Comprehensive reform resisted

5th January 1996 at 00:00
David Henderson reviews Scottish Office records for 1965 released under the 30-year rule

Firm political direction from Judith Hart, the Scottish education minister in Harold Wilson's first Labour Government, spiked a departmental attempt to distance Scotland from radical comprehensive education reforms for the whole of Britain.

Scottish Office records released this week under the "30 year" rule show that Scottish Education Department officials were opposed to any directive on comprehensive education, preferring instead a gradualist approach based on the progress of the local authorities. Norman Graham, SED secretary, who was later knighted, told the minister that the initiative, trailed in the party's manifesto, was "unnecessary and undesirable".

Officials advised against publishing a circular instructing local authorities how to implement the Scottish end of the national plan. Mr Graham wrote: "To make it obligatory for all education authorities to prepare schemes for the introduction of comprehensive schooling might well arouse opposition to comprehensive education in principle which has hitherto been dormant in Scotland, insofar as it has existed at all."

In a series of briefing papers, officials pointed out that it was not an issue north of the border where there had long been a tradition of comprehensive schooling (43 per cent of secondaries were said to be wholly or partly comprehensive) and where selection of school at 12-plus had never caused difficulties. One of the aims of Labour's planned system - better provision for the less able - was already being tackled by the introduction of the Ordinary grade in 1962 and the new focus on certificate and non-certificate courses, they said.

Local authorities, officials continued, were already making substantial progress in introducing all-through secondaries, while several such as Fife and Renfrew were introducing two-tier secondaries as part of the comprehensive programme. More pupils were being transferred from primary to their local secondary without selection at the age of 12, although there was more choice of paths at 14 after two years' secondary schooling. With the Government also committed to raising the leaving age to 16 in 1970-71, authorities had more than enough on their hands, the SED contended.

But Mrs Hart hit back strongly, arguing that Scotland could not possibly dissociate itself from the principles of comprehensive schooling. "That part of the public which is interested in educational policy would be amazed and shocked if we were seen to do so," she wrote.

The education minister, who was MP for Lanark, dismissed the case for selection at 12-plus on the grounds that "the philosophical arguments remain the same" as with the 11-plus in England. Officials had tried to argue that there were more difficulties south of the border where selection was a year earlier and where fewer pupils chose an academic route. Mrs Hart maintained that while public concern was less than in England and Wales "it is nevertheless intense where the local pattern is non-comprehensive".

She continued: "There is no doubt in my mind that, with greater public anxiety about educational opportunity, concern in these areas is growing rather diminishing."

The suggestion from officials that 43 per cent of Scottish secondaries were already comprehensive was turned around. "There are still almost 60 per cent of Scottish secondary schools which are non-comprehensive. This is hardly a position to justify standing aside from the DES (Department of Education and Science) statement."

Mrs Hart insisted that many less able children in junior secondaries or non-certificate schools were the "poor relations". She favoured the all-through comprehensive which would offer something for everyone.

"It will be easier, for example, to give Ordinary grade courses in varying numbers of subjects, according to the level of ability. It will be easier to stimulate new interests and provide the atmosphere of enthusiasm that the apathetic, bored, less able child so badly needs. I cannot therefore see any valid arguments to justify dissociating Scotland from the policy statement."

The education minister conceded in early January 1965 that a circular for Scottish local authorities should be phrased differently to acknowledge the advances already made. She had, however, won the day.

Over the coming months, officials began drafting the circular but continued to wrestle with the DES, which took a much firmer and detailed line, spelling out precisely what comprehensive education meant and how it should be organised. The SED preferred not to define it and to leave it to local authorities how to organise their schools. Scotland was different, the SED insisted, because of the large number of schools in rural and semi-rural areas. It was wrong to impose one form of secondary.

A divergent view came from a senior inspector who challenged an official's draft circular. "If one is strictly honest and accurate, we have no schools which are comprehensive according to the Government's definition. All are based on selection at 12-plus, the pupils arriving at them labelled 'certificate' or 'non-certificate', and the large majority of our so-called comprehensive schools are in fact bilateral, with the less able side in general getting a smaller share of care and attention."

By late April, the Scottish Office agreed with ministers a plan to end selection from primary to secondary, while accepting streaming or setting in secondaries. But officials continued to argue that a two-tier system of secondaries was best suited to Scottish circumstances. Their scheme envisaged all pupils going to their local junior secondary at the age of 12, before they chose to move at 14 to a senior high to do Highers or stay at the junior high to do O grades or more vocational courses.

By May, Norman Graham advised Mrs Hart there were "no serious objections in principle" to her proposals and that the primary concern was to improve the range and quality of the courses for pupils for whom certificate courses were not suitable. However, Mr Graham expressed surprise that the DES, under pressure from Labour backbenchers, had rejected the SED's two-tier scheme, unless it was an interim solution. The DES later relented after the intervention of Willie Ross, the Scottish secretary of state.

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