The future of the left since 1884

Missed opportunity

Tony Crosland set out his vision for education in The Future of Socialism. “. . . all children can, if the society so decides, at least be given an equal chance of access to the best education. This chance does not...


Tony Crosland set out his vision for education in The Future of Socialism.

“. . . all children can, if the society so decides, at least be given an equal chance of access to the best education. This chance does not exist in Britain, since the wealthier classes can purchase for their children the overwhelming social privilege denied to other children equally deserving but less fortunate than their parents, of a public school education.”

The 1964 Labour manifesto promised, in the spirit of this vision, “an educational trust to advise on the best way of integrating the public schools into the state system of education”.

Crosland followed up on this commitment by setting up a public school commission in 1965. When he made this announcement to the Commons in 1965, Crosland said: “the government are determined that the public schools should make the maximum contribution to meeting the education needs of the country, and that this should be done in such a way as to reduce the socially divisive effect which they now exert.” He wanted the commission to look at “the best way of integrating the public schools with the state system of education.” However, the report ended up as two reports published in 1968 and 1970 and their only impact was to persuade the Conservative government in 1970 to introduce an assisted place scheme.

However, it was his actions on the secondary selection system that Crosland will be remembered for. Labour’s 1964 manifesto promised to “get rid of the segregation of children into separate schools caused by 11-plus selection: secondary education will be reorganised on comprehensive lines.” The manifesto promised to “extend” the grammar school system so that “in future no child will be denied the opportunity of benefiting from it through arbitrary selection at the age of 11.” This was a recognition of the rising feeling amongst Britain’s growing professional classes that the 11-plus system was unfair and did not benefit their children. By the mid-1960s, one in four children attended grammar schools so the vast majority of children attended secondary modern schools. More and more middle-class parents wanted the opportunity that grammar schools provided. Labour’s aim was to extend this provision and comprehensives were intended for this purpose.

Crosland’s circular 10/65 asked local authorities in England and Wales “to prepare and submit to him plans for reorganising secondary education in their areas on comprehensive lines.” Crosland’s critics have argued that the circular was weak as it did not require local authorities to do this.

Some councils like Leicester were quick to take on the chance to change but some resisted. Nevertheless, in the 10 years that followed 90 per cent of schools in England and 100 per cent in Wales became comprehensive. A small but significant number of local authorities including Kent and Buckinghamshire resisted the change completely. Today, there are 164 grammar schools in England and the main political parties – with the exception of UKIP and the Welsh Conservatives – do not support the opening of any more.

Ultimately though, Crosland missed his chance. At a time when other countries such as Sweden were abandoning selection and really pushing the comprehensive system, and with the professional classes clamouring for change, there was an opportunity to make the education system in Britain much more equal.

Crosland started a process where the majority of schools became comprehensive. These comprehensives sometimes took on the culture and tone of grammar schools but often were a new name for secondary moderns. But his focus on structure within schools has left an unhelpful legacy, which has become the focus of political debate rather than what really matters: high quality teaching and school leadership.

Between 1997 and 2010 the Labour government tried once again to tackle what had been labeled the “bog standard comprehensive”, through better management and new academies. But again, a reforming Labour government focused on the structure of schools rather than on the structures of society that produced educational inequality, including house prices and private schools.

Crosland’s legacy therefore was to entrench the division between state and private schools and to keep the educational argument focused around structure rather than teaching, teachers and leaders. As the debate around enforced academisation continues, and more and more teachers leave the profession, now is the time to remember that building consensus on great schools for all is not about structures but people – great people.

On the left we need to be arguing for getting the best people to work and stay in our schools. We need ‘golden hellos’ and ‘golden oldies’ to reward teachers who stick with the profession and continue to make a difference day in, day out. We need to make sure teachers are rewarded for extras such as holiday and Saturday classes. We need to support and train the next generation of head teachers as well as ensuring all teachers are entitled to high quality training. All these measures cost money but an investment in education is better for Britain and its future economy.

Crosland’s analysis of the divisions in society in 1956 remain all too relevant in 2016. Education is what will change children’s life chances. But it is time to move on from structure. Building a consensus around the importance of the people leading and teaching in schools is key to delivering Crosland’s vision.


Mari Williams

Mari Williams is a deputy headteacher in a London secondary school and was a Labour parliamentary candidate in 2015

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