The ‘Education battlefield’

It wasn’t always Tory v Labour, and it doesn’t have to be again!

State education, particularly at secondary level, is like the proverbial curate’s egg, thanks largely to mistakes made by politicians of all parties over the past sixty years – and I include the 2010-2015 coalition as well. However, much of the mess was already in place by the beginning of this decade so I suppose that we could call it a joint affair between Tories and Labour. However, much of the success of state education is down to Liberals, as were the ideas behind the Welfare State, which emerged from the 1942 Beveridge Report.

State education, that is to say, the education of the many not the few, really began with the 1870 Elementary Education Act, and drafted by Liberal MP William Forester, which established through democratically elected School Boards, voluntary elementary education for children from 5 to 13 (raised to 14 in the 1918 Fisher Act). What Forster wanted to achieve was to retain Britain’s competitive edge in world trade. To do that, he needed an educated workforce (where have we heard that before?). This was achieved in spite of massive opposition from certain quarters, who saw no reason to educate the working classes above a certain rudimentary level. The 1901 Balfour Act, opposed largely by the Liberal Party and non conformists, replaced local School Boards with Local Education Authorities and succeeded in allowing the C of E and Catholic Churches to get on board and possibly was the main reason why the Tories were virtually annihilated at the 1906 General Election.

From then on the fate of state education has been largely in Tory and Labour hands. The 1944 Butler Act saw the establishment of the Tri partite system and the raising of the school leaving age to 15. It would be fair to say that all of us under the age of 80 are products of this legislation. It is just possible that all would have been fine if the three strands of the system had been given equal parity. Unfortunately, the Attlee government, which had been tasked with implementing the proposals, had a lot on its mind after the war and severely neglected the more expensive Technical Grammar Schools, very few of which were established. As a result, what emerged was a choice between a Grammar School and a Secondary Modern, determined by the 11 plus exam – in other words, pass or fail.

Although experiments with comprehensive, all ability schools had begun in the 1950s, it was the first Wilson Government, and its charismatic Education Secretary, Tony Crosland, that really spearheaded the move away from selection at eleven, which most people at the time appeared to support and which was carried on by the Heath administration of the early 1970s. By the 1980s, pockets of selection survived mainly in Tory controlled counties, with many former direct grant grammar schools going independent. Most state schools were all ability comprehensives, some 11 to 16, with Sixth Form Colleges, others 11 to 18 and some, as in Leicestershire, for example, 11 to 14 and 14 to 18, with other variations as well.

My own teaching career just about coincided with these changes. I started teaching in 1966 in a boys’ grammar school in Nottinghamshire and, after spells teaching in a 16 to 19 High School in Canada, a mixed Gymnasium in West Germany, an II to 18 comprehensive in West Yorkshire, ended my days as Head of Languages in another 11 to 18 comprehensive near Lincoln. Space does not permit me to give you a blow by blow account of where, in my opinion, things went wrong; but you have to say the present sorry state of affairs is mainly down to the two parties, that have largely shared power since the Butler Act came into force.

The big mistake that both made back in the 1960s and 1970s was to trust the education establishment to deliver the goods. Don’t get me wrong, things certainly wanted shaking up, as I could see from the four years I spent teaching in my first school. But why did the ‘experts’ throw the baby out with the bathwater? By the time I returned to the UK in 1974 things had just about gone full circle. There was a frenzied atmosphere in many secondary schools, which Elizabeth Richardson described vividly in her 1973 book, ‘The teacher, the school and the task of management’. In it she highlighted what she saw as the battle between the advocates of the pastoral and academic approaches in Nailsea Comprehensive near Bristol. The former encompassed a kind of social engineering where the emotional needs of students seemed to take precedence. More academically minded students were left more to their own devices. The fact that they succeeded owed as much to parental support as the teaching they received. From my experience talking to colleagues on courses at the time, this type of child centred learning, for which vocational education was largely viewed as unnecessary by many teachers, whose agenda, often socialist, secretly viewed work as a kind of exploitation, was mirrored up and down the country. To get ahead teachers were obliged to sing from a certain hymn sheet. Mixed ability teaching ruled in many areas. The result was that, instead of a ‘levelling up’ we got largely a ‘levelling down’. ‘Teacher knows best’ meant that politicians, both local and national, and initially many parents, for that matter, never really challenged what was going on until the cracks began to show. Even primary schools were not exempt. Some older colleagues may remember what happened at the William Tyndale School, Islington, in 1974-75 when so called progressive methods employed produced protests from parents and helped to reduce the autonomy of LEAs.

By the mid 1970s politicians started to realise that something was wrong. On 18 October 1976, Labour PM Jim Callaghan delivered his famous speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, which signalled the start of ‘The Great Debate’. Let me just quote just two sentences from his speech: “I have been concerned to find out that many of our best trained students who have completed the higher levels of education at university or polytechnic have no desire to join industry.” And “There is unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not.”

So, from this ‘debate’ emerged firstly the Tory 1988 Education Act which saw the establishment of what started out as a less rigid National Curriculum, buttressed by a new exam at 16 plus, Grant Maintained Schools, and lead eventually to Foundation Schools under Blair, academies, originally a status reserved for schools in challenging areas, which eventually morphed into privately run chains of academies in most areas, outside LEA control and with apparently no control over how they spend their money together with the general competitive atmosphere within rigidly and centrally enforced guidelines, that exists in many schools today, where the consumer is king and where teachers are used as a kind of box ticking human shield by school administrations and, to a certain extent, central government. With creativity often stifled, it’s no wonder so many are leaving the profession or feeling demoralised.

It really doesn’t have to be like this. What Forster was trying to do in 1870 is as true today. In a possible post Brexit world, we could be facing similar challenges to the ones we faced back then.  Surely, if his Liberal Democrat descendents want to pay a role, they should be supporting a return to democratically accountable Local Education Authorities responsible for all state schools, where, particularly at secondary level, vocational skills should have parity with academic skills. There is already a blueprint for this on the shelves, namely the 2004 Tomlinson Report, which advocated this and which was largely ignored by the Blair government. Perhaps it’s time for someone to bring a fresh approach to a situation which, thanks largely to the negligence and then overreaction of politicians, is serving neither our young people nor our nation as a whole that well. Could the Lib Dems have a role to play here? After all, their ancestors largely started it all off in the first place.

It’s not about turning back the clock. It’s rather about learning from your mistakes!


* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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  • Excellent advocacy John. Callaghan’s comment was prescient “new informal methods of teaching which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not.”
    Student Centred learning requires a significant investment in training and time by both the institution and individual teacher. Time that is not made available to teachers to plan and prepare courses and individual lesson plans. Hence, the need to rely on faster more standardised didactic methods of delivery – particularly with respect to vocationally orientated courses.

  • Peter Martin 10th Apr '18 - 11:59am

    Before Lib Dems take all the credit on State education I should point out that a certain Mr Marx and Mr Engels made the following call in their manifesto of 1872.

    “10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s
    factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production”

    True, they probably did have a few other ideas which wouldn’t have been to Lib Dem tastes such as
    “1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public
    purposes. “

    Although JoeB with his advocacy LVT isn’t too far away from M &E.

    Then we have:
    “2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”
    We know all about that!

    I quite like
    “8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for

    Even Marx didn’t favour handing out money for nothing in the form of a UBI!

  • Tony Greaves 10th Apr '18 - 3:14pm

    1 and 2 duly adapted to modern times seem quite Liberal to me and LVT always has been. The problem with land is not the ownership per se, it’s the specific rights of ownership and in particular the extraction of unearned profit (rent). 8 on the other hand is distinctly top-down socialism!

    On the main posting it does seem to me that the distinction between academic and vocational education (or rather “educate the clever, train the rest) is getting more and more irrelevant in every way with the development of modern technology. It has always been rather illiberal. Everyone needs educating and everyone needs training.

  • John Marriott 10th Apr '18 - 4:16pm

    @Tony Greaves
    You are making the same mistake regarding vocational v academic that got us where we are today. Why should you assume that ‘the clever’ should always be steered towards certain ‘academic’ courses?

