Back to School: Labour and the Great Education Debate

The Great Debate about education is a fascinating episode, both in the context of James Callaghan’s Premiership and the ongoing argument about the purpose and practice of education.


The Great Debate can be seen as a sequence of events, running from late 1976 to 1977. The critical moment was Callaghan’s high-profile speech in October 1976 at Ruskin College in Oxford. He posed a series of wide-ranging questions about education and suggested who should be involved in developing the answers. The speech put the national spotlight on education, and it was followed by a series of formal meetings in 1977.  While the government championed it as a public consultation exercise designed to help shape education policy, critics said it was a mere publicity stunt.  

The Great Debate was a conscious effort to address new questions about teaching and learning. From the perspective of 2021, it can be seen as a pivotal moment. A discussion about the purposes, practices, and aims of education in the 70s heralded a general reframing of educational debate and pointed clearly to the themes that would dominate the 1980s.  

Setting The Scene. 

In retrospect, The Great Debate can be seen as Callaghan’s attempt, on the one hand, to shape and control the future direction of education policy, while on the other hand visibly engaging with the wider public enough to keep the voters onside. 

On becoming Prime Minister in April 1976, Callaghan felt he could steer a new course on education policy or check Labour’s bearings. Professor Jane Martin writes that the new PM (together with senior aide Bernard Donoughue) saw “the inclusion of restoring values and standards to Britain’s education system on a ‘shopping list’ of possible areas of intervention” 

What were Callaghan’s motivations? Professor Martin argues that he wanted “to indulge an old inclination to be education minister”. She also draws attention to the views expressed in his autobiography as evidence of his traditional Labour belief in education’s power to increase opportunities and transform lives, especially for working-class youngsters.  Did this belief have deep personal roots? As is well known, he never attended university (“I haven’t even got a degree”, he reportedly said upon winning the Labour leadership contest).  Roy Hattersley wrote that Callaghan “felt, and often expressed, regret that he had left school at the age of seventeen”.  

Such evidence suggests Callaghan was overwhelmingly genuine in his ambitions for education policy: Personal experience fuelled his political ambition to improve educational provision for others. 

Party politics probably also motivated the Great Debate. As Professor Martin says, at the time, “it was unusual for a Prime Minister to devote a full speech to education”.  Here was Callaghan’s chance to exert control within the Labour Party and take on political opponents. Some of these, including vocal Conservative backbenchers like Rhodes Boyson, had published the so-called ‘Black Papers’ on education since the late ’60s, singling out anything they perceived as undermining academic standards and outlining their own reform proposals. Comprehensive schools were never far from their sights.  

Yet, comprehensive schools were a flagship Labour policy, so Callaghan was not proposing to go back to outright selection via the eleven plus. However, he was interested in big, broad questions of academic standards, the purpose of education, and issues that reflected Labour’s wider economic and employment strategy, such as how a school could best prepare youngsters for the workplace. These would all feature in his speech. 

By July 1976, civil servants had prepared a briefing known as the ‘Yellow Book’, outlining areas for possible education reform. Some of its contents informed Callaghan’s speech to the Labour conference that September. However, the address planned for October would be his major statement on education. 

In the lead-up, the speech was the subject of much rumour and speculation beforehand. A week before the Oxford speech, the Times reported Callaghan in the House of Commons as saying that “thanks to advance publicity, I have got more mileage and inches out of a speech I have not yet made than I have got out of many I have made”. Coining a phrase, he added that “I think there is a case for opening a national debate” on education matters.  The Times also reported that Shadow Education Minister, Norman St John-Stevens, was “very disappointed that [I have] not been invited when what is supposed to be a major new initiative on education is being launched” 

Monday October 18th 1976: The Great Debate Speech 

Speeches by Prime Ministers usually set out to convey authority, certainty, and power. The Great Debate Speech is different, as it saw a leader asking questions and suggesting who might help find the answers. 

There were two main parts to the speech: Firstly, Callaghan suggested broader participants (‘stakeholders’ we might call them today) who should involve themselves in the education debate. Secondly, he defined the terms of the discussion. There is a directive and controlling element to all of this because he identified the lines of enquiry. However still, Callaghan did not specify precise outcomes. His expressed hope was that the details would emerge from the ensuing national debate. 

An early passage captures this blunt, determined, yet open tone: 

“Public interest [in education] is strong and legitimate […] 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.”

To justify why a debate was needed at all, Callaghan then listed some perceived areas of concern: doubts expressed by employers that over a lack of basic skills among some school leaves (especially numeracy); the role science teaching might play to improve employability; the lower number of girls opting to study science; and a relative lack of applicants for science degrees compared to other courses. This section repeated the themes of ‘education as preparation for the workplace’ that he’d broached in his September party conference speech.  

The following section goes deeper, focusing on teaching itself. Callaghan mentioned “the unease felt by parents 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.” Referring to potential opponents on the political right, he said that his “remarks are not a clarion call to Black Paper prejudices. We all know those who claim to defend standards but who in reality are simply seeking to defend old privileges and inequalities.” He also insisted teachers weren’t under attack, arguing how it was “to the advantage of all involved in the education field if these concerns are aired and shortcomings righted or fears put at rest.” 

Turning to the curriculum, he employed classic political rhetoric by describing two deliberately extreme positions: “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.” Seeking to balance the two, he sketched out his preferred “basic purposes” of education, which included “basic literacy, basic numeracy, the understanding of how to live and work together, respect for others, [and] respect for the individual”. “Are we heading in the right direction on these matters?” he asked. 

Callaghan was moving onto turf that teachers felt was theirs and risked a backlash. For example, Samuel Fisher, Chair of the National Union of Teachers education committee, was reported in The Times on January 11th, 1977, saying that the Great Debate was “a publicity stunt at best or, at worst, an attempt to control the curriculum.” Writing about the curriculum years later in her autobiography, Shirley Williams reminds us that at the time, it was defined and controlled by the teachers. So much so that it was known colloquially as “the secret garden”. Here was Callaghan not only strolling through it but walking all over the grass and thinking aloud about getting the landscapers in. 

The following passage in his speech anticipates critical themes that would dominate educational debate from this point, reaching their crescendo in the 1980s. It merits quotation in full:

“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”

These were massive questions, which would of course, find answers in the following decade under the direction of Conservative Education Secretaries like Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker. Does the passage above define Callaghan as a conservative and overly authoritarian figure, at odds with teachers and egalitarian thinkers on the left? It remains a matter of debate. What we do know is that Callaghan wasn’t the only one asking these questions. It’s just that those firmly on the right-wing of politics got to decide on the answers.  A centralised national curriculum, OFSTED, and league tables are very much the product of the Conservative mindset. Had Callaghan’s Labour provided a policy answer first, the overall results may have taken a different and less divisive form. 

As the speech neared its end, Callaghan addressed the examination system (the question of exams for 16-year-olds was already a topic of separate debate). The Schools Council had produced a set of proposals on this issue, yet he felt “it would not be right to introduce such an important change until there has been further public discussion. Maybe they haven’t got it right yet.” 

Instead, he proposed Education Secretary Shirley Williams to canvas opinions further. Another area for reform mentioned was school governance, the subject of the imminent Taylor Report. 

Winding up, Callaghan stated that “the debate that I was seeking has got off to a flying start even before I was able to say anything. Now I ask all those who are concerned to respond positively and not defensively.” 

Certainly, on the offensive were some audience members who interrupted Callaghan several times during the speech. Others carried placards bearing messages like “NUPE opposes cuts in the public sector”, and a pacifist plea to “Cut arms, not education” spending. After the speech, Callaghan laid the foundation stone of Ruskin College’s new hall of residence. After the ceremony, protestors broke into a rendition of the socialist anthem ‘The Internationale’, but this petered out after a few lines. Callaghan asked if they wanted him to sing the rest. 

Meanwhile, Norman St John-Stevens had changed his tune and branded the speech “an anti-climax”. 

Once the immediate response died down and autumn turned to winter, the political focus shifted from education to finance, given the intense debate in Cabinet and the country over Britain’s application forthat loan from the International Monetary Fund.  

The ‘Great Debate’ Tour, 1977

The Great Debate picked up again from January 1977. Those educational matters that Callaghan’s speech had left ‘in the air’ were now ‘on the air’. Starting on January 11th, BBC1 aired a series of late-night programmes until the title “The Education Debate”. Presented by various education luminaries, many of the topics reflected Callaghan’s October speech. 

In February, Education Secretary Shirley Williams took centre stage. On the 3rd she appeared on BBC2 when Robin Day chaired a two-hour TV debate on “The Question of Education”. Other participants included St John-Stevens, who was doubtless pleased that this time someone had remembered his phone number.     

On February 10th, Shirley Williams gave a press conference to launch a Government consultation document entitled “Educating Our Children”. At the same time, she announced a series of regional meetings in eight major cities. The Great Debate was going on the road.

Each conference would be attended by an education minister alongside an invited audience of teachers, academics, local politicians, parents (drawn mainly from PTA networks) and employers. Each regional debate would examine the following four questions: 

1) The School Curriculum: What should be the aims and content of a core curriculum, and how best can an agreed curriculum be put into effect? 

2) Assessment of standards: How can individual pupils’ progress and the performance of schools be assessed? 

3) Teacher Training: How can teachers get sufficient training at the start of and during their careers? What should be the entrance requirements for teacher training? 

4) School and working life: How can our children be educated to understand our technological society? How can industry make the best use of school-leavers and education? 

The tour kicked off at Newcastle Civic Centre on February 18th, with Shirley Williams herself in attendance. Then things literally kicked off a week later in Bradford on the 24th, when proceedings were interrupted by around 50 protestors outside the venue. Windows were broken, and noise regularly halted the debate. Later stops included Preston (March 2nd), Birmingham (March 18th), Cardiff (March 22nd) and London (March 25th). 

Shirley Williams has described the whole exercise as “an early example of something that became fashionable much later on- consultation with the users of public services”. Journalist Wendy Berliner recalls her experience of covering the Birmingham Town Hall event: “The meeting was attended by legions of teachers and councillors and academics and a handful of journalists. We sat in a semi-circle on wooden pew-like seats”.

Critics at the time could be harsh. In addition to ‘publicity stunt’ accusations, another criticism was made of the invited participants. During a House of Commons debate about educational standards on February 17th, 1977, Rhodes Boyson claimed that those invited to the conferences were largely the same people who had influenced run and education for the past 20 years. In his view, they were the same people responsible for what he perceived as a decline in educational standards. “If a patient is ill and he wants a new medicine,” said Boyson, “he does not ask the same doctor who gave him the original medicine during his regressive illness to prescribe another”.  

After the conference tour concluded in March, the results fed into Shirley Williams’s Green Paper passed to colleagues in July. They called “Education in Schools, A Consultative Document”.

The Cabinet Debate

It seemed to be well received in Cabinet. It proposed establishing a core curriculum that would take up around half the time children spent in school. It also recommended a “general teaching council” to be established to raise the status of the teaching profession and tighten up entry requirements for teacher training courses. Also covered were accountability measures (including reforming the composition of governing bodies in line with recommendations of the Taylor Report and a section on school inspection). 

In her autobiography, Shirley Williams argued that her proposals largely avoided the centralisation and tight control over these areas that were the hallmark of Conservative education policy in the 1980s. October 1977 would be the key month for Williams’s proposals. One year on from the Great Debate speech, the Cabinet discussed its legislative programme for the 1977-78 Parliamentary session. The Education Green Paper was among those in the running to be included. This Cabinet meeting minute from the October 7thsummarises the discussion:

Education: [A proposed Bill] to deal with the position of parents on choice of schools; to implement (subject to the outcome of consultations) some of the Taylor Committee recommendations on school governors; to make provision for industrial scholarships and grants; to provide for other grants to Local Education Authorities. Would have wide appeal. 

Cabinet was back on October 11th, mainly discussing the legislative programme. About education, the minutes note that “The Liberals [with whom the Government had entered into the ‘Lib-Lab pact’ to shore up its Parliamentary position] were keen to implement some of the proposals of the Taylor Committee’s Report on the government [sic] of schools”.  

October 20this the key date. By this advanced stage, it’s clear the Cabinet felt only a small number of key Bills could be prioritised in the 77/78 Parliamentary session. The proposed Education Bill was on a longer list of sundry legislation “to be introduced as soon as Parliamentary time can be found”. Opinion was also split about the content, as the minutes show: 

The Education Bill was supported by the Liberals, it would be popular and was high on a list of Bills that would be introduced as soon as parliamentary time could be found […] On the other hand, the sense of the Cabinet’s discussion on October 11th had been against the inclusion in the [Queen’s] speech of a shopping list of bills for which parliamentary time would clearly not be available. It was also suggested that although the policy for this Bill had been approved by the Home and Social Affairs Committee, its provisions on parental choice might be seen as undermining the comprehensive principle and ought therefore to be considered by the Cabinet before any decision was taken to introduce legislation.  

The sticking point was ‘parental choice’ and whether this would ‘undermine the comprehensive principle’. Parental choice in this context it means something like this: Shirley Williams saw that, when compared individually, schools could be very different. Some favoured more traditional teaching methods. Others were more progressive in approach. Some retained a single-sex intake, whereas others were coeducational.

