Education's Tipping Point?

Janet Downs's picture

(Posted on behalf of Trevor Fisher

Forty years ago this autumn the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, gave a speech at Ruskin College in Oxford which still defines education politics today. Before Callaghan, no Prime Minister had ever given a speech about Education. Since he spoke, politicians have not stopped talking about schools.

In the Westminster bubble the speech has never been forgotten. Schools minister Nick Gibb made this explicit in a speech to an ASCL curriculum conference on April 27th. Gibb argued that “this year marks the 40th anniversary of Jim Callaghan's Ruskin Speech, a landmark speech in which Callaghan in many ways set the direction of reform for the next 4 decades”. For Gibb, the most important part of the speech was his curriculum comments notably Callaghan's criticism of the view that children should have “just enough learning to earn their living in the factory”. Callaghan had argued, as Gibb said, that schools should “equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society”. Callaghan argued for a more balanced and rounded curriculum, though with a utilitarian and scientific bent, highlighting concerns which Margaret Thatcher would address a decade later through the short lived Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI).

Controversially, Gibb argued “Many during Callaghan's time referred to the curriculum as the 'secret garden' for policy makers, but I think that the curriculum has also in recent history been... seen as slightly peripheral when it comes to driving improvement”. Callaghan certainly can be seen as proposing the National |Curriculum introduced in the 1988 Conservative Education Reform Act and it is very odd that Gibb thinks the curriculum has been neglected. He witnessed the disputes over Michael Gove's revised National Curriculum from 2010-2013 and must be aware David Cameron described the Gove reforms as vital to national economic prosperity in words which echo Callaghan's speech. Cameron said “This curriculum marks a new chapter in British education... As Prime Minister I know this revolution in education is critical for Britain's prosperity in the decades to come”. How can Nick Gibb argue that with the new plans in place curriculum has become peripheral? However he is quite right to argue the Callaghan speech represented a fundamental shift of opinion.

Callaghan himself said before his death in 2005 that “of all the speeches I have delivered in a long political life, the Ruskin Speech is the one that is best remembered”. Two decades after the event, Tony Blair went to Ruskin to claim Education for Labour in the run up to the 1997 victory. Three decades later, his Schools Minister Andrew Adonis wrote an approving article in which he said Callaghan's speech “lit a flare that has illuminated education reform ever since”. The Conservative Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, in recalling the speech claimed it for the politics of the present government. But what was the speech and why has it become legendary?

Primarily the speech was an assertion that politicians had the right to comment on education. Previously, the government role was limited to providing schools and teachers: while councils and teachers decided school policy. In 1960 Conservative Education Minister David Eccles had defined schools as “The Secret Garden” and the lack of information on what was happening in classrooms led Callaghan to call for what he called “the Great Debate”. Callaghan did not use the phrase “the Great Debate” at Ruskin, but he had used this in the Commons four days earlier. The phrase 'Secret Garden' did not appear in the speech either, but hung in the air.

Callaghan was not prescriptive about how more openness in school politics could be achieved.  He focussed on standards, teaching methods, and the curriculum, showing a somewhat utilitarian concern for the needs of industry. The long running standards debate was seen in an economic context – Callaghan spoke of 'complaints from industry that new recruits do not have the basic tools to do the job' – with mathematics highlighted. He was concerned about the lack of interest in joining industry and the gender gap in science, querying “why is it that such a high proportion of girls abandon science before leaving school?” The Prime Minister did not commit to specifics on curriculum or the inspectorate, refusing to pronounce on “whether there should be be a basic curriculum with universal standards.. nor.. the role of the inspectorate”.

It would be Conservative governments which brought in the National Curriculum and the Ofsted inspectorate. Callaghan's most contentious contribution was on teaching methods and without laying down guidelines he discussed “the unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching ...excellent... when in well qualified hands but … more dubious when they are not”. It was not hard to see in this a reference to the recent scandal at William Tyndale primary school in London.

The main legacy of the speech, however, may be less a concern for falling standards than the need for rising standards in a modern economy. Labour's Nick Thomas-Symonds, who has written about Labour's 'Ruskin Tradition' was on stronger ground in arguing “the aim of a relentless focus on educational improvement is one we now almost take for granted”. True, and it is clear the Conservatives match Labour stride for stride. There is no doubt that the Callaghan speech initiated a new era in English education and the ferment of government activity it initiated is continuing. The Secret Garden is long gone, with hyperaccountability dominating every state school in England.  When politicians state that this was a landmark speech, it is unquestionable that they are right - and with what effects?  Forty years on, it is time to scrutinise the Callaghan speech as the turning point it undoubtedly proved to be.

On 17th November a seminar in the House of Lords will debate the impact of the speech with Lords Blunkett – ex Labour Secretary of State for Education – Lord Donoghue, head of the Number 10 Policy Unit in 1976, Fiona Millar journalist and writer, Chair Professor Richard Pring. Details on  A briefing paper giving the speech in full is also available from SOSS.

Trevor Fisher

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Michael Pyke's picture
Fri, 04/11/2016 - 17:07

However you rationalise it, there's no getting away from the fact that, until comprehensive schooling began to replace the selective system to a significant extent, there was no serious scrutiny of public education.  Grammar schools were unquestioningly assumed to be successful institutions (mine certainly wasn't!) and no-one was interested in secondary moderns.   Consciously or not, Callaghan's speech reflects characteristic British anxiety at the perceived threat to social hierarchy that comprehensive schooling represents. 

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sun, 06/11/2016 - 17:22

Great overview and thanks so much again Trevor for being my guest on Wednesday evening's event for my Politics in Education eCourse (alumni) community. I'll pass on to you some of the excited tweet messages and emails that have come in since then; several of the attendees have already looked up the original speech inspired by your input on it's significance :) 

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