This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1994 Education Act. Commonly known as the Butler Act, after the Education Secretary who pioneered its progress through parliament, the act introduced the 11+ exam leading to grammar, secondary modern or technical school education for children. But what is its legacy today?
In March 1943, Rab Butler, the young president of the Board of Education, went to Chequers to see Winston Churchill. After a weekend of playing bagatelle, dining and watching films of Tsarist Russia, Butler found a moment alone with him. The meeting with Churchill – leaning back on his pillows in a four-poster bed, night-cap on and with a large cat at his feet – was an unlikely beginning for the most fundamental reform of the English education system, but that night the prime minister signed off on what became the 1944 Education Act.
Conceived during the Blitz and the Normandy landings, it is remarkable to think that civil servants and ministers were focused on post-war reconstruction in order to build, as they saw it, the new Jerusalem. Churchill, in one of his inimitable radio broadcasts to the nation, described the Act as “the greatest scheme of improved education that has ever been attempted by a responsible government”.
Seventy years on, the legacy of the Education Act is still widely felt. Michael Barber, historian of the Act, who as head of Tony Blair’s delivery unit introduced strategies and targets to the nation’s classrooms, says Butler’s seminal 1944 reforms would be hard to implement now. “It’s very hard to do today what Butler did in the 1940s, to build a consensus and then make the change, simply because of the nature of the modern world,” he says. “If you try to build a consensus now, the world moves before you’ve had time to do the reform.”
Today we accept free primary and secondary education as a national birth-right. But pre-war, things were very different. Most pupils left school at 14. Butler’s Act introduced compulsory education to 15, with a clause to raise it to 16; any fee-paying at state schools was forbidden; and church schools were brought into the national system.
But passing the 11-plus didn’t necessarily guarantee working-class pupils would take up their place at grammar school. Baroness Shirley Williams, who was education secretary between 1976 and 1979, says: “I had several friends whose parents couldn’t afford the uniform,” she says. “They never went to grammar school at all. Others didn’t go because they were expected to stay until at least 15 and their parents wanted them to come out as quickly as possible to get jobs.”
A documentary broadcast on Radio 4 tonight explores the legacy of Butler’s Act, and finds an education system where all too often the government of the day was pitted against the teaching profession. Williams, in the 1970s, like subsequent education secretaries, felt the displeasure of the teaching profession at close quarters. “Going to education conferences was to be crucified,” recalls Williams. “You got spat at, you got shouted at, you got abuse hurled at you.”
The 1944 Education Act had established a national education system, but with the power to implement change delegated to local education authorities and revered chief officers, such as Alec Clegg in the West Riding of Yorkshire, who toured the county, inspiring teachers and making it clear who ran education in his area. This was an era of considerable teacher autonomy and little accountability to parents. Today, ministers argue, this autonomy has been resurrected: after the New Labour years of targets and centrally driven strategies, teachers can once again teach as they choose in return for greater accountability. And the appointment this month of a high-powered team of regional commissioners to oversee academies is reminiscent of Butler’s vision for local chief officers. But since 1944, successive governments have also shown they cannot resist pulling power to Whitehall. What Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett and Michael Gove have devolved with one hand, they have taken back to the centre with the other.
Butler’s legacy remained relatively unscathed until Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act, which dismantled much of what he had created, with directives from Whitehall about curriculum and testing, the birth of GCSEs and the advent of local management of schools, which challenged the historic role of local authorities. Now headteachers and governors had control of their budgets, and teachers naturally became nervous of pay and conditions being worked out by individual schools rather than through national agreements.
But if Baker was controlling, Blair and Blunkett were even more centrist and interventionist when they delivered the “Education, education, education” mantra in 1997. Where the Butler Act was localist, New Labour actively challenged schools’ autonomy through targets, strategies and league tables, which overwhelmed the profession. Relations with the teaching unions hit a nadir, with ballots and strikes in the late 1990s. Blunkett is unapologetic: “If you’re going to bring about change, you’re going to break eggs, and the grump in the staffroom was always going to have one foot in the grave,” he says.
Today, Michael Gove seems just as happy to incur the wrath of teachers. Sir David Bell, permanent secretary at the Department for Education under both Labour and coalition governments, tells the programme: “There was clearly a quite significant attempt by the coalition government to reset the relationship with the trade unions.”
Despite all the criticisms of academies, free schools and excessive testing of pupils, schools are unquestionably better places to be than in 1944. There is now investment in state education which Butler and Churchill could only have dreamed about. And while social-mobility challenges persist, university participation has risen in a way the reformers in 1944 could not have imagined.
What will the education system look like in 70 years’ time? Blunkett, who has been reviewing education policy for Labour, is clear about his party’s next steps. “I think the changes are irreversible,” he says, “although we’ll want to build on them and we’ll want to reintroduce the glue.” So he is rejecting the idea of thousands of schools working alone, preferring a rejuvenation in counties or regions of ambitious and inspiring political and headteacher leaders: “Academies are here to stay, but we need something like the Cleggs of West Yorkshire rather than the Cleggs of the modern era.”
National politicians since 1944 have been unable to resist tinkering with and sometimes meddling in the nation’s classrooms. Greater autonomy has often felt like it has come with conditions attached – you are free to run your own schools as long as you do it the way we want you to. At times, teachers have responded naively and crudely – Gove is certainly not the first education secretary to bring them out of the classroom on to the street in protest.
The story since 1944 has been one of conflict and consensus, with varying degrees of intensity. What is needed is mutual trust in education: between central government and teachers, and between local and national politicians. The successful future of our schools is one in which governments meddle less, and trust more. And teachers demonstrate an altogether new professionalism.
• Teachers vs Government: 70 Years of Education Policy, presented by Roy Blatchford is on Radio 4 at 8pm on 22 April
Source : The Guardian