There are two significant dates for me next week: the General Election and my departure, the day before, from The Times Educational Supplement. It is the paper where I have spent the past 25 years of my working life, seven-and-a-half of them as editor, so next week marks the end of an era for me as well as, I suspect, for the country. It seems a good time to take stock.
Twenty-five years is a significant chunk of educational history. It doesn't take much of a trawl through the memory and the cuttings book to summon up issues that have rumbled on throughout that period, or to remind me that it really is time to go when I can't face writing one more leader on "sin bins" or selection.
Over the past 25 years, education has struggled under a cloud of public and political disfavour triggered by the Black Papers' reaction against the free-wheeling, progressive philosophy of the 1960s (the "trendy teachers" and their trainers), and the financial pressures stemming from the 1974 oil crisis. However right the critics might have been about low standards, effective solutions have proved elusive. But far more significant, when I stand back from the stormy headlines, are the profound shifts in the educational climate that have taken place since 1972.
That may seem an arbitrary date to anyone but me, but it kicked off with two years of Margaret Thatcher (the "milk snatcher") as secretary of state, then took in five years of Labour government before the Thatcher administration changed everything. When I arrived at The TES as a sub-editor, with more experience as a journalist and an inner-London parent than as an educationist, our pages reflected an agenda that had long been dominated and largely controlled by the teacher unions and the leaders of local education authorities.
My own first reaction was amazement that the Government didn't seem to have the power to run an education policy of its own. Mrs Thatcher's was much the same, with added vehemence. It is well known that she was not impressed by what, and who, she found in education. When she became prime minister, the teacher unions and LEAs were next in line for treatment after the Falklands and public spending, though it wasn't until she was on her third education secretary, Kenneth Baker, that she found someone prepared to turn the whole system upside down, crushing the power of both the unions and the local authorities.
Back in the 1970s, however, education had continued on its slow and steady ways under the stewardship of Reg Prentice, who is now remembered more vividly for crossing the floor than for his tenure as a Labour education secretary, and then Fred Mulley, who famously said that the only educational power he really possessed was to remove air-raid shelters from school playgrounds (and who, equally famously, fell asleep during a fly-past for the Queen).
A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the UK education system observed that the then Department of Education and Science seemed to abdicate all power to the local education authorities: "Nothing to do with us, I'm afraid." When I met one of the report's authors in Germany, he agreed that their own federal officials also found it difficult to control the LAnder, "but we don't glory in it".
Now the department, or at least its ministers, would be much more likely to glory in the impotence of LEAs. Budget-capping, local management and opting out have all salami-sliced their powers. John Patten's 1993 Act fudged the "duty to provide" a school place for every child placed on LEAs by the 1944 Act, and, as I write, the Conservative election manifesto proposes to diminish the power of LEAs still further. We have rushed from one damaging extreme to the other. A bonfire of complacency and political corporatism may have been justified, but throwing partnership, pluralism and professional ownership on to the flames one after the other has destroyed the balance of local democracy, taken the heart out of public service, and blurred responsibilities.
The education service of 20 years ago was cumbersome, and the pace of change slow. Almost any attempt at reform was doomed, crushed between those two icons: partnership and consultation. One committee on public sector higher education balanced competing interests so well that it never got beyond stalemate. By the time every interest group had been consulted several times on any given subject - before and after a report was drawn up; before and after legislation was drafted - either the education secretary or the government itself had run out of time.
The powerful Warnock report on special educational needs was one example. Commissioned by Mrs Thatcher in 1973, and delivered to Shirley Williams five years later, it was left to another Conservative minister, Mark Carlisle, to convert the bare bones of its message into legislation in 1981. Implementation took almost as long, though the real tragedy was that Warnock's thrust towards integration, and away from dismissive labelling, no longer caught the spirit of the times.
As prime minister, James Callaghan started with his Ruskin speech a Great Debate about everything that was wrong with education, but he didn't have the time, money, or perhaps the education secretary, to follow it through. Shirley Williams's popularity as education secretary was marred for some by her tendency to defer decisions. She could have been the one to introduce the 16-plus exam; all the consulting and reporting had been done for her by Sir James Waddell. Instead it was Sir Keith Joseph who was later bold enough to abolish O-levels and CSEs, and introduce the successful GCSE - though he worried for the rest of his life about whether it had provided the differentiation he had hoped for.