    The ‘modern technology’ argument has been used before. I vividly remember a teacher colleague around twenty years ago, who was in charge of computing (they hadn’t yet started to call it IT) saying that, within ten years, students would “get their floppy discs each week from school and work from home”, thus making regulat school attendance redundant. Has it happened yet?

    Some so called education experts used to think that German system of vocational education based on links with local businesses as practised in Realschulen and Hauptschulen rather old fashioned. I bet they’re not laughing now. I have no problem with your last sentence, especially as we have just belatedly decided (possibly with Brexit in mind) that it’s time we started making more things here using our own workforce rather than relying on importing the skills required from abroad.

  • “supporting a return to democratically accountable Local Education Authorities responsible for all state schools”. Three cheers for Marriott J. , School. Hip, Hip, Hip…..

    Well said, John… Incidentally poor old W.E. Forster M.P. has had his statue in Forster Square mucked about with by Bradford City Council. No surprise there … it started off originally with John Poulson a mate of Reggie Maudling.

    I used to get the 24 trolley bus to school from Forster Square where the statue stood. The Square later became the famous hole’int ground for about ten years…… until the statue was eventually brought back….. but erected back to front.

    Not sure whether Greaves A.R. used to get the same trolley bus before he pushed off to QUEGS but no doubt he’ll tell you..

  • “Some older colleagues may remember what happened at the William Tyndale School, Islington, in 1974-75 when so called progressive methods employed produced protests from parents and helped to reduce the autonomy of LEAs.”

    This rather reminds me of Robert Peals slightly depressing book, Progressively Worse:

    One thing I could not help but notice was the way that LEAs, being in effect Local Education Monopolies, were used to impose “so-called progressive education”. So giving LEAs power seems like exactly what not to do. This was why Peal seems to be quite enthusiastic about free schools/ academies – they allow schools to escape from not-necessarily-wise overlords. A MAT which is not up to the job can be dismembered – that did not happen to LEAs.

  • John Marriott 10th Apr '18 - 10:14pm

    LEAs need a light touch approach to allow individual schools a certain amount of freedom. Whilst apparently frowned upon by government today they are still designated the last resort if an academy fails and it is their task to put things right.

    The example of William Tyndale is an extreme one. Most LEAs have performed and still do perform their duties, albeit now severely restricted, with professionalism and are, of course, accountable to the local community. Surely this is a far more acceptable state of affairs than the present set up where the checks and balances on academies are extremely limited. I could cite several examples of the abuse of power on the part of certain individuals in charge of academy chains. Some have even ended up in court.

    As I said in my article, I do not envisage turning back the clock to some golden age; but I am advocating that we need to learn from our mistakes. Teaching according to diktat from central government, testing students almost to destruction, a restrictive curriculum, neglect of vocational education, league tables, and teacher and student work overload are just some of the factors that are threatening state education in what looks increasingly like a battlefield.

  • There is a basic problem. Thanks to the continuing unhelpful intereference by the government in the content and structure of education the concept of evidence based decision making has disappeared. This is exemplified by the many failures of Ofsted who follow the data, and are often overly influenced by the PR skills of senior management.
    The work being done on blended learning, that is the use of computers with other learning methods, is a good example. There is an urgent need to bring together the research on this and many other areas. The world changes, we need to use the research being done. We might use money from a substantially slimmed down Ofsted to found a new body. Perhaps we could call it the Schools Council.

  • William Fowler 11th Apr '18 - 8:31am

    I think input from actual teachers is needed, as increased class sizes and no means of discipline add up to a perfect storm of dysfunction in many of the poorer areas.

  • Nigel Quinton 11th Apr '18 - 10:26am

    Thanks John for an excellent article. A couple of points I’d like to make to the discussion:
    1. LEAs work best when not in the hands of one ideologically driven party – whether socialist or Tory. PR for local government should increase plurality and improve critical thinking.
    2. We need to increase the competitiveness of our workforce whether in or out of the EU!

  • There is a problem with the inappropriate use of data, especially in schools in deprived areas. There is no recognition that the home is the most important factor in determining the future of a child. There are areas where a high percentage of children have personal tutors throughout their school lives. There are other areas where the percentage is zero. Concepts such as the distinction between statistical and real world significance. Does the present system have any real purpose? A lot of research is being done, but if it doesn’t inform policy making what is the use of this?

