We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

The ‘Education battlefield’

April 11, 2018 1:11 PM
By John Marriott in Liberal Democrat Voice

John MarriottIt wasn't always Tory v Labour, and it doesn't have to be again!

State education, particularly at secondary level, is like the proverbial curate's egg, thanks largely to mistakes made by politicians of all parties over the past sixty years - and I include the 2010-2015 coalition as well. However, much of the mess was already in place by the beginning of this decade so I suppose that we could call it a joint affair between Tories and Labour. However, much of the success of state education is down to Liberals, as were the ideas behind the Welfare State, which emerged from the 1942 Beveridge Report.

State education, that is to say, the education of the many not the few, really began with the 1870 Elementary Education Act, and drafted by Liberal MP William Forester, which established through democratically elected School Boards, voluntary elementary education for children from 5 to 13 (raised to 14 in the 1918 Fisher Act). What Forster wanted to achieve was to retain Britain's competitive edge in world trade. To do that, he needed an educated workforce (where have we heard that before?). This was achieved in spite of massive opposition from certain quarters, who saw no reason to educate the working classes above a certain rudimentary level. The 1901 Balfour Act, opposed largely by the Liberal Party and non conformists, replaced local School Boards with Local Education Authorities and succeeded in allowing the C of E and Catholic Churches to get on board and possibly was the main reason why the Tories were virtually annihilated at the 1906 General Election.

From then on the fate of state education has been largely in Tory and Labour hands. The 1944 Butler Act saw the establishment of the Tri partite system and the raising of the school leaving age to 15. It would be fair to say that all of us under the age of 80 are products of this legislation. It is just possible that all would have been fine if the three strands of the system had been given equal parity. Unfortunately, the Attlee government, which had been tasked with implementing the proposals, had a lot on its mind after the war and severely neglected the more expensive Technical Grammar Schools, very few of which were established. As a result, what emerged was a choice between a Grammar School and a Secondary Modern, determined by the 11 plus exam - in other words, pass or fail.

Although experiments with comprehensive, all ability schools had begun in the 1950s, it was the first Wilson Government, and its charismatic Education Secretary, Tony Crosland, that really spearheaded the move away from selection at eleven, which most people at the time appeared to support and which was carried on by the Heath administration of the early 1970s. By the 1980s, pockets of selection survived mainly in Tory controlled counties, with many former direct grant grammar schools going independent. Most state schools were all ability comprehensives, some 11 to 16, with Sixth Form Colleges, others 11 to 18 and some, as in Leicestershire, for example, 11 to 14 and 14 to 18, with other variations as well.

My own teaching career just about coincided with these changes. I started teaching in 1966 in a boys' grammar school in Nottinghamshire and, after spells teaching in a 16 to 19 High School in Canada, a mixed Gymnasium in West Germany, an II to 18 comprehensive in West Yorkshire, ended my days as Head of Languages in another 11 to 18 comprehensive near Lincoln. Space does not permit me to give you a blow by blow account of where, in my opinion, things went wrong; but you have to say the present sorry state of affairs is mainly down to the two parties, that have largely shared power since the Butler Act came into force.

The big mistake that both made back in the 1960s and 1970s was to trust the education establishment to deliver the goods. Don't get me wrong, things certainly wanted shaking up, as I could see from the four years I spent teaching in my first school. But why did the 'experts' throw the baby out with the bathwater? By the time I returned to the UK in 1974 things had just about gone full circle. There was a frenzied atmosphere in many secondary schools, which Elizabeth Richardson described vividly in her 1973 book, 'The teacher, the school and the task of management'. In it she highlighted what she saw as the battle between the advocates of the pastoral and academic approaches in Nailsea Comprehensive near Bristol. The former encompassed a kind of social engineering where the emotional needs of students seemed to take precedence. More academically minded students were left more to their own devices. The fact that they succeeded owed as much to parental support as the teaching they received. From my experience talking to colleagues on courses at the time, this type of child centred learning, for which vocational education was largely viewed as unnecessary by many teachers, whose agenda, often socialist, secretly viewed work as a kind of exploitation, was mirrored up and down the country. To get ahead teachers were obliged to sing from a certain hymn sheet. Mixed ability teaching ruled in many areas. The result was that, instead of a 'levelling up' we got largely a 'levelling down'. 'Teacher knows best' meant that politicians, both local and national, and initially many parents, for that matter, never really challenged what was going on until the cracks began to show. Even primary schools were not exempt. Some older colleagues may remember what happened at the William Tyndale School, Islington, in 1974-75 when so called progressive methods employed produced protests from parents and helped to reduce the autonomy of LEAs.

By the mid 1970s politicians started to realise that something was wrong. On 18 October 1976, Labour PM Jim Callaghan delivered his famous speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, which signalled the start of 'The Great Debate'. Let me just quote two sentences from his speech: "I have been concerned to find out that many of our best trained students who have completed the higher levels of education at university or polytechnic have no desire to join industry." And "There is unease felt by parents 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."

So, from this 'debate' emerged firstly the Tory 1988 Education Act which saw the establishment of what started out as a less rigid National Curriculum, buttressed by a new exam at 16 plus, Grant Maintained Schools, and lead eventually to Foundation Schools under Blair, academies, originally a status reserved for schools in challenging areas, which eventually morphed into privately run chains of academies in most areas, outside LEA control and with apparently no control over how they spend their money together with the general competitive atmosphere within rigidly and centrally enforced guidelines, that exists in many schools today, where the consumer is king and where teachers are used as a kind of box ticking human shield by school administrations and, to a certain extent, central government. With creativity often stifled, it's no wonder so many are leaving the profession or feeling demoralised.

It really doesn't have to be like this. What Forster was trying to do in 1870 is as true today. In a possible post Brexit world, we could be facing similar challenges to the ones we faced back then. Surely, if his Liberal Democrat descendents want to play a role, they should be supporting a return to democratically accountable Local Education Authorities responsible for all state schools, where, particularly at secondary level, vocational skills should have parity with academic skills. There is already a blueprint for this on the shelves, namely the 2004 Tomlinson Report, which advocated this and which was largely ignored by the Blair government. Perhaps it's time for someone to bring a fresh approach to a situation which, thanks largely to the negligence and then overreaction of politicians, is serving neither our young people nor our nation as a whole that well. Could the Lib Dems have a role to play here? After all, their ancestors largely started it all off in the first place.

It's not about turning back the clock. It's rather about learning from your mistakes!

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

Comments on The 'Education battlefield'