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It normally takes The TES only one week to admit a mistake. But we have been rather tardy in saying sorry to Lord Callaghan. In 1976 we told our readers that his seminal Ruskin speech was full of "weasel words" and claimed that he had wrapped himself in the cloak of the right-wing Black Paperites. On the 20th anniversary of Ruskin, however, that assessment looks unduly harsh.

Tony Benn and National Union of Teachers' leaders still grimace when the Ruskin speech is mentioned, seeing it as an ill-informed onslaught on teachers, comprehensive schools and Plowdenesque primaries. But almost anyone else who reads what the then Prime Minister had to say about the state of the education service would, like Professor Michael Barber, be struck by its reasonableness and prescience (see TES 2, page 2). Listen to it on tape and the speech is even more impressive. One minute soothing, the next commanding. Having explained that he has been warned to keep off the education "grass", Callaghan adds defiantly: "We spend Pounds 6 billion a year on education, so there will be discussion."

Our admiration is slightly diminished by the knowledge that the speech was by no means all his own work. The authors were Elizabeth Arnott of the No 10 policy unit and Bernard Donoughue, his principal adviser, who regarded the teacher unions as a self-interested conspiracy against the laity. The Department of Education and Science was also involved, supplying the Yellow Book, the briefing document on which the speech was based. And the Cabinet Office's James Hamilton, soon to become permanent secretary at the DES, had a finger in the Ruskin pie, too.

But two decades later it is perhaps more productive to examine the impact of the speech rather than its authorship. As the historian Brian Simon has said, the Great Debate that it launched was neither great nor a debate. It consisted of eight stage-managed regional conferences in January and February 1977. The views expressed at these gatherings were fed into a fairly bland DES Green Paper that, as Bernard Donoughue pointed out, devoted only three paragraphs to the Ruskin criticisms and the problems schools were facing.

Though the rewrite of the Green Paper by Shirley Williams, the then Education Secretary, eventually gave the document some teeth, the future Social Democrat leader did virtually nothing to further Callaghan's educational causes. It is true that it was not a propitious moment for sweeping education reforms to be introduced - the Lib-Lab government had chronic financial problems. Nevertheless, her period of office was characterised by vacillation and excessive consultation (over a combined exam at 16, for example). Shirley Williams signalled the tightening grip of central government by asking local authorities to provide information about their curriculum arrangements, but the only piece of Ruskin-inspired legislation - a Bill that would have extended parental choice of schools - fell by the wayside when Mrs Thatcher swept to power in 1979.

However, Callaghan's ideas did not die with his government. Unfortunately, it is probably true that he unwittingly added substance to the media attacks on state schools that began a few years before Ruskin and have continued ever since. Though no Black Paperite, his speech also emboldened right-wingers such as Rhodes Boyson, who was by 1978 calling for testing at the ages of seven, 11 and 15, and a greatly expanded inspection programme. Most importantly, once Callaghan had served notice that Labour intended to limit teachers' autonomy there was no way the Thatcher government would allow the DES to continue to act as a "postbox" between the local authorities and the teacher unions (Harold Wilson's description of the power relationship in the mid-1970s).

It could, therefore, be said that Ruskin legitimised all the tumultuous change and dirigiste excesses that the education service has witnessed over the past 16 years. But it is highly questionable whether Callaghan deserves any blame for the mistakes of over-zealous Conservative reformers. His analysis of what was wrong with education in 1976, and what should be done to put it right, was substantially correct. The only regret he must have is that we are not nearer to achieving the goals he set.

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