Education and the General Election of 1979

Updated Thursday, 9th April 2015
Dr Frank Monaghan looks back at the immediate run-up to the 1979 general election which led to a massive shake-up in education, the consequences of which are still with us today. 

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Image from newspaper, headline reads 'Society asking more and more of teachers' During any election campaign there will be lies, damned lies, and opinion polls. The YouGov survey of teacher voting intentions, January 2014, represents the nadir of Conservative popularity amongst teachers, gaining only 16% of the vote (down from 33% in 2010) with Labour on 57% (up from 32%), and the Lib Dems a disastrous 8% (down from 27%). Former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s unpopularity probably accounts for most of the decline and only a week or so after that poll was published, he left his office in the Department for Education to spend more time with his Whips.

If a week is a long time in politics how much longer is 36 years? