Hey Prime Minister, Leave Our Schools Alone

Portsmouth teacher and historian Dr Dave Allen considers forty years of changes in the education system in light of the current debate about the return of grammar schools.

Imagine you’re at a social event, one of those where a person’s opening gambit is to ask ‘and what do you do?’ The security guards, fashion designers, brain surgeons and astronauts have a pretty easy ride since most of us know no more about such ‘jobs’ than we glean from the mass media. Then they turn to me and I say ‘teacher’.

It’s what I’ve been now for more than forty years and I know that most people, on hearing my answer to that question, will be able to make assumptions and form views about what I do/did based on more than just a popular view. For a start, I guess 99.9% of people in this country will have been ‘taught’ formally in some kind of institution, beyond their immediate family. For the majority that will be at least school, but possibly also college, university, apprenticeship or some kind of formal training at work, which might carry with it the obligatory certification.

I’ve been there. If you’re interested, I’m actually Dr Dave Allen, BEd (Hons), MPhil, PhD. From that you can tell either that (a) I’m a bit clever or (b) I’ve cracked the requisite tricks that reward middle-class people like me for playing the game. BEd (Hons – never forget the Hons) stands for Bachelor of Education, distinct from Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Science (BSc) and was an invention of the 1960s Labour Government as the nation prepared to go comprehensive and in the early 1970s, raise the school-leaving age from 15-16. They developed the Schools Council (from 1964) and began a process of professionalisation of education which soon proved to be far too dangerous, as an increasing number of people working daily ‘at the coalface’ became more reflective and analytical about what was going on. In addition, as one of the new generation of school teachers with degrees in education I was not unique in wishing to continue my studies beyond degree level. Both my (1984) MPhil thesis and my (1994) PhD thesis were concerned with the teaching of the arts in secondary, further and higher education and included accounts and analyses of ‘real’ teaching in specific classrooms (mine and others).

We might assume of course that this level of enhanced engagement would be welcomed by those who pay people like me to look after their children and grandchildren, but throughout my professional career it never felt like that. I graduated in 1975 and embarked immediately on ten years of teaching in comprehensive schools in and around Portsmouth. One year later, a man educated in the city at Mayfield School, North End when it was the Northern Grammar School for Boys, made an important speech at Ruskin College Oxford. He was James Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister and the full text of his speech can be found here.

The speech invited comment at the time, not least because it seemed to signal a more interventionist approach by politicians who had previously kept the daily details of education at arm’s length. Of course, for a hundred years or more it was the politicians who had created and funded a growing and universal programme of schooling for young people, and they legislated to raise the legal leaving age or alter secondary education from the post-war tripartite system to something called ‘comprehensive’. But after that, the politicians generally provided the resources and let the professionals get on with it.

But the professionals sometimes tended to cause alarms. Callaghan acknowledged that ‘life at school is far more full and creative than it was many years ago’ but he identified a number of key issues that schools must address within the context of ‘clear enough’ goals which were ‘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’.

This of course was ‘common sense’ – what reasonable person could disagree? – but the politicians had generally avoided the ‘detail’ in the past precisely because that’s where they might find the devil. Let the professionals deal with that.

Callaghan however concluded with a fairly clear agenda for the future. Education must address:
• The methods and aims of informal instruction,
• The strong case for the so-called ‘core curriculum’ of basic knowledge;
• 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;
• The need to improve relations between industry and education.
• The examination system – a contentious issue.
Finally, he told us ‘we are expecting the Taylor Committee Report shortly on the government and management of schools in England and Wales that could bring together local authority, parents and pupils, teachers and industry more closely’.

That was it then – the government was beginning to require education to establish far clearer relationships with parents, business, industry and the government itself, albeit still within a system that was largely based on the shift from grammar/secondary modern/technical schools to something called ‘comprehensive’. Famously, the Conservative Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher was responsible for creating more of them than her Labour counterparts, but Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister, while making no attempt to reverse that trend, saw her chance in the 1980s to reverse many of the social developments of the 1960s which she saw largely as the root of all evil in the country.

It did not happen immediately; through the 1980s Local Education Authorities controlled the purse strings and the day-to-day running, including in-service courses in their teachers’ centres to improve pedagogical skills. Meanwhile, further up the line most of the independent colleges of education and art colleges were taken under the control of the expanding Polytechnic sector. By the early 1990s that would change again with almost all of them becoming Universities.

Among the calls Callaghan made was that for a ‘core curriculum of basic knowledge’. Note that this did not refer to a core curriculum of basic skills or understanding, just ‘knowledge’. What did that mean? Was it to know that 2+2 = 4? That the Battle of Hastings was in 1066? That hot air rises or in Latin ‘Amo’ means ‘I love’, or did he mean something more than core ‘facts’? If so, what exactly – and why?

Conservative politicians have generally been fairly clear about the purposes, processes and goals of education despite the fact that very few of them have had any involvement in the state sector as pupils or parents. Most were educated privately at considerable cost and that private sector, which expanded in the mid-1970s with the abolition of direct grant grammar schools, gives a lie to the idea that there has ever been a truly comprehensive system of education in this country. Comprehensive generally means full, inclusive or whole and it should not ever mean ‘partial’ when that partiality is self-selecting according to privilege. Remove from any social gathering those who choose to absent themselves by virtue of their assets and you have something which merely brings together all those that are left. That is neither full, inclusive or whole and I believe that is to the detriment of all those on both sides of the social divide.

In the late 1980s, the Conservative government, under Education Secretary Kenneth Baker introduced the Education Reform Act, including the National (or core) Curriculum. When the subject groups were set up they included a range of different individuals including those from industry and business. Callaghan’s wishes were being enacted by the Tories. In 1985, after 10 years of teaching the arts in comprehensive schools I went to London and worked on the Arts in Schools Project, a government funded initiative to improve teaching in the arts 5-18. It involved 18 LEAs in the central project plus the Arts, Crafts and Design Council, the British Film Institute, London’s South Bank and a range of other key institutions. Crucially it centred not on ‘academic’ research but on the activities and understanding of practising teachers across the country.

We gathered and published regularly an extraordinary wealth of ideas, information and documentary evidence and our main publications emerged around the same time that the National Curriculum arts groups met to formulate their proposals in those subjects. But they paid little attention to what we had discussed or discovered, or as far as I could tell to any of the other teacher-led curriculum development groups operating at that time. The heydays of professional, reflective teachers were probably over – from now on they would be regarded increasingly as ‘technicians’, carrying out the requirements of government and operating increasingly in ‘independent’ schools as the LEAs were dismantled.

Since the late 1980s, perhaps since Callaghan’s speech, every time there has been a change of government, or Prime Minister, or Education Secretary there has been a change of direction, a shift in policy, with politicians not merely tampering with the detail but operating as the devil incarnate. Teachers are no longer prepared as I was, with a four-year degree combining the study of education and a main subject, for it is much cheaper (and less dangerous) to have them pay for their own three year degree (in whatever) followed by a one-year ‘on the job’ training. Along the way they might find themselves working in a free school, an academy, a comprehensive or some other kind of institution – perhaps one where the governors can impose a particular set of explicit beliefs in the teaching at the school. There is a kind of potential mayhem in this ‘withering away’ of state control, but it’s not anything a Marxist would recognise. Now we have a new Prime Minister who is arguing for the return of Grammar Schools.

I am the product of a grammar school of the 1960s and I might have a good deal to say about that proposal if it seems appropriate to write a follow-up to this piece. For now, I have just one question about that idea: why do people always talk about going back to grammar schools; why does no one ever speak about reintroducing the good old secondary moderns?