964 he became the Conservative Party's youngest-ever leader and, in 1970, the first Tory prime minister to come from a lower-middle-class background.

In the four years of his premiership, the British currency was decimalised (1971), local authorities were reorganised (1972), and Britain joined the European Economic Community (1973).

The economy

The Heath government was 'made up almost entirely of bankers and businessmen' (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:363). It inherited an economy characterised by rising unemployment and inflation and was forced to seek cuts in public expenditure. In schools, this meant increased charges for meals and the end of free milk provision for 8- to 11-year olds.

The economic problems faced by the Heath administration (and many others in the developed world) became much greater as a result of the oil crisis which followed the Arab/Israeli Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Because the US had supplied Israel with arms, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo. By the time it ended, in March 1974, the international price of crude oil had quadrupled.

The embargo did not apply to the UK because Heath had refused to support the US action, but the economic damage caused by the huge rise in the oil price was compounded by a wave of industrial action, notably two miners' strikes. The second of these led to the introduction of the three-day working week in January 1974.


Following the miners' strikes, Heath called an election, arguing that the people had to choose who ruled Britain - the government or the unions. Held on 28 February 1974, the election was inconclusive. Heath refused to support the introduction of proportional representation - the Liberals' price for a coalition - so Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour administration.

A year later, in February 1975, Margaret Thatcher challenged Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party and won. Heath's political career was effectively over, though he retained his Bexley seat and served as a backbencher until his retirement in 2001.


Of his government's record on education, Heath wrote:

In June 1971, we began a massive building programme for primary schools and in November of that year we increased the grant for places at direct-grant schools. We also established the Bullock Committee to improve reading standards and raised the school-leaving age from fifteen to sixteen, with effect from September 1972. I am particularly proud of this measure, which finally honoured a pledge made in Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944 and until 1970 neglected by post-war governments. In December 1973, we published a White Paper entitled Education: A Framework for Expansion, which set out a long-term plan of how we could achieve substantial growth over the next decade benefiting every sector of education. This promised to provide free nursery education for all who required it and to increase the number of school teachers by 150,000, allowing teacher-pupil ratios to drop from one teacher to every twenty-two pupils to one for every eighteen. Had we won the February 1974 election, all this would have been implemented (Heath 1998:448).
Margaret Thatcher

Heath had appointed Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) (pictured) shadow education secretary in January 1967 and she held the post of Secretary of State for Education for the full four years of his government.

Her background was very similar to Heath's: she came from a relatively humble background (her father owned two grocery shops in Grantham), attended the local grammar school, and won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied chemistry at Somerville College.

She married Denis Thatcher, a millionaire oil company director, in 1951, and he funded her law studies. In 1953 she qualified as a barrister specialising in taxation. The couple sent their two children to public schools - the boy to Harrow; the girl to St Paul's.

She was elected MP for Finchley in 1959. She showed little or no concern for education or children's welfare - even voting in 1961 (against official party policy) for the restoration of birching as a judicial corporal punishment. In so doing,

she achieved the distinction of becoming a legend in her own life time, as a figure of crass reaction in an area where liberal ideas about the treatment of children and their problems had been common currency for years. Attacks on her were so bitter that on one occasion an opposition spokesman appealed for moderation (Middleton and Weitzman 1976:364).
As Heath's education secretary, she faced considerable problems, including demands from middle-class Tories for more nursery provision, the parlous state of many primary schools, the commitment of many Tory local authorities to comprehensivisation, and the need for increased facilities to cope with the raising of the school-leaving age. In higher education, the cost of developing thirty polytechnics had halted the growth of the universities and neither sector was satisfied with its share of funding.

Consensus under threat

Thatcher's opposition to comprehensivisation was just one of the signs that the post-war consensus, which had survived into the 1960s, was coming to an end.

Educational sociologists, who had previously been concerned about the extent of working-class access to formal schooling, now turned their attention to the experience of schooling itself. By the mid 1970s, what was called the 'new sociology of education' was divided between

those interested in the minutiae of classroom experience from a phenomenological and interactionist viewpoint and those who, using a macro approach, saw education as simply reproducing capitalist divisions and hierarchies in society (Chitty 1989:53).
There was a 'general atmosphere of defeatism and gloom' (Chitty 1989:53). The changes of the 1960s had not produced a major redistribution of educational opportunities between children of different social classes - manual workers' children were still nine times less likely to gain a university place than children of professional or technical fathers - and disillusionment with the education system was 'not confined to right-wing critics or academic sociologists' (Chitty 1989:54).

A few aspects of the 1960s consensus survived, however. The 1972 White Paper Education: A Framework for Expansion, for example, promised a large increase in nursery provision and a systematic programme of in-service opportunities for teachers; the school leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972; and in 1973 expenditure on education (4.068bn) exceeded that on defence (4.004bn) (figures from Social Trends 1975 quoted in Chitty 1989:55). Mrs Thatcher was the last education secretary who could issue a White Paper with the word 'Expansion' in its title (Chitty 1989:55).

The rise of the New Right

Black Paper Three

Brian Cox and Anthony Dyson were clearly delighted by Labour's election defeat and hoped that the new Tory government would end comprehensivisation, progressive teaching in primary schools, and all the other examples of egalitarianism which they had railed at in their first two Black Papers (details in the previous chapter). Their third Black Paper, gleefully entitled Goodbye Mr Short, was published in November 1970.

