David Henderson reports on the controversies buried away in the Scottish Office records of 30 years ago
Conservative ministers were strongly advised by senior civil servants in 1970 not to reintroduce fee-paying in selective Glasgow and Edinburgh secondaries. The policy would be controversial, out of step with England and against the grain of postwar education.
Within three years, the advisers were proved right. Ministers performed a philosophical U-turn after the Tories lost control in both cities, even supporting the closure of the grant-aided High School of Glasgow, then under council control. The unexpected move pushed it towards the independent sector.
Records released on January 1 under the 30-year rule reveal that the warning signs were ignored by Gordon Campbell, the Tories' new Scottish Secretary in summer 1970. Willie Ross's Labour administration had brought in legislation to scrap fees on August 1, 1970 as part of its continuing campaign for comprehensive education.
Deflecting the warning, Mr Campbell told Norman Graham, head of the Scottish Education Department: "We are clearly on the record, however, as saying tat we will restore the powers to local authorities to charge fees, if they so wish. It would be difficult for us not to make this reversion."
Mr Graham (later Sir Norman) stated in his memo: "A system involving fee-paying is likely to be more controversial and less durable than one that involves only selection," he wrote.
The policy would also be stone dead if both cities decided not to proceed with fee-paying. Mr Graham advocated continued support for selection based on academic ability, a policy the Roman Catholic Church supported at Notre Dame High for Girls and St Mungo's Academy for Boys in Glasgow.
He recommended an early meeting with the Tory education conveners in Glasgow and Edinburgh, both of whom had indicated support for reintroducing fees in selective schools such as Allan Glen's and Hillhead in Glasgow and the Royal High and Trinity Academy in Edinburgh.
In the autumn of 1970, Mr Campbell drove through a short education Bill against a barrage of opposition, insisting that authorities should be free to organise schools in their area, code for the Tory-run cities to reintroduce fees in certain schools.