Sunny Jim's legacy hasn't lost its shine

15th April 2005 at 01:00
esterday I passed a large Conservative Party poster with the message: "Kids should be expelled for attacking teachers, it's as simple as that." In the evening, television news showed Jamie Oliver discussing his campaign to wean children off junk food with the Prime Minister, and some of the day's papers covered the Aberdeen parents who believe that the behaviour policy operating at their children's school condones poor behaviour while ignoring the efforts of the well-behaved majority.

Education, in its many forms, is front-page news. Serious issues such as pass rates, teaching styles, bullying and catchment areas are well covered.

But it wasn't always like that. Not long ago, education belonged to teachers and schools and was no one else's business. The change in climate was due, in large part, to former Prime Minister James Callaghan.

When Lord Callaghan died recently, the obituaries repeated the familiar themes of the "Winter of Discontent" of 1978-79 and his misjudged decision of the election date, which handed the advantage to Margaret Thatcher. Yet the obituaries missed the one event of the Callaghan premiership which, it can be argued, has had lasting influence: the Great Debate on education.

The year of Callaghan's entry to 10 Downing Street, 1976, was one of the hottest summers ever. Reservoirs dried up, inflation touched 25 per cent and Denis Howell achieved fame as Minister for Drought. (At other times he was Minister for Snow and the only Minister for Sport that anyone remembers.) As summer became autumn and the weather took a less exhausting turn, inflation dipped and Callaghan made a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, in which he called for a "Great Debate" on education. It was the first time that a Prime Minister had taken such a direct interest in education, and it was a reflection of a growing public concern.

Schools operated at the whim of headteachers, some of whom were especially powerful. Much depended on a head's ability to be fair and consistent, but finding one in this mould was akin to a lottery. Individual teachers had power, too. Some ran their classrooms as personal fiefdoms, banning all other opinions whether from heads and advisers or from lower forms of school life. Parents were ignored, although some schools had begun to experiment with occasional evenings to explain children's progress.

Above all, this was the era of vacuous curriculum advice combined with too many gullible teachers. All learning should be integrated, the child's interests are paramount, spelling doesn't matter, knowledge is not important, don't test, don't use blackboards, don't sit in rows.

There was "new maths", which appeared to exclude multiplication tables and hard sums. Add in the idea that children could learn to read by being "immersed" in books and it's no wonder confidence in schools was slipping.

The system was muddling along, self-satisfied and insulated from the rest of the world.

James Callaghan's Oxford speech took place at a time of economic crisis and questioned whether the British economy was fully benefiting from the millions of pounds invested in education. The programme of debates which followed considered curriculum and teaching in primary and secondary education but, for various reasons, the debates themselves were nothing special. But it didn't matter. The genie was out of the bottle. From then on, government and public expected to participate in the development of education and to be listened to.

Current notions of accountability, leadership, evaluation, stakeholders, enterprise, inclusion and sustainability, as well as many other features of education in modern Britain, are direct descendants of the Great Debate.

Lord Callaghan's short premiership had a greater influence than many people realise.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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