It comprised twenty-one articles, of which five attacked comprehensive schools and four 'progressive' primary schools; one criticised the concept of the 'comprehensive university'; another defended the direct-grant grammar schools.

The first two articles - by Cyril Burt and Richard Lynn - expressed the authors' strong support for streaming and selection.

Burt, who was 'soon destined to be seen with his feet in a mire of fraudulent research, a totally discredited, indeed crooked, propagandist' (Morris and Griggs 1988:5), claimed that 'nearly one-third' of primary school children 'seem to be moved from one stream to another in the course of the first four years' (Burt 1970:24). In fact, as noted in the previous chapter, Vernon and others had shown that transfer between streams was minimal - about two per cent.

For Lynn, meanwhile,

The crux of the egalitarian argument ... is that streaming is part of the system of training children to be competitive. To egalitarians this is an objectionable trait, and their hope is that an egalitarian system of education will produce a less competitive society (Lynn 1970:25).
However, he argued, 'much of the country's economic malaise seems to arise because the British are not competitive enough'; and he concluded that
To achieve anything worthwhile, in school as in life, one has to work hard, and this is one of the important lessons that children learn from streaming (Lynn 1970:29).
In fact, the only lesson children learned from streaming was that if you were in the C stream you had very little chance of being promoted to a higher one and no chance whatsoever of passing the eleven plus.

The local authority journal Education commented:

The first Black Paper, according to its editor, C.B. Cox, was 'a forthright polemical onslaught on extremists', the second 'substantiated the arguments' and the third ... 'pleads for a settled policy of moderate reform'. The reader would be hard put to discover just what these moderate reforms are. It is almost entirely the mixture as before, a somewhat petulant plea for a return to the status quo ante bellum ... If there is any change it is towards an outright and enthusiastic political identity with what most of the contributors believe the policy of a Conservative Government ought to be. Whether many thinking Conservatives either at national or local level will embrace the black paper-weight message with the same enthusiasm is another matter (Education 27 November 1970 quoted in Simon 1991:403).

The preservationists

Meanwhile, the right wing of the Tory party was dominated by the 'preservationists', whose main aim was to defend the grammar schools. They rejected Heath's brand of Tory progressivism, inspired by the Macmillan-Butler tradition, and feared that his 'Quiet Revolution would not give expression to their particular educational vision' (Knight 1990:62).

The preservationists were 'not successful in turning Tory education policy in a sharply right direction during the period of the Heath government', but their ideas - promoted by the Black Paper writers - attracted 'increasing Party support and interest' (Knight 1990:68).

The first three Black Papers published in 1969 and 1970 were a vehicle for those Conservatives who wanted to put back the clock: to the days of formal teaching in the primary schools, of high academic standards associated with a traditional grammar-school education, and of well-motivated, hard-working and essentially conservative university students (Chitty 1992:11).
Edward Boyle's withdrawal from politics early in 1970 marked a change in relations within the Conservative Research Department that 'critically altered the direction and shaping of education policy formation' (Knight 1990:65).

Knight argues that the incorporation of Black Paper views on education into Conservative Party thinking and policy began with Margaret Thatcher's speech to the Annual Conference of the Association of Education Committees (AEC) at Scarborough on 28 October 1970. She told delegates 'We must avoid becoming preoccupied with systems and structures to the detriment of the actual content of education' (quoted in Knight 1990:68).

Thatcher's position had been informed partly by her private correspondence with Black Paper editors Cox and Dyson, and partly by her contacts with the Tories' National Advisory Committee on Education, which was 'now playing a much more decisive role in the formation of Conservative education policy' (Knight 1990:68).

A further push to the right would become evident later in the decade, as the so-called 'voucher men', who advocated new ways of providing education, gained influence in the party.

It was only in the last two Black Papers published in 1975 and 1977 that support was given to the introduction of educational vouchers and to the idea of much greater scope for parental choice of schools. By the mid-1970s, the politics of reaction had been replaced by the politics of reconstruction. The Old Right had given way to the New (Chitty 1992:11).


In 1970 only 35 per cent of secondary school pupils were in comprehensive schools: 'Grammar and secondary modern schools ... still largely dominated the maintained system' (Simon 1991:414). However, all but fourteen of the 163 local authorities in England and Wales had either submitted plans for comprehensivisation or were intending to do so. Thus, if the Conservative government wished to prevent comprehensive schools becoming the norm, now was the moment to halt - or at least slow down - the reorganisation process.

Heath himself was somewhat ambivalent on the issue of selective secondary education.

In opposition, he had made it clear that, in view of the many parental protests over the selection system, he did not want the Conservatives to be seen as 'the Party of the 11+'. He told the Conservative National Advisory Committee on Education in June 1967 that

we accept the trend of educational opinion against selection at 11-plus. If the transfer from primary to secondary education is now to be made without selection, this is bound to entail some reorganisation of the structure of education (report in The Sunday Times 18 June 1967 quoted in Simon 1991:295-6).
On the other hand, like Labour's post-war education minister, Ellen Wilkinson, he clearly valued his grammar-school education:
I had benefited enormously from my time at Chatham House Grammar School in Ramsgate, and I wanted to ensure that others could have a similar opportunity in future (Heath 1998:448).
These two apparently contradictory standpoints were represented in the Conservative Party, some of whose members were determined to preserve the grammar schools, while others, notably in the local authorities, were committed to comprehensivisation.
From the beginning, Margaret had a political problem with this. In many cases, the proposals to end selection were coming not from socialists, but from Conservative-led authorities. Mostly they wanted to economise by replacing boys' and girls' grammar schools, which generally had large catchment areas, with co-educational comprehensives (Heath 1998:449).