  • Neil Sandison 11th Apr '18 - 11:16am

    Good article John .Agree LEAs need some democratic accountability but my experience in dealing with my County has led me to believe they are poor planners for future educational need many decisions taken on the basis of short term objectives and too willing to support poorly located free schools just to gain a new building rather than meet the demographics of population growth identified within local plans. no consideration of the infrastructure or impact of a new school on the existing residential area. What would you suggest would help to refresh and strenghten the performance of LEAs ?

  • John Marriott 11th Apr '18 - 2:32pm

    @Neil Sandison
    You ask me how I would refresh and strengthen the performance of LEAs. First of all I would give them real powers, the kind they used to have. With these powers would be a responsibility to consult with stakeholders (horrible word; but I can’t think of a better word). That’s where they went wrong before. In addition, we should make sure that the composition of education committees reflects the demographics of the communities they serve and includes education professions as well as politicians. However, nothing positive can be achieved until all academies, free schools etc. become part of the local government family.

  • Shouldn’t an article about education mention Kirsty Williams? It’s amazing how little attention the only Lib Dem in office gets #isitbecauseit’swales?

  • Katerina Porter 11th Apr '18 - 8:51pm

    According to OECD tables one of the most successful education systems is in Finland. A primary school headmistress once told me that children are not ready till seven to do school work. In Finland school starts at seven. Before that they have preschool on Froebel /Montessori lines learning through play and learning to play together. Schools are comprehensive, with no league tables and no outside testing till public exams at eighteen which are either academic or vocational. In France Polytechnics have higher status than Universities. It is not like that with us.

  • Graham Evans 11th Apr '18 - 10:00pm

    @ Katerina Porter The structure of higher education in France is very different from the UK. Just because the English and French languages have a word of the same origin – polytechnic in English, polytechnic in French – does not mean that there is any similarity between the two types of institutions. It has nothing to do with status. To draw such a comparison is akin to comparing Imperial College, London, with a local FE college. Incidentally, most international league tables still show the UK as having some of the best higher education institutions in the world. Whereas the UK is still a Premier League player, France and Germany are little better than First Division nations in respect of higher education.

  • Graham Evans 11th Apr '18 - 10:05pm

    Once again auto-correction thinks it knows better than I what I want to write! What of course I intended to write was “politechnic in English, politechnique in French”

  • John Marriott 12th Apr '18 - 11:41am

    @Katerina Porter
    I entirely agree. Our youngsters start formal education far too early.

    You mention Polytechics. It was a big mistake, in my opinion, to convert all of ours to Universities. It’s in the name, isn’t it, like all, or most, secondary schools starting to call themselves Academies?

    I’ve ordered that book you mentioned, courtesy of a certain warehouse giant that shall be nameless. There are still a few copies available and I shall be interested whether the author’s views reflect my own.

    @Graham Evans
    I’m not interested in whether “ours is better than yours” when it comes to Higher Education. It’s the kind of competence such post 18 education delivers that interests me more. ‘Sunny Jim’s” words I quoted from 1976 are what is important here. Let’s be honest, a first class degree in anything is not necessarily going to get you a job in your chosen area of expertise. How come we have some of the highest qualified baristas and waiters in the world? By the way, that doesn’t mean I in any conceivable way wish to belittle what these ‘professionals’ do. It takes a considerable amount of skill to produce a decent flat white or to deal with critical diners!

  • You mention Polytechics. It was a big mistake, in my opinion, to convert all of ours to Universities. It’s in the name, isn’t it, like all, or most, secondary schools starting to call themselves Academies?

    WRT secondary schools – perhaps we should have labelled all of them ‘grammars’ rather than allowing grammars to retain exclusive use of the label which resulted ‘comprehensives’ automatically being second to ‘grammars’ and thus given the opportunity rebranding as ‘academies’…

  • John Marriott 12th Apr '18 - 12:47pm

    I think you’ll find that, particularly in Yorkshire, one or two former Grammar Schools retained that name even when they went comprehensive.

