It was almost 23 years ago and the coaches drawing up outside St Paul’s Cathedral were disgorging streams of Londoners, some very young, but older children and students as well as adults, into the massing crowds arriving from all directions for a final statement of loyal opposition to the government.
The 24th of March 1990 was exactly a week before the largest and best education service in Europe was abolished by unpopular statute. I may be prejudiced after all I was its elected Leader, but I knew I had almost all London parents, pupils, teachers, heads and students backing me and the (by that point unsuccessful) Save ILEA campaign. Anger was in the air. Why should Mrs Thatcher, without any 1987 manifesto commitment, decide she knew best what was good for inner London?
The purpose of the service in the cathedral on that occasion was to celebrate the educational provision from which the capital’s inner boroughs had benefited and which had evolved out of the London School Board. The Board was set up in November 1870, following the passage of the Elementary Education Act earlier that year, driven through by W E Forster and Gladstone himself. Ironically, for the previous 40 years crucial opposition to putting elementary education on the statute book had come from the Church of England. It’s vigorous opposition to state intervention in elementary education had been countered by radical and non-conformist opinion that was itself opposed to a clerical monopoly of education. The losers had been the children of the poor.
The London School Board’s successor body, following the London Education Act in 1902, was the London County Council. What Mrs Thatcher, wrong-footed by Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit after the 1987 elections, was persuaded to deliver, was the destruction of a powerful Victorian mechanism to deliver a basic education to London. Tory manifesto in 1987 promised to allow individual boroughs to ‘opt out’ of ILEA but the Heseltine-Tebbit early day motion set down after the election had been won and urging outright abolition was intended to damage the prospects of Education Secretary Kenneth Baker who was at that time being seen as a potential Prime Minister. It tapped a popular mood among Tory backwoodsmen from the leafy suburbs and counties most of whom had themselves been educated privately, and provided another opportunity for the Tory party to bash ‘high-spending’ Labour councils.
But in going for the kill the Tories were out to destroy a popular elected service that since 1870 had been elected by Londoners living in the 12 inner London boroughs as well as the small but significant City of London. Education spending accounts for about 40% of the total local government activity. No wonder Boris Johnson wants to get his hands on a greater London education body. What a prospect that would be!
However, the ceremony in St Paul’s in March 1990, following passage of the 1988 Education Reform Act, was meant to send a familiar message to a conservative government led by a strident suburban populist whose death we remembered in April 2013. ILEA spent per pupil about 50% more than the outer London boroughs and even more than the average spend of the rest of the country. It had policies for supporting a community where more than 200 different languages were spoken in the homes of its pupils, offered an unparalleled then or since adult education service and more Teachers Centres than you could wave a stick at. In addition there were 35 colleges of further education and 5 polytechnics as well as two teacher-training colleges. They were ‘ours’ and Londoners were losing them, not for any plausible policy based on evidence but because of a backroom Thatcherite ‘cabal’ led by Messrs Heseltine and Tebbit motivated by a single political motive, unconnected with London or education – merely to scotch the ambitions of Kenneth Baker then riding high in the Tory popularity stakes. No one at St Paul’s that morning could possibly foresee this, but in seven months time Thatcher would in fact be forced out following a challenge to her leadership from Michael Heseltine.
I arrived at St Paul’s that March morning in 1990 in good time. My nerves were on edge. Not just because it was an emotional occasion and almost the end of my 12 years service as an elected councilor. I had, folded in my pocket, a document whose very existence was known only to a few close colleagues. It was an alternative second lesson to the one chosen by the cathedral authorities for me to read. They had (helpfully I am sure) found a passage from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus told his disciples ‘to suffer little children to come unto me.’ The reading was printed in the Order of Service alongside my name.
My nervousness arose from the thoughts of what consequences might flow from my alternative reading.
At the point in the service when I climbed the winding stairs to the pulpit my nervousness had disappeared. I felt confident that my alternative reading would better fit the feelings of the thousands sitting in the body of the church. The spectacle was impressive. As well as the Lord Lieutenant of London, Lord Bramall, the Mayors of most of the London boroughs were sitting along the front row of the stalls. Further back groups of children, some accompanied by nuns and priests, older pupils brought there to represent some of the best and most prestigious schools across the capital at an occasion of historic importance, plus teachers, administrators, union representatives filled every available seat.