Circular 10/70

Despite the divisions in the party, Thatcher was determined to stem the tide of comprehensive reorganisation by cancelling Labour's Circulars 10/65 and 10/66 (details in the previous chapter).

On 30 June, less than a fortnight after becoming education secretary, she issued Circular 10/70, The organisation of secondary education, which argued that it was 'wrong to impose a uniform pattern of secondary organisation on local education authorities by legislation or other means' and that therefore local authorities would now be 'freer to determine the shape of secondary provision in their areas'. Where a particular pattern was working well, the Secretary of State did not wish 'to cause further change without good reason' (DES 1970b:1).

Authorities whose plans had already been approved could go ahead, or notify the Department of their wish to change them. Those whose plans were in the process of being considered by the Department could decide whether they wished to withdraw them. The Secretary of State would be 'pleased to consider any new plans which may be submitted'.

Heath regarded this as a reasonable compromise: 'we left individual authorities free to decide for themselves what system they wanted, and we encouraged a policy of diversity' (Heath 1998:449).

Margaret Thatcher's ... circular set out a gentle but firm presumption against unnecessary disruption or change. ... Henceforth, each plan would be judged non-ideologically and on its individual merits, according to the needs of the locality. In practice, if an LEA wanted to end selection, then the onus was still on supporters of the threatened local grammar schools to put the contrary case - for, given the 1970 government's belief in the discretionary powers of local government, the Secretary of State would need to demonstrate good reasons for overruling any LEA (Heath 1998:449).
Brian Simon argues that
The circular was not directly confrontational, in the sense that it neither demanded a return to selective systems nor prohibited the development of comprehensive schemes. It was, however, a clear indication to local authorities to retain existing selective systems and to draw back from comprehensive reorganisation - and was so recognised at the time (Simon 1991:408).


The Circular was condemned by a wide range of organisations and individuals, but it was in the Tory-controlled local authorities that the greatest anger was seen. The Guardian reported that 'in some authorities mini-caucuses on the political right hope to use circular 10/70 for some angry hatchet work at the educational crossroads' (quoted in Simon 1991:409).

Tory-controlled Bedfordshire withdrew its comprehensive plan following the issue of 10/70. Divisions immediately appeared, the chair of the education committee warning that

It was a black day for the whole county when this decision was made. Before the war we were among the backwoods in education. Our own special comprehensive system would have put us in the forefront. Now we are back to square one (The Teacher 18 September 1970 quoted in Simon 1991:409-10).
According to The Teacher, Bedfordshire's teachers were said to be 'seething with discontent' and the county's education committee was preparing to oppose its own council: a 'battle royal' was expected at the October county council meeting. A meeting organised by an 'action committee against selection' was attended by 500 and addressed by the head of Dunstable Grammar School whose staff had overwhelmingly expressed their support for the county's comprehensive scheme.

Meanwhile, Surrey's Stop the Eleven Plus group (STEP) ran a well-organised campaign which included a series of public meetings, a county-wide petition, car stickers and deputations, and a demonstration at County Hall attended by, among others, coachloads of students. The Times Educational Supplement (11 September 1970) reported that the county's teachers had 'formally threatened to boycott the 11-plus if the county does not go ahead with comprehensive plans' (quoted in Simon 1991:410).

Richmond in Surrey, a Tory authority which had not responded to Circular 10/65, now decided - ironically in response to 10/70 - to abolish selection. The 3,000 members of the borough's parents' association warmly welcomed the move.

And councillors in Conservative-controlled Barnet decided (by 40 votes to 20) to abolish selection and create fourteen all-through comprehensive schools. Eighty per cent of the borough's parents and teachers supported the decision.

In the autumn issue of its journal CASE Notes, the Campaign for State Education argued that

the anti-comprehensive backlash this summer has been real enough but it is possible to exaggerate the consequences. Most of the local authorities are conservative controlled and most are proceeding with comprehensive reorganisation (quoted in Simon 1991:410).
Thatcher faced hostility, not only from Conservative-controlled local authorities, but from members of the Bow Group of moderate Tory MPs. In their journal Mentor, they argued that her withdrawal of Circular 10/65 had 'immensely strengthened reactionary forces within each education authority'. It was 'a classic case of an unnecessary decision being badly taken for reasons of political dogmatism': Thatcher had done 'nothing to help progressive authorities and much to bolster reactionary ones'. It was bad for education, and equally bad for the Conservative Party (The Guardian 7 October 1970 quoted in Simon 1991:411).

In her speech at the Conservative Party conference that autumn, Thatcher deflected attention from the Circular 10/70 row by focusing on primary schools, and a 'largely anodyne resolution' (Simon 1991:411) welcoming the withdrawal of Circular 10/65 was agreed by an overwhelming majority.

A year later, shadow education secretary Edward Short declared that Thatcher 'was making a mockery of secondary education for tens of thousands of children for ideological, elitist reasons' (Education 12 November 1971 quoted in Simon 1991:421).

In fact, the most significant result of Circular 10/70 was 'to trigger a powerful grass roots fightback' (Simon 1991:412). Pro-comprehensive pressure groups were established - often by middle-class parents - around the country, notably in Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Buckinghamshire, Norfolk, Reading and Surrey.

