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

Harold Wilson
Jim Callaghan
End of the post-war consensus

Houghton pay award
Teacher training crisis

Circular 4/74
Direct grant schools
1976 Education Act
Parental choice
   The press
   Black Paper 1975

1975 Bullock Report
   A language for life

1976: Turning point
Five factors
   Employers' complaints
   Media hostility
   Political interests
   Callaghan's background
Neville Bennett's report
The William Tyndale Affair
The Yellow Book
Ruskin College Speech

The Great Debate
Regional conferences
1977 Green paper
Curriculum models
   The HMI model
   The DES model

1977 Taylor Report
   A new partnership for our schools

1978 Primary survey

1978 Oakes Report
   Management of higher education

A single exam system
1978 Waddell Report
1978 White Paper

Special educational needs
1974 White Paper
1976 Court Report
1978 Warnock Report

Other legislation

The victory of the New Right
Black Paper 1977
The Gould Report
The Tories in opposition


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 14 : 1974-1979

Progressivism under attack


Harold Wilson

Following the inconclusive general election in February 1974, Harold Wilson (pictured) formed a minority Labour government. In the hope of gaining a Commons majority, he called another election, which was held on 10 October and resulted in a Labour majority of just three seats.

Wilson inherited from Edward Heath a country in crisis, with a high rate of inflation, a three-day working week and widespread industrial unrest. To make matters worse, the world was on the brink of a major recession. His solution was to cut public spending, which led to conflict between the two wings of his party.

Despite the fact that Britain had only just joined the European Economic Community (in 1973), the Wilson government renegotiated the terms of the country's membership and then held a referendum on the issue in June 1975. This produced a substantial majority (almost 70 per cent) in favour of Britain's continued membership.

Jim Callaghan

Wilson resigned in April 1976 (he said he had always intended to do so at the age of 60) and was replaced by Jim Callaghan (1912-2005) (pictured).

By this time, the country's financial position had become even worse, and Callaghan was pressured by the US and by the right wing of his own party to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which came with 'humiliating conditions' (Simon 1991:431). Monetarism now determined fiscal policy. The cuts in public expenditure which he was forced to make led to increased unemployment and worsened the provision of education and other public services.

The government suffered a further crisis in March 1977 when some of its own backbenchers almost defeated it on a motion of no confidence. It was saved by the Liberals, who then joined a Liberal-Labour pact. This enabled the government to survive for a further two years, during which there were drastic cuts in expenditure, especially in local government, education and the National Health Service. Resentment among Labour's supporters grew, and industrial conflict escalated through the 'winter of discontent' of 1978-79, as trades unions called multiple strikes in protest at prolonged pay restraint.

Callaghan might have been re-elected had he called an election in the autumn of 1978, when opinion polls indicated that Labour would win. But he chose not to do so and, following the winter of discontent, he lost the election in May 1979 to the Conservatives, now led by Margaret Thatcher.

End of the post-war consensus

Chitty argues that the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent recession 'fundamentally altered the map of British politics' by exposing 'the underlying weaknesses of Keynesian social democracy'. The governments of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan were all 'unable to breathe new life into the old system'. The post-war welfare capitalist consensus had relied on increasing prosperity to foster social unity. 'When that prosperity disintegrated, so, too, did the consensus' (Chitty 2009a::32).

The post-war consensus finally collapsed under the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-79, amid mounting inflation, swelling balance of payments deficits, unprecedented currency depreciation, rising unemployment, bitter industrial conflicts and what seemed to many to be ebbing governability. The Conservative leadership turned towards a new version of the classical market liberalism of the nineteenth century. Though the Labour leadership stuck to the tacit 'revisionism' of the 1950s and 1960s, large sections of the rank and file turned towards a more inchoate mixture of neo-Marxism and the 'fundamentalist' Socialism of the 1920s and 1930s. (Marquand, 1988:3, quoted in Chitty 2009a::32)


The recession, which provided the justification for cuts in education, coincided with the development of a 'general disenchantment with education as a palliative of society's ills' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41). As a result, politicians began to argue that teachers should be more accountable.

Education also suffered from increased polarisation as the government's attempt to complete comprehensive reorganisation faced mounting opposition from industrialists and the media.

Labour was 'hardly well served by the three secretaries of state during this period' (Simon 1991:432). They were:

5 March 1974Reginald Prentice (1923-2001)
10 June 1975Fred Mulley (1918-1995)
10 September 1976Shirley Williams (b1930)

Reg Prentice left Labour to join the Tory Party in October 1977; Fred Mulley was ineffectual; and Shirley Williams was 'good at talking, but indecisive and vacillating in action' (Simon 1991:432). In 1981 she was one of the 'gang of four' who left Labour to set up the Social Democratic Party.



In August 1974 the Department of Education and Science (DES) established the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU), with Brian Kay as its first head, amid 'suspicion in some quarters of the teaching profession (the National Union of Teachers in particular)' (DES 1976c:19).

Its terms of reference were:

To promote the development of methods of assessing and monitoring the achievement of children at school, and to seek to identify the incidence of under-achievement.
And its tasks:
1. To identify and appraise existing instruments and methods of assessment which may be relevant for these purposes.

2. To sponsor the creation of new instruments and techniques for assessment, having due regard to statistical and sampling methods.

3. To promote the conduct of assessments in co-operation with local education authorities and teachers.

4. To identify significant differences of achievement related to the circumstances in which children learn, including the incidence of under-achievement, and to make the findings available to those concerned with resource allocation within the Department, local education authorities and schools (DES 1974:16).

Teacher accountability would become a priority for successive governments - both Tory and Labour - following Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976.

Houghton pay award

At the end of June 1974, Reg Prentice and William Ross, Secretaries of State for Education and Science and for Scotland, appointed Arthur (Lord) Houghton (1898-1996) to lead an inquiry into the pay of teachers in schools and colleges. It was the first independent review of teachers' pay in Great Britain as a whole, and the first in England and Wales since the McNair Committee's report, The supply, recruitment and training of teachers and youth leaders, in 1944.

Houghton's terms of reference were: 'to examine the pay of non-university teachers in Great Britain; and to make recommendations' (Houghton 1974:1).

The ten members of his Committee included Maurice Kogan and Lady Plowden.

The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the pay of Non-University Teachers was published six months later in December 1974. It recommended extensive changes to the salary structure for teachers and substantial increases in their pay.

Despite the Wilson government's need to cut public spending, it accepted the Committee's recommendations and, in 1975, teachers received pay increases averaging 27 per cent.

However, over the following years the government's 'Social Contract' eroded the gains that had been made so that, by 1979, 'the pressure for an increase to restore Houghton levels was overwhelming' (Morris and Griggs 1988:5).


The success of workers in publicly-owned services - the mines, the railways and the electricity industry - in bringing down the Heath government, argues Maurice Kogan, prompted some teachers' leaders to take on 'the postures and the colouring of the more radical politics of other mass professions' (Kogan 1978:80).

Thus, while the Houghton Committee was sitting in 1974, the main Scottish teachers' union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, ran a campaign which was 'raucous, unreflecting about the general good, and to some extent successful in bullying an already sympathetic government' (Kogan 1978:81). A series of three-day strikes disrupted the schools and, in the opinion of some, damaged the examination prospects of many pupils.

The action was a sign of the increasing unionisation and politicisation of the education service. The rhetoric of a 'partnership' between central and local government and the teachers was weakened.

Now education was coming into a far more combative period in which strike action and militancy became an important mode of expression and in which the formalised negotiations could no longer be relied upon as binding on the main partners (Kogan 1978:81).
London's teachers went on strike 'very many times' (Kogan 1978:81) between 1974 and 1977. They were concerned that cuts in the education budget meant not only fewer jobs and poorer promotion prospects for teachers but also increases in, or failure to decrease, the size of classes. 'They were thus protesting on behalf of their clientele as well as of their own employment interests' (Kogan 1978:81).

Teacher training crisis

The recession coincided with a falling birth rate in England and Wales: from a peak of 876,000 in 1964 to a trough of 584,000 in 1976. This resulted in the number of teacher-training places being severely cut - from almost 120,000 in 1972 to fewer than 36,000 in 1980. The problems caused by reorganisation and contraction were exacerbated by DES mismanagement:

Plans for closures and mergers were rife - the whole system thrown into disarray. Articles appeared in The Times Higher Educational Supplement from college principals and their supporters denouncing these plans as outrageous and dictatorial. The DES was criticised for its 'strong-arm methods'; the whole exercise defined as 'a disastrous mistake' (Simon 1991:436).
As a result, the provision of teacher training faced a looming crisis.


In February 1974, maintained comprehensive schools catered for 62 per cent of secondary pupils: 'there was, therefore, still a long way to go' (Simon 1991:434). In its manifesto for the election held that month, Labour promised to:

Expand the education service by the introduction of a national scheme of Nursery Schools, including day care facilities, and by a big expansion of educational facilities for 16-18 year olds, by finally ending the 11+ and by providing additional resources for children in special need of help. We shall speed the development of a universal system of fully comprehensive secondary schools. All forms of tax-relief and charitable status for public schools will be withdrawn (Labour Manifesto 1974).
A few days after the election, the new education secretary, Reginald Prentice, issued a statement on comprehensive education. The government was determined, he said, to end selection as fast as possible: Circular 10/70 would be replaced and consultations on this were already under way. From 1 April 1974, the newly-reorganised local authorities would be invited to resubmit proposals which had been rejected by Thatcher. There would, however, be no new legislation.

The announcement received 'overwhelming support', reported The Times Educational Supplement (15 March 1974). After years of frustration, many authorities were 'overjoyed'. Birmingham, whose ambitious plan had been 'torn apart' by Thatcher, announced its intention to resubmit it, and other authorities took similar action (Simon 1991:433).

Circular 4/74

The organisation of secondary education

Circular 4/74 was issued on 16 April. It stated that

The Government have made known their intention of developing a fully comprehensive system of secondary education and of ending selection at eleven plus or at any other stage. The Secretary of State looks to local education authorities (and to school governors) to secure under his control and direction the effective execution of this policy. Circular 10/70 is accordingly withdrawn (DES 1974a para 1).
In a DES Press Statement, Prentice described the Circular as a 'tough document' and warned that legislation would follow if it proved necessary. 'We shall be using our full powers under existing legislation', he said, 'to secure the co-operation of local authorities and voluntary bodies in making the fastest possible progress to a fully comprehensive system' (quoted in Simon 1991:433). Building allocations for secondary schools would be made only if needed for comprehensive reorganisation.

Shadow education minister Norman St John Stevas lost no time in launching a bitter attack on the circular, but a Commons motion calling for its withdrawal was defeated by 285 votes to 271 (Simon 1991:435).

Right-wing hostility to the new circular was fuelled by the grammar school lobby, which promised 'the most mammoth-scale objection ever raised to any educational proposals' (The Times Educational Supplement 5 April 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:434). Resistance was led by, among others, Rhodes Boyson, a former champion of comprehensive schools but now a right-wing Tory MP. He claimed that Maoist-Trotskyite cells were being formed in London's comprehensive schools, and that 'neighbourhood ghetto' schools were a disaster (The Teacher 10 May 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:434).

In June 1974, ILEA, now Labour-controlled, decided to draw up plans for the final abolition of selection throughout inner London. After a two-hour debate, it was agreed - by 46 votes to seven - that London's 49 remaining (mostly voluntary aided) grammar schools must either go comprehensive or lose financial aid. The decision was welcomed by NUT members but bitterly opposed by the few Tory members of ILEA.

Prentice approved plans from seven local authorities in his first month in office, and further plans later; he rejected Buckinghamshire's proposal to enlarge its grammar schools.

With another election looming, St John Stevas advised reluctant authorities to wait for the Tories to 'resume' office (Simon 1991:437). He was to be disappointed: the election held on 10 October 1974 resulted in a Labour majority of three. Narrow though this was, 'the opportunity seemed to present itself of a longish period of stable government' (Simon 1991:437).

Direct grant schools

On 11 March 1975 Prentice announced in the House of Commons that the government intended to implement the Donnison Committee's recommendation regarding the direct grant schools. Central government funds would be withdrawn and the schools would either have to become comprehensive or go fully independent.

DES Circular 7/75, Phasing out of direct grants to grammar schools, issued on 30 July, explained how the Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975 would be implemented. It concluded:

It is the hope of the Secretary of State that the schools and local education authorities will, as quickly as is consistent with a proper consideration of the courses of action open in particular cases, reach decisions of principle and carry them into effect so that prolonged uncertainty about the future of the schools can be avoided in the interests of all concerned (DES 1975:7-8).
Of the 154 direct grant schools, 51 agreed to become comprehensive schools within the maintained system; the rest opted for independence. 'If this was scarcely a satisfactory solution, at least it put an end to this anomaly which had remained a contentious issue since the war' (Simon 1991:439).

The Tories began considering how they could use public money to support the schools while ensuring their continued 'independence'.

1976 Education Act

A survey undertaken by The Times Educational Supplement (21 March 1975) showed that, ten months after the publication of Circular 4/74, little progress had been made. Of the 104 newly-reorganised local authorities, only twenty were fully comprehensive; between seven and fourteen were determined not to go comprehensive unless forced to do so by the government. Of the children in maintained secondary schools, 70 per cent were now in comprehensive schools; only 9.5 per cent in grammar schools. But a quarter of all pupils were still having to sit the eleven plus (Simon 1991:439-40).