Sir Keith and his political adviser, David Young - the industrialist who famously pleased Mrs Thatcher by bringing her solutions rather than problems - decided that the only way to get things moving in education was to forget all about partners and consultation, and just go for it. And go for it they did, launching the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) in schools after they had both moved to the employment department, a scheme blessed, like all those youth training programmes that produced so few real jobs or qualifications, by a willing Treasury.
It was a lesson that Sir Keith's successor at education, Kenneth Baker, took on board when he embarked on his Great Reform Act, brushing aside consultation as his national curriculum was drawn up and implemented at reckless speed.
Mr Baker deserves more credit than he usually gets, for stimulating a complacent and variable system, making schools more purposeful places, and for embarking on long-term curriculum reform that could not boost standards during his term of office. But he attacked on too many fronts at once: introducing the national curriculum, testing, local management, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges; dissolving the Inner London Education Authority, with its brilliant officers and bolshie politicians; and creating two dictatorial and out-of-step quangos, the National Curriculum Council and the Schools Examination and Assessment Council. It was overkill again. Rushing in where you think you know best can be an expensive way to hold up progress.
Some intractable issues have remained unsolved since I arrived at The TES. The world was getting ready then for the raising of the school-leaving age (RSLA), a milestone that raised anxieties on two main scores: what sort of curriculum would work for a new cohort of reluctant 15-year-olds who almost by definition wanted to get out of the classroom; and where would the extra teachers be found?
As news editor I sent reporters out to discover what RSLA could offer. Brick-laying was the most constant theme; forerunner of the non-academic diet that has been trotted out ever since - with or without a vocational qualification attached - in recurring efforts to woo disaffected teenagers into useful training rather than dead-end jobs.
Once again it was Sir Keith Joseph who recognised the scale of the problem and responded by funding curriculum programmes aimed at what he unflinchingly labelled the "bottom 40 per cent". Many of these projects for 14 to 16-year-olds hit the spot so well that some LEAs kept them going after government money dried up but, like TVEI, they were crushed by a national curriculum which remains part of the problem for this particular group, rather than the solution. And yet it still exists, the unskilled "long tail" of under-achievement, which drags us down the global league tables.
The problem of motivating these wannabe drop-outs also concerned Sir Ron Dearing when he reviewed the curriculum both pre- and post-16, but his new qualifications framework hasn't cracked the problem yet. Nor is it likely to, as long as our 14-19 prescription is split between A-levels and the (vocational) rest, rather than through the baccalaureate-style mix he was prevented from proposing. The outgoing government has closed its eyes to the truth that selecting the brightest for special attention is the answer to a problem that we don't have. Our most able young people are up there with the best in the world, staying on longer, passing more exams, filling more universities. Where we fall behind is with that wide band of low performers at the bottom, a problem that grows the more they are discarded by selective hierarchies.
The teacher shortage highlighted by RSLA has been another constant theme, good for The TES classified advertisement columns, if not for the classroom. Though demography drove down demand in the 1980s, by the time I became editor in 1989 I expected that rising pupil numbers, leading to a corresponding - and unmet - demand for teachers, would be a dominant issue for both The TES and for the then education secretary, John MacGregor. And so it was for the paper, though Mr MacGregor and his successors managed to tunnel through the demographic trends without having to adopt more teacher-friendly recruitment policies, first because the recession blocked off alternative jobs, then by letting class sizes balloon, and latterly by clamping down on early retirement. Now it is an issue which the next government will have to confront.
Judging by the election campaign, any new government will also be flexing its policies to eliminate bad teachers and bad pupils from the system, problems that have been visited many times. "Sin bins" for pupils whose behaviour could not be controlled in the ordinary classroom were news in 1976 when I visited five around the country and found a mixed bag of providers but a common pattern among the children in them. Some of the units were run on school pre-mises, some out-side in order to offer a fresh start and less stigmatising.
The policy was always to avoid expulsion and keep pupils on the school roll, with the aim that they would return reformed, though this seldom happened. Most of the "sin bins" were run by teachers, though many came to believe that school, rather than the disaffected pupils, was the problem. Few provided an adequate curriculum. I didn't find one teenager in any unit whose life and behaviour hadn't been un-settled by family problems (which was also true when I chaired exclusion hearings as an inner London school governor, and fits the pattern of many current headline cases). Most fared better in small groups with closer personal support, but I doubt if anyone tracked their progress thereafter.