In early November, public attention focused on the meeting of Bedfordshire's county council, at which, after a debate lasting five hours, chairman Leslie Bowles had to use his casting vote. When he voted in favour of the comprehensive plan, there was 'a massive uplift of arms and hands and a prolonged burst of clapping from a packed audience gallery'. It was 'The most dramatic victory to be won by comprehensive pressure groups so far' (The Times Educational Supplement 6 November 1970 quoted in Simon 1991:413).

In May 1971 Thatcher told the Commons that local authority plans had 'no statutory significance', and there was now 'no obligation to submit them' (Education 14 May 1971 quoted in Simon 1991:414). From now on, proposals to alter the status of a school would have to be made individually, and would be considered according to the procedure set out in Section 13 of the 1944 Act.

Her determination to end - or at least to slow down - the process of further comprehensivisation was, however, doomed to failure. Over the next three years, local authorities continued to submit plans: the number of proposals received by the DES reached 1,400 in April 1972 and 3,612 by December 1973 (Simon 1991:414). Thatcher approved most of them, with the result that the number of comprehensive schools increased from 1,250 in 1970 to 2,677 in 1974 - 'that is, more rapidly than at any time before or since' (Simon 1991:414-5). She could hardly have done otherwise, since it was mostly Conservative authorities who were submitting the plans, so she attempted to nullify their effect by insisting on the retention of specific grammar schools.

In Barnet, for example, she refused to sanction two grammar school amalgamations, despite protests from parents, effectively preventing implementation of the borough's plan. The leader of the council told a meeting in July: 'We are faced with a minister who is determined, come what may, that the spread of education shall be reserved for the privileged few' (The Times Educational Supplement 16 July 1971 quoted in Simon 1991:415).

Thatcher went on to thwart comprehensive schemes in Surrey, where she refused the scheme for Walton-on-Thames, and Lancashire, where she vetoed the inclusion of Ormskirk Grammar School in the town's comprehensive plan.

At their annual conference in April 1971, members of the National Union of Teachers voted overwhelmingly to support a campaign to bring all selective schools within the comprehensive system; and in June, the National Association of Head Teachers called for a fully comprehensive system of secondary education.

Labour regained control of a number of key authorities - including the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and Birmingham - in the local elections in May 1971. The Birmingham result was particularly significant, since Labour had promised to implement a radical comprehensive plan for the city.

In February 1972, the 4,000 members of the Surrey Teachers' Association urged Heath to dismiss Thatcher because she was 'proving to be an educational disaster' for the county and for the country as a whole (The Times Educational Supplement 2 February 1972 quoted in Simon 1991:417).

A month later, the local authority journal Education noted that Thatcher had refused to approve Worcestershire's scheme and had prevented ILEA from completing comprehensive reorganisation. These and other similar decisions, the journal said, pointed to 'a quite negative attitude to the elementary necessities and to a reckless application of indigestible doctrines' (Education 3 March 1972 quoted in Simon 1991:417).

Undeterred, Thatcher then refused to allow the amalgamation of a grammar school and a secondary modern school in Trowbridge (Wiltshire), despite the fact that no objections had been made.

Members of the Association of Education Committees agreed a resolution demanding that local authorities should have the right (within certain conditions) to organise secondary education on comprehensive lines. Their schemes, it said, 'should not be modified by the Secretary of State so as to interfere with this concept' (Education 30 June 1972 quoted in Simon 1991:417).

Such opposition, however, appears to have encouraged Thatcher to adopt an even more confrontational approach. At the Conservative Party Conference in October 1972, she encouraged parents to submit objections to schemes which involved the loss of grammar schools.

Her object, of course, as in the case of Florence Horsbrugh twenty years earlier, was to ensure that these objections persisted. These gave her the necessary legal pretext for preserving grammar schools, and so resisting the establishment of genuinely comprehensive local systems (Simon 1991:418).
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) responded with What is Mrs Thatcher up to? (November 1972), a pamphlet expressing the growing concern of teachers about her actions.


The conflict between Thatcher and the teachers and local authorities came to a head in 1973.

In May, NUT conference delegates called for a vigorous campaign for the withdrawal of Circular 10/70, and urged the executive to support members who refused to take part in selection procedures after September 1975, except in areas where reorganisation was accepted in principle and applied in practice.

In June, the Association of Education Committees declared its strong support for the principle of comprehensive education and its concern that the continuation of selective systems in many areas was resulting in 'inequality of opportunity, social divisiveness ... and wastage of resources' (Education 29 June 1973 quoted in Simon 1991:418).

A few days later, Thatcher rejected plans from Labour-controlled Birmingham and Liverpool, causing enormous resentment both locally and nationally.

Education commented

The rejection by Mrs Margaret Thatcher of Birmingham's proposals for secondary reorganisation last week represents one of the biggest and most hostile confrontations between central and local government hitherto in Mr Heath's administration (Education 6 July 1973 quoted in Simon 1991:418-9).
It was clear, said Education, that there was no national policy other than preserving the status quo. The DES's response to Birmingham not only reflected ideological prejudices, it was also 'grossly inept'.
These developments ... indicate that it was not only the 'new middle class' in the south of England that was now making the running, as is often suggested. The great industrial cities of the Midlands and the North, where the whole movement had originally been initiated nearly twenty years earlier, were now determined to carry through effectively their earlier policy decisions (Simon 1991:419).
Thatcher remained determined: later in July she rejected the plan submitted by Burton-on-Trent's Labour council.

