Book of the week
This is a book which was waiting to be written. Its authors are to be congratulated on producing a work which is at once scholarly, apposite and engaging. They seek to explore historical attitudes in Britain towards the purpose of the education and employment department in terms of clash of culture and ethos.
One or two myths can be instantly dispelled. The merger in 1995 of the two departments was not devised as a reward for political loyalty. In fact, it had been discussed before the 1992 election. At that time, however, with rising unemployment, it was decided to defer the change until there was an improvement in the economy.
Second, it is the purest nonsense to suggest, as the critics did, that to bring education and employment together was somehow to make all education vocationally based, or that high quality education and training could have no influence on employment. Neither point of view is sustainable and the development of the department since 1995 is proof enough.
Third, while there were sharp differences between the two departments, five years on they have become one, bringing a range of perspectives to bear on the work of one of the most important of all the Whitehall departments, and without the fracturing of effort that some had claimed would be inevitable.
Not that there had never been clashes between the two departments during their history, nor that, given their origins, there were not great differences in their ethos. Education, as this book points out, had been concerned with working through other agencies, some of them, such as local authorities, with their own political mandate, and others, such as universities, which had been running their own affairs for centuries. Employment in contrast, had been a hands-on department, accustomed to running things from the centre from its earliest days.
The book explores the separate historical development which illustrates vividly why the doom-mongers might have predicted that the merger between them could never work. By charting the key events in each department's development throughout the 20th century, the authors not only provide a fascinating and serious examination of social history and attitudes, but also demonstrate the shifting fashions in education and employment thinking over the same period. The approach they have adopted, a side-by-side analysis of events and policy changes, is highly effective in making their point.
Interestingly, they do not make the point which seemed clear to me on arrival at the Department for Education in 1994, which was that the Conservative education reform of the 1980s had presupposed an administrative capability in the DfE which simpl was not there. Until it was put into place, secretaries of state got grief for non-delivery of their own reforms. Ministers should have known, because the Manpower Services Commission, under the aegis of the Department for Employment, was given the implementation of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in the early Eighties not because Education would not deliver, but because it did not have the levers to do so.
The authors point out that the merger, while welcomed on almost all sides (with some well publicised exceptions such as the National Union of Teachers), threw into relief the politicisation of education in British society. The equation of good education and social advancement - or to put it another way, the use of education as a tool of social policy - has bedevilled attitudes towards education and learning for decades, perhaps even centuries, in Britain. Even now, schools find themselves loaded with tasks more properly those of the health service or social services, in a way which would be totally unacceptable in, say, France. Indeed, the merger in 1995 was deemed well nigh incomprehensible by my French counterpart Jacques Barrot, who himself presided over a department comprising employment and social services, employment being thought more akin to welfare.
How did it feel to have presided over the Department of Employment, the Department of Education, and then the merged DfEE? One of my earliest memories of the newly merged department is of the preparation of the speech for the Training and Enterprise Councils conference, as quoted in the first chapter. Officials from each wing prepared separate sections, and it was left to me to put them together, very much at the last minute during the train journey to Birmingham, where the speech was delivered. I was saved from total disaster by a points failure at Milton Keynes, and by the fact that when the speech was finally given, it was to an audience in mellow mood at the end of a good dinner.
In some ways, coping with the merged departments was easier than it might have been since I knew many of the officials in both. We had in any case worked together on qualifications reform and on the competitiveness White Papers. I was also enthusiastic about the task, believing that it made sense for the need for sound education and scholarship to be related to the economy and to the development of the individual. It was the way people in schools, universities, training and enterprise councils and employers' organisations had been thinking for some years.
This is a work of reference, cataloguing as it does the shifts throughout the history of both departments. It is a work of history, with political and administrative insights. It is fair and impartial. It is also a good read.
Gillian Shephard, MP for South-West Norfolk, was Education Secretary from 1994 to 1997.