Labour’s ‘Ruskin tradition’
On 18 October 1976, Labour prime minister James Callaghan spoke at a foundation stone laying ceremony for an extension of Ruskin College, Oxford. Callaghan paid tribute to the role of Ruskin in providing a ‘second chance’ for adult learners who had, for one reason or another, failed to realise their true potential in education. Callaghan could see the positive effect of this at first-hand: even his cabinet included a Ruskin graduate, secretary of state for industry, Eric Varley. As Andrew Adonis put it when he reviewed the speech in The Guardian 30 years later, it ‘lit a flare that has illuminated education reform ever since.’ Callaghan’s concern was about driving up national standards in schools: ‘To the critics I would say that we must carry the teaching profession with us. They have the expertise and the professional approach. To the teachers I would say that you must satisfy the parents and industry that what you are doing meets their requirements and the needs of our children.’
The chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has recently caused a great deal of controversy with a debate about ‘no notice’ inspections of state schools. Ofsted has also abolished the ‘satisfactory’ category and replaced it with a ‘requires improvement’ label. These issues really do matter, but they are in reality a debate not about whether we should focus on improving standards, but how best we do so. That is not to say that there are not legitimate concerns about Ofsted. As shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has said: ‘I want an Ofsted that is challenging of schools but is also fair and consistent in its approach.’ However, the aim of a relentless focus on educational improvement is one we now almost take for granted.
Yet, remarkably, it was not always a focus of political debate in postwar Britain. Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 government implemented the Butler Education Act of 1944, but, in doing so, Attlee himself felt that education as an issue had been elevated above the field of party politics. This is not to say, however, that Labour governments did not radically reform education. In the 1960s, Labour education and science secretary Michael Stewart’s famous Circular 10/65, enthusiastically implemented by his successor Tony Crosland, began the transition from grammars and secondary moderns to comprehensives. Harold Wilson’s government’s creation of the Open University in 1968 was a landmark. But the point is that there was little debate about driving up educational standards in state schools until the issue was placed centre-stage by Callaghan.
Callaghan knew that he was breaking new ground: ‘I must thank all those who have inundated me with advice: some helpful and others telling me less politely to keep off the grass, to watch my language and that they will be examining my speech with the care usually given by Hong Kong watchers to the China scene. It is almost as though some people would wish that the subject matter and purpose of education should not have public attention focused on it: nor that profane hands should be allowed to touch it.’ But he was firm in his resolve to speak on the issue: ‘These are proper subjects for discussion and debate. And it should be a rational debate based on the facts.’ Callaghan’s words on central purposes of education have stood the test of time: ‘The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both.’ As he pithily encapsulated it: ‘There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills. Nor at the other extreme must they be technically efficient robots.’
The Blair-Brown governments strongly embraced the ‘Ruskin tradition’ with major investment and reform to drive up standards from an early age, with sure start and literacy-numeracy strategies as significant achievements. In the secondary sector, there was firm action on failing schools with specialist schools and academies. Speaking at the NAHT annual conference last month, shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg confirmed the promise that ‘a future Labour government would establish an Office for Educational Improvement, an education equivalent of the OBR, to act as an independent clearing house for research, a champion for improving the international standing of England’s education system and a body for sharing best practice within the school system.’ He is entirely right to focus on this issue. At its core is a desire to ensure that every child is given every chance to reach his or her potential, regardless of background. Perhaps, too, we should also give credit to the prime minister who, having left school and found a job at 17, had the vision to make the issue a real political priority.
Andrew Adonis, Clement Attlee, Gordon Brown, Guardian, James Callaghan, Labour, Labour history, Ofsted, Stephen Twigg, Sure Start, Tony Blair