“As you leave school I have one piece of advice to give you. Develop at least two hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with your career. Work hard at your career, but stick even more closely to your hobbies — foster them, love them, and allow yourself to be intrigued by them. Your greatest strength in life will lie in what you love to do, when you’re not having to earn your living1.”
The past, it’s often said, is like another country; they do things differently there. But the past may not be that distant. In April 1971 the Times reported “A lack of enthusiasm for wealth as such in Britain”, and expressed the hope, “that there are probably still more people… who will give total effort for reasons of idealism, rather than for reasons of gain”2. Many readers of this Thesis will remember such attitudes, while others would have been taught by people who epitomised such thinking; people of broad, general interests who saw paid work as a means to an end, not an end in it self. It was a slower moving time; people were more tolerant of each other; society was more stable, and only one child in ten was born outside marriage.
Almost all children below the age of eleven enjoyed school in the early ‘70s, but by the age of sixteen a third actively disliked it, while a third simply tolerated it3. The question that had been unanswered since 1944 — namely what is the purpose of secondary education for everyone — was still clamouring for an answer. Simply to have removed the stigma of failing the 11+ Exam was no solution if that condemned roughly half the country’s children to a watered-down academic curriculum that would simply bore them silly for their five adolescent years.
Worried even in the late 1960s at falling levels of literacy, government commissioned a major report, “A Language for Life”4, into the teaching of English. It is almost six hundred pages could be summarised in a single sentence; if children are to master the English language then every teacher, regardless of their specialisms, had also to be a teacher of language skills. To primary teachers, that was self-evident, but secondary teachers were infuriated. “Does that mean that in addition to teaching chemistry, which is difficult enough, I’ll also have to make up for what the English teachers can’t do for themselves?” asked an irate but far from untypical, science teacher5. That secondary education had to be about equipping every child with a range of skills for life, not simply a preparation of the few for higher education, did not rest comfortably in secondary school thinking.
The adolescent of the late 1970s was far less amenable to accepting someone else’s explanation of the inexplicable that had been their parent’s a generation earlier. “The school is not like it was”, recalled an experienced teacher in Salford approaching retirement, “School and community used to understand each other. Teachers didn’t have to do anything special. We just drew on what was there in the home background. It’s not like that any more. How can you make school feel like a community when there is no community out there?”6
It ought to be evident. Schools can’t exist oblivious of where their pupils spend the majority of their waking hours, namely beyond the school gates. “The challenge for the Comprehensive School”7, published in 1983 was one of the most perceptive commentaries of the time. The school has to work out how the culture that the child brings into the school, and the values of the community fostered by their parents, can inform the curriculum in ways which will equip youngsters not simply to fit into the adult world, but to change it where necessary to create a better place. Education has to have a moral purpose that is more than simply upholding the status quo. To traditionalists and conservatives alike this was a dangerous and revolutionary idea, and cast the comprehensive school as an assault on the establishment8.
Hard as it is now to fully appreciate, there was no National Curriculum twenty-five years ago, no league tables, no SATs, and no regular school inspections. Ofsted was then just a meaningless muddle of letters. To a headteacher their chief education officer (CEO) was far more significant than the Minister of Education, and a local councillor more to be courted than their MP. Ministers were, in effect, kept at arm’s length by the collective of CEOs known rather grandly, but appropriately, as the Society of Education Officers9. These officers tended to regard the Minister as being answerable to them for negotiating in Cabinet for an ever larger share of the Rate Support Grant (RSG); money from central government that subsidised the local rates and part of which was allocated to education. No minister would ever think of visiting a school without first asking the permission of the local CEO, and none would ever attempt to tell teachers what to teach. The curriculum remained a local responsibility.
It was the miner’s strike, the three-day week, and the government’s need to seek financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund that provided the economic jolt that brought a decade of complacency to its knees10. In August 1979 the Conservatives won the general election under their new, untried leader, Margaret Thatcher11. Commentators have subsequently seen this Election as an historic turning point, and Thatcherism as a whole new defining creed. It didn’t immediately seem like that at the time, especially in the schools. To the perceptive, however, the Conservatives by rushing through the Assisted Places Scheme12 that offered thirty thousand state-funded scholarships to individual private schools, effectively ‘bailed out’ those former direct grant grammar schools which had been forced to go independent three years earlier. This signified, more than anything, that the Conservatives simply didn’t trust state education to look after itself.
Thesis 70: 27th August 2006