Most of those units were closed as LEA budget cuts eliminated all non-statutory services. Now they have been reinvented, though it is as hard as it was 20 years ago to untangle whether this is because the frayed social fabric is leading to worse behaviour, or because larger classes and more demanding policies are creating new tensions, or because the market lowers the tolerance threshold. If we are to have a new wave of pupil referral units, it is right that inspectors are calling for an adequate curriculum. The unions may also be right to claim that other pupils' chances should not be damaged by the disruptive few, but someone has to make sure that the disrupters are not written off for life at the age of 15, or even five.
As to delinquent teachers, I return to Sir Keith Joseph, who in 1983 published a White Paper on teaching quality, which proposed both annual assessment for teachers and a new management resolve to get rid of "a small minority" of bad ones. There were respectable models for appraisal in the civil service and less appealing ones in industry, though when later introduced for teachers after much consultation, it didn't seem to fit, maybe because links to performance-related pay and dismissal were still threatened (though not achieved). Many teachers would agree that there is one weak link in every school. How does that compare with Chris Woodhead's 15,000? It was always possible to sack a bad teacher, given long and tedious procedures. So far none of the political breast-beating has cracked the problem, though it has alienated many teachers who have been tarred with the brush of incompetence by the few. Now both Labour and the Conservatives promise action again, though a more positive way for an incoming government to get tough on standards would be to harness teachers' own professionalism.
Back in the mid-1980s, however, the image of professionalism was at its nadir, undermined by the teacher action against Sir Keith Joseph's financial controls. It wasn't all-out strike, but an equally damaging refusal to undertake after-school activities combined with selective withdrawal of labour during the school day. Children were sent home, often with little warning, and all collaborative endeavour ceased. Nothing constructive was happening, and very little education. It was the blackest period for schools in all my time at The TES, and, as a governor, more destructive than any subsequent battle over curriculum and testing.
In the end the unions blew it at the last ditch by failing to reach an achievable agreement with the local education authorities in the Burnham Committee, that Byzantine organisation which used to negotiate teachers' pay in marathon sessions. By 1987 Kenneth Baker had the perfect excuse to abolish Burnham, a definitive move against both union and local authority power. John MacGregor hesitated about a pay review body, but Kenneth Clarke set one up soon after he became education secretary, then zapped his way breezily through teacher training, Her Majesty's Inspectorate and LEA powers before moving on.
But the instruments of reform certainly did not spring fully armed from the head of Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke or even Chris Woodhead, when he arrived to head Clarke's new Office for Standards in Education. HMI in the 1970s, led by the incorruptible Sheila Browne, drew public attention to low expectations and unacceptably uneven standards. Miss Browne spoke as she found, and only as she found, which didn't always please the politicians, and presided over the first publication of HMI reports on schools. And it was the national evidence presented by her successor, Eric Bolton, together with HMI's groundwork on a core curriculum and "areas of experience", which helped push Mr Baker towards a national curriculum.
And when that curriculum and testing structure grew out of control and John Patten, the education secretary who boycotted the education world - including The TES - was opposed by a coalition of teachers, parents and governors, only that frequent deus ex machina, Sir Ron Dearing, was able to fix it. Sir Ron talked to teachers (and The TES) and saved the curriculum, but not Mr Patten.
A handful of other people and reports stand out as having profoundly influenced thinking and events. The first was Fifteen Thousand Hours, the 1979 research report from Michael Rutter which concluded that schools can make a difference, however disadvantaged the communities they serve. Peter Mortimore, one of the Rutter team (and now director of London University's Institute of Education), went on to develop the analysis for ILEA with a report on junior schools, School Matters, that provided new pointers to improvement. David Hargreaves had produced a companion report, Improving Secondary Schools, which didn't help ILEA schools as much as it might have because of the teacher action, but travelled well. Both Mortimore and Hargreaves have continued to lead and stimulate educational opinion.
