In the summer of 1976, as James Callaghan prepared for his Ruskin speech, the press was full of stories about William Tyndale junior school in Islington. Newspaper headlines included: "Save our children" (Sunday Telegraph); "The classroom despots" (Evening Standard); "The tragedy of William Tyndale" (Observer); "How to control the teachers" (The Sunday Times).
There was almost daily national coverage between October 1975 and February 1976, the period of the public inquiry on the school. Throughout this period, Callaghan was busy being Foreign Secretary, but Tyndale became the centre of national media attention again in July 1976, with the publication of the inquiry report which castigated most of those involved, particularly the teachers.
William Tyndale has been variously described as the pioneering school where dedicated left-wing teachers offered working-class children real choices and a broad educational experience; or the failing school in which left-wing ideology took over from good teaching and blighted the educational opportunities for working-class children.
The two-year power struggle at William Tyndale brought into sharp relief the question of who controls schools. It created demands for a clearer settlement between local authorities, schools and school governors. It raised issues about teacher professionalism, the autonomy of headteachers, the authority of governors, the rights of parents. It demonstrated conflicting definitions of progressive education and differing interpretations of the needs and aspirations of working-class children.
According to Bernard Donoughue, one-time head of the Number l0 Policy Unit, Callaghan had made education a priority after becoming Prime Minister in March 1976. He had already held the posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and was able to indulge an old inclination to be Education Minister at a time when the central concern of his Government was surviving the International Monetary Fund economic crisis.
"In the old days . . . education was a pearl beyond price to the labour movement," he told me, but by the mid-1970s a degree of unease had sprung up. Alongside the William Tyndale controversy, "Some parents were expressing their concerns about whether children were being taught or not because of the child-centred approach . . . I was also talking to the Confederation of British Industry . . . they were complaining about the quality of schools."
According to Anne Page, a former ILEA member for Islington who campaigned for early action to be taken about Tyndale, Callaghan wanted to differentiate himself and the Labour party from Tyndale and what it represented. According to many of those closest to him at the time, he was an astute politician with a passion for education who sensed that the public mood had shifted in a way which supported his own instincts. Also, he had a chip on his shoulder about his own lack of formal education. He was a deeply conservative man who as Home Secretary had been shocked at the behaviour of students involved in the 1968 revolts.
His views were amply reinforced by Bernard Donoughue, who believed that the education system was in part reinforcing underprivilege rather than creating opportunities for working-class children. He was disturbed about the experience of his own children in state schools in north London. "Ruskin was based on my instinctive and basic belief that education was one of the most important issues in society. In any case, the Government had to get the economy right, but education was what really mattered.
"All this was being ruined by a bunch of middle-class ideologues who did not themselves have a proper experience of state education. Their prejudices were at the expense of working-class children. There was clear evidence that working-class parents and children wanted education and what they wanted was not the same as the middle-class Labour people from Islington, the trendy lecturers from higher education who wanted education at the expense of working-class kids. Jim and I talked about this. Whenever I heard those people talk I got very angry . . . Their thinking was based on Guardian-style ideologies and prejudices."
Twenty years on, the Ruskin issues do not appear startling because they have reverberated through the education reform debate for the past two decades. At the time, however, Callaghan caused a sensation by questioning many Labour assumptions. Tony Benn regarded the speech as "most damaging to the cause of comprehensive education".
In a recent interview, Rhodes Boyson described it to me as, "politically, a very good speech. I could have gone along with that". Some saw the speech as an attack on teacher supremacy and Callaghan admitted privately at the time that he was challenging the received wisdom of education professionals.
Ruskin undoubtedly represented a shift in thinking about education. It raised questions about curriculum control and accountability and suggested that teachers were not the only legitimate group to have an interest in education. As an editorial in The Times suggested, it heralded a "reverse swing of the education pendulum" which suited the "leanness and meanness' of the times". It also signalled the beginning of the end of the Labour article of faith that education was an unquestioned "good thing" which simply required more investment.
The question which remains unanswered is whether the speech represented a swing towards the right-wing views of Rhodes Boyson and the Black Papers, or whether it was, as James Callaghan himself maintains, the breaking of new ground which brought parents into the debate and created a distinctive Labour reform agenda.
Professor Kathryn Riley is director of the centre for educational management at Roehampton Institute, London. This article is based on her book, Defining Moments in Education, to be published by Falmer Press next year.