One of the problems was the cost of remodelling schools at a time when overall public expenditure was being reduced. In August 1975 the government made an extra 23m available for rebuilding, but it was clear that more drastic action was necessary to complete the reform.

In December 1975, therefore, Mulley produced an education bill which would empower the Secretary of State to require the submission of proposals in order to complete the process of reorganisation.

The 1976 Education Act (22 November) received the Royal Assent almost a year later. It said:

local education authorities shall, in the exercise and performance of their powers and duties relating to secondary education, have regard to the general principle that such education is to be provided only in schools where the arrangements for the admission of pupils are not based (wholly or partly) on selection by reference to ability or aptitude (Section 1(1)).
The principle, then, was crystal clear: no selection. However, the rest of the Act hedged about this principle with so many conditions and loopholes that its effect was negligible. 'There was no legal requirement to end selection, and the Act produced no visible effect' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11). It was repealed by the Tories in 1979.

The DES was determinedly upbeat, however, and issued two circulars on 25 November, just three days after the Act received the Royal Assent.

The first, Circular 11/76, Education Act 1976, quoted a Commons statement made by the Secretary of State in which she stated that

At last the principle of fully comprehensive education is written into the law. It is a long time since the unfairness, the divisiveness and the wastefulness of selection for secondary education were first recognised, and over the last twenty years there has been accelerating progress towards a comprehensive system under Labour and Conservative governments alike. ...

Parliament has given the Government powers to complete the task as fast as is realistically possible. We have always preferred to proceed by agreement with local authorities and voluntary bodies, and we still wish to do so. Indeed I should emphasise that even where the powers given under this Act have to be used, it will be for local authorities and voluntary school governors to propose whatever pattern of comprehensive education seems best for their areas, consistent with the resources available and the need to complete the job with all reasonable speed. We are not going to force unsatisfactory schemes on anybody, but we do expect authorities and voluntary bodies to comply responsibly with the law. I am confident that they will do so (DES 1976a).

The Secretary of State had already asked eight recalcitrant authorities to submit their proposals within six months, and the position of other authorities who had not yet completed reorganisation was under review.

The second circular, 12/76, Education Act 1976: Support by Local Education Authorities of Education in Non-Maintained Schools, drew the attention of local authorities to the provisions of Section 5 of the Act and explained that any arrangements they made with non-maintained schools must be 'consistent with the Government's policy of abolishing selection for secondary education' (DES 1976b: para 2).

By April 1978, 38 local authorities had been required to submit plans for comprehensivisation. Of these, 33 had done so and two others (Avon and Barnet) were about to do so. The remaining three were Birmingham, Redbridge and Kirklees. Birmingham faced legal action; the others were declared to be in default of statutory duty and were directed to submit proposals by 1 June. Shirley Williams announced her satisfaction at the progress being made: more than four-fifths of secondary pupils were now in comprehensive schools.

Percentage of maintained secondary school pupils
in comprehensive schools, 1975-79


(Figures from DES Statistical Bulletin 13/79, November 1979
quoted in Simon 1991:468)

Parental choice

Williams was committed to the principle of parental choice and wanted to see greater differentiation between comprehensive schools. In 1977 she planned to draft a new education bill whose chief provision would be to guarantee places for children at the secondary schools of their parents' choice. Cabinet colleagues - notably Tony Benn, then Secretary of State for Energy - objected, partly on the grounds that the proposed bill would raise expectations that could not possibly be met, and partly because there was a danger that the bill would be seen to legitimise eleven-plus selection - which the 1976 Act had effectively just outlawed.

Williams was forced to back down. In a letter to the Prime Minister dated 28 October 1977, she accepted that her proposals were impracticable and argued only that

(i) admissions procedures 'take account of parental wishes';
(ii) authorities set out their admissions criteria clearly; and
(iii) appeals machinery be made uniform (quoted in Chitty 1989:158).
For the Labour government, with its 'uneasy and, at times, equivocal support for the comprehensive principle', parental choice was a problem. Most admissions procedures were working perfectly satisfactorily, but the issue 'remained one which could be exploited by right-wing critics of the comprehensive system' (Chitty 1989:158).

Policies relating to parental choice and diversity of provision would be adopted enthusiastically by the Thatcher governments after 1979.


Comprehensive schools had been established rapidly - nearly 400 in 1974-75 alone. They 'opened new opportunities' but 'reflected the conflicts, antagonisms - in short the whole gamut of circumstances in which the mass of the people lived in the wider society' (Simon 1991:440).

Inner-city schools in particular - now generally attended only by the most deprived and poverty-stricken section of the population - faced enormous social as well as educational problems in the attempt to realise the advantages of reorganisation (Simon 1991:440).
Such schools were easy targets for critics who were wilfully ignorant of the problems they faced and who peddled misinformation and simplistic solutions.

The press

The media had generally dealt 'fairly, even sympathetically (and sometimes enthusiastically) with the early comprehensive schools' (Simon 1991:440); but a drastic change now occurred. Newspapers began claiming that Britain's schools were in crisis: teachers were failing to uphold standards, while governors and inspectors seemed unable - or unwilling - to exercise control.

The journalist Ronald Butt launched a ferocious attack on London's comprehensive schools in The Times (18 July 1974); and The Guardian published an article by the feminist Jill Tweedie which began:

My eyeballs are gritty and swollen. My head rings like a gong. I am jumpy and irritable, my stomach curdles with indigestible emotions. I have spent the day in a large London comprehensive school (The Guardian 9 December 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:441).
Tweedie went on to claim that 57 per cent of the school's pupils were illiterate. Apart from acknowledging the 'absolute devotion of the teachers', she had virtually nothing positive to say about the school.

Three days later The Guardian published a reply by author and journalist Hunter Davies. He wrote:

What on earth are you doing? ... How can a reputable paper let a reputable journalist like Jill Tweedie write a smearing, sneering, class-ridden, prejudiced, cliché-ridden article on a comprehensive - without even naming the school? ... What borough is the school in? Is it really comprehensive? In the ILEA there are no comprehensives since grammar schools exist (The Guardian 12 December 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:441-2).
A year later, Hunter Davies published a sympathetic study of Creighton School, in Haringey, North London, a comprehensive with 1,500 pupils.

Black Paper 1975

The first three Black Papers, published in 1969 and 1970, had attacked progressive teaching methods, comprehensive education, and egalitarianism in general. Written by right-wing educationalists and politicians and supported by the right-wing press, they had deplored the lack of discipline in schools, blamed comprehensivisation for preventing 'academic' students from obtaining good examination results and condemned the progressive style of education being developed in the primary schools as 'a main cause not only of student unrest in the universities but of other unwelcome tendencies or phenomena' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41).

Encouraged by the media attacks on comprehensive schools, Brian Cox and Rhodes Boyson now produced a fourth Black Paper, The Fight for Education (1975), which went beyond 'the cautious conservatism of the first three documents' (Chitty 2009a::46).

Presaging doom, havoc and general chaos if existing trends were not reversed, the editors proposed tests for all at seven, eleven and fourteen; those failing at fourteen should promptly leave ... The voucher system 'could be tried in Britain'; so far from there being a common curriculum within comprehensive schools (as the hated 'progressives' were then asking), each large comprehensive should offer 'at least four distinct courses' (Simon 1991:443).
It attacked developments in all stages of education from primary schools to universities, with two articles focusing specifically on comprehensive education.

As in the earlier Black Papers, there was confusion in the fourth between what the authors would have liked to be true and what was actually true. Thus Boyson argued that

Widespread dissatisfaction with progressive primary schools and concern about falling standards of discipline and academic achievement in secondary, particularly comprehensive schools, must force educationalists and administrators to look for some means of improvement. Minimum national standards, as a further expansion of monitoring by examinations, is one method. The other method is to put the parent (and older pupils) as consumers in charge of schools (Boyson 1975:27).
In fact, there was no 'widespread dissatisfaction' with progressive primary schools, and opinion polls showed that around 80 per cent of the public supported comprehensive schools.

Education vouchers, Boyson suggested, should be trialled in at least two areas:

The time would seem ripe for the establishment of at least two full voucher experiments in Britain where local education authorities were anxious to co-operate, as some have already indicated. A non-transferable voucher could be issued for each pupil and the parent would be able to pay it into the school of his choice, either state or private. ... Popular schools would continue and expand and unpopular schools would decline and close (Boyson 1975:27).
Other contributions contained the familiar mix of bizarre claims and contradictory ideas. Iris Murdoch, for example, stated that 'I am not an opponent of comprehensive schools as such, unless they are by definition non-selective' (Murdoch 1975:7); while HJ Eysenck rehashed his outdated psychometric theory in an article 'suffused by classic biological reductionism' (Simon 1991:443). Most people interested in this field, he claimed, would by now be 'familiar with the estimate of 80% of the total variance being due to genetic causes' (Eysenck 1975:39).

Like its predecessors, this Black Paper received extensive media coverage.

Asked by Tory MP Robert McCrindle to respond to the Black Paper's proposals, Prentice told the Commons 'I welcome discussion on educational issues but I have not found the Black Paper helpful or constructive' (Hansard House of Commons 6 May 1975 Vol 891 Col 1189). He went on:

The answer to the criticisms levelled at the comprehensive system is to be found in the experience of the comprehensive schools themselves, which have provided such a successful service to our children for many years (Hansard House of Commons 6 May 1975 Vol 891 Col 1189).
In July 1975 the Conservative Political Centre published How to Save your Schools, a handbook giving guidance to activists on how to 'save the grammar schools'. Written by St John Stevas and fellow Tory MP Leon Brittan, it called for an all-out attack on comprehensive reorganisation, with petitions, meetings and marches (Simon 1991:443-4).


One of the most scandalous examples of misinformation (from an organisation which should have known better) was BBC television's Panorama programme about Faraday High School in Ealing, which was a social priority school. The programme, broadcast in March 1977, focused on the work of probationary teachers and presented an image of 'chaos, crudities, incompetence, lack of concern, confusion as to aims and purposes, squalor, dirt and general failure' (Simon 1991:442).

Pupils and staff were furious when it was revealed that several sequences in the programme had been contrived, including one scene showing girls smoking - not in the school, as the programme implied, but in a nearby block of flats: they had apparently been invited to do so by the television crew (Simon 1991:468). Despite this revelation, the damage had been done.

(Ten years later the BBC attempted to restore its reputation by presenting a fair and even-handed series of programmes on Kingswood School in Corby.)

While all this was going on, the Labour government was facing continuing economic and political problems, and an attempt by members of the secret service to discredit Wilson and destabilise his government.

1975 Bullock Report

Two reports by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), The Trend of Reading Standards (1972) and The Reading Standards of Children in Wales (1973), had been interpreted by some as indicating a decline in reading standards among certain groups of children. The resulting media furore had led Margaret Thatcher to appoint a Committee of Enquiry, chaired by Sir Alan Bullock, to make recommendations on the teaching of English. It was given the following brief:

To consider in relation to schools:
(a) all aspects of teaching the use of English, including reading, writing, and speech;
(b) how present practice might be improved and the role that initial and in-service training might play;
(c) to what extent arrangements for monitoring the general level of attainment in these skills can be introduced or improved;
and to make recommendations (Bullock 1975:xxxi).

Alan Bullock (1914-2004) (pictured) was born in Wiltshire, the son of a gardener and a maid. He first came to public notice in 1952 with his biography Hitler, A Study In Tyranny. He went on to write a three-volume biography of Ernest Bevin, the post-war Labour foreign secretary, whom he much admired.

He was the founding master of St Catherine's College Oxford in 1960, and nine years later became the university's first full-time vice-chancellor. He was made a life peer in 1976 and continued lecturing until 1997.

The 22 members of his committee presented their wide-ranging report A language for life to Reg Prentice in September 1974.

Of the two NFER reports which had led to the establishment of their enquiry, the Bullock Committee commented:

It should be said at once that it is not easy to make accurate assessment of the results of such surveys without studying them in depth. Indeed, we found in taking evidence that informed people have interpreted the NFER researches in different ways. We accept both publications as responsible and accurate research reports. The limitations of their research ... are fully discussed in the publications by the authors themselves (Bullock 1975:16).
The Committee concluded that 'the standards of 15 year olds have remained the same over the period 1960-71' (Bullock 1975:20) and that, among 11-year-olds, there had been 'no significant change in reading standards over the decade 1960-1970' (Bullock 1975:25). But they warned that 'national averages almost certainly mask falling reading standards in areas with severe social and educational problems' (Bullock 1975:25).