I began. Reading from my own typed sheet I looked out across the immense packed cathedral and said ‘Rather than the reading that has been chosen for me I have selected as being more appropriate a reading from the Old Testament.’ Amusingly (to me at least) the Bishop of London afterwards denounced me more angrily for reading a second extract from the Old Testament than for insulting the Prime Minister. Or rather that’s what he seemed to be saying. After all conforming to the ritualised traditions of the Established Church are obviously values that a Prime Minister like Margaret Thatcher would stand up for, rather than the traditional rights of London parents to a quality state-provided London-wide education service – well-resourced and one that they were not unhappy to pay for.
The parents had been furious at the very idea of abolition. An massive independent poll of all parents (not a mere opinion poll) organized by parents themselves, and not we politicians, found 94% of parents supported retention of ILEA and called for the government to drop the proposal. Fat lot of difference that made to a Prime Minister driven by instinct rather than reason. Incidentally, lots of fatuous things have been said about London schools then and now, but at that time we calculated that in 1990 the number of undergraduates at UK universities who had come from inner London schools or colleges would fill one of London’s football stadiums. Think about it.
Reading a second text from the Old Testament in St Paul’s was deeply offensive to Graham Leonard, Bishop of London, or so he said afterwards. I believe that my real offence was using the pulpit at St Paul’s to make clear that inner Londoners were angry with a Prime Minister who had terminated an outstanding service that had served 95% of the capital’s school children for over a hundred years. St Paul, himself, might have approved.
My text was taken from Isaiah. ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws…..’(Chapter 10 verses 1 - 4) Then ‘Woe to you O Destroyer….when you stop destroying you will be destroyed….’ (Chapter 33 verse 1). I finished off with a threat. ‘The righteous perish and no-one ponders in their hearts….Come here you sons of a sorceress, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes…..’ (Chapter 57 verses 1 – 5)
Hardly surprisingly, the departure from the safe planned programme, caused a stir. The front page of the next day’s ‘Times
’ gave it a satisfying prominence: ‘ILEA Chief gives an unofficial lesson at St Paul’s’. The other papers followed suit. The Express
said ‘Anger as ILEA is shut down’. The Mail
called it ‘The pulpit hijack’ The Mirror
headlined ‘A pulpit blast at Thatcher’. The Bishop was far from pleased and said during 28 years of association with St Paul’s he could remember nothing like it.
When it was over I got a warm handshake from every single Mayor sitting in their full mayoral gear as we processed outside. As I joined the procession I went over to Graham Leonard to try and explain why I had used the opportunity provided by St Paul’s to express the anger felt by the parents of 300,000 school pupils affected, not to mention students and staff in our colleges, adult education centres and polytechnics. An immediate and massive clutch of supporters formed around me outside the cathedral, mostly people not known to me, all eager to tell me how much they approved of my breach of protocol. Their words of approval made the whole thing worthwhile. I spoke to a senior cathedral cleric at the small gathering laid on for us after the service. I explained to him that judging by his reaction after the service I thought I had upset the Bishop. He smiled and raised his eyebrows – “Well just fuck him” was his memorable reply. It seems that politics is alive and well even within the established church.
An afterthought. The day before St Paul’s I had attended as Leader a dinner given by Baron Bramall as he now is, the Lord Lieutenant of London. Privately during that meal he had whispered to me that he would like me to become one of his official Deputies after abolition. I had much on my plate and promised him I would give the kind invitation thought and let him know within a week. I was hardly surprised, but not even remotely distressed, when a discreet flunkey called me at home that night. Lord Bramall, said the flunkey, sent his apologies. Mistaken identity. Sorry for the confusion.
My actual St Paul’s reading from Isaiah Chapters 10, 33 and 57
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.
Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
his hand is still upraised.
Woe to you, destroyer,
you who have not been destroyed!
Woe to you, betrayer,
you who have not been betrayed!
When you stop destroying,
you will be destroyed;
when you stop betraying,
you will be betrayed.
The righteous perish,
and no one takes it to heart;
the devout are taken away,
and no one understands
that the righteous are taken away
to be spared from evil.
Those who walk uprightly
enter into peace;
they find rest as they lie in death.
“But you—come here, you children of a sorceress, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes!
Who are you mocking? At whom do you sneer
and stick out your tongue?
Are you not a brood of rebels,
the offspring of liars?
You burn with lust among the oaks
and under every spreading tree;
you sacrifice your children in the ravines
and under the overhanging crags.”
Did you work for ILEA, or in an ILEA school? I would like to hear from you. You can contact me here