In August 1973, Surrey's chief education officer confirmed that the authority was seeking legal advice as to whether it could mount a High Court challenge to Thatcher's use of Section 13 of the 1944 Act. Birmingham and the NUT were considering similar action.

The row over Surrey, Harrow and Barnet smouldered on through the autumn. ... At Birmingham, Liverpool, Lancashire, Burton-on-Trent; in Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, and now the North Riding and Sutton, the authorities, parental pressure groups, teachers, were licking their wounds - determining how best to achieve the local system desired by the elected representatives of the area (Simon 1991:420).
Thatcher was now rejecting a far higher proportion of plans: in October 1972 she had refused 92 out of 2,300 proposals; in November 1973 she rejected 326 out of 3,612 (Simon 1991:420).

Nonetheless, local authorities continued to submit schemes - presented as individual school plans - which she accepted. Indeed, she sanctioned more comprehensivisations than any other education minister before or since, and the halfway point was passed during her period of office: there were now more children in comprehensive schools than in selective ones, and 'the proportion of secondary schoolchildren in comprehensives consequently rose from 32 to 62 per cent' (Heath 1998:451).

The direct grant schools

It is clear, then, that 'The defence of selective education, particularly the grammar schools, and at almost any cost, was ... the government's major aim in education' (Simon 1991:423). This applied particularly to the 179 direct grant schools, which were funded directly by central government.

The Donnison Report (see the previous chapter), published in January 1970, five months before the Heath government took office, had argued that these schools should either become comprehensive schools under local authority control, or go fully private. The Report

was not only well researched, it was a closely argued, highly rational document, strongly supportive of comprehensive education. In a real sense it augured the death sentence on this particular category of schools, now seen as an historical anomaly (Simon 1991:423).
The Tories, however, were committed to supporting the direct grant schools, and in November 1971 it was announced in the Queen's Speech that their funding would be increased by 2m a year - roughly the amount Edward Short (the previous Labour education secretary) had withheld in 1969. Members of the Headmasters' Conference, representing the private schools, were naturally delighted. But there were 'bitter exchanges in the House of Commons both then and later. Labour's opposition was unyielding' (Simon 1991:423).

Other school matters

School building

The 1970 Conservative manifesto had promised an increase in spending on primary school buildings and the new government made this a priority. It was undoubtedly true that such an increase was desperately needed. 'The argument that primary building had been neglected historically compared to secondary was incontestable' (Simon 1991:420).

However, the announcement that more than 48m had been earmarked by the DES for the improvement and replacement of old primary schools in 1973-74 annoyed local authorities, because decisions on the use of capital resources had previously been made locally.

Others saw the policy as another attempt to slow the rate of comprehensive reorganisation by diverting funds to the primary sector. Richard Bourne, education correspondent of The Guardian, argued that it would result in a complete halt to the refurbishment of secondary schools, which would have 'a negative effect on comprehensive school planning' (The Guardian 31 August 1970 quoted in Simon 1991:421).

London was particularly badly affected, as ILEA spokesman Canon Harvey-Hinds pointed out. 'We are literally out of business for ten years as far as building or improving any secondary schools in London is concerned,' he said. No new secondary schools were to be built unless it could be shown that there was a need for additional accommodation. ILEA had been planning to spend 40m improving 160 schools by 1980. These schools were decrepit, warned Harvey-Hinds, and the resulting situation was 'very serious' (The Times Education Supplement 15 October 1970 quoted in Simon 1991:421).

The new government was committed to reducing public expenditure. Richard Bourne (The Guardian 27 June 1970) reported that, in addition to the measures already announced (the reduction in the provision of free milk, the introduction of museum entry charges, and the embargo on secondary school building), the Treasury was calling for increases in the price of school meals, transport and library services.

The school leaving age

The raising of the school leaving age to sixteen, provided for in the 1944 Act, had been due for implementation under the previous Labour government in 1968 but had been postponed for economic reasons.

Now, almost thirty years after the passing of the 1944 Act, it was finally to be enacted. In fact, almost two-thirds of the relevant age group were already choosing to stay on for a fifth year in maintained schools, so was not so huge an undertaking as the rise from fourteen to fifteen had been in 1947.

Circular 8/71 Raising of the school leaving age to 16 (24 August 1971) required local authorities to submit reports on their plans for the raising of the leaving age:

Because the proportion of the age group remaining voluntarily at school after 15 varies between areas the impact of RSLA will differ greatly between one local education authority and another. All should examine the progress they have made so far, and consider what further steps may be necessary (DES 1971:3).
The circular urged local authorities to consider the implications of the change, not only for the provision of buildings, but for teachers and the curriculum:
Buildings are important; and teachers are more important still, but the raising of the school leaving age will be judged by the quality of the education provided. RSLA ought not to consist simply of tacking on an 'extra year' but should involve a review of the curriculum as a whole, so that the years up to 16 represent a coherent educational experience for all secondary pupils. Unless a school's approach meets the needs and retains the interest of its pupils, attractive buildings will not reconcile the reluctant minority to an additional year of compulsory education (DES 1971:5).
An Order in Council dated 3 March 1972 brought the measure into force in September of that year. RoSLA (as it was commonly known at the time) was 'very widely welcomed, particularly by comprehensive school proponents, who saw new opportunities in the full five-year course now available for all' (Simon 1991:422). It also had the effect of increasing the pressure for a single examination for all at sixteen.