The Bullock Committee listed 17 'principal recommendations':

  • a system of monitoring should be introduced covering a wider range of attainments than has been attempted in the past and including new criteria for the definition of literacy;
  • steps should be taken to develop the language ability of children in the pre-school and nursery and infant years;
  • every school should devise a systematic policy for the development of reading competence in pupils of all ages and ability levels;
  • each school should have an organised policy for language across the curriculum;
  • every school should have a suitably qualified teacher with responsibility for advising and supporting colleagues in language and the teaching of reading;
  • there should be close consultation and communication between schools to ensure continuity in the teaching of reading and in the language development of every pupil;
  • English in the secondary school should have improved resources in terms of staffing, accommodation and ancillary help;
  • every LEA should appoint a specialist English adviser and should establish an advisory team with the specific responsibility of supporting schools in all aspects of language in education;
  • LEAs and schools should introduce early screening procedures to prevent cumulative language and reading failure and to guarantee individual diagnosis and treatment;
  • additional assistance should be given to children retarded in reading, and where pupils are withdrawn from classes for special help they should receive appropriate support on their return;
  • every LEA should have a reading clinic or remedial centre, offering a comprehensive diagnostic service and expert medical, psychological, teaching help and an advisory service to schools in association with the LEA's specialist adviser;
  • provision for the tuition of adult illiterates and semi-literates should be greatly increased, and there should be a national reference point for the co-ordination of information and support;
  • children of families of overseas origin should have more substantial and sustained tuition in English. More advisers and specialist teachers are needed in areas of need;
  • a standing working party with DES and LEA representatives should consider capitation allowances and the resources of schools - a satisfactory level of book provision should be its first subject of inquiry;
  • a substantial course on language in education (including reading) should be part of every primary and secondary school teacher's initial training;
  • there should be more in-service education opportunities in reading and other aspects of English teaching, including courses at diploma and higher degree level;
  • there should be a national centre for language in education, concerned with the teaching of English in all its aspects, from language and reading in the early years to advanced studies with sixth forms (Bullock 1975:513-15).
The Committee's findings were treated with scorn by the popular press. The Daily Mail described the report as 'whitewash' and added 'Sir Alan Bullock's report on the teaching of English shrouds the reality in trendy pieties' (Daily Mail 19 February 1975 quoted in Chitty 1989:64).

1976: Turning point

Five factors

Many have seen 1976 as a turning point: the moment when opposition to the progressive movements of the previous decade finally became overwhelming. Chitty suggests that there were five main factors for this:

(i) the economic crisis of 1973-75;
(ii) the employers' critique of secondary schooling;
(iii) the media campaign against comprehensives;
(iv) political considerations;
(v) the personality of Callaghan himself (Chitty 1989:56).

For thirty years, most British politicians had shared

a tacit governing philosophy which might be called 'Keynesian social democracy'. ... Both front benches in the House of Commons accepted a three-fold commitment to full employment, to the Welfare State and to the coexistence of large public and private sectors in the economy - in short, to the settlement which had brought the conflicts of the 1930s to an end. This post-war consensus disintegrated because it simply could not cope with the economic shocks and adjustment problems of the 1970s (Chitty 1989:57)

Employers' complaints

Employers complained that schools were failing to prepare pupils for entry into the world of work. They painted a picture of 'unaccountable teachers, teaching an increasingly irrelevant curriculum to bored teenagers who were poorly motivated, illiterate and innumerate' (Chitty 1989:60); and blamed the schools for the rising rate of youth unemployment. Their views received widespread media coverage.

According to a report by the National Youth Employment Council in 1974, many employers felt that young people were now 'more questioning', 'less likely to respect authority' and more likely to 'resent guidance about their appearance' (quoted in Chitty 1989:60).

These views were endorsed in articles for The Times Educational Supplement by the Managing Director of General Electric, Sir Arnold Weinstock, ('I blame the teachers' 23 January 1976) and CBI Director General John Methven ('What industry needs' 29 October 1976).

Media hostility

Misinformation and uninformed criticism of the country's schools had become endemic in the media, which appeared to be attempting to precipitate a crisis:

There were confident assertions that 'parents throughout the country are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of discipline and the low standards of state schools' (Daily Mail 18 January 1975); that 'literacy in Britain is marching backwards' (Daily Mirror 7 February 1975); that 'millions of parents are desperately worried about the education their children are receiving' (Daily Mail 27 April 1976). Children were said to blame progressive teachers and child-centred pedagogy for the rising rate of youth unemployment. Parents wanted a greater control of schooling by non-teachers and the return of the traditional grammar school (Chitty 1989:66).
Political interests

Both main political parties responded to the changing mood by adopting more right-wing policies.

On one side, right-wing Tories were beginning to discuss the notion of 'consumer-oriented education' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11). They also called for the abolition of the Schools Council, for more national testing, for the school leaving age to be put back to 15, and for national inquiries into 'everything progressive' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11).

And on the other, the Labour government took its own dramatic turn to the right and 'announced a sudden halt to the forward march of comprehensive change' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11-12). From now on, the DES would focus on curriculum reform and teaching methods with the aim of

bringing to a halt what seemed to be the spontaneous and deep-seated tendencies of the school system, towards localised, piecemeal, unsupervised, professionally led and progressive-influenced reform in primary schools and throughout the state system (Jones 2003:95).
Party political considerations weighed heavily in this, as Bernard (later Lord) Donoughue, Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit which Harold Wilson had set up in 1974, admitted in an interview with Clyde Chitty in January 1986. In the light of the increasingly hostile campaign in the media, he believed that if the government did not take the initiative, the Conservative Party would gain electoral advantage from the so-called crisis:
although I was a complete supporter of the comprehensive system, I was, in fact, very unhappy. My political finger-tips told me that unless we did something very soon, the whole state and comprehensive system would be discredited by its own failures. And that we had to pull it together pretty sharp. ... What had clearly become one of the great weaknesses of our system was its non-accountability. ... I didn't want to have central control of education - I still don't - but for political reasons I wanted greater accountability (quoted in Chitty 1989:67).

Callaghan's background

Jim Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in April 1976. He was the only British Prime Minister born in the twentieth century who had not attended university.

He was always very conscious of having been brought up by his widowed mother in a very poor home in Portsmouth and of having been forced to leave school at the age of 14. He had a suspicion of overtly 'clever' people and suffered from an inferiority complex.

As a result of his own early struggles, he believed passionately in the value of education and in the need for rigorous educational standards to enable working class youngsters to rise above their circumstances (Chitty 1989:68).

He had a 'profound and old-fashioned sense of moral values' and believed that schools and ministers of religion should 'uphold the values of family life and teach young people to be honest and upright citizens' (Chitty 1989:68-9).

These five factors - the economy, employers' complaints, the media campaign, party politics and Callaghan's character - came together in 1976.

Events now escalated rapidly: Neville Bennett claimed that formal teaching achieved better results than informal methods; the 'William Tyndale Affair' gave ammunition to the traditionalists; and the 'Yellow Book', produced for the Prime Minister by the DES, challenged the view that only teachers had a right to decide what went on in schools. All this provided the context for the Ruskin College speech in which Callaghan called for a 'Great Debate' about education.

Neville Bennett's report

In April 1976, Neville Bennett's report on his research at Lancaster into primary school teaching methods was published. Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress was based on responses from around 750 schools, all in the north-west of England. Of these, it said,

a fairly generous estimate is that some 17 per cent of teachers teach in the manner prescribed by Plowden, while at the other end of the teaching continuum approximately one in four teaches formally. The majority of teachers use what have been termed mixed styles, incorporating elements of both formal and informal practice (Bennett 1976:149).
For Bennett, formal or traditional methods meant a passive role for pupils, regular testing and an accent on competition; informal or progressive teaching was characterised by integrated subject matter, an active pupil role, an emphasis on discovery techniques and little testing (Bennett 1976:38). He acknowledged, however, that most teachers employed 'mixed' styles, 'for which the progressive-traditional dimension provides inadequate description' (Bennett 1976:48).

He noted that there was a strong relationship between teachers' aims and opinions and the way they taught:

Teachers aim to engender different outcomes in their pupils. ... Formal teachers lay much greater stress on the promotion of a high level of academic attainment, preparation for academic work in the secondary school, and the acquisition of basic skills in reading and number work. Informal teachers on the other hand value social and emotional aims, preferring to stress the importance of self-expression, enjoyment of school and the development of creativity (Bennett 1976:151).
He found that the effect of teaching style was 'statistically and educationally significant in all attainment areas tested' (Bennett 1976:152) and that 'pupils of formal and mixed teachers' were around four months ahead of those taught using informal methods in reading, maths and English.

He ended, however, with a plea for informed debate:

This study has concentrated on what is rather than what ought to be. The latter is a much more difficult question since there is not, nor is there likely to be, consensus on what should constitute a primary education. Nevertheless it is hoped that the evidence presented will enable a more informed debate on primary school methods to be conducted. It is surely time to ignore the rhetoric which would have us believe that informal methods are pernicious and permissive, and that the most accurate description of formal methods is that found in Dickens's Hard Times (Bennett 1976:162-3).
Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress was given 'mass exposure in the media - and cleverly packaged, by an enterprising publisher, for just that purpose' (Simon 1991:446). It was presented by the media as 'a full-scale scientific study of "progressive" teaching methods which proved that they simply did not work' (Chitty 2009a::37).

However, it was widely criticised, partly for its use of oversimplified categorisation of teaching methods, and partly because it was based on a relatively small-scale research project in 'one perhaps atypical area' (Kogan 1978:57). Such objections were, predictably, largely ignored in the press.

Bennett disowned the exaggerated claims that were made for his limited research and, five years later, in 'Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress: A Reanalysis' (British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 51, June 1981), he withdrew his original findings and offered others much more favourable to child-centred methods. 'On this occasion, the media (mass and otherwise) showed no interest whatsoever' (Simon 1991:469).

The William Tyndale Affair

William Tyndale was a small ILEA primary school whose teachers set out to operate what some considered an extreme version of Plowden's philosophy of 'child-centred' education. Brian Simon suggests that

This interpretation is open to question. The Tyndale teachers rejected all structures. Although Plowden was weak on articulating its approved pedagogy, the committee certainly did not recommend what can most accurately be described as anarchic procedures in the classroom (Simon 1991:469).
Many of the (mostly working-class) parents protested; some removed their children from the school. But the teachers, apparently possessed by 'an apocalyptic vision as to the role of education in achieving social change' (Simon 1991:445), persisted. In January 1974, a new head and four new teachers were appointed, and 'new pedagogical schemes, involving egalitarian structures in pupil-teacher relations, were introduced' (Simon 1991:445). More parents removed their children.

When ILEA inspected the school in the autumn term 1975, the staff went on strike. Under pressure from the media, ILEA decided to hold a public enquiry, chaired by Robin Auld QC, who was 'shrewd and fair-minded' (The Times Educational Supplement 23 July 1976 quoted in Simon 1991:445). This opened on 27 October 1975 and lasted nine months, providing 'a great deal of sensational press copy' (Simon 1991:445).

The Auld Report - 309 pages plus appendices - was published in July 1976. It 'brought into the open several themes which illuminate the landscape of educational politics like flashes of lightning' (Kogan 1978:88).

Here was a small group of teachers who were determined to create a school in which the distance and difference between teacher and pupil should virtually disappear, in which teachers should be free to work out their own educational philosophy without control or 'interference' from the local authority appointed managers. By all accounts, except for those of the teachers committed to this course of action and a minority of the parents, the results were disastrous (Kogan 1978:88-89).
ILEA inspectors noted that:
A particular problem appears to be over children who wander, even sometimes disappearing altogether ... To the head misbehaviour in school is primarily a reaction to outside influences. If a child comes late, it is not he who is necessarily to blame. If obscenities are used in the home we may expect obscene language from the child ... There is perhaps no clear lead in the school - the head may not want a lead. The fervour of some staff may have led inexperienced teachers out of their pedagogical depth (Auld Report, Appendix XV, pages 6 and 7 quoted in Kogan 1978:89).
The inquiry found that the organisation, content and quality of the teaching was poor; that discipline was so bad that the work of the infants' school which shared the same building was seriously disrupted; that collective decision-making had broken down; that the head and some of the staff had lost the confidence of the managers and of many parents; and that educational policies had been introduced which were badly planned and implemented, and in some cases clearly impracticable.

It was highly critical of some of the teachers:

In persisting with their defiance of the authority to the extent of going on strike rather than being inspected, the junior school staff demonstrated how much importance they attached to the inviolability of their 'professional status' and how little thought they had for the children for whose education they were responsible (Auld Report para. 859 quoted in Kogan 1978:90-91).
Following the publication of the report, several teachers were dismissed and the school was reorganised.

The Tyndale affair raised a number of crucial questions about the control of the school curriculum, the responsibilities of local education authorities, the assessment of effectiveness in education, and the nature of pedagogy - what was meant by 'progressive' education? Because the teachers were identified with militant left-wing groups, a connection was made, in the public eye, between 'progressivism' and the hard left.

The overarching issue was that of accountability. The teachers had claimed total professional autonomy in the face of objections from parents and ILEA inspectors.

To whom were the teachers responsible - or accountable? In theory the head had responsibility for the school and was accountable to the governors. These, in their turn, were, in theory, responsible to the local authority. That authority itself employed inspectors who were directly responsible to the Chief Education Officer, and so to the education committee - in this case the ILEA. And what about the DES? The role of HMI? And ultimately the Secretary of State? (Simon 1991:446).
The Tyndale affair caused 'immense damage ... to the teaching profession as a whole' (Simon 1991:446). Teacher control of the curriculum was now called into question.

The Yellow Book


The mass media and right-wing politicians and commentators claimed that there was now widespread public concern about the state of education. This was not true: opinion polls had shown that, in 1971, 83 per cent of parents were 'satisfied or very satisfied' with their children's primary schooling; by 1975 this had risen to 87 per cent; and a Gallup poll for the National Consumer Council in 1976 produced a similar figure (Simon 1991:469).

Nonetheless, the 'propaganda crisis' had reached 'alarming proportions' (Simon 1991:447). In response, Callaghan sought to present himself as a man who shared concerns about disorder and falling standards and thus 'to reassure audiences well beyond the Labour Party' (Simon 1991:447).

On 21 May 1976, soon after taking over as Prime Minister, Callaghan met Education Secretary Fred Mulley to raise four areas of concern:

  • the basic teaching of the three Rs;
  • the curriculum for older children in comprehensive schools, particularly science and mathematics;
  • the effectiveness of the examination system; and
  • the provision of further education for 16- to 19-year-olds.
Mulley was 'surprised to learn that the Policy Unit was drafting a major speech on education for the Prime Minister to deliver later in the year' (Chitty 1989:73), but agreed to prepare a lengthy memorandum on the issues Callaghan had raised.

The result was School Education in England: problems and initiatives (known as the 'Yellow Book' because of the colour of its cover), produced by the DES with input from the Downing Street Policy Unit. It was not intended for public consumption and was circulated to a small number of people in July 1976.


In his notes which accompany the online version of the Yellow Book, Clyde Chitty suggests that there have been two popular misconceptions about its authorship and influence: that it represented the thinking of Her Majesty's Inspectorate (HMI) on the state of school education in the mid-1970s; and that it was the inspiration for Callaghan's Ruskin College Speech.

With regard to the first, Sheila Browne, who was Senior Chief Inspector of Schools from 1974 to 1983, told Chitty in July 1986 that the book was the work of DES officials and that there was no significant HMI input. Chitty argues that

the Document's criticism of many of the new trends in primary-school teaching would not have been made by an Inspectorate which had done so much to pioneer 'progressive' methods, in the wake of the 1967 Plowden Report. And Sheila Browne's version of events is substantiated by a close examination of the style and language of the Yellow Book itself where we find a number of phrases, which also appear in other DES publications of the period (Chitty 2015).
(Note: For a contemporary account of the history, role and organisation of HM Inspectorate, see HMI Today and Tomorrow, published by the DES in 1970.)

The second misconception - that the Yellow Book was the inspiration for Callaghan's Ruskin College Speech - probably arose because sections of the book were deliberately leaked to The Guardian, which carried a front-page article about it on 13 October under the headline 'State must step into schools', and The Times Educational Supplement, which published a three-page report on 15 October, just three days before the speech was given.

The Guardian report focused on the introduction of a national curriculum for secondary schools, even though this was not actually proposed in the Yellow Book:

A plan to introduce a basic national curriculum for Britain's secondary schools has been put to the Prime Minister in a memorandum from the Department of Education and Science.

This proposal, which at a stroke would end 100 years of non-interference in state education, is made in a confidential document specially commissioned by Mr. Callaghan. Its sixty-three pages constitute a severe indictment of the failure of secondary schools to produce enough scientists and engineers, and the memorandum calls for drastic measures to change the attitude of children entering schools, and for much tighter control by Inspectors of the education system ...

The central theme of the memorandum is to argue for a return to an agreed 'core curriculum' in secondary schools which, after agreement from local education authorities and teachers, should be introduced to ensure improved standards and a return to the study of mathematics and science (The Guardian 13 October 1976 quoted in Chitty 1989:82).

The Times Educational Supplement noted that the quality of education had become a major political issue and suggested that the approach adopted in the Yellow Book was preferable to that of the Tory party:
Both parties now believe that there is a political time-bomb ticking away in the schools. The Conservatives think public anxiety must favour them. They strike attitudes in defence of basic standards in the belief that this is the way to exploit the anxiety. Mr. Callaghan and Mrs. Williams may well have reached a not dissimilar political assessment, and believe they must defuse the time-bomb before it has time to go off. This they hope to do by bringing curricular issues into the open. Most people in the education service - including those whose initial reaction to the Yellow Book will be hostile - will prefer this approach to the Black Paper postures which Conservative education spokesmen have begun to assume (The Times Educational Supplement 15 October 1976 quoted in Chitty 1989:84)
The Times, meanwhile, welcomed 'the beginning of a government drive to bring back standards into teaching, concentrating on the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic':
That this initiative should come from a Labour Government is ironic, since all the groundwork in recent years has been made by the Right. Mr. Callaghan is stealing Tory clothing (The Times 14 October 1976 quoted in Chitty 1989:83).
The leaking of the Yellow Book was 'obviously intended to prepare Callaghan's audience for what they were about to hear' and 'gave credence to the view that the two documents must be intimately connected' (Chitty 2015).
In reality, Donoughue wanted the Speech to be seen by the media as a forthright statement of the need to make schools and teachers more accountable, and as a direct challenge to the teaching profession in general, and to the National Union of Teachers in particular (Chitty 2015).

Chitty argues that the Yellow Book was an important policy document and can be seen as an attempt by the DES to restore public confidence in the state education system, at a time when it was regularly coming under attack from sections of the media.

Of its many themes, three stand out as being of particular significance: the need to establish generally accepted principles for the composition of a 'core curriculum' for the secondary school; the need to make suitable provision for vocational elements within the curriculum; and the need to challenge the view that 'no one except teachers has any right to any say in what goes on in our schools' (Chitty 2015).
The Yellow Book began by arguing that
the achievements of the education service look impressive. We have, despite economic difficulties, coped with an 80% increase in school population; raised the school leaving age twice. For these purposes massive building programmes have been carried through and the teaching force greatly expanded. For the first time, over the last generation, we have set out to provide a genuinely universal free secondary education, and to that end have put in hand, and largely carried out, the greatest reorganisation of schools in our educational history (DES 1976c:5).
Despite this success, the press and the media, 'reflecting a measure of genuine public concern', were 'full of complaints about the performance of the schools' (DES 1976c:5). Why was this? Had something gone wrong? And if so, how was it to be put right?

Primary and secondary schools were then examined in turn. In the former, only a minority of schools had adopted the 'child-centred' approach, yet its influence on teaching methods was said to be widespread. 'In the right hands this approach is capable of producing admirable results' (DES 1976c:6). However, these 'newer and freer' methods could prove

a trap to less able and experienced teachers who failed to recognise that they required a careful and systematic monitoring of the progress of individual children in specific skills, as well as a careful planning of the opportunities offered to them (DES 1976c:6).
The time was therefore 'almost certainly ripe for a corrective shift of emphasis' (DES 1976c:7).
HM Inspectors have for some time stressed the need to make teachers conscious of the importance of a systematic approach. The trainers of teachers, and the local advisers, increasingly accept this view and its adoption should be made easier by the increased stability and experience of the teacher force (DES 1976c:7).
With regard to secondary schools, the criticism was 'more diverse':
In part they follow the same lines as the criticism of the primary schools and are based on the feeling that the schools have become too easy-going and demand too little work, and inadequate standards of performance in formal subjects, from their pupils (DES 1976c:7).
Some of these problems, the Book argued, had resulted from the process of comprehensive reorganisation, and were likely to be overcome. But there were shortages of adequately-qualified teachers in specialist subjects; rapid expansion of the teaching force had resulted in there being a 'disproportionate number of young and inexperienced teachers' (DES 1976c:9); and some teachers and schools 'may have over-emphasised the importance of preparing boys and girls for their roles in society compared with the need to prepare them for their economic role' (DES 1976c:10). It was unfair to blame the schools for this, because they had been responding to the mood of the country and to the priorities of successive governments. Nonetheless, 'the time may now be ripe for a change' (DES 1976c:10).

The Schools Council had proposed a Certificate of Extended Education for first-year sixth formers and the replacement of GCE O level and CSE by a new common exam. On these matters, the Yellow Book was 'exceedingly cautious' (Chitty 1989:80).

The Certificate of Extended Education was strongly advocated by the NUT, but the Department and Inspectorate had 'misgivings about its merit' (DES 1976c:13):

The demand for it has almost certainly been overstated and the educational programmes followed by some pupils in the target group are of doubtful relevance to their needs. The new examination would not be useful as a stepping-stone to a further education course (nearly all of which are geared to entry at either 16 or 18). On general grounds the onus should be on the proposers to show it is worthwhile to add to the financial and other burdens of external examining in schools (DES 1976c:13).
As to a single system of examining at 16+, the Yellow Book was equally unenthusiastic:
In principle the creation of a common system of examination at 16+ would eliminate some difficulties associated with the present double system. But the Schools Council have not succeeded in demonstrating that the considerable technical and educational difficulties of examining over a very wide spectrum of ability have been solved, and they have not offered an agreed and workable plan for the administration of the proposed new examination by the existing examining bodies. The Department's reservations are shared by important sectors of the educational world (DES 1976c:13).
The Yellow Book stressed the importance of the work of HM Inspectorate, which was 'without doubt the most powerful single agency to influence what goes on in schools, both in kind and standard' (DES 1976c:15); criticised the Schools Council, whose 'overall performance', it said, had been 'generally mediocre' (DES 1976c:18); and argued that the scope of the Assessment of Performance Unit should be broadened and its programme accelerated, 'so far as the intrinsic disciplines of its work and the availability of competent research and development workers permit'. Here, the major problem was 'to persuade the teaching profession that this is all to their advantage; we shall need also to staff the Unit appropriately' (DES 1976c:24).

It concluded that

It will also be good to get on record from Ministers and in particular the Prime Minister, an authoritative pronouncement on the division of responsibility for what goes on in school suggesting that the Department should give a firmer lead. Such a pronouncement would have to respect legitimate claims made by the teachers as to the exercise of their professional judgment, but should firmly refute any argument - and this is what they have sought to establish - that no one except teachers has any right to any say in what goes on in schools. The climate for a declaration on these lines may in fact now be relatively favourable (DES 1976c:25).
Morris and Griggs argue that the Yellow Book
gave the Prime Minister a distorted picture of schools and teachers, and of the Schools Council, whose efforts to reform and democratise as well as broaden secondary school examinations it undermined. It cast doubt in the most biased way on the work of the comprehensives and gave an utterly false impression of the impact of informal methods in the primary schools. Central to its thesis was the assumption of poor performance and declining standards. What might be wrong with education, it argued, was overemphasis on preparing young people for their role in society rather than their economic role. This was the nub of the Yellow Book's case (Morris and Griggs 1988:6-7).

The Ruskin College Speech

This, then, was the political, economic and educational context in which the Prime Minister called for a 'rational debate based on the facts' in his Ruskin College speech in Oxford on 18 October 1976.


Callaghan adopted 'the bluff, common man approach at which he was past master' (Simon 1991:450). He was well-placed to do so since, like the great majority of his fellow citizens, he 'owed little to formal education himself' (Simon 1991:450).

In his memoirs, Callaghan wrote:

My general guidance for the speech was that it should begin a debate about existing educational trends and should ask some controversial questions. It should avoid blandness and bring out the criticisms I had heard, whilst explaining the value of the teachers' work and the need for parents to be closely associated with their children's schools. It should ask why industry's status was so low in young people's choice of careers, and the reasons for the shortage of mathematics and science teachers (Callaghan 1987:410 quoted in Chitty 1989:93).
For Donoughue, the speech was an opportunity to raise questions about:
the need for more rigorous educational standards, for greater monitoring and accountability of teachers, for greater concentration on the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, and for giving greater priority to technical, vocational and practical education ... (Donoughue 1987:111 quoted in Chitty 1989:93)

After some introductory comments about the achievements of Ruskin College, Callaghan began by taking it for granted that no one would claim exclusive rights in the field of education.

Public interest is strong and legitimate and will be satisfied. We spend 6bn a year on education, so there will be discussion. But let it be rational. If everything is reduced to such phrases as 'educational freedom' versus state control, we shall get nowhere. I repeat that parents, teachers, learned and professional bodies, representatives of higher education and both sides of industry, together with the government, all have an important part to play in formulating and expressing the purpose of education and the standards that we need (Callaghan 1976).
He then focused on a number of specific issues. He was concerned by 'complaints from industry that new recruits from the schools sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job that is required'; and by 'the unease felt by parent and others about the new informal methods of teaching which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not' (Callaghan 1976).

He urged employers, trades unions and parents, as well as teachers and administrators, to make their views known. He said he had been 'very impressed ... by the enthusiasm and dedication of the teaching profession', but he acknowledged that there was 'criticism about basic skills and attitudes' and he argued that there was 'a need for more technological bias in science teaching' (Callaghan 1976).

Underlying the speech was the feeling that the educational system was out of touch with the fundamental need for Britain to survive economically in a highly competitive world through the efficiency of its industry and commerce:

I do not join those who paint a lurid picture of educational decline because I do not believe it is generally true, although there are examples which give cause for concern. I am raising a further question. It is this. In today's world, higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill. Therefore we demand more from our schools than did our grandparents (Callaghan 1976).
Despite his criticisms, Callaghan was keen to dissociate himself from the rantings of the Black Paper writers:
These are proper subjects for discussion and debate. And it should be a rational debate based on the facts. My remarks are not a clarion call to Black Paper prejudices. We all know those who claim to defend standards but who in reality are simply seeking to defend old privileges and inequalities (Callaghan 1976).
Nonetheless, he argued, there was now a good case to be made for 'a basic curriculum with universal standards', and he concluded:
I have outlined concerns and asked questions about them today. The debate that I was seeking has got off to a flying start even before I was able to say anything. Now I ask all those who are concerned to respond positively and not defensively. It will be an advantage to the teaching profession to have a wide public understanding and support for what they are doing. And there is room for greater understanding among those not directly concerned of the nature of the job that is being done already (Callaghan 1976).
For Brian Simon, Callaghan's intention was clear:
On the political level, to steal the thunder of the Black Paperites and their colleagues (and these included St John Stevas and the radical right in the Tory Party), but, on a deeper level, to assert new forms of control over the social order - to issue a clear warning that educational developments should not get out of hand; in short to slam the lid and screw it securely down (Simon 1991:451).
Chitty argues that the Ruskin speech 'has to be viewed on a number of different levels, all of them interrelated' (Chitty 1989:95). It marked
the end of the phase of educational expansion which had been largely promoted by the Labour Party and at the same time it signalled a public redefinition of educational objectives. Its timing was, in part, a response to immediate events: the acute economic crisis, escalating unemployment and a declining birth-rate. The days of expansion were clearly over; there had to be more skilful use of existing resources. It was also an attempt to wrest the populist mantle from the Conservative Opposition and pander to perceived public disquiet at the alleged decline in educational standards (Chitty 1989:95).
It also indicated 'a clear shift on the part of the Labour leadership towards policies which would facilitate greater government control of the education system' (Chitty 1989:95).

But above all, the speech represented

a clear attempt to construct a new educational consensus around a more direct subordination of education to what were perceived to be the needs of the economy (Chitty 1989:95-6).

The speech was viewed with suspicion by many teachers, who still held the view enunciated in 1954 by National Union of Teachers General Secretary Ronald Gould that democracy itself was safeguarded by 'the existence of a quarter of a million teachers who are free to decide what should be taught and how it should be taught' (quoted in Timmins 1996:323).

Alec Clegg, the progressive Director of Education for the West Riding, whose primary schools were 'internationally renowned' (Kogan 1978:66), responded to the implication in the Ruskin speech that standards had declined. If it is true, he argued, that 'we can no longer teach children to read ... I am puzzled by the fact that Puffin Books increased their sales from 600,000 in 1961 to 6 million in 1975' (quoted in Kogan 1978:66).

The Times Educational Supplement broadly welcomed Callaghan's initiative as 'a major speech by a Prime Minister to serve notice on the schools that they are accountable to the public and can reasonably be expected to give an account of their stewardship':

Until each school, and each local authority, can produce evidence of systematic curriculum planning and evaluation, with careful attention to basic skills, the public will continue to feel that a gigantic cover-up is going on. The teachers' unions' paranoid reaction to any legitimate public concern about standards simply increases the suspicions, and gives added incentive for politicians, whether national or local, to meddle in teachers' professional concerns.

The public remains to be convinced that teachers know what they are doing. Unless it is convinced, there is the danger of an imposed 'core curriculum' that will distort, rather than underpin, important objectives of schooling (The Times Educational Supplement 22 October 1976 quoted in Chitty 1989:97)

Predictably, the Tories poured scorn on the speech. In a four-page critique, they claimed that
Ever since the late 1960s there has been growing evidence of a serious decline in academic standards, and the resulting concern has led to continuous public discussion. It is strange that the Prime Minister should have been unaware of this (quoted in Knight 1990:103).
Equally predictably, right-wing commentators saw the speech as a vindication of their views. In the last of the Black Papers, Cox and Boyson argued that
In October 1976, Mr Callaghan, the Prime Minister, attempted to steal our clothes, which have always been freely available. He repeated our assertions that money is being wasted, standards are too low, and children are not being given the basic tools of literacy and numeracy (Cox and Boyson 1977:5).
Callaghan was critical of the response to his speech, particularly that of The Times Educational Supplement which, he said, 'was both scornful and cynical about my intention', treated him as 'no more than an amateur educationalist', and argued that the debate should be 'conducted by those who knew what they were talking about' (Callaghan 1987:410 quoted in Chitty 1989:96).

Arguments about the relationship between the Yellow Book and the Ruskin speech, and about the authorship of the speech, rumbled on for years. In an article in The Times Educational Supplement (29 May 1987), Bernard Donoughue claimed that he had instigated and largely written the Ruskin speech. Three weeks later, former NUT President Max Morris accused him of distorting the facts:

It is ... quite extraordinary to read an account of the provenance of the Ruskin speech which makes no mention whatsoever of the secret Yellow Book prepared for the Prime Minister by the DES and leaked to The Times Educational Supplement which public-spiritedly published its tissue of distortions, half-truths and plain whoppers. It was the Yellow Book which was the occasion for the speech, which was hyped to the skies in advance ... Lord Donoughue claims the credit for drafting the speech. He is welcome to the credit for a very poor effort which was, in fact, drafted by a DES official who will now be grateful to be relieved of the responsibility by such a distinguished writer of fiction (Letter to The Times Educational Supplement 19 June 1987 quoted in Chitty 1989:90).

Chitty argues that

We are probably very near the truth if we argue that a number of separate papers were prepared for the Ruskin speech. The most detailed papers came from the Policy Unit, but there was also an input from the DES incorporating presumably some of the ideas put forward in the Yellow Book. Bernard Donoughue then had the task of coordinating all the material (Chitty 1989:92).

The Great Debate

Regional conferences

Shirley Williams replaced Fred Mulley as Secretary of State on 10 September 1976, so it was her job to follow up Callaghan's Ruskin speech and set the 'Great Debate' in motion.

Eight one-day regional conferences were held in early 1977, each attended by a minister and by 250 invited participants. These were followed by a series of meetings at which selected educational and industrial organisations considered a paper prepared by the DES. Schools in England and Wales: Current Issues - An Annotated Agenda for Discussion listed the main issues under four broad headings:

(a) the curriculum;
(b) monitoring and assessment;
(c) teacher training; and
(d) school and working life (quoted in Chitty 1989:100).
It went further than the Yellow Book in arguing that 'national examination results give some picture of performance of pupils at age 16 upwards, but constitute an imperfect measure of the performance of the educational system'. It then asked: 'Is there a case for tests in English Language and mathematics to be taken by all pupils ... at certain ages, possibly 8, 11 and 13?' (quoted in Chitty 1989:99).
It was never clear quite what was to be achieved, but, with hindsight, these further 'consultations' can be seen to have acted as a smoke screen covering the bid, by the DES and politicians, for more active central influence and control in key areas (Simon 1991:457).
Morris and Griggs described the Great Debate as 'a publicity exercise in showbiz style' (Morris and Griggs 1988:8); while Denis Lawton argued that it 'was not a debate and it was not very great' (Lawton 1980:39). He noted that the agenda changed between Callaghan's Ruskin speech and the regional conferences:
The Prime Minister had raised questions about four issues: (1) The three Rs in primary schools, (2) comprehensive curriculum, (3) examinations, (4) 16-19 age groups; but the agenda now became: (1) curriculum 5 to 16; (2) the assessment of standards; (3) the education and training of teachers; (4) school and working life. The background paper, 'Educating Our Children', became available after preliminary consultations with educational and industrial organisations in November and December 1976. By the time the February and March regional conferences were held the agenda had thus become a series of focused questions using the text of 'Educating Our Children' as background (Lawton 1980:39).
Apart from the regional conferences, there was little action:
procrastination, indecision, delay at all costs - endless consultations now became the order of the day. With one exception, these marked Shirley Williams' term of office, while the ideals and objectives of teachers and local authorities were allowed to crumble and decay. The net effect of her term of office was to prepare the soil for a breakthrough by the radical right which now found renewed energy in the fight for its objectives (Simon 1991:454).
One important theme of the Ruskin speech and the Great Debate - the need to make effective use of limited financial resources - was to become 'a guiding principle of policy, regardless of the political complexion of the government in power' (Chitty 1989:98). Shirley Williams underlined this new emphasis in a speech at the North of England conference in January 1977:
We must find the most effective ways of using a budget, which, though large, is no longer increasing in real terms; and we must redeploy the resources of teachers and buildings released as a result of the declining birthrate ... I am convinced we have resources enough to make our next priority an improvement in the quality of our education parallel to the remarkable improvement in its quantity (quoted in Chitty 1989:98).

1977 Green Paper

The Great Debate culminated in the publication of Education in Schools: A Consultative Document, presented to Parliament in July 1977. According to Bernard Donoughue, the Downing Street Policy Unit was unhappy with the early DES drafts of this Green Paper and sought to persuade Callaghan that it should say more about standards, discipline and teacher accountability:

The incident represented Whitehall at its self-satisfied, condescending and unimaginative worst. However, at this time I was contacted by some of the younger officials at the DES who said that they shared our view of their Department's attitude; they too wanted a more positive approach, and they hoped that we in Downing Street would insist on improvements. Shirley Williams also indicated that she was willing to take a more radical line provided that she would rely on continuing political support from the Prime Minister when the unions inevitably kicked up rough. We were encouraged by these responses and briefed the Prime Minister to insist on a more positive and radical approach. This message was accepted internally if not always publicly (little change was made to the Green Paper in its final form), and the Department slowly moved its stance to one more in line with the principles and proposals laid out in Mr. Callaghan's Ruskin speech (Donoughue 1987:112-3 quoted in Chitty 1989:101).
In fact, the Green Paper repeated many of the critical observations which had been made in the Yellow Book and the Ruskin speech, and accepted that there were legitimate grounds for concern:
There is a wide gap between the world of education and the world of work. Boys and girls are not sufficiently aware of the importance of industry to our society, and they are not taught much about it. In some schools the curriculum has been overloaded, so that the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, the building blocks of education, have been neglected. A small minority of schools has simply failed to provide an adequate education by modern standards. More frequently, schools have been overambitious, introducing modern languages without sufficient staff to meet the needs of a much wider range of pupils, or embarking on new methods of teaching mathematics without making sure the teachers understood what they were teaching, or whether it was appropriate to the pupils' capacities or the needs of their future employers (DES 1977a:2).
Equally, it acknowledged that there had been positive developments:
Primary schools have been transformed in recent years by two things: a much wider curriculum than used to be considered sufficient for elementary education, and the rapid growth of the so-called 'child-centred' approach (DES 1977a:8).
It commended many aspects of these developments:
In the right hands, this approach has produced confident, happy and relaxed children, without any sacrifice of the 3Rs or other accomplishments - indeed, with steady improvement in standards. Visitors have come from all over the world to see, and to admire, the English and Welsh 'primary school revolution' (DES 1977a:8).
However, it went on to suggest that few teachers had sufficient experience and ability to make the new approach work:
It has proved to be a trap for some less able or less experienced teachers who applied the freer methods uncritically or failed to recognise that they require careful planning of the opportunities offered to children and systematic monitoring of the progress of individuals (DES 1977a:8).

It concluded that 'the challenge now is to restore the rigour without damaging the real benefits of the child-centred developments' (DES 1977a:8).

After yet more consultations, Circular 14/77 Local Authority Arrangements for the School Curriculum, issued on 29 November, asked local authorities to report by June 1978 on their arrangements and procedures regarding the curriculum in their schools. The Secretaries of State for Education and Science and for Wales, it said, considered that

the time is right to seek systematic information about curricular arrangements in local authority areas throughout England and Wales. This will enable the Secretaries of State to assess how far the practice of local education authorities meets national needs and will assist in the preparation of future educational plans, particularly for the training, recruitment and employment of teachers. The information collected will also be of value to their partners in the education system and to the Schools Council. The Secretaries of State, after examining the information collected, will engage in further consultations with the local education authorities, the teachers, and the Schools Council. They expect to be able to identify examples of good practice which can be commended for wider adoption (DES/Welsh Office 1977: para 3).
At the same time, Circular 15/77 Information for Parents (25 November) set out 'the nature and extent of the information' the Secretary of State considered 'should normally be made available to parents in written form as and when appropriate in relation to their children's school careers' (DES 1977b: para 2).

Curriculum models

Clyde Chitty has argued that, from around 1975 onwards, two models of a possible national curriculum were discussed:

a professional common-curriculum model put forward by a small but influential group of Her Majesty's Inspectorate and a bureaucratic core-curriculum model advocated by the civil servants of the Department of Education and Science. The impression has often been created that these both amount to the same thing in practice which is, in fact, very far from the truth (Chitty 1989:106).
The common-curriculum model, as described in the three HMI 'Red Books' published between 1977 and 1983, reflected
a genuine concern with the quality of the teaching process and with the needs of individual children. It seeks to undermine traditional subject boundaries and uses subjects to achieve higher level aims. It requires teachers who are well-motivated, well-trained, and skilled in identifying any specific learning problems for individual pupils. It is wary of any system geared to writing off large sections of the school population as failures (Chitty 1989:106).
In contrast, the bureaucratic core-curriculum approach was
concerned with the 'efficiency' of the whole system and with the need to obtain precise statistical information to demonstrate that efficiency. It is concerned with controlling what is taught in schools and making teachers generally more accountable to the central authority (Chitty 1989:106).
The professional approach, argues Chitty, focused on 'the quality of input and the skills, knowledge and awareness of the teachers', whereas the bureaucratic approach concentrated on 'output and testing'. The former was based on 'individual differences and the learning process', the latter was concerned with 'norms or benchmarks, norm-related criteria and judgments based on the expectations of how a statistically-normal child should perform'. The professional curriculum was based on 'areas of learning and experience', the bureaucratic curriculum on 'traditional subjects' (Chitty 1989:106-7).

Chitty continues:

it is important to emphasise that the two groups were engaged on separate exercises and that HMI thinking on the curriculum was not represented in the 1976 Yellow Book, which was prepared without the active involvement of HMI (Chitty 1989:110).
The HMI model

In 1975, a year after Sheila Browne became Senior Chief Inspector, HMI formed a Curriculum Publications Group to develop ideas about 'the nature and purposes of the curriculum for pupils aged eleven to sixteen' (DES 1983:1).

A conference on 'The Secondary Curriculum' was held in Oxford in September 1976, and papers from this were published in the first of three Red Books, Curriculum 11-16. (It was dated 1977 but a printers' strike delayed its publication until March 1978.)

In a speech to the Council of Local Education Authorities' annual conference in July 1977, Sheila Browne outlined some of the questions which members of HMI were attempting to answer:

To take the whole curriculum, can it be right that the experience of pupils in our secondary schools and even in the same school is so diverse? Should there be such a difference of shape between the curriculum for the academic and that for the less academic? Is there really no such thing as a secondary curriculum proper for all pupils? Can one claim that the present curriculum is built positively rather than negatively (and somewhat competitively) by the crowding out of this or that? Do all these individual curricula give and ask enough? Perhaps particularly for the most able, is the traditional curriculum sufficiently forward and outward looking? For all pupils, does it sufficiently foster the knowledge, skills and qualities of mind and feeling that would serve - and here one takes off into the rather grandiose world of educational aims - society, the country's interest, and our very small world? (quoted in Chitty 1989:109).

HMI felt that the Schools Council was dealing with curriculum matters in a piecemeal fashion, and that there was a need for national planning in terms of a common curriculum as a whole. It was this issue that they sought to address.

By the time Curriculum 11-16 was ready for publication, 'the very concept of a common or common-core curriculum had become associated with the suspicion that the Callaghan government was primarily concerned to bring about greater control of education' (Chitty 1989:112). The authors therefore felt it necessary to make clear that:

There is no intention anywhere in the papers which follow of advocating a centrally controlled or dictated curriculum ... The group of HM Inspectors who wrote these papers felt that the case for a common curriculum, as it is presented here, deserves careful attention and that such a curriculum, worked out in the ways suggested, would help to ameliorate the inconsistencies and irrationalities which at present exist, without entailing any kind of centralised control (HMI 1977:1).
Curriculum 11-16 put forward a checklist of eight 'areas of experience', to be used as the basis of curriculum design:
  • The aesthetic and creative
  • The ethical
  • The linguistic
  • The mathematical
  • The physical
  • The scientific
  • The social and political
  • The spiritual (HMI 1977:6)
On this basis, a timetable for the older pupils in a comprehensive school might consist of:

A modern language4
A science5
Religious education and a social study4
Careers education2
Physical activities3

(HMI 1977:7)

This would account for two-thirds of a typical forty-period week. The remaining time could be used to enable pupils to choose additional subjects or to devote more time to subjects already being studied.

The authors emphasised that there was no one model of good practice; and that the curriculum should be flexible enough to allow for differing needs and abilities and should offer progressive opportunities in all eight areas of experience.

External examinations need not be an insurmountable obstacle to implementation of these proposals:

It is important that the framework provided by the external examinations system should not hinder schools from implementing programmes that they acknowledge to be necessary for the development of individuals and of whole groups of pupils. There is, however, as is widely demonstrable in the work of many schools, no reason why education should stop as soon as an examination syllabus is embarked upon; indeed, a clearer and widely agreed definition of curricular objectives could assist the development of improved instruments of assessment, including public examinations. Examination boards have shown themselves in recent years encouragingly willing to develop new approaches in response to changing perceptions of needs and fresh curricular thinking (HMI 1977:7).
Two further Red Books were published: Curriculum 11-16: a Review of Progress: a Joint Study By HMI and Five LEAs (1981) and Curriculum 11-16: Towards a Statement of Entitlement - Curricular Reappraisal in Action (1983). (Details of these will be found in the next chapter.)

HMI also produced, between 1977 and 1982, a series of 15 booklets under the general title Matters for Discussion:

  1 Ten Good Schools (1977)
  2 Classics in Comprehensive Schools (1977)
  3 Modern Languages in Comprehensive Schools (1977)
  4 Gifted Children in Middle and Comprehensive Secondary Schools (1977)
  5 The Teaching of Ideas in Geography (1978)
  6 Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools (1978)
  7 The Education of Children in Hospitals for the Mentally Handicapped (1978)
  8 Developments in the BEd Degree Course (1979)
  9 Mathematics 5 to 11 (1979)
10 Community Homes with Education (1980)
11 A View of the Curriculum (1980)
12 Modern Languages in Further Education (1980)
13 Girls and Science (1980)
14 Mathematics in the Sixth Form (1982)
15 The New Teacher in School (1982)

The Red Books and the Matters for Discussion series 'represented the significant contribution from HMI to the continuing education debate after 1976' (Chitty 1989:115).

Whatever one's view of their principal recommendations, it can at least be argued that small groups of HMI were genuinely trying to tackle some of the broad questions listed by Sheila Browne in her 1977 address. Yet in one sense, it could all be described as a pointless exercise. By 1987, no one in the government was interested in the answers (Chitty 1989:115).
The DES model

The DES, meanwhile, had been developing the concept of a core curriculum, based mainly on traditional subjects.

This idea was not new. In the inter-war years, the secondary curriculum had effectively been controlled by the Secondary Regulations and by the fact that most pupils were expected to take the School Certificate examination, which required at least five passes including English.

However, the 1944 Education Act had rendered the Secondary Regulations obsolete, and the School Certificate had been replaced by the single-subject GCE O level examination in 1951. By the early 1950s, therefore, 'most grammar schools had abandoned any idea of a core or common-core curriculum' (Chitty 1989:115).

Some of the new secondary modern schools which had come into being after 1945 had experimented with a curriculum centred around social studies, but the pressure to achieve good exam results had resulted in most of these schemes being abandoned. Thereafter, many of the new secondary moderns had observed traditional subject boundaries and had become 'pale reflections of the grammar schools' (Chitty 1989:116).

The concept of a core curriculum appealed to the writers of the Yellow Book in 1976, presumably because they saw it as a convenient means of achieving greater uniformity and accountability. However, they did not attempt 'to define the concept in detail or to provide any intellectual justification for its adoption' (Chitty 1989:116). Indeed, as Chitty points out, 'the paragraph on the curriculum in the Yellow Book was remarkable for its lack of both clarity and precision' (Chitty 1989:116):

A ... source of worry is the variation in the curriculum followed by pupils in different schools or parts of the country or in different ability bands. ... An analysis of the courses followed by individual pupils in school, particularly perhaps the most and least able, would reveal further causes for dissatisfaction in terms of the general balance of their studies. The time has probably come to try to establish generally accepted principles for the composition of the secondary curriculum for all pupils, that is to say a 'core curriculum'. ... The creation of a suitable core curriculum will not, however, be easy. Pupils in their later years [of] secondary schooling (up to and beyond the age of compulsory attendance) have a wide range of interests and expectations, and suitable provision will have to be made for vocational elements within school education for those who will benefit from this. Extensive consideration and consultation will be needed before a core curriculum could be introduced (DES 1976c:10-11).
Callaghan spoke of 'the strong case for the so-called "core curriculum" of basic knowledge' in his Ruskin College speech. Along with a number of other issues which 'need study because they cause concern':
the methods and aims of informal instruction, ... the proper way of monitoring the use of resources in order to maintain a proper national standard of performance; ... the role of the inspectorate in relation to national standards; and ... the need to improve relations between industry and education (Callaghan 1976).
These issues formed part of the agenda of the Great Debate and were discussed in the Green Paper Education in Schools: A Consultative Document. The secondary curriculum had suffered from the constantly growing demands made upon it: it had become overcrowded and there was too much variation between schools. The proposed remedy was the creation of a suitable core curriculum:
It is clear that the time has come to try to establish generally accepted principles for the composition of the secondary curriculum for all pupils. This does not presuppose uniform answers: schools, pupils, and their teachers are different, and the curriculum should be flexible enough to reflect these differences. But there is a need to investigate the part which might be played by a 'protected' or 'core' element of the curriculum common to all schools. There are various ways this may be defined. Properly worked out, it can offer reassurances to employers, parents and the teachers themselves, as well as a very real equality of opportunity for pupils (DES 1977a:11).
Although there was, as yet, little agreement on the contents of the core, the Green Paper listed five subjects which should be included: English, mathematics, science, a modern language, and religious education (DES 1977a:11).


The Great Debate 'marked something of a watershed in the post-war history of secondary schooling' (Chitty 1989:103). One of its main purposes was to send 'a strong signal to teachers that the curriculum was not solely their concern' (Simon 1991:457). Industrialists, parents and others were encouraged to participate.

Stuart Maclure, who had been editor of The Times Educational Supplement since 1969, argued that the Ruskin speech and the Great Debate 'changed the whole context in which the education debate is set' (quoted in Chitty 1989:56).

In breaking the taboo on government intervention in the curriculum, the Callaghan initiative was designed to accomplish a considerable overhaul of the education system, its aims, the content of study, the balance between the various components, and the relationship between education and training (Chitty 1989:56).
Many teachers and other education service professionals were demoralised by the tone of much of the Great Debate. They had been subject to unfair criticism in the media, and this was now apparently being endorsed by the Prime Minister and the DES. Local government reform had exacerbated the situation, not least because it had resulted in the demise of the once powerful and influential Association of Education Committees. The bodies which replaced the Association never achieved a similar level of influence, and the DES was quick to take advantage of the vacuum.

Meanwhile, higher education and teacher training suffered savage cuts. In just one year (1976-77 to 1977-78), capital spending on universities fell from 117m to 70m; current expenditure from 708m to 603m (Simon 1991:470). The number of places for initial teacher training was more than halved, from a peak of 110,000 in 1972-73 to 53,000 in 1977-78.

In 1977, the school population began to decline. This could have been an opportunity for improvements such as reducing the size of classes. Instead, contraction 'merely offered another excuse for yet further economies and worsening conditions. A downward spiral had set in' (Simon 1991:453). Over the following twenty years central government made increasingly detailed interventions into schooling:

The interventions began in the form of spending cuts and developed into a strategy for relating education to a large-scale programme of social and economic restructuring: the education revolution of the 1980s and '90s had its origins in the conflicts, crises and realignments of the 1970s. (Jones 2003:74)

1977 Taylor Report

In April 1975 education secretary Reg Prentice and Welsh secretary John Morris appointed a Committee of Enquiry with the following brief:

To review the arrangements for the management and government of maintained primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, including the composition and functions of bodies of managers and governors, and their relationships with local education authorities, with head teachers and staffs of schools, with parents of pupils and with the local community at large; and to make recommendations (Taylor 1977:iii).
The committee's report,
A New Partnership for Our Schools, was presented to Shirley Williams (who replaced Prentice as education secretary in September 1976) and John Morris in June 1977.

Born in 1929, Tom Taylor (pictured) became a member of Blackburn Town Council in 1954 and was its Leader from 1972 to 1976. He was a founder member of the Council of Lancaster University and served as its Deputy Pro-Chancellor from 1972 to 1995. He became a peer (Baron Taylor of Blackburn) in 1978. He was suspended from membership of the Lords for six months in 2009 after being caught up in the 'cash for questions' scandal.

The 23 members of his committee included Joan Sallis, a campaigner for school governor training and the first national president of the Campaign for State Education.

The committee was divided on a number of issues, one member (Councillor PO Fulton, chair of Cleveland's education committee) even producing his own minority report.

Appendix B of the Taylor Report contains an invaluable history of school managers and governors up to 1945.

The committee proposed major changes in the management of schools - including a greater role for parents on governing bodies. The following are some of the key points:

  • all the powers relevant to school government should be formally vested in the local education authority, but there should be as much delegation of these powers to the governing body as is compatible with the local education authority's ultimate responsibility for the running of the schools in its area;
  • governing bodies should consist of equal numbers of local education authority representatives, school staff, parents (with, where appropriate, pupils) and representatives of the local community;
  • the head teacher of a school should always be a member of its governing body;
  • elections of parent governors should be school-based and combine meetings and other procedures to ensure maximum participation;
  • the Secretaries of State should seek advice on whether it would be possible to enable pupils to serve as governors at 16;
  • notices, agendas and minutes of governors' meetings should be made available in the teachers' common room;
  • support staff should be kept informed of the governing body's work;
  • governing bodies should be empowered to authorise the establishment of school councils or similar organisations by the pupils;
  • governors should ensure effective communication with parents;
  • governors should have responsibility for setting the aims of the school, for considering the means by which they are pursued, for keeping under review the school's progress towards them, and for deciding upon action to facilitate such progress;
  • individual governors should have the opportunity of seeing classes at work;
  • every governing body should produce a first general appraisal of the school's progress, however incomplete, within four years of its formation;
  • authorities should study the possibilities of making financial arrangements to facilitate initiative and independent action at the school level;
  • the procedure for the appointment of a head should provide for a small selection committee consisting equally of members of the governing body and representatives of the local education authority;
  • the selection of deputy heads and other teachers should rest with the governing body;
  • local education authorities should be required to make and publish arrangements for their procedures with regard to the suspension of pupils;
  • initial and in-service training courses should be provided for governors;
  • governors' meetings should be held at least twice a term.
Many of Taylor's recommendations were implemented (by the Thatcher government) in the 1980 Education Act.

1978 Primary Survey

The 1967 Plowden Report had called for research studies into a wide range of educational issues and expressed the hope that 'the HMI survey of the quality of primary schools will be repeated at least at ten year intervals' (Plowden 1967:426).

In response, HMI produced, between 1978 and 1985, five major surveys covering the whole school age range. The first was Primary education in England, published in 1978.

The four other surveys in the series were:

1979 Aspects of secondary education in England
1982 Education 5 to 9
1983 9-13 Middle Schools
1985 Education 8 to 12 in Combined and Middle Schools
Primary education in England was based on 'the direct observation of children's work by HM Inspectors experienced in primary education' (HMI 1978:vii). They reviewed aspects of the work of 7, 9 and 11-year-old children in 1,127 classes in 542 schools chosen to be representative of primary schools in England.

