In 1945, Leeds elected its first female MP: the joint first in Yorkshire. Alice Bacon, daughter of a coal miner and herself a school teacher at an interwar secondary modern in Normanton, West Yorkshire, was about to start on a journey that would see her fulfil her ambition to introduce comprehensive education in Britain.
Bacon was passionate about the ability of education to transform people’s lives. She was one of the lucky few who got a scholarship to go to the grammar school in 1920, which opened up opportunities denied to the vast majority of children. But from an early age, Bacon knew that the system was unfair. At age 11, children were branded as successes or failures and just one test decided their fate. At that time, in Normanton, it ultimately determined for boys whether or not they were destined for a life down the pits.
It became Bacon’s political, social and personal mission to open up the chance of an excellent education for all, not just a privileged few, with all the opportunities that meant for a better future. As a Labour MP in the 1940s and 1950s, Bacon gave speech after speech in the House of Commons on the value of education and the importance of “comprehensive” schools – she spoke on the subject more than any of her Parliamentary colleagues. And she made sure it was at the top of Labour’s agenda at elections, too. In doing so, she changed an at-best ambiguous Labour position towards comprehensives in the 1940s and early 1950s to one, by the 1960s, of outright support.
It was during that decade that Bacon had the chance to put her politics into practice. With a Labour government, led by another grammar school alumnus, Harold Wilson, and with the Grimsby MP Anthony Crosland as education secretary, comprehensive education was implemented in previously selective areas of the country. The “white heat of technology”, the rise of the meritocracy, the growing aspirations of working-class parents and their children, and a Labour government determined to break down vested interests and offer opportunity combined to see the advance of the comprehensive school and the demise of the grammar and secondary modern.
Bacon was at the forefront of this movement. In 1967, she was moved from the Home Office to the Department for Education where she was responsible for schools policy. By the time Bacon left the department in 1970, 32 per cent of all children were educated in comprehensives, up from just 10 per cent six years earlier. It was a tide that even Margaret Thatcher (education secretary from 1970-74) could not reverse, with 62 per cent of children taught in comprehensives by 1974.
Bacon said that her commitment to comprehensive education “did not come from political dogma but from the reality of teaching in a secondary-modern school”. But, ultimately, establishing a system of comprehensive education was, for her, based on a belief in equality and improving the lot of working-class families – the sort she was born into and represented.
It is now 51 years since Crosland issued Circular 10/65 to local authorities nationwide – a document that transformed education in this country. Circular 10/65 did not compel local authorities to set up comprehensive schools but it did withhold money for school-building projects from those unwilling to reform their secondary education along comprehensive lines. Local education authorities were in charge of local education policy, but if they wanted money for new schools or school repairs, they were expected to follow the government’s agenda. Crosland set in train a revolution in education that has lasted, pretty much, until today. It was a revolution that Bacon helped ferment and then oversee, always keeping close to the grass roots of the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Labour Teachers, both of which she had been active in while a teacher in the 1930s and 1940s.
More than 40 years after her retirement from the Commons (having served as an MP from 1945-70), Bacon would no doubt be dismayed to see that the government is thinking of allowing more schools to select based on a crude exam.
Bacon, comparing Conservative Rab Butler’s Education Act to Thatcher’s direction of travel, once said that “Butler in 1944 was more progressive than Thatcher in 1970. She is yesterday’s woman with yesterday’s ideas”.
Today, Theresa May’s plan for grammar school expansion risks undoing social progress, which will be bad for young people’s life chances and for our economy: it risks too many young people being written off before they have the chance to fly.
From an early age, Bacon knew that the system was unfair
Selection at age 11 for two different schools is divisive, unfair and entrenches inequality. Just 2.6 per cent of children at grammar schools are on free school meals compared with more than 15 per cent for all secondary schools. Poorer kids don’t get the private tutors that are often needed to get into selective schools.
Instead of entrenching privilege and focusing on good schools for a few, the government should look at Bacon’s record and priorities: ensuring all children get a good education, reducing class sizes, especially for younger children, replacing dilapidated school buildings and improving teacher training.
Bacon was a practical politician whose concerns reflected those of the people she represented. But as a former teacher, and from her own school experience, her political passion was comprehensive education.
Crosland and Bacon left a proud legacy and have helped to open up the chance of a good education, and the opportunity to go to university, to more children. A divisive school system was wrong in the 1960s, and 50 years on it is wrong today – perhaps even more so. We can’t afford to write any child off at age 11 by closing doors in their faces, and yet to reintroduce grammar and secondary moderns will do just that.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West. Her book, Alice in Westminster: the political life of Alice Bacon, will be published this month by IB Tauris