Old Labour's crisis over meals

7th January 2000 at 00:00
NEW Labour may pride itself on facing up to tough choices, but even it would have had trouble with the one that faced Education Secretary Edward Short 30 years ago: raise the price of school meals, or cut teachers' jobs.

Cabinet papers, released under the 30-year rule on Government documents, find Mr Short, then Labour's Secretary of State for Education and Science, reluctantly recommending a price-hike in school meals, despite ministers protests that this would hit poorer students hardest.

The Wilson government at the time was plagued with budgetary problems, and Short had been told to save pound;10 million from his 1970-1 spending. He had initially thought the answer was to raise further education fees.

The problem with this, he explained in a memo to the Prime Minister on June 12, 1969, was that he had no power to compel local authorities to do so. Most authorities would reject his advice because, he said, of the "effect that this would have on further education and because of the political consequences locally".

Thus, the Cabinet found itself having to agree to an increase in the price of school meals from 1s. 6d. to 1s. 9d. (16.7 per cent).

Those Cabinet members who protested that meal prices were "a highly regressive tax" were persuaded when it wa pointed out that the alternative was cuts in expenditure, leading to job losses among teachers. Chancellor Roy Jenkins agreed to drop alternative plans to charge for school transport.

The papers also reveal Mr Short's struggle to introduce a comprehensive schools system. In October he told the Cabinet that the drive to end the selective system, was "losing momentum" with resistance from Tory authorities and individual schools, particularly grammar schools.

He pointed out that existing law gave him no power to compel authorities to submit plans for a comprehensive system. Sixteen had not done so.

The Cabinet agreed to table a Bill requiring local authorities to prepare plans for reorganising secondaries on comprehensive lines. But the Bill, failed to reach the statute book before the 1970 general election, which Labour lost.

Teachers' pay was also a preoccupation that year. The government had a 6.5 per cent pay ceiling to protect. The teachers had demanded 21 per cent: but by January had dropped the claim to 8 per cent.

This was welcomed by the Burnham teachers' pay body as "realism and flexibility" but was denounced as "abject surrender" by the National Association of Schoolmasters. A 7.1 per cent pay increase was agreed shortly after.

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