Up in the Loft


Today the idea is that we are supposed to store all our past in the ‘Cloud’, an invisible, electronic space full of ones and zeros where one day we will be able to rummage about and come across long-forgotten digital files. Apart from the fact that this process is dust-free, it isn’t really anything particularly new as Guest Post writer Alan Jones recently discovered when he bravely ventured up into his loft and found some interesting newspaper cuttings from a time long past – before schools even had computers, let alone a National Curriculum.

“Clearing out the loft is not something I would recommend as a leisure activity. It’s very dirty up there, stuff covered with the dust of human skin shed a long time ago. But it’s the rather different dust of human responses long since forgotten that I want to share with you today.

Whilst recently carrying out the activity unrecommended above, I came across the notes from my teacher training course, some thirty-six years ago. Resisting the urge to pyromania that nearly overwhelmed me, I leafed through the yellowing sheets of lined A4, with their mind-anaesthetising scribblings about the History of Education, only to find, pressed between the Victorian monitor system and the 1944 Education Act, as it were, two shockingly illuminating newspaper cuttings from the 1970s.

The cuttings were from The Guardian and dated Wednesday, October 13th, 1976. They were part of the front page and a torn-out section of the editorial. The front page leader issued the warning: State ‘Must Step Into Schools’, and David Hencke’s report went on to describe the contents of a leaked memorandum sent, apparently, from the Department of Education and Science to the then Labour Prime Minister, ‘Big Jim’ Callaghan. The two Guardian pieces sit in a fascinating period of change in the UK education system, coming as they do at the very moment decisions were being made about writing a national curriculum for England, formulating a new examination system to replace GCE and CSE and giving the inspectorate more teeth.

It’s worth summarising what the paper tells us about the contents of this memorandum. It begins with typically journalistic sensationalism. The leaked document, it suggests, signals a policy that ‘at a stroke would end 100 years of non-interference in state education’ and Hencke goes on to tell his readers that,

‘Its 63 pages constitute a severe indictment of the failure of secondary schools to produce enough scientists and engineers and the memorandum calls for drastic measures to change the attitude of children entering schools, and for much tighter control by inspectors of the education system.’

‘The time may be ripe,’ the memorandum is reported as saying, ‘in the face of hard and irreducible economic facts, for major changes in the curriculum of all secondary schools, ending the traditional rights of teachers to control the curriculum.’ Schools, it suggests, are becoming “too easy-going and demanding too little work” and quotes employers as saying that “school-leavers cannot express themselves clearly and lack the basic mathematical skills of manipulation and calculation and hence the basic knowledge to benefit from technical training.”’

Pupil options at the age of 13 and 14, the memorandum goes on, sometimes result in the choice of “unbalanced or not particularly profitable curricula” or of pupils opting in numbers “insufficient for the country’s needs for scientific and technological subjects.”

In the Primary sector, whilst the memorandum apparently found time to praise some schools and teachers, it warned that ‘less able teachers are not able to cope with modern methods and….there may be a need to correct the balance and return to more formal methods.’

Darkly, the memorandum seemingly went on to assert that ‘the Inspectorate would have a leading role to play in bringing forward ideas and is ready to fulfil that responsibility’ through what are described as ‘enhanced powers’ that would sit alongside examination reform, a ‘reconstruction’ of teacher training courses and an almost machiavellian promise to ‘fund promising developments which could be crucial to the promotion of its ideas’.

But, the article stresses, ‘the central theme….is to argue for a return to an agreed “core curriculum” in secondary schools which….should be introduced to ensure improved standards.’

Now, it scarcely needs me to draw the parallels here between the Callaghan government’s plans for targeting what it saw as weaknesses in the education system back in1976 and the current analysis of, and plans for wholesale change to, the current system:  schools are failing, students/pupils are not being challenged enough, industry is complaining about the skills of school-leavers and the kids are choosing the wrong stuff when they’re given the choice. The proposed solutions also seem alarmingly familiar: we need to get back to basics in primaries, sort out the radicals in the teacher training colleges, enforce a solid core curriculum and, whatever else we do, make sure the presentation is spot-on.

Sitting up in the loft, torch illuminating the fragile print from 1976, I was moved to ask myself two questions:

Is the similarity here proof, in fact, that education policy is formulated, actually, not by radical, barnstorming, sweep-it-all-clean politicians, but by civil servants, most of whom were/are pleased to avoid sullying themselves with the pre- and post-adolescent school learning environment but were/are prey to all the prejudices and unsubstantiated opinions of the expensively educated?

How radical is Michael Gove, really? He claims to read a lot of stuff that he only half understands and then to act on it, but has he, in fact, merely swallowed wholesale the same ideas still churning around the education department – make kids work harder, take control of the basic curriculum, reform the exam system so that it’s accountable and reliable, inspect schools until their pips squeak and deliver it all in flash, upbeat presentations.


And what of The Guardian’s view of the proposals leaked to it in 1976? This may surprise you – from the editorial of Wednesday, October 13th of that year, it would seem that its support for the proposed changes was more-or-less unquestioning. Its inside-page piece, ‘The core of our problem in schools’, begins with an ironic tone that makes little attempt to hide its contempt for teachers:

‘Shudders will be seismically recorded in many teachers’ common rooms today in response to David Hencke’s exclusive report….of a confidential Government plan to introduce a national curriculum for schools. Is nothing sacred?’

If you’re a Guardian reader and somewhat shocked by this tone, you will be even more surprised by what follows:

‘Like doctors, teachers too have become increasingly committed to professional independence. But just as the clinical independence of doctors is eventually going to have to be reduced – so too is the far more recent professional independence of teachers. Only the naïve believe teachers can be left to teach, administrators to administer, and managers to manage.’

Limit the professional independence of doctors and teachers and suggest that trained, well-qualified people cannot be trusted to carry out their role effectively? Is this really The Guardian speaking?

The editorial, far from softening its tone in the last paragraph, warms to its theme, suggesting that,

‘in a school week of 35 periods, there could be a requirement that 20 out of the 35 periods are reserved for core subjects. If, as expected, the Prime Minister reveals the plan at this speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, next week, all manner of parrot cries can be expected. Clearly the teachers will be making the loudest protests. They should be reminded that we already have “state control” over the primary school curriculum.’

This is pure Gove, isn’t it? This is E-bacc, go-to-war-with-the-teachers, get out of the profession if you don’t like it stuff.

Plus ca change. Yes – but hearing pre-echoes of Gove in a Guardian editorial is scary. Time to climb down out of the loft, methinks.”