Callaghan’s Ruskin intervention was a warning siren. It sounded the end of the age of hope, trust and optimism that had ruled the thoughts and actions of educators since the establishment of free secondary education for all in 1944.
For me, then working in the Inner London Education Authority, the speech came in the wake of William Tyndale, a primary school that had gone notoriously wrong and, after a public inquiry, had laid out all its dirty linen in the Auld Report.
It also followed the so-called Black Papers, which were an attack on “progressive” education – now nicknamed the Blob – and came not long after the events of 1968, when a furious Harold Wilson, who was prime minister at the time, had summoned vice-chancellors to explain why there was student unrest on university campuses.
Ruskin was a signature event in an age of doubt and disillusion, which was shortly to give way to another definably different age.
Two years later, I, too, was in Oxfordshire as a newly appointed, very young chief education officer. My optimism and excitement were soon punctured by the Conservative authority’s determination to cut its education budget and to publish exam results so “parents could make a better choice of school”.
Even though I managed to publish the results in a form that the local papers found impenetrable – and therefore ignored, to the relief of the secondary headteachers – I could read the writing on the wall, especially after the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979. We had entered an age of markets and managerialism, which lasted right up to last year. All the education White Papers in the intervening period contain mantra words such as “choice” (for parents), “autonomy” (for schools) and “diversity” (of provision and types of school), which are necessary to create a market in schooling. Hence Ofsted, and the publication of exam and test results, from 1993 onwards.
But you needed managerialism, too, because markets also led to failure, which led to more powers for the secretary of state (there are now more than 2,000 statutory powers relating to schools, where once there were three).
Couple this with a mistrust of local authorities, which first lost control of colleges of education and polytechnics, then FE colleges, and have now lost almost all remaining powers over schools (all of which local taxpayers paid for and yet have now been sequestrated by central government) and you are left with a local democracy deficit and a central state that dictators from Napoleon onwards would have envied.
But now we have come full circle into an age of confusion. Maybe it will give way to a renewal of hope, trust and optimism in an age of partnership and ambition. If it does not, the likely result will be to drive away teachers with the ability to unlock the minds and open the hearts of our young people.
Sir Tim Brighouse is a former London schools commissioner