Further and higher education

The Open University

The government's determination to cut public spending led to fears that the Open University, which had only just been established and was about to recruit its first students, would be restricted to enrolling 10,000 students, rather than the planned 25,000; and that building programmes for further and higher education would be postponed (Simon 1991:421).

Some in the Tory party, including former education minister Edward Boyle, favoured the complete abolition of the Open University, arguing that it would not attract enough students.

Heath himself had doubts as to whether it could achieve the standards of a 'normal university', but he supported its continuation, believing that it would appeal

not only to those seeking to advance their careers, but also to those, such as housewives or retired people, who simply wanted to improve themselves (Heath 1998:448).
Thatcher supported the Open University for economic reasons: it offered a highly cost-effective way of expanding the tertiary education sector because its students did not require grants to cover their living expenses.

'We stuck with the Open University,' wrote Heath in his autobiography, 'and helped to establish it as one of Britain's most cherished institutions' (Heath 1998:448).

1972 James Report

In 1970 Thatcher invited Eric James (Lord James of Rusholme) (1909-1992) to chair a Committee of Inquiry on Teacher Education and Training. Its terms of reference were:

In the light of the review currently being undertaken by the Area Training Organisations, and of the evidence published by the Select Committee on Education and Science, to enquire into the present arrangements for the education, training and probation of teachers in England and Wales and in particular to examine:
(i) what should be the content and organisation of courses to be provided;

(ii) whether a larger proportion of intending teachers should be educated with students who have not chosen their careers or chosen other careers;

(iii) what, in the context of (i) and (ii) above, should be the role of the maintained and voluntary colleges of education, the polytechnics and other further education institutions maintained by local education authorities, and the universities

and to make recommendations (James 1972:iii).

James (pictured), a well-known advocate of meritocracy and academic rigour who was 'known to be critical of teachers and teacher training' (Lawton 1988a:163), had taught science at Winchester College from 1933 to 1945 and was High Master of Manchester Grammar School from 1945 to 1962. In 1962 he became the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of York, remaining there until he retired in 1973.

The seven members of his committee submitted their report to Thatcher on 14 December 1971 and it was published in January 1972.

Teacher Education and Training 'expressed dissatisfaction with the existing quality and structure of the teacher training system' (Lawton 1988a:163) and argued for a broader role for the higher education colleges.

It proposed a new three-cycle system consisting of a two- or three-year period of personal higher education, a year of pre-service professional training, and continuing professional education for the rest of a teacher's career, including a term's study leave every seven years.

It also recommended the abolition of Area Training Organisations (ATOs), 'thus weakening the university connection but supposedly encouraging greater autonomy for the colleges' (Lawton 1988a:163).

The government rejected the three-cycle structure but agreed that the ATOs should be abolished. This was implemented by the Labour government in 1975, though 'no effective replacement was set up to co-ordinate teacher education on a regional basis' (Lawton 1988a:163).

James made 133 recommendations, including:

  • teacher training should be organised in three consecutive 'cycles': the first, personal education; the second, pre-service training and induction; the third, in-service education and training;
  • a new two-year qualification, the Diploma in Higher Education (DipHE), together with new three-year degrees based on and developed from it, should be introduced into the first cycle, initially in the colleges of education and the polytechnic departments of education;
  • teacher training should be administered and planned by Regional Councils for Colleges and Departments of Education (RCCDEs);
  • a National Council for Teacher Education and Training (NCTET), linked with the RCCDEs and representing all branches of the teaching profession, should be established;
  • in the third cycle, all teachers in schools and full-time staff in FE colleges should be entitled to paid release for in-service education and training for not less than one school term every seven years;
  • there should be a national network of 'professional centres';
  • teachers in schools and colleges should have opportunities to take part in curriculum development projects;
  • initial training should not attempt to cover aspects of professional training which, although desirable, are better left until they can be built on school experience and personal maturity;
  • theoretical studies of education, although a desirable feature of many first cycle courses, should be included in the second cycle only in so far as they contribute to effective teaching;
  • for applicants with postgraduate qualifications and for mature graduates, there should be special arrangements for their immediate recognition and employment as licensed teachers (this proposal was opposed by the NUT);
  • first cycle courses leading to the DipHE should combine the advantages of study in depth with those of a more broadly based education.
Thatcher commissioned two other Committees of Enquiry. In 1972, she appointed Sir Alan Bullock to lead an enquiry into the teaching of English; and in 1973 she invited Mary Warnock to chair an investigation into special educational needs. Their reports were published in 1975 and 1978 (details in the next chapter).

1972 White Paper

In 1971, the Planning and Research Branch (or Unit), which had just been established within the DES, began work on a major white paper. It would, announced Thatcher, set out an ambitious ten-year programme of expansion. She told the annual conference of the NUT in April 1972 that a significant increase in public spending on education was already taking place and that the budget for the school building programme alone had risen from 2bn in 1969-70 to 2.5bn in 1971-72. Spending on nursery education was also rising and would continue to do so. Given that the Heath government had been elected on a programme involving severe cuts in public expenditure, this was, suggests Brian Simon, something of a paradox (Simon 1991:424).

In October 1972 Thatcher gave more details to the Conservative Party conference. There would be a 41m building programme for polytechnics and other further education colleges, more money for nursery education, and priority would be given to areas of social handicap, as had been recommended by Plowden.