The survey gave information about the organisation of schools, the range of work done by the children, and the extent to which the work was matched to their abilities. It also included an analysis of the scores obtained by children in objective tests administered by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

It was broadly positive in its findings:

What emerges from the report is that teachers in primary schools work hard to make pupils well behaved, literate and numerate. They are concerned for individual children, and especially for those who find it difficult to learn. If the schools are considered as a whole, it is clear that children are introduced to a wide range of knowledge and skills (HMI 1978:vii).

Among the Inspectors' conclusions were that:

  • failure to provide work of a suitable level of difficulty resulted in inattentiveness and low scores in objective tests;
  • with falling rolls, some separate infant and junior schools might need to be combined;
  • those who found learning to read difficult were more likely to be given work suitably matched to their abilities than children who were more able readers;
  • the results of surveys conducted since 1955 were consistent with gradually improving reading standards of 11-year-olds;
  • in mathematics, individual assignments should not be allowed to replace all group or class work;
  • the teaching of skills in isolation, whether in language or in mathematics, did not produce the best results;
  • there was no evidence in the survey to suggest that a narrower curriculum enabled children to do better in the basic skills;
  • the more able children within a class were the least likely to be doing work that was sufficiently challenging;
  • children in inner city schools were more likely than others to be underestimated by their teachers and least likely to be given work which extended their capabilities;
  • teachers holding posts of responsibility required time to perform their duties;
  • differences in class sizes made no difference to the children's scores on the NFER objective tests;
  • small schools might need to work together to provide the necessary specialist knowledge in all parts of the curriculum;
  • all primary school teachers should be trained to teach children to read, write and do mathematics;
  • they should be knowledgeable in what they teach;
  • they should be able to assess the performance of their pupils in terms of what they next needed to be taught;
  • initial and in-service training should help teachers to assess children's capabilities and to establish a sufficiently high, but reasonable, expectation of what the children are capable of achieving;
  • teachers needed to become familiar with a range of teaching techniques, to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each, and to choose what was best for their immediate purpose;
  • it was important to make full use of teachers' strengths and to build on the existing knowledge of individual teachers without losing the advantages associated with the class teacher system.

1978 Oakes Report

In February 1977 Shirley Williams appointed a working group chaired by Gordon Oakes with the following terms of reference:

To consider measures to improve the system of management and control of higher education in the maintained sector in England and Wales and its better coordination with higher education in the universities and, in the light of developments in relation to devolution and local authority finance, what regional and national machinery might be established for these purposes (Oakes 1978:iii).
Gordon Oakes (1931-2005), a solicitor by profession, was the Labour MP for Widnes and an education minister in the Callaghan government. He presented his report,
The Management of Higher Education in the Maintained Sector, to Williams on 20 March 1978.

The working group's recommendations can be found in Chapter XIII. The key points were:

  • the management of local authority provision of higher education should reflect a partnership between national and local levels;
  • a National Body should be established to provide information and advise the Secretary of State and the local authority associations; and
  • nine new regional advisory councils should be established in England to coordinate the development of higher education in the public sector, including initial, induction and in-service training of teachers.
The local authority journal Education published a summary of the report. Among the committee's assumptions, it said, were that:
the student award system would continue broadly on its present lines (and that in real terms fees would continue to make a significant contribution to finance); that the validation of courses and standards would remain in the hands of the CNAA [Council for National Academic Awards] and other validating bodies; that a significant provision of HE [higher education] would still be in institutions grant-aided by the DES (there are about 40 such colleges - including former voluntary colleges of education); that the prospect of regional assemblies in England need not be taken into account. Most important (and repeated many times in the document), it was assumed that the local education authorities would continue to be major providers of HE; 'this has ruled out of consideration the wholesale transfer of institutions to other management' (Education 24 March 1978).
Gordon Oakes, said Education, was hopeful that, if the final decision was in favour of his recommendations, the new system could come into operation in the early 1980s.

On 18 July 1978, in answer to a question from Tory shadow education minister William Van Straubenzee, Williams told the Commons that she expected to make known her decisions on the recommendations of the Oakes report 'in the next two or three months'. She went on:

My understanding is that already consideration is being given to some aspects of the report with the Council of Local Education Authorities. We are at present receiving a great many submissions on the report, which will be carefully considered before the Government give their final conclusions on the matter (Hansard House of Commons 18 July 1978 Vol 954 Col 254).
After that, the Oakes Report appears to have sunk without trace.

A single exam system

By the mid 1970s it was clear to many teachers that, for comprehensive education to become a reality, the two parallel exam systems - the General Certificate of Education (GCE) and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) - needed replacing with a single examination for all at sixteen.

The GCE had been introduced in 1951 to replace the old School Certificate ('matriculation'). It was designed for the top twenty per cent of the ability range. Ordinary Level (O Level) GCE exams were normally taken at 16; Advanced Level (A Level) at 18 , mostly in grammar schools and private schools.

In 1960, the Beloe Report Secondary School Examinations other than the GCE had recommended that there should be a new exam system for the next twenty per cent of pupils, who were considered incapable of coping with the demands of the GCE O Level. This had led to the introduction of the CSE in 1965. Although Grade 1 at CSE was supposed to be the equivalent of an O Level pass, the CSE had never achieved comparable esteem among employers or the public.

The Schools Council had begun considering proposals for a single exam system in 1967. Working parties for all the major subjects had drawn up and piloted test papers. The Council was unanimous in concluding that a single exam was both desirable and practicable. In July 1976 it put its proposals to the Secretary of State.

DES officials, however, viewed the Schools Council with distaste (as had been made very clear in the Yellow Book) and were determined to maintain control of examination policy. The result was 'procrastination and delay' (Simon 1991:455). Shirley Williams decided that further consultations were necessary so, in March 1977, she appointed James Waddell (1914-2004), who had retired in 1975 after a long career in the civil service, to chair a steering committee to consider proposals for a common exam system.

1978 Waddell Report

The 18 members of Waddell's committee set up two study groups - one to consider the educational aspects of a common system and the other to consider the cost implications. The Education Study Group had ten members (including four who were not members of the steering committee); the Cost Study Group had twelve members (seven of whom were co-opted).

The main report of the steering committee and the reports of the two study groups were submitted to Shirley Williams and Welsh Secretary John Morris in June 1978, with a request that all three should be published. This was agreed, and School Examinations included the main report as Part I; the reports of the two study groups as Part II.

Waddell's main points were:

  • a common exam system at 16 was feasible;
  • in some subjects alternative papers might need to be offered;
  • the new system must be seen to maintain at least the same standards and degree of national comparability as the present examinations;
  • criteria should be agreed nationally for syllabuses and examinations but provision should be made for both school-based and board-based examinations, and arrangements for central coordination of 16+ examinations should be strengthened;
  • the new structure should be based on cooperation between exam boards in area-based groups, each of which should comprise at least one each of the present GCE and CSE boards, but schools should be free to choose examinations from any group;
  • in Wales the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) was already responsible for both O Level and CSE examining and would provide the natural authority for the Principality.
The committee hoped that if their recommendations were adopted new syllabuses might be introduced by 1983, with the first exams taken in 1985.

1978 White Paper

Four months later, in October 1978, Williams and Morris published the White Paper Secondary School Examinations: a Single System at 16 Plus, which noted the findings of the Waddell committee, the proposals put forward by the Schools Council, and the recommendation of the Commons Expenditure Committee that there should be a significant reduction in the number of public examination boards.

The Government's view, the White Paper said, was that

one examining system for pupils completing five years of secondary education in England and Wales, with grades on a single scale and with all certificates issued in a common form, administered by a relatively small number of examining authorities, would better match present day needs (DES/Welsh Office 1978:6).
It was hoped that outline proposals for examining groups would be ready for consideration by July 1979; that the new syllabuses might be introduced in 1983, and that the first of the new certificates would be awarded in 1985.

But it was too late. Labour lost power in the general election of May 1979, and Margaret Thatcher's incoming Conservative government had other priorities. Work on a new single exam system for 16-year-olds - the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) - did not resume until 1986, and the first examinations were not taken until 1988.

There was equally little action in other areas during the last years of the Labour government: nothing was done to reform GCE A Levels (on which the Schools Council had also been working), or to support the Schools Council's proposal for a Certificate of Extended Education for first-year sixth formers.

Special educational needs

1974 White Paper

The White Paper Educational disadvantage and the educational needs of immigrants, published in August 1974, set out the government's response to the report on education by the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration.

It began by welcoming the Select Committee's report and argued that

the education service has important contributions to make both to the well-being of immigrant communities in this country and to the promotion of harmony between the different ethnic groups of which our society is now composed (DES 1974b:1).
It acknowledged that the education service had already 'achieved significant results', but that 'much remains to be done to meet the needs of immigrants and their children' (DES 1974b:1).

It agreed with the previous (Heath) administration's decision to abandon the mass collection of national statistics, but argued that alternative sources of information would be necessary:

It is the local authorities and schools which need to identify individual children who are suffering from educational disadvantage. But the Government need a soundly based appraisal of the extent of the problem (DES 1974b:2-3).
While the immediate priority was the teaching of immigrant children, the education of adult immigrants was also important. The White Paper noted that, by March 1974, 'twenty further education establishments were offering preparatory courses mainly, but not exclusively, for immigrants with an inadequate knowledge of English and Arithmetic' (DES 1974b:3).

Good race relations, said the White Paper, depended upon the attitudes of all students and teachers:

The Government attach importance to the advancement of harmony between the races in this country's multi-cultural and multi-racial society and believe that such harmony must be based on mutual understanding and respect. For the education service this implies that all pupils and students should be enabled to acquire a greater knowledge and appreciation of the cultural traditions of the countries of emigration as well as of this country, and to develop rational attitudes to race and colour. A condition for success in this aim is that the teachers should have had the opportunity to gain the necessary knowledge and skills through initial and in-service training (DES 1974b:4).
The White Paper concluded with the government's responses to specific recommendations in the Select Committee's report.


A joint departmental Circular (DES Circular 2/75, Welsh Office Circular 21/75), The Discovery of Children Requiring Special Education and the Assessment of their Needs, issued on 17 March 1975, sought to

to clear up uncertainties and confusion which surround the subject of ascertainment, and to provide a fresh statement of what is involved in discovering which children require special education and in recommending the form it should take (DES/Welsh Office 1975:1).
It emphasised the importance of a multi-professional approach and stressed the value of informality and parental participation: 'Parents normally recognise the need for special education for their child, provided they are involved in discussions from an early stage' (DES/Welsh Office 1975:6).

It also introduced an improved set of forms for recording the educational, medical, psychological and other data required for deciding the nature of a child's special educational needs, and a summary sheet for use during the process of assessment, placement and review.

Comments received in 1977 from LEAs indicated their general satisfaction with the new procedures and their wish to develop them further (see Warnock 1978:30-31).


Section 10 of the 1976 Education Act required LEAs to provide for the special education of all handicapped pupils in county and voluntary schools, except where this was 'impracticable or incompatible with the provision of efficient instruction in the schools' or would involve 'unreasonable public expenditure' (Section 10(1)), in which case it could be given in special schools or, with the Secretary of State's approval, in independent schools.

The provision (an amendment of Section 33(2) of the 1944 Education Act) was to have come into force on a day to be 'appointed by the Secretary of State' (10(3)). However, in January 1977 Shirley Williams announced that, before deciding to introduce the new provision, she proposed to consult widely with educational and other interests and also to await the findings of the Warnock committee (see Warnock 1978:34-5).

1976 Court Report

The Court Committee's report on Child Health Services Fit for the future (December 1976) recommended that 'child guidance clinics and psychiatric hospital services should be recognised as part of an integrated child and adolescent psychiatry service' (quoted in Warnock 1978:26).

1978 Warnock Report

In November 1973 Margaret Thatcher had announced that she proposed, in conjunction with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and after consultation with the Secretaries of State for social services and employment, to appoint a committee of enquiry chaired by Mary Warnock:

To review educational provision in England, Scotland and Wales for children and young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind, taking account of the medical aspects of their needs, together with arrangements to prepare them for entry into employment; to consider the most effective use of resources for these purposes; and to make recommendations (Warnock 1978:1).
Mary Warnock (1924-2019) (pictured) had already held several university posts, a seat on Oxfordshire's local education authority, and the headship of Oxford High School for Girls.

She went on to chair the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1982-4) and a Home Office committee on animal experimentation (1984-1989). She became Baroness Warnock in 1985 and the Mistress of Girton College Cambridge in 1986.

The special needs committee held its first meeting in September 1974. As it was large (27 members) and its remit wide-ranging, four sub-committees (including 15 co-opted members) were set up early in 1975 to deal with

  • the needs of handicapped children under five;
  • the education of handicapped children in ordinary schools;
  • day special schools and boarding provision; and
  • the educational and other needs of handicapped school leavers.
The sub-committees completed their work in May 1977 and their findings formed the basis of the report, along with written evidence from almost 400 individuals and organisations and the findings of a number of research projects undertaken on the committee's behalf. In addition, committee members made many visits to schools, hospitals and colleges in the UK, and small groups of members also visited the US, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Holland and Germany. The enquiry was unusual in that it covered Scotland as well as England and Wales.