In her autobiography, Williams explains how she saw such organisational differences as “in no way incompatible with the ending of selection [that is, academic selection of the 11 plus]” and appeared to welcome it. She adds that she wanted to see “diversity among schools”, arguing that this would still have seen most parents supporting truly comprehensive schools. However, many on the left disagreed with her and found their champion in Tony Benn. He  argued against the proposal in Cabinet in the broad terms outlined in the above minutes. There was, after all, an inherent tension between the comprehensive ideal, with its belief in equal opportunities and open access to schools, and Williams’s “diverse schools” model, which still admitted for variations.    

We also need to remember the wider backdrop to this Cabinet debate and the Great Debate itself. There remained stumbling blocks to fully rolling out the comprehensive school principle across the country. A small number of Local Education Authorities remained in opposition to comprehensive plans. An example was Tameside in Greater Manchester. The Council came under Labour control in 1974 and submitted plans to go comprehensive. It then came under the control of the Tories in 1976, who promptly announced plans to go back to academic selection. Court action ensued. Such struggles prompted Labour to use legislation to seek a final end to academic selection and eleven plus (the 1976 Education Act) and mixed results. 

The Shirley Williams take on ‘parental choice’ and ‘diversity among schools’ (don’t allow academic selection but allow schools to retain an individual character and degree of autonomy over internal management) could be perceived as the thin end of the wedge: To enshrine this in law was risky if there was a chance it might lead to calls to retain (or reinstate) academic selection and the eleven plus. 

Let’s not forget that this could have lost votes too. The comprehensive ideal was- and remains- very popular. Journalist Peter Wilby sums this perspective up neatly, writing that “the pressure for comprehensives came from ordinary parents who wanted opportunities for their children that were unavailable in secondary moderns, including the O levels that promised access to white collar jobs”. 

Summing up the Cabinet discussion on the 20th, Callaghan said that agreement had been reached on which Bills would make it into the Queen’s Speech. A new Education Bill was among those that would not be mentioned, for fear of avoiding the ‘shopping list’ accusation and because there probably wouldn’t be enough Parliamentary time to get it through. 

Shirley Williams’s proposed Education Bill was dropped from the legislative agenda. Future discussion of educational matters was no longer framed as being part of a more comprehensive public discussion. The Great Debate fizzled out. 

Final Marks. 

Of course, Callaghan’s questions and the themes crystallised in the Great Debate speech did not go away. They dominated educational debate and policymaking in the 1980s. 

And take another look at the six topics discussed at the regional events. These are questions that politicians and policymakers are still grappling with in 2021. 

Callaghan himself played an interesting public role in the whole episode, which mirrors what we learn of him in books like An Underrated Prime Minister?. He appears to have been a good manager of people, with an essentially collegiate view of human relationships. Journalist Steve Richards says this of him: “The management of his Cabinet was Callaghan’s greatest triumph as Prime Minister, a triumph of leadership. He had the confidence to let dissenting ministers put their case forward, before asserting his own position and nearly always prevailing” 

The irony is that while this approach worked well in keeping his Cabinet together, and in reaching agreement at tricky times (such as on the terms of a loan from the IMF) as we have seen it also killed stone dead any chance of making the ideas from the Great Debate into a new education act. 

Nonetheless, the Great Debate is an example of a PM who was open and collegiate with colleagues adopting a similar attitude with the public, giving people a say, and taking trying to carry them with him, theoretically at least.  

The Great Debate failed as a Labour exercise in generating new policies and settling big questions. It succeeded in upsetting large swathes of the education profession, didn’t resolve ideological and policy debates within the Labour party, and allowed political adversaries on the right the chance to repeat their usual criticisms. 

Yet Callaghan and colleagues still deserve a pass grade for effort. Taken purely at face value, it’s a refreshing example of a PM seeking to promote public interest and debate and engaging with others beyond the party. 

For all its flaws, that’s a more human approach to tackling significant issues affecting millions of young lives than the ‘we know best attitude of many an Education Secretary and Prime Minister since then. 

As the country adjusts to the new educational divides, an extensive national discussion on the future of education is required. Jim Callaghan and Shirley Williams’ “Great Debate” could serve both as a model of intention and a warning of the pitfalls to avoid.  

Mark Williams is secretary of the Fabian Education Policy Group, a qualified teacher and an experienced school governor. He is too young to remember the Great Debate, but old enough to remember Kenneth Baker. Shirley Williams is no relation.   

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