The White Paper Education: A Framework for Expansion was published in December 1972. It began by declaring that the previous ten years had seen 'a major expansion of the education service' and that this must continue for the next ten 'if education is to make a full contribution to the vitality of our society and our economy' (DES 1972:1). It listed five areas in need of special attention: nursery education, school building, staffing standards in schools, teacher training and higher education. Each of these posed 'difficult decisions about the allocation of resources if, within those available, a balanced programme of advance across all five is to be achieved'. The White Paper therefore focused 'on matters of scale, organisation and cost rather than educational content' (DES 1972:1).

Total government expenditure on education, it said, would rise over the next ten years (1971-72 to 1981-82) from 2.162bn to 3.120bn (DES 1972:49), representing an annual growth rate of 3 per cent - higher than the 2.5 per cent achieved in the 1960s. Expenditure on schools would rise from 1.475bn to 2bn; while that on higher education would be almost doubled from 687m to 1.12bn.

In the schools, the aim was to reduce the overall staff-pupil ratio from 1:22.6 in 1971 to 1:18.5 in 1981. This would involve expanding the teaching force from 364,000 in 1971 to 510,000 in 1981 (DES 1972:14-15). There would be a significant expansion of nursery education, particularly in areas of disadvantage.

The bulk of the White Paper focused on the expansion of higher and further education. The number of students in full-time higher education would rise from 463,000 in 1971-72 to 750,000 ten years later, representing 22 per cent of the age group. 'If this had in fact been achieved,' argues Brian Simon, 'Britain would have been on the edge of a break-through to mass higher education, as was already the case in the United States and the Soviet Union' (Simon 1991:425). The aim was for the polytechnics and other non-university institutions to recruit some 335,000 students in England and Wales by 1981 (DES 1972:41). The universities would be expected to cater for 375,000 students, an increase of about 100,000 (DES 1972:38).

The James Report's suggestion that there should be a two-year Higher Education Diploma was accepted, but not its recommendation for a four-year degree course for teachers: instead, there would be a three-year course (for the BEd), to include at least fifteen weeks' teaching practice (DES 1972:21).

The main significance of the White Paper, argues Brian Simon, lay in its 'clear determination ... to use this expansion to sharpen, and harden, the binary divide' (Simon 1991:426).

DES Circular 7/73

Three months after the publication of the White Paper, on 26 March 1973, the DES issued Circular 7/73, Development of higher education in the non-university sector. If the target numbers of students proposed for 1981 were to be attained, it said, 'individual local authorities should lose no time in considering possible developments within their own areas' (DES 1973:1).

Most of the extra places needed would be provided by the polytechnics, but 'other colleges of further education and the colleges of education ... would require provision for a further 17,000 students (DES 1973:1). At the same time, 'the number of full-time students in initial teacher training will be reduced from some 114,000 to 60-70,000' (DES 1973:1).

What is called for therefore is not merely the planning of a marginal expansion of higher education, additional to that already under way, in the polytechnics and certain other institutions, but rather a major reconsideration of the future role of colleges of education both in and outside teacher training, their relation with universities, polytechnics and other institutions of further education offering advanced courses and the selection of appropriate institutions which, either singly or in association with others, will provide the additional numbers required outside the polytechnics in the period up to 1981 and a basis for further expansion thereafter (DES 1973:2).
The timetable for managing the process presented 'serious difficulties', partly because local authorities were preoccupied 'with all the problems arising from local government reorganisation' (DES 1973:3).


Considering that it lasted only four years and faced serious economic difficulties, Heath's government managed to produce a surprising number of Acts of Parliament relating to children and educational issues, though most of them were limited in scope. These were:

The 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act (23 July) discontinued the classification of handicapped children as unsuitable for education at school, and transferred responsibility for the education of severely handicapped children from health authorities to LEAs.

The 1971 Teaching Council (Scotland) Act (17 February) allowed membership fees for the General Teaching Council for Scotland to be deducted from teachers' salaries.

The 1971 Education (Scotland) Act (1 July) amended the law relating to free education and the charging of fees in Scotland.

The 1971 Education (Milk) Act (5 August) abolished provision of free school milk for 8- to 11-year olds (the Wilson government had already ended it for older children). The popular jibe 'Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher' was somewhat unfair, given that no similar criticism had been made of Wilson.

The 1972 Children Act (27 July) ensured that the minimum age at which children could be employed would not be affected by any further change in the school leaving age.

The 1972 Local Government Act (26 October) a major Act which restructured and reorganised local government in England and Wales. It reduced the number of LEAs from 146 to 104 with effect from 1 April 1974.

The 1973 Education Act (18 April) made provisions relating to certain educational trusts and local education authority awards.

The 1973 Education (Work Experience) Act (23 May) enabled local education authorities to arrange for children under school leaving age to have work experience as part of their education.

The 1973 Employment of Children Act (23 May) laid down new regulations regarding children's employment and its supervision by local education authorities.

The 1973 National Health Service Reorganisation Act (5 July) transferred responsibility for the school health service in England and Wales to area health authorities (though LEAs were still responsible for dental and medical inspections): the change was effected in April 1974. A similar change took place in Scotland (see Warnock 1978:30).

The 1973 Employment and Training Act (25 July) required LEAs to set up careers services and established the Employment Service Agency, the Training Services Agency, and the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) under the Department of Employment. The MSC would later oversee the Technical and Vocational Initiative (TVEI) (see chapter 15).

