A century of missed opportunities;Opinion;News and opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00
OUR calendar and therefore the Millennium are the inventions of a monk called Denis who was wrong about the birthdate of Christ. Other than that he did a fine job. The result of his mistake is that we're all reflecting on our history as never before.

There has been real progress in education this century but what would surprise most early 20th century thinkers is how little education has done to reduce inequality, at least until recently. Four snapshots of 20th century history make the point.

February 10, 1921: The publication of the Geddes Report proposing massive public expenditure cuts marked the moment when the Fisher Act of 1918 was fatally undermined. The TES in 1919 said Fisher had taken a path "that leads nowhere but to universal secondary education", but Geddes prevented this aspiration from being achieved. Fisher's farsighted idea - that all 14 to 18-year-olds should have compulsory part-time teaching for some hours a week - was never implemented and we are still suffering the consequences - a missed opportunity.

July 21, 1941: RA Butler was summoned to see the Prime Minister and expected to be sacked from the government. Instead he was made president of the Board of Education which, as far as Churchill was concerned, was as bad. "I wouldn't like to wipe children's noses ... during the war", he told Butler. Crucially, the conversation continued "... tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec". Butler replied that it wasn't the done thing for government to influence the curriculum. Churchill conceded and the 1944 Act included no curriculum provision at all. The result was that, in contrast to most other democracies, teachers' professionalism was defined to include not just how to teach but what to teach - again an opportunity had been missed.

October 18, 1976: James Callaghan in his famous Ruskin speech gave education the attention it so desperately needed. He provoked a storm of controversy by saying he was "inclined to think that there should be ... a basic curriculum". He was influenced by the antics at William Tyndale school, where a group of ideologically-driven teachers had taken the professional control of the curriculum to ludicrous extremes. The head, Terry Ellis, even had the audacity to tell the ensuing enquiry that he "did not give a damn" about parents. But Callaghan's courageous speech was not followed by concerted action - yet another missed opportunity.

December 7, 1986: Kenneth Baker, still new in the post of Secretary of State for Education, announced his intention to introduce a National Curriculum. He took Margaret Thatcher by surprise but she didn't mind. "Kenneth," she said, "never underestimate the effectiveness of simply just announcing something."

The decision was hugely popular in the country and hugely unpopular in the education service. But the Rubicon had been crossed. The farce that followed was due to crass implementation, not the principle of setting clear standards as an entitlement for all children. Thank God for Sir Ron Dearing, who rescued that principle in his review.

It took a new Labour government to see the opportunity the national curriculum offered to promote equality. Crucially, it rejected the counsel of despair from the old left which argued that, since schools didn't make a difference, the only response to disadvantage was to lower expectations. Instead we have a government committed to setting high standards. It is prepared

to move heaven and earth to ensure that all children have the chance to meet them. We can't afford any more missed opportunities.

Michael Barber is head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit

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