Ruskin's legacy

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Clyde Chitty on Jim Callaghan's role in creating today's high profile of curriculum control and teacher accountability.

The 1945 post-war settlement which governed political life in this country for at least 30 years was based on a commitment to three principles: that the state should accept overall responsibility for the welfare of its citizens; that it was desirable and indeed perfectly possible to maintain full adult employment; and that large public and private sectors could co-exist in the economy in a state of relative harmony.

The main political parties accepted that education should be a "national system, locally administered". While there might be conflict over specific aspects of policy, a degree of stability and continuity would be guaranteed by this genuine, if ill-defined, partnership between central government, local government and individual schools. Local authorities could enjoy considerable autonomy in arranging pupils' schooling; central government would feel able to intervene in the curriculum.

It was the economic recession of the mid-1970s, its onset marked by the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, that served to destroy, or at least seriously undermine, this "welfare capitalist consensus". By 1976, both economic failure and political exhaustion were casting doubt upon the optimistic and expansionist beliefs of the post-war years, and particularly of the 1960s.

The policy-makers of the 1960s believed educational advance and economic prosperity were linked: a skilled and educated workforce would facilitate economic growth which would, in turn, constitute a firm and enduring basis for broad educational expansion. This superficially attractive theory secured keen converts across the whole political spectrum both in Britain and America, but the precise nature of the correlation was never worked out in any detail, ensuring that "manpower" needs were never actually translated into educational objectives. Indeed, for many on the Left, it was sufficient that human capital theory appeared to reinforce the objectives of enhancing "social justice" and creating "a more equal society".

The new comprehensives were expected to help create economic prosperity and to remove all the tensions inherent in a modern capitalist society. There was little talk of new possibilities for intellectual development for hitherto deprived working-class pupils; and there were attempts to challenge post-war myths and assumptions surrounding intelligence and learning.

When the post-war consensus failed to cope with the economic shocks and adjustment problems of the 1970s, it was perhaps inevitable that state education in general, and comprehensive education in particular, should become scapegoats. It was now possible to argue that secondary schools had failed to fulfil the 1960s promise that investment in education would produce clear economic benefits and that, henceforth, schooling and its social purposes would have to be more clearly subordinated to the needs of an economy in crisis.

When Prime Minister Jim Callaghan delivered his Ruskin Speech in October 1976, it was against the background of widespread criticism of the Labour's education policies. Conservative critics argued that comprehensive reorganisation had been a disaster, resulting in lower standards and an increase in pupil indiscipline. Employers and industrialists painted a picture of unaccountable teachers, delivering an irrelevant curriculum to bored teenagers who were illiterate and innumerate. Large sections of the media added to the general climate of disillusionment by publishing lurid accounts of what they saw as the worst excesses of progressive practice in both primary and secondary schools. And on the Left, and among the teachers' unions, it was argued that state education was generally under-resourced, with classroom teachers under-valued and overworked.

The speech itself stressed the need to make more effective use of the Pounds 6 billion a year that the Government was spending on education. At the same time, schools had to be more accountable to the public and had to convince parents and industry that the education they were providing was in the pupils' - and the country's - long-term interest. The speech echoed the view put forward in the Department of Education's confidential Yellow Book, presented to the Prime Minister earlier in the year, that there was a need to examine the case for a so-called "core curriculum".

As far as the secondary curriculum was concerned, one of its chief objectives should be to fit pupils "to do a job of work". As Callaghan said: "There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills."

The Ruskin Speech and the subsequent Great Debate was an attempt to create a new educational consensus built around more central control of the curriculum, greater teacher accountability and the more direct subordination of secondary education to the perceived needs of the economy. The events of 197677 marked the official end of that short-lived phase of educational expansion and innovation for which Labour itself had been largely responsible - while signalling a clear public re-definition of educational objectives. By linking education to industrial regeneration, Labour was giving legitimacy to a largely utilitarian view of the purpose of schooling.

Somewhat surprisingly, the new consensus established in the mid-1970s survived the election of the first Thatcher government of 1979. Indeed, the educational programme of the first two Thatcher administrations was remarkably limited in scope; and even Sir Keith Joseph proved unable or unwilling to introduce such radical right-wing panaceas as the education voucher. A TES editorial in May 1987 saw a clear link between the main ideas in the Ruskin Speech, the proposals outlined in Sir Keith's 1985 White Paper Better Schools and the broad philosophy of the education manifestos of the main opposition parties produced for the 1987 general election.

It was, of course, in 198788 that a determined effort was made, by the third Thatcher administration, to restructure the education system. And this appeared to mark the effective end of Jim Callaghan's consensus. The Government now possessed the confidence and determination to adopt radical strategies for dismantling both the comprehensive system and the 1944 constitutional settlement.

All of which would appear to suggest that the Ruskin Speech has little or no relevance for today's policy-makers. And yet the preoccupations of the 1970s cannot be dismissed so lightly. The Conservatives have dealt a mortal blow to the concept of a "national system, locally administered" and market forces now exert a profound influence on our hierarchical system of schooling; but some issues survive. Teacher accountability and curriculum control are still with us as topics of controversy and debate. Above all, the campaign to vocationalise the secondary curriculum which was given a marked boost by Callaghan has recently acquired a new momentum with the emphasis on the 14 to 19 years as a continuum and Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for dismantling key stage 4 in favour of more flexible arrangements facilitating both academic and vocational choices.

Clyde Chitty is senior lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham. His most recent work, a major study of the British comprehensive school, Thirty Years On (co-authored with Caroline Benn), was published by David Fulton Publishers in April this year.

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