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How prophetic PM Callaghan stepped on our grass

Among the tributes to the late Lord Callaghan, one is surely due from teachers for his 1976 "Ruskin speech" with which he opened his "great debate" about the future of education.

With impressive foresight, he floated ideas of a core curriculum, prioritising literacy and numeracy. He also proposed a sharper role for the inspectorate and an overhaul of post-16 assessment, foreshadowing the debates of coming decades, including the current post-Tomlinson one.

Remarkably, in those days, a Prime Minister first needed to establish his right to make such a speech. He swiped at those in education who had warned him, as he put it, to "keep off the grass".

Voices from the unions echoed the Guardian's warning: "No principle has been more hallowed by British governments than the rule that they should not interfere in the curriculum of state schools."

Even The TES worried that his "weasel words" were "ham-fisted".

This was well-protected grass. Wartime education minister Rab Butler warned Churchill off influencing what was taught in schools. One of Butler's successors in Attlee's government, George Tomlinson, once happily declared:

"The minister knows nowt about the curriculum". This was not carelessness.

As welfare state historian Nicholas Timmins points out, politicians who had lived through Nazi totalitarianism were keen to maintain the independence of teaching.

However, by 1976 that independence was abused. Stepping on the grass, Callaghan raised concerns at "the new informal methods of teaching", applying socialist educator RH Tawney's maxim: "What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children."

Callaghan's legacy lies in the responsibility he placed on society's partners to work together. Such responsibility underpinned his attacks on the walls surrounding the public services, whose unions ultimately rejected this approach, gave us the Winter of Discontent and forced his government's downfall.

We should remember that sense of responsibility, as our unions increasingly discuss strike action, while the National Union of Teachers president makes infantile jibes at the Education Secretary - to say nothing of the adolescent barracking of the Secondary Heads Association.

Significant debates approach - about post-16 education, workforce reform and pensions - during which this profession needs constant reminders on how to retain public respect.

We have claimed public accountability as our responsibility. We now see it, not as innovative, but integral to schools, incorporated into the new inspection framework. Rather than fritter this value away, we need to remember that the public champions us when we do a good job. If we behave irresponsibly they desert us, quicker than the time it takes them to count our holidays.

As Roy Hattersley, once said: "It is the treatment of the health service alone that pricks the British conscience. We're teachers, not nurses. It's the nurses who are the angels: you and I are a little more fallen."

Callaghan called on teachers to pay attention to their stakeholders, saying: "If the public is not convinced then the profession will be laying up trouble for itself in future." Responsible and timely, then as now.

Thanks, Jim.

Huw Thomas is a Sheffield headteacher Leader 18

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