How history repeats itself

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Some familiar themes emerged from Government files of 30 years ago just released on the public record, as Neil Munro discovered

Teacher supply and the number of students in training were the major issues confronting officials and ministers in the late 1970s. Specifically, the big debate was over the future of the 10 colleges of education, as the teacher education institutions were then known.

A combination of a decline in the birth rate and the economic "crunch" of the time had forced the Labour Government of James Callaghan to rethink its requirements for teacher supply. "We don't want to train teachers for unemployment" was the official cry. This led to a focus on the number of teacher training places and, therefore, on the number of colleges.

Callaghan's Scottish Secretary, Bruce Millan, had provoked a political furore when he proposed in January 1977 that four colleges should disappear - Craigie in Ayr and Callendar Park in Falkirk would close, while Dunfermline College of Physical Education and Craiglockhart Roman Catholic College (both Edinburgh) would merge with others.

This set off a tortuous chain of events, which led to another proposal from Millan in May 1977, bowing to pressure to retain Craiglockhart but putting off a decision on the others to explore possible alternative uses for the buildings. Finally in December, after a year in which the Labour Party had almost imploded on the issue, Millan decided that all 10 colleges would remain, with a variety of uses made of their surplus accommodation.

The Government files of the time reveal a flurry of meetings and increasingly fraught attempts to find out the scope for this "diversification" of the college of education estate. Craigie would provide a home for 200 further education students from Ayr Technical College; Callendar Park would make room for staff from Forth Valley Health Board; Dunfermline faced a link-up with Edinburgh's Queen Margaret College; Notre Dame Roman Catholic College in Glasgow was asked to find out if the Scottish Council for Educational Technology and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama had any need for its empty spaces.

The college principals of the time were a formidable bunch who lost no time in standing their ground. James Scotland of Aberdeen said his college was a special case because of its geographical position. Molly Abbott of Dunfermline said her college should also be exempted from the pain because it had anticipated the fall in student numbers since 1972 and had diversified accordingly.

Officials also faced another headache: there was "a large staffing surplus in the college system as a whole", RE Smith of the Scottish Education Department (SED) wrote in January 1978. But, happily, special terms for redundancies known as the Crombie Code were already in place, which were regarded as the most generous in the public sector.

Inevitably, official exchanges on these issues revealed fraught moments. Aberdeen's comments on the draft minute of one meeting "all seem reasonable, if somewhat pernickety", wrote AG Dickson of the SED. And a Notre Dame amendment to the note of another meeting should be reluctantly accepted "if the last three sentences can be reworded into comparative obscurity", suggested the department's D Jeffrey.

Towards the end of the decade, officials became "disturbed" when some colleges threatened to take the law into their own hands and set their own student intakes to secondary courses, without the Secretary of State's permission. "We cannot allow colleges to take that sort of decision," said Ken ("AK") Forbes of the SED (at the time, officials used only their initials in official correspondence).

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