The NeverEnding Story of Educational Reform: UK PM Callaghan’s Ruskin College Speech, Oct 1976

For those who think Gove or any other politician is the answer to our educational problems (whatever they may be), perhaps excerpts from the text of the speech by Prime Minister James Callaghan, at a foundation stone-laying ceremony at Ruskin College, Oxford, on October. 18 1976 will make you think again.

The speech proved to be a bit of a landmark in Anlgo-American education policy as it paved the way for the 1988 Education Reform Act in the UK and the 2001 NCLB Act in the US.

The speech also shows that the ideology that presents education as a problem caused by an increasingly more sophisticated and demanding world to be solved only by standards, examinations, inspections, closer links to industry, an onus on teaching methods and a fixed curriculum has not changed in over 35 years.

Indeed, despite its apparent failure and increasing lack of support, this is an ideology that still continues to blight education policy in the UK and US.

Of particular note in Callaghan’s 1976 speech are the following:

Standards aren’t high enough, life is getting more complex, expectations need to change, thereby justifying reform (“Higher standards than ever before are required in the trade union field and, as I shall indicate a little later, higher standards in the past are also required in the general educational field. It is not enough to say that standards in this field have or have not declined. With the increasing complexity of modern life we cannot be satisfied with maintaining existing standards, let alone observe any decline. We must aim for something better.”)

Politicians have the democratic right to meddle in education (“There have been one or two ripples of interest in the educational world in anticipation of this visit. I hope the publicity will do Ruskin some good and I don’t think it will do the world of education any harm. I must thank all those who have inundated me with advice: some helpful and others telling me less politely to keep off the grass, to watch my language and that they will be examining my speech with the care usually given by Hong Kong watchers to the China scene. It is almost as though some people would wish that the subject matter and purpose of education should not have public attention focused on it: nor that profane hands should be allowed to touch it…There is nothing wrong with non-educationalists, even a prime minister, talking about it again.”)

They can meddle because massive amounts of public money is spent on education, and as democratically elected to represent the people, politicians have a right to know what’s going on and so too other interested stakeholders (“I take it that no one claims exclusive rights in this field. Public interest is strong and legitimate and will be satisfied. We spend £6bn a year on education, so there will be discussion. But let it be rational. If everything is reduced to such phrases as ‘educational freedom’ versus state control, we shall get nowhere. I repeat that parents, teachers, learned and professional bodies, representatives of higher education and both sides of industry, together with the government, all have an important part to play in formulating and expressing the purpose of education and the standards that we need.”)

There is the hollow acknowledgement of some excellence in education (“First let me say, so that there should be no misunderstanding, that I have been very impressed in the schools I have visited by the enthusiasm and dedication of the teaching profession, by the variety of courses that are offered in our comprehensive schools, especially in arts and crafts as well as other subjects and by the alertness and keenness of many of its pupils. Clearly, life at school is far more full and creative than it was many years ago. I would also like to thank the children who have been kind enough to write to me after I visited their schools: and well written letters they were. I recognise that teachers occupy a special place in these discussions because of their real sense of professionalism and vocation about their work.”)

Schools are about producing a workforce for industry and business but they’re failing to do that (“But I am concerned on my journeys to find complaints from industry that new recruits from the schools sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job that is required.”)

There is a lack of interest in science and technology, especially among women (“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. Their preferences are to stay in academic life or to find their way into the civil service. There seems to be a need for more technological bias in science teaching that will lead towards practical applications in industry rather than towards academic studies. Or, to take other examples, why is it that such a high proportion of girls abandon science before leaving school?”)

Then there is the concern about the standards of numeracy of school-leavers (“Is there not a case for a professional review of the mathematics needed by industry at different levels? To what extent are these deficiencies the result of insufficient co-operation between schools and industry? Indeed, how much of the criticism about basic skills and attitudes is due to industry’s own shortcomings rather than to the educational system?”)

And there is the assumption that humanities is of less worth than science and technology (“Why is it that 30,000 vacancies for students in science and engineering in our universities and polytechnics were not taken up last year while the humanities courses were full?…There is little wrong with the range and diversity of our courses. But is there sufficient thoroughness and depth in those required in after life to make a living?)

Parents are said to demand more formalised teaching methods
(“On another aspect, there is the unease felt by parent 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. They seem to be best accepted where strong parent-teacher links exist.”).

There is the idea that some who speak of educational reform have ulterior motives (“We all know those who claim to defend standards but who in reality are simply seeking to defend old privileges and inequalities.”), a rhetorical tactic we see today employed to silence critics of UK free schools and other unnecessary reforms.

There is Callaghan’s support for standards and a curriculum, as well as an inspection body (“It is not my intention to become enmeshed in such problems as whether there should be a basic curriculum with universal standards – although I am inclined to think there should be – nor about any other issues on which there is a divided professional opinion such as the position and role of the inspectorate.”)

To the PM, education is not just about work, however (“The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both. For many years the accent was simply on fitting a so-called inferior group of children with just enough learning to earn their living in the factory. Labour has attacked that attitude consistently, during 60 or 70 years and throughout my childhood. There is now widespread recognition of the need to cater for a child’s personality to let it flower in its fullest possible way.”)

Yet this addressing of the balance between the economic and social imperative of education was said to have gone too far (“We have a responsibility now to see that we do not get it wrong again in the other direction. There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills. Nor at the other extreme must they be technically efficient robots. Both of the basic purposes of education require the same essential tools. These are basic literacy, basic numaracy, the understanding of how to live and work together, respect for others, respect for the individual. This means requiring certain basic knowledge, and skills and reasoning ability. It means developing lively inquiring minds and an appetite for further knowledge that will last a lifetime. It means mitigating as far as possible the disadvantages that may be suffered through poor home conditions or physical or mental handicap.”)

Callaghan explains that he did not want to “paint a lurid picture of educational decline” but wanted an education system ready to produce a better skilled workforce that the New World Order demanded (“In today’s world, higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill.”) – now where have we heard that before!?

There is also the unfounded belief that teachers lack broad public support (“It will be an advantage to the teaching profession to have a wide public understanding and support for what they are doing.”) that further legitimises education reform.

In words that sound all too familiar Callaghan summarises his concerns (“Let me repeat some of the fields that need study because they cause concern. There are the methods and aims of informal instruction, the strong case for the so-called ‘core curriculum’ of basic knowledge; next, what is the proper way of monitoring the use of resources in order to maintain a proper national standard of performance; then there is the role of the inspectorate in relation to national standards; and there is the need to improve relations between industry and education…Another problem is the examination system”)

In short, the rhetoric of change made famous by Callaghan and perfected by successive Ed Secs has not changed, only the parties and the people have. We too wish for a change, but only a change in rhetoric. We and many others are tired of the current one.

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