How Wilson sugared the comprehensive medicine

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Secret documents revealed for the first time under the 30-year rule give fascinating insights into Labour's education policy.

Secret Cabinet documents from 1966 show that Labour dangled financial sweeteners before Anglican and Roman Catholic church authorities to win their support for comprehensive schools.

Prodded by prime minister Harold Wilson, education secretary Tony Crosland negotiated with the church hierarchies over grants.

In a memo released this week under the 30-year rule Mr Wilson - MP for the Merseyside constituency of Huyton - urged his education secretary to get in touch with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool. His note from Number 10 warns that without financial support the churches might not co-operate in plans to reorganise secondary education. The collaboration of voluntary-aided church schools was vital. "If they held aloof these plans would be seriously defective in many areas."

In the package worked out with the bishops, the government proposed to increase the rate of revenue grant to church schools to 80 per cent while new buildings would become eligible for extra capital grants. Mr Crosland let it be known he would approve moves by the Anglicans to build new middle schools if in any given area their primary enrolments were buoyant.

Labour launched its plan to establish comprehensive secondary schools across England in 1965. Local authorities were told to submit reorganisation plans by mid 1966. Mr Crosland - previously no great friend of voluntary aided church schooling - was anxious to push forward.

In a memo to Cabinet colleagues he announced that transfer at 11 was no longer going to be insisted upon. In an official paper he admitted to initiating comprehensive reorganisation without providing any money for it.

In May 1966, Mr Crosland launched a new generation of higher education institutions - polytechnics. He called them "strong centres" which would concentrate on higher level work "though continuing provision will have to be made in other colleges to meet local and other special needs, particularly those of part-time students".

The other higher education institution launched that year, the Open University, was Harold Wilson's baby. But even he could not guarantee funding in a year dominated by financial crises. According to the minute of a meeting in February he asked his legal factotum, Lord Goodman, to approach American industrialists and foundations for support.

Mr Wilson said he would personally approach the chairman of the Ford Foundation, the ex-White House official McGeorge Bundy, for a contribution.

The Cabinet papers also show that following a newspaper report alleging large numbers of pupils had failed 16-plus summer examinations against teachers' expectations, Mr Wilson told his education secretary to look into it. He brushed aside Mr Crosland's first response that the examination boards were autonomous. The Oxford and Cambridge Joint Examination Board began an investigation.

A long memo was forwarded to Number 10 from the chairman of the Schools Council, Sir John Maud, promising an investigation of the different exam board standards.

Sir John said comparability between the General Certificate of Education boards "strikes me as one of the most intractable problems facing the council".

In a memo to Number 10 Mr Crosland said it would be unwise to comment on the exams problem. If he did "there would be a real risk that he would further weaken public confidence in the system before being ready to reform it".

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