The 1973 Education (Scotland) Act (25 October) increased the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to the employment of teachers in Scotland.

The 1974 Local Government Act (8 February) was another wide-ranging Act which included some provisions relating to education.

In addition, there was also an important Statutory Instrument: the 1972 Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order (14 August) set out arrangements for education in Northern Ireland.



The 1972 White Paper Education: A Framework for Expansion never formed the basis of an education bill. Parts of it - including the expansion of the polytechnics and elements of the nursery programme - were later implemented, but most of it was lost as the government became mired in economic problems.

Educational planning was about to be overwhelmed by the economic crisis which hit the country in the autumn of 1973. From that point a wholly new perspective became dominant. Educational expansion, on the scale that had now persisted for two decades or more, was to become a memory (Simon 1991:427).
The Heath government disintegrated as a result of the oil crisis, massively rising inflation and the miners' strikes. Panic measures included a sudden 200m cut in the education budget, announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Anthony Barber in December 1973. Higher and further education suffered particularly badly: 110 capital projects originally planned to start in 1973-74 were now indefinitely postponed.

It was all very sad, commented the local authority journal Education, because 1973 had begun 'full of promise for education' (Simon 1991:428). In January, Heath had assured teachers that

The government are determined to do all in their power to give the education service the resources to achieve what the recent White Paper called your formidable task (Education 28 December 1973 quoted in Simon 1991:428).
By the end of the year, the picture was very different. The Times Educational Supplement (21 December 1973) declared that 'Britain's education system faces one of the grimmest years in living memory' (quoted in Simon 1991:428); and WP Alexander, Secretary of the Association of Education Committees, said these were 'far and away the worst cuts in my professional lifetime' (Education 4 January 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:428). The White Paper, said Education, had been 'swept aside', though at least the nursery programme would be protected.
Barber's 200m package of education cuts was not fully implemented, such was their impracticable severity. But neither were they restored, for, to the chagrin of the world of education, they were followed by a continuous policy of restricted expenditure carried out by Labour ministers, Reg Prentice, Fred Mulley and Shirley Williams. We were now living in a different world from the sixties and early seventies, looked back upon with nostalgia, if not with complete historical accuracy, as an era of steady expansion (Morris and Griggs 1988:1).


The main aim of the Heath government in education appears to have been the maintenance of the status quo. With regard to the schools, this meant preserving the remaining grammar schools; in higher education it involved strengthening the binary divide.

Thatcher failed to slow the rate of comprehensive reorganisation but, by controversial use of her powers as Secretary of State to ensure the survival of more than a hundred selective grammar schools, she prevented many authorities from developing genuinely comprehensive systems.

This had a two-fold effect. First, it ensured the continuance of selective processes, and second, it struck at the morale and élan of the [comprehensive] movement as a whole, and therefore damaged it more or less severely. Further, the direct grant grammar schools were, as we have seen, brought in from the cold, even if the extension of the system, as demanded by right-wing groups, was not then considered a politically viable option. These schools, as outposts of the public (or independent) schools, had historically played an important part as a key feature of the hierarchic, selective (and therefore exclusive) system inherited from the past. The public schools themselves, of course, were under no kind of threat from this government (Simon 1991:429).
Thatcher's opposition to comprehensivisation encouraged the formation of right-wing groups such as the National Education Association (1970) and the Council for the Preservation of Educational Standards (1971). Members of the latter included the Black Paper editors AE Dyson and Rhodes Boyson, and contributors RR Pedley, Angus Maude and Max Beloff (Simon 1991:430). These groups began to exert political influence and would play a significant role when Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979.

In the meantime, the confrontational stance she adopted during her time as education secretary in the Heath government polarised the world of education and laid up problems for the future.

The powerful movement of parents, teachers and local authorities determined on educational change gained, in spite of all the difficulties, considerable victories during these years. The percentage of pupils in 'comprehensive' schools in fact increased from 32 in 1970 to 62 in 1974 while the actual number of comprehensive schools more than doubled. The fact that at least half of these schools were in no sense 'genuinely' comprehensive, however, ensured difficulties in their functioning. This was Margaret Thatcher's legacy (Simon 1991:430).


Chitty C (1989) Towards a New Education System: The Victory of the New Right? London: Falmer Press

DES (1970b) Circular 10/70 The organisation of secondary education London: Department of Education and Science

DES (1971) Circular 8/71 Raising of the school leaving age to 16 London: Department of Education and Science

DES (1972) White Paper 1972 Education: A Framework for Expansion London: HMSO

DES (1973) Circular 7/73 Development of higher education in the non-university sector London: Department of Education and Science

Heath E (1998) The Course of My Life London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd

James (1972) Teacher Education and Training Report by a Committee of Inquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science London: HMSO

Knight C (1990) The Making of Tory Education Policy in Post-War Britain 1950-1986 London: Falmer Press

Lawton D (1988a) 'Teacher Education' in M Morris and C Griggs (eds) (1988) Education - the Wasted Years? 1973-1986 London: The Falmer Press 160-171

Middleton N and Weitzman S (1976) A Place for Everyone London: Victor Gollancz Ltd

Morris M and Griggs C (eds) (1988) Education - the Wasted Years? 1973-1986 London: The Falmer Press

Simon B (1991) Education and the Social Order 1940-1990 London: Lawrence & Wishart

Warnock (1978) Special Educational Needs Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the education of handicapped children and young people London: HMSO

Chapter 12 | Chapter 14