Middle age with flying colours

7th July 1995 at 01:00
The Advisory Centre for Education is 35 years old. Reva Klein traces its development from an elitist group to an organisation focused on empowering parents.

The Advisory Centre for Education is celebrating its 35th birthday. Since its launch by Michael (now Lord) Young in 1960 with the magazine Where? it has given advice and information, encouragement and confidence to thousands of parents and governors through its numerous publications, conferences and unique helpline.

The various permutations and metamorphoses that ACE has undergone over the years offers as fascinating an insight into the social history of post-war Britain as you are likely to find by looking at a small charity.

Michael Young's first baby, the Consumer Association and its magazine Which? had been born three years earlier and signified a major watershed in attitude. Where? was an aptly titled natural progression from there, as ideologically wedded to the new concept of parent as consumer as Which? was to the notion of citizens as customers with rights.

Young wrote about their common foundations in the first issue of Where? "The paradox of modern life is that as the country gets richer and the range of choice increases, we may feel not free but simply more confused. On every side the great institutions which heave themselves forward to serve us are liable to baffle us by their size and their complexityI "The belief underlying these two new associations (the Consumers' Association and ACE) is that if the layman is not to be overwhelmed, he needs new tools for assessing what the specialist puts before himIWhere? is an attempt to provide the layman with some guidance about education. The subject of this new venture was chosen because no public service affects the welfare of every family, and of the nation, more than education." Those words could have been written yesterday.

ACE started life in 1960 as a "nice" middle-class advisory service, making no distinction between private and public sector education. Although the remit was one of helping all parents to make informed choices about their children's education, it quickly became known as the place to turn to when hunting for the best public schools. The concept of real choice then - even more so than now was a middle-class luxury, a consumerist dream available to those who could afford it.

Still, the idea of an independent body that would give information on schools was a novel one and, judging by ACE's phenomenal growth, a much-needed one. In its early years, under the director of first John (later Lord) Vaizey, then Tyrrel Burgess and Brian Jackson, ACE was run on a subscription-only basis and regularly took on 200 new members a week.

Joan Sallis, life-long governor activist, first became involved in the organisation as a young parent volunteer. She wincingly remembers the elitism of those early years. "It got to extremes when they organised volunteer 'correspondents' who recommended schools to parents. It was like the Good Food Guide. People wanted to know where their middle-class child should go to school in the area. I became disenchanted with ACE at that time. I felt I didn't want to spend my time reinforcing social divisions."

Changes to the focus and running of ACE drew her back in, leading to her sitting on its council of management to this day.

But there were more positive initiatives, too, in its first decade. Under director Brian Jackson, who ran it from Cambridge for 12 years, its reputation as a campaigning pressure group began to grow. a network of local education shops was created around the country, offering advice and information to parents on a regional basis. In addition, a national clearing house was set up, referring students who failed to get university places to technical colleges.

Other projects included the establishment of the National Association of Careers Teachers, a model nursery school in Cambridge and the Association for Multi-Racial Playgroups.

The watershed in ACE's fortunes came in 1978, with the directorship of Peter Newell, a former news editor of The TES who now runs EPOCH, the children's charity against physical punishment. Newell only agreed to take the job on the condition that neither he nor anyone else would be director. He insisted that ACE be run as a collective, with everyone having the same status and sharing all the jobs.

Out went publications and information officers, in came weekly rotas for making the lunch and cleaning the office. Out went the nice middle-class image and private education, in came more focused campaigning work on specific issues. Everyone wrapped up parcels and worked on accounts. No one had specialist status in any particular field. The advice work continued, but now the team of six based in Michael Young's Bethnal Green basement widened their remit.

Regular conferences were held, campaigns were run, publications came out thick and fast. Children's rights, inclusive education, race, gender and school councils became the focus, but always with the bottom line being parental involvement.

Mark Vaughan, another former TES journalist and now director and founder of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, a research group dedicated to the rights of handicapped pupils in mainstream schools, was at ACE between 1978 and 1982.

He remembers those years as a time of "radical shake-up" for the organisation. "We tried to change the elitist image during that period, working to demolish the concept that you had to be middle class to get service from ACE. While a lot of our work was very tame and purely informative, we also pushed lots of boundaries."

One of those pushes went too far in the eyes of the Charity Commission, who insisted that if a pack campaigning against school cuts was not withdrawn, ACE's charitable status would be taken away.

Since those heady days, ACE's focus has been, in the words of Joan Sallis, "concerned much less with choice and more with influence. Its objective has shifted from helping individuals to buck the system to publicising the causes of problem, with a greater focus on disadvantaged people for whom the education system is unfriendly." The advice line is tremendously popular, but enquiries on prep schools no longer tie up the phone wires. Now, exclusions and school admissions are big issues.

Radicalism has given way to respectability. Lord Young finally got his basement back and ACE moved to more airy, spacious premises in Highbury, north London. Conferences are run occasionally but the major focus is its highly-valued publications, which generate enough income to subsidise the wildly popular but expensive phone helpline for parents and governors.

Liz Allen, who was editor of the ACE Bulletin (successor of Where?) before her appointment a year ago as Labour's education policy adviser, speaks for many when she appraises the unique position of the organisation and its transformation over the years. "When ACE first started up, there was no sense that parents had any role in education. What ACE has done over the years is to focus on the principle of making maintained schools as effective as possible by empowering parents and using their support to raise expectations all around. "

ACE is at 1B Aberdeen Studios, 22-24 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ. Write for publications list and subscription forms. Free telephone advice is available on 0171-354 8321 from 2 to 5pm

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