Still towering over pygmy successors

16th December 1994 at 00:00
The right-wing father of the GCSE and the left-wing father of the English Today books both had fans on the other side of the political spectrum.

The fond regard in which Lord Joseph, who died last week aged 76, was held by many in education sits oddly with his reputation as the right-wing idealogue directing the early march of Thatcherism.

The qualities that most endeared him to those who did not share his views - his basic decency and honesty - may also have been the qualities that inhibited him from imposing the radical right-wing policies he had espoused before arriving at the then Department of Education and Science.

Not long into his tenure at education, he conceded that while it was still desirable to have vouchers that parents could redeem at the school of their choice, it was impossible to implement. Plans for student loans never materialised. Lord Joseph focused on the central problem of improving what was on offer for the bottom 40 per cent of pupils - the group he felt were getting a raw deal from compulsory schooling.

It was such concerns that convinced him of the virtues of a new 16-plus exam to be sat by all pupils, removing the old divide between grammar schools that took O-level and secondary moderns sitting CSE.

According to Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, he towers above the more recent incumbents. He was not only much brighter, he was much more industrious, Professor Wragg said. To most people, he always seemed a little dotty, but that was because he could never answer a question without having given thought to all its different aspects.

The anguish involved in making any decisive statement left him at the mercy of journalists. Tapes in which Lord Joseph could be heard issuing a few strangled words followed by a long silence became a feature of teacher union cabarets. In reply to one of Professor Wragg's questions, the tape has Lord Joseph lapsing into a 30-second coma before saying: "You see . . . the Government . . . just a minute, I'm going to get my syntax wrong . . . are we still rolling?"

Lord Joseph was the longest serving Secretary of State for Education since the war. Despite his genuine attempts at reform, contemporary comment in The TES judged him to have left the service in a mess.

In his determination to ensure that the teachers did not breach the Government's pay policy, he presided over a bitter period of industrial action by teachers. His fastidiousness and honesty often came across as arrogance and a willingness to give offence to those on whose support he depended.

He failed, The TES said, in the crucial task of winning and holding the confidence of the troops. In the end, the Government had to provide substantially more money to win peace in the classroom.

With hindsight, the verdict might not have been so harsh. Lord Joseph would no doubt have accepted he had not fulfilled his radical ambitions. However, he had the courage to weigh the advice of civil servants against his own views on the wisdom of particular policies.

Part of his legacy is that his critique of the intractable problems - improving the quality of teaching and improving the lot of those at the bottom - at least concentrated minds on the search for solutions. He also won the respect and trust of his political opponents, a difficult task for the man who was also Mrs Thatcher's guru.

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