The great debate rolls on

Robert Phillips

25 years ago Jim Callaghan made his famous Ruskin speech. His words leave indelible marks on today's education landscape, writes Robert Phillips

On October 18, 1976, Jim Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, stood up at Ruskin College, Oxford, to deliver a speech which initiated what became known as the great debate on education. Exactly 25 years on, the great debate shows absolutely no sign of abating, with the controversy surrounding the publication only a few weeks ago of Schools Achieving Success in England and its equivalent in Wales, The Learning Country.

The two White Papers highlight a symbolic shift in education policy-making in the post-devolution era, as Wales continues to steer a different and distinctive education policy framework. In Wales, there is, perhaps, a "different" great debate, which recognises the move away from an England and Wales to an England or Wales educational political scenario.

1976 is recognised as a significant turning point in the history of 20th-century education. Some argue that Callaghan's speech initiated changes which paved the way for the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s. References to Callaghan's Ruskin speech can be found in some of the early documentation setting out proposals for the national curriculum.

Yet in the anti-devolutionary, Keynesian and trade union-dominated climate of the 1970s, Callaghan could never have contemplated the nature, scale and pace of educational policy reforms that would occur in the last quarter of the 20th century.

After 1976, education became an enormous political issue, fuelled by an intense media interest. It is rather apt, therefore, that the news that the PM was to make an important speech about education was leaked to the press beforehand. Spinning, it seems, has a long history in Labour politics. Yet the real significance of Callaghan's speech lies in the wider context out of which it was born and the long-term impact it had in terms of framing the education debate.

The 1970s witnessed a series of economic, political and social crises, including inflation and the world oil crisis. By focusing upon education so explicitly in 1976, Callaghan linked these difficulties to a perceived crisis in education.

In the speech, Callaghan defended comprehensive schools and a broad curriculum but also argued that in some instances the curriculum must be made more relevant to industry, with a need to ensure that pupils had a firm grasp of the basics and key skills.

The speech signalled that central government would have greater influence on what was taught in schools. 1976 began the process of questioning teacher autonomy over curriculum policy, which would reach its height via the national curriculum in 1988.

Callaghan initiated the perception in both political circles and public minds that there was a close relationship between the needs of the economy and the education system. The speech marked a particular style of educational politics after 1976. Callaghan's use of praise of teachers could not mask the fact that the speech was, in effect, a veiled critique of them.

He made it clear that new partners needed to be given greater power and influence, especially parents and industry. Parental interest would be elevated to new heights after 1976.

At the time, many teachers viewed the speech as the beginning of the end of teacher autonomy as they knew it - and in many senses they were right, for education was to be transformed in the 1980s and 1990s in ways which would have left Callaghan deeply uneasy.

There are striking echoes of Callaghan's main points in New Labour's education policies. A stress on the basics of literacy and numeracy, greater influence by parents on school management, closer links between schools and industry, the cultivation of key skills and technological knowledge needed for a competitive, global market-place.

Yet, 25 years on, the emphasis in Schools Achieving Success on specialist and faith-based schools, selection and the growth of privatepublic sector partnerships, represents a significant break from the principles initiated at Ruskin, for Callaghan, as we have seen, made it clear in the speech that he was committed to the comprehensive ideal of non-selection and a broad entitlement curriculum.

New Labour education policies in England in many ways have more in common with the New Right-inspired reforms of the 1980s and 1990s than longer established Labour principles.

By contrast, in Wales, in the post-devolution world, The Learning Country, with its commitment to maintaining the central features of comprehensive principles and its rejection of specialist schools, as well as a greater role for the private sector, is much closer to the principles articulated at Ruskin.

All this makes for a vibrant continuation of the great debate in the future.

Dr Robert Phillips is senior lecturer in Education at the Department of Education, University of Wales Swansea. His most recent book (co-edited with John Furlong) "Education, Reform and the State: Twenty-Five Years of Politics, Policy and Practice", was launched this week by RoutledgeFalmer.

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Robert Phillips

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