  • Christopher Clayton 12th Apr '18 - 1:45pm

    This was a most interesting and, given the response, obviously thought-provoking article from John Marriott. He deserves thanks for his effort.
    I do not share his view that local education authority control, or even oversight, is the key to improvement, largely because of the quality of many in that area of government (as well as central government and parliament!) and their tendency to meddle in an area of which they often have little or no experience or true understanding. But even they might be preferable to the self-styled “experts”, many in positions of educational leadership or the denizens of the educational establishment – for want of a better term – although perhaps Michael Gove’s term “the blob ” was a better term.
    There are some signs that the worm is beginning to turn. The best model for state schools might be to replicate the independent schools (minus the fee-paying), removed from the interference of not always well-meaning ideologues, where the governing ethos is in the hands of those wholly committed to the individual school’s aims and intentions. The West London Free School in Hammersmith and the Michaela School in Brent might hold the key to the future for some, if not all, state schools – they certainly add variety to the “bogstandard” comprehensive, which, with its methods and aficionadi, has done so much to blight the futures of many and to blight the nature of secondary education itself, in this country, as Robert Peal, Daisy Christodoulou, Katherine Birbalsingh and even- less recently- George Walden have demonstrated.
    John Marriott has had the doubtless fascinating and enriching experience of teaching in a German gymnasium. I hope he will write another article to report on what he learnt from that about working in a tripartite system which is what the Butler Education Act of 1944 aimed to set up, but never fully did. Is it any coincidence that fee-paying independent schools for the well-off are all but an irrelevance in this country, which produces a highly skilled workforce and – in my experience – a level of general education among the population which is to be envied? Our failure to learn from that while in the EU suggests that the chances of our capacity to do so if outside the EU are remote, which is a pity.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Apr '18 - 5:17pm

    The controversy over home education is interesting from a Lib Dem perspective. Freedom to withdraw from the state education system but an obligation to achieve a broad education. It’s the outcome that matters, not so much the process. There must be a method of monitoring and intervening if children are suffering educationally.

  • John Marriott 12th Apr '18 - 6:55pm

    @Christopher Clayton
    Thanks for your comments. I feel quite humble. Yes, I feel passionately about the way that a reform that was vitally needed was firstly highjacked by what Gove in modern times christened ‘the blob’ and, when it was clear that it wasn’t delivering what the country needed, by politicians and particularly Education Secretaries, many of whose only experience of education came from public schools.

    As regards a further article, I think that LDV readers and contributors have probably had enough of my musings on education for the time being. I will say one thing about working in a German Gymnasium, albeit for only a relative brief period. It made me realise just what an easy time a civil servant, which is what those who teach in German schools are, has compared with their colleagues in British secondary schools. For one thing, unless things have changed in recent years, ‘in loco partentis’ doesn’t feature in German schools. The title of ‘Studienrat’ carries as much value and reverence in the eyes if the public as that of a doctor or lawyer and event the title of ‘Diplom Ingenieur’.’

  • John Marriott 12th Apr '18 - 7:05pm

    Sorry about the typos. I need to take my time!

  • Christopher Clayton 13th Apr '18 - 10:55am

    I would certainly encourage you to write more on this in due course, John. The civil service status of the teaching profession in Germany – with attendant quality control and respect- are significant points.

  • I see Carpet Right are closing 80 stores. Obviously that must be of great comfort to the Harris Academies, Not ?

    Bring back democratically accountable LEA’s. End of.

  • Sorry… I was too kind…. it’s 92 stores.

  • John Marriott 13th Apr '18 - 4:57pm

    That’s right, David. Time to pull the rug from under their feet!

  • Peter Watson 3rd Jul '18 - 1:52pm

    Apologies for revisiting an old thread (though it is perhaps telling that I didn’t spot a more recent thread about schools).
    Over the last few days the Guardian/Observer has run headlines like “Coalition education reforms ‘fuelled inequality in schools’” and “Government accused of misleading parents over schools’ success” (ironically, the latter being based on research from David Laws’ Education Policy Institute which undermines claims the Lib Dems made in their own 2015 manifesto).
    Yet nothing here at LDV.
    I hope that Lib Dems have not left the battlefield of this article’s title. 🙁

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