Special Educational Needs was submitted in March 1978 to Shirley Williams, Bruce Millan (Scotland) and John Morris (Wales). In her covering letter, Mary Warnock wrote:

Our review has been a wide-ranging one, extending well beyond the education service. Our terms of reference required us to take account of the medical aspects of the needs of handicapped children and young people, together with arrangements to prepare them for entry into employment. We have also had regard to the social aspects of their needs, to relations between the different professionals engaged in meeting their needs, to the contribution of their parents and the parents' own needs for support and to the requirements for research and development (Warnock 1978:iv).
Warnock listed 220 recommendations. Among the key points were:
  • the term 'children with learning difficulties' should be used to describe children who were currently categorised as educationally sub-normal and those with educational difficulties;
  • local education authorities should be empowered to require the multi-professional assessment of children of any age;
  • heads should be responsible for instituting reviews of the progress of children with special educational needs at least once a year;
  • local education authorities must maintain a record of children whom they judged needed special provision;
  • the education of children with disabilities or significant difficulties must start as early as possible without any minimum age limit;
  • parents should have a designated Named Person to provide a point of contact;
  • there should be a comprehensive peripatetic teaching service;
  • nursery education provision for all children should be substantially increased as soon as possible;
  • every local education authority should keep an up-to-date handbook containing details of special educational provision in its area;
  • heads of ordinary schools should delegate responsibility for special needs to a designated specialist teacher;
  • special classes and units should wherever possible be attached to and function as part of ordinary schools;
  • firm links should be established between special and ordinary schools in the same vicinity;
  • where special school provision in the maintained sector was inadequate, it should be increased to the point of sufficiency;
  • no child with special educational needs who was in care should be placed in an independent school without agreement between the local education authority and the social services department;
  • teachers in community homes should be in the service of local education authorities;
  • a pupil's special needs should be re-assessed with future prospects in mind at least two years before he was due to leave school;
  • where it was in their interests, pupils with special educational needs should be enabled to stay at school beyond the statutory school leaving age;
  • young people with special needs should be given the necessary support to enable them to attend ordinary courses of further education;
  • every further education establishment should designate a member of staff as responsible for the welfare of students with special needs;
  • higher education establishments should formulate and publicise a policy on the admission of students with disabilities or significant difficulties;
  • Industrial Training Boards should play a much greater part in encouraging employers to provide employment and training opportunities for people with disabilities or significant difficulties;
  • attention should be given to curriculum development for children with moderate learning difficulties and further research should be carried out into the causes of such difficulties;
  • the Schools Council should establish a section to set up projects concerned with the curriculum for special needs pupils;
  • all courses of initial teacher training should include a special education element;
  • there should be a range of recognised qualifications in special education;
  • local education authorities should organise an induction programme for teachers taking up special needs posts;
  • there should be more opportunities for people with disabilities to become teachers;
  • every local authority should have an education officer with responsibility for special needs provision;
  • more educational psychologists were needed;
  • health authorities should make adequate resources available to promote effective child health services in ordinary and special schools;
  • Joint Consultative Committees should be asked to advise health, education and social services authorities as soon as possible on the health and social services needed by ordinary schools;
  • guidelines should be provided for teachers on the handling of confidential information and the sharing of information with members of other professions;
  • a National Advisory Committee on Children with Special Educational Needs should be established to advise the government on the provision of educational services and their co-ordination with other services;
  • higher education establishments should allocate senior academic posts to special education and there should be at least one university department of special education in each region of the country;
  • each local education authority should have a centre for research, development and in-service training in special education to which teachers can turn for help with their professional development.
Shirley Williams took no action to implement any of these recommendations. Patricia Rowan, who was appointed deputy editor of The Times Educational Supplement in 1978, notes that:
Mrs Williams did what many an Education Secretary has done before her ... and in place of response embarked on rounds of extensive consultation with special interest groups, local education authorities, and in short virtually everyone who had given evidence to the Warnock Committee in the first place (Rowan 1988:98).
So nothing was done, and it was left to the next (Conservative) government to respond to the committee's recommendations. The result was the 1981 Education Act, which gave parents new rights in relation to special needs, urged the inclusion of special needs children in mainstream classes, and introduced the system of 'statementing' children to give them entitlement to special educational support.

In May 2008 Warnock described the system she had helped to create as 'needlessly bureaucratic' and called for the establishment of a new enquiry (The Times Educational Supplement 11 May 2008).

Other legislation

Other Acts of Parliament passed during the period of the Wilson/Callaghan government included:

The 1974 Education (Mentally Handicapped Children) (Scotland) Act (17 July) required Scottish education authorities to provide for the education of mentally handicapped children.

The 1975 Education Act (25 February) amended the law relating to local education authority grants, awards to students at adult education colleges, and increased central government funding for aided and special agreement schools.

The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act (12 November) had implications for school admissions, appointments and curricula.

The 1975 Children Act (12 November) was a wide-ranging Act relating to the adoption, custody and care of children.

The 1976 Education (School-leaving Dates) Act (25 March) made a minor amendment to section 9 of the 1962 Education Act relating to the summer school leaving date.

The 1976 Education (Scotland) Act (10 June) made miscellaneous provisions relating to school starting and leaving dates, the supply of milk etc.

The 1976 Race Relations Act (22 November) had implications for schools and education authorities.

The 1978 Education (Northern Ireland) Act (25 May) facilitated the establishment in Northern Ireland of integrated schools for pupils of different religious affiliations.

The victory of the New Right

As the 1970s drew to a close, 'the radical right and its allies were still on the warpath' (Simon 1991:458).

Black Paper 1977

The fifth (and final) Black Paper was published in March 1977. Edited by Brian Cox and Rhodes Boyson, it began with an apocalyptic Letter to Members of Parliament, in which Cox and Boyson repeated their calls for a voucher scheme. They argued that

The possibilities for parental choice of secondary (and primary) schools should be improved via the educational voucher or some other method. Schools that few wish to attend should be closed and their staff dispersed (Cox and Boyson 1977:9).
These arguments for choice, competition and parental control of schools - and the questioning of the very concept of a 'national system, locally administered' - would be taken up with enthusiasm by Margaret Thatcher's administrations from 1979.

The rest of the Black Paper was divided into three sections. There were eleven articles attacking 'informal education', seven on comprehensive schools, and seven more on 'values'. Here, once again, opinions were stated as facts: in his criticism of informal education, for example, the astronomer Patrick Moore argued that

Nobody in their senses will deny that in State schools, the drop in English standards during the past fifteen years or so has been disastrous (Moore 1977: 22).
Maurice Kogan, however, argued that
There had been perhaps twenty or thirty years of triumphant progress by the primary schools in which it seemed that all that was good was happening through them. A powerful humanitarianism seemed to suffuse the best of the primary schools. To the visitor they seemed unbelievably good in their relationships between adults and children, able to elicit powerful interest on the part of the pupils, and yet still be highly productive in work that was both creative and skilful. Successive reading surveys since 1948 had shown that eleven-year-olds in 1964 were reaching the standards that children seventeen months older in 1948 had attained. Against evidence such as this it was difficult for attacks on the primary schools to be sustained (Kogan 1978:55-56).
And, as HMI noted in their 1978 Primary Survey, 'the results of surveys conducted since 1955 are consistent with gradually improving reading standards of 11 year olds', while 'In writing, considerable effort is made to teach syntax and spelling' (HMI 1978:111).

The Gould Report

Black Paper writers contributed to The Attack on Higher Education, a pamphlet edited by Julius Gould, Professor of Sociology at Nottingham. Published in September 1977, the so-called 'Gould Report' was a vicious attack on what it claimed was a highly organised Marxist conspiracy to subvert higher education.

Like the Black Papers, it received widespread coverage in the press, but was later heavily criticised. Peter Wilby, then educational correspondent of The Sunday Times, awarded it his 'boob of the year' prize. Its authors 'slung dirt in all directions,' he wrote. 'They produced not a shred of hard evidence to support their claims and they did more damage to their own cause than to anyone else's' (Education December 1977 quoted in Simon 1991:459).

The Tories in opposition

After their defeat in the first 1974 election, the Tories 'finally turned their back on consensus policies in education' (Simon 1991:434). Heath, aware that a second election was not far off, sacked his shadow education minister William van Straubenzee (1924-1999) for being too moderate and replaced him with Norman St John Stevas (1929-2012). It was a clear indication that the Conservative Party was moving to the right and that they would fight the next election on the issues of academic standards and parental choice.

When the Conservatives lost the second 1974 election, right-wing members of the party blamed Heath. This was the moment for the 'New Right' to take the lead, and Keith Joseph (1918-1994) was keen to be their spokesman.

Immediately after the election, Joseph told the Birmingham Conservative Association that Labour was systematically undermining the nation's values. In a hysterical speech which would not have been out of place in one of the Black Papers, he claimed that the universities were full of 'left-wing intellectuals', motivated primarily 'by hatred of their own country', and that a decline in educational standards was responsible for delinquency, truancy, vandalism, hooliganism and illiteracy. The nation, he warned, was moving inexorably towards degeneration because a high and rising proportion of children were being born to lower-class mothers who were 'least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up'. The only answer was to provide such people with birth control (The Sunday Times 20 October 1974 quoted in Simon 1991:438).

If, as seems likely, Joseph was hoping that his speech would enhance his chances of becoming the leader of the Conservative Party, he was doomed to disappointment. His outdated and distasteful eugenicist arguments were widely ridiculed, and the way was now clear for another member of the party's right wing - Margaret Thatcher - to put herself forward.

In February 1975, Heath was persuaded to introduce a new procedure for leadership elections and to submit himself for re-election. He lost to Thatcher, whose victory marked a rightward shift which was supported 'neither by the large majority of Conservative MPs, the Conservative peers, nor the Conservative Party workers'. It was, however, 'endorsed, even welcomed' by Tory educationists (Knight 1990:94).

A number of right-wing think-tanks immediately began devising schemes for dismantling the party's commitment to the welfare capitalist consensus, and putting in its place 'an agenda recreating, at least in part, the classical market liberalism of the nineteenth century' (Chitty 1992:11). 'The pro-voucher lobby, aiming at a form of privatisation of the school system, was on the move' (Simon 1991:434).

The Tories began to take control of the educational agenda, 'capturing the attention of the media (and therefore the public) and also capturing, at times, the language of their opponents and exploiting it to good political effect' (Knight 1990:90). They alleged that standards in primary schools were falling, promoted parental choice as a way of supporting selective education, and argued for the introduction of vouchers in the cause of freedom.

That the Conservative Party was able to pose as the champion of high standards in education and as the party most concerned about the fate of intelligent working-class children was due, it would seem, to three main factors: the working out by the Centre for Policy Studies of a new Tory radicalism based on nineteenth-century free-market anti-statism; the adoption and exploitation by their education spokesmen of the best words (freedom, parental choice, maintenance of standards, etc); and the emergence of Dr Rhodes Boyson, Tory populist par excellence, who was able to foster the real concern of many parents by presenting a grim picture of contemporary education (Knight 1990:90).
When Labour abolished the direct-grant school system in October 1975, the Tories committed themselves to saving the remaining grammar schools and Thatcher instituted an educational policy review, to be overseen by Norman St John Stevas.

The result was the 'Standards 77' campaign, launched by St John Stevas in January 1977. In his pamphlet Better Schools For All: A Conservative Approach to the Problems of the Comprehensive School, published by the Conservative Political Centre, he argued for the extension of parental choice; the preservation of selective schools alongside 'comprehensives'; separate curricula for different ability groups; an assisted places scheme to ensure the survival of the direct grant schools; and opposed the notion of a single exam at sixteen.

Stevas' address to the 1977 Conservative Party Conference on the restoration of quality and excellence in schools and his statement on political education, afford the clearest accounts not only of the direction of Conservative education policy, but also of the influence of the preservationists over that policy (Knight 1990:122).
The Tories' 'excellence in education' policy was partly the work of Stuart Sexton, who was official adviser to St John Stevas and unofficial speech-writer to Boyson: as a committed Black Paperite he worked closely with both to promote preservationist ideals. He advocated a minimum curriculum and minimum standards; an independent inspectorate to monitor those standards; greater parental choice; and specialist 'schools of excellence'.

In March 1978 the National Council for Educational Standards held a meeting in London at which Rhodes Boyson presented his demands: more inspection by HMls; national examinations at seven, eleven and fifteen; a check on school attendance figures; and parental choice.

Here Brian Cox inveighed against mixed ability teaching: traditional values were under attack from the left; here also Julius Gould poured scorn on 'wet liberals' who 'had not understood the seriousness of the Marxist infiltration of higher education'. Non-Marxists, he claimed, were being terrorised - many who had written in support of his pamphlet 'had felt too threatened to speak out in public'. The impression given was that the country was on the edge of revolution (Simon 1991:460).
This, then, was the Tory position when the Callaghan government fell in March 1979. Education was an important issue in the subsequent election, with Tory posters proclaiming that 'Educashun isnt Wurking'.
Rhodes Boyson was not boasting when he claimed he could fill any hall in the country with his diatribes. A great opportunity had been lost.

In the 1980s a new agenda was to be set for education. Its roots, however, had found fertile soil in the struggles, and especially the indecisions, of the 1970s - for education a truly wasted decade (Simon 1991:460-1).

What Brian Simon calls 'the abrasive, aggressive, assertive outlook of the radical right' (Simon 1991:438-9) would become the prevailing ideology in the Conservative Party over the following decade, with profound implications for education.


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Chapter 13 | Chapter 15