In 1993 came Learning to Succeed from the National Commission, which had been set up three years earlier by Sir Claus Moser as president of the British Association, in the face of government coolness, to stimulate fresh thinking about education and its funding. Its well-researched findings drew on a wide spectrum of thinking, broke new ground and made as deep an impression as any royal commission could have done. A later report from the same stable, Success Against the Odds, about schools which had beaten disadvantage, and how they had done it, became a blueprint for the school improvement movement.
School improvement, backed by the Government and Opposition, has been the most positive development of our times, and in a direct line from Fifteen Thousand Hours. Badly done, it is just paper plans and tick lists. Well done, where teachers are working with the grain, it can transform teaching and learning. League tables may provide the spur, but it takes a dedicated improvement programme to turn the school round.
The most discouraging feature of the last 10 years has been the alienation of teachers who feel they have had little chance to work with the grain. Marginalised by a government which has done things to them, rather than with them, those who have been unable to make an early exit too often feel negative about themselves, their profession and their ability to change anything in a system starved of funds.
Since no reform can succeed without the engagement of teachers, this is a dangerous situation which the next government needs to tackle early, as both David Blunkett and Gillian Shephard now accept. What they and the most perceptive of the union leaders also believe is that teachers themselves have to change, to stop looking inwards and accept the valid perceptions of the outside world, to stop feeling sorry for themselves and take a lead on quality. They should be the ones to set their own professional standards, if these are not to be imposed upon them by politicians or quangos, and that should be a key role for a general teaching council.
I began by recalling the profound switch in the terms of educational trade that has taken place over the last 25 years. A world which was dominated by the teacher unions and the local education authorities has given way to one where power is concentrated either in central government, or in the hands of headteachers and governors, with LEAs seeking a role in between. After an uncertain start, LEAs have been swifter to recognise the need to change and adapt than have teachers, and a new generation of chief education officers with fewer pretensions than the grand old CEOs of old is taking a strong lead on monitoring, local development plans, self-inspection and support for schools, within the new parameters.
As to consultation and partnership, the next government will need to find a sensible way of sounding out opinion that doesn't take years, but isn't squeezed into a couple of weeks in the summer holidays either. And the new partnership must bring in the classroom teachers so they can participate from the beginning in future reform, a process that Sir Ron Dearing has already shown works.
If the Conservatives are returned to power next week, it is hard to imagine mutual trust suddenly springing up between ministers and teachers, and we have been promised much, much more in the way of selective hierarchies and exclusion. What can we hope for from a Labour government? My retrospective offers some lessons but few inspiring pointers from the last one (though my own career started too late for Anthony Crosland's 1065 circular on comprehensives or for Plowden). In any case, we are promised that new Labour will not be looking backwards to 1979, and I wouldn't expect David Blunkett to postpone action, decline responsibility or duck a confrontation. Standards, standards and standards is the rhetoric, as it needs to be, but with budgets as tight as under the Tories.
So can we expect anything to get excited about when Labour is offering more of the same, from inspection, to testing, to cuts? There is hope. A first White Paper would major on standards issues, but also set in train legislation on inclusive policies - for the early years; for education action zones targeting urban disadvantage; for jobs and training for the young unemployed; for foundation status within the LEA - all of which would represent a sharp move away from Conservative policies. But vaguer promises of more money within the first five years would have to be made good. The impoverished fabric of education cannot hold together much longer.
What I really, really want is a massive shift in mood, and in vocabulary too. How soon can markets, competitiveness, and the management culture go the way of past waves of political correctness, however smoothly enterprise-speak may trip now off the leader's tongue? After all, the monetarist mind-set went out of fashion with Margaret Thatcher, and society began to exist again. Now it is time to bring back social justice, public service and stakeholding, and I don't believe that need mean turning the clock back.
My time as editor, as I am reminded now, has covered the most turbulent period of educational politics ever. I took over as the 1988 Reform Act was changing everything, and the paper had to change too to stay ahead of the game. News, reviews and a forum for debate were no longer enough. Teachers needed advice on curriculum and testing; heads and governors wanted help in their new management role; whole new sections on primary and pre-school, and on further education, have reflected new priorities. Everyone wanted a perspective on issues and events that hadn't been filtered through a hostile press.
The TES has never stopped adapting and expanding. Now I hand over to Caroline St John-Brooks, to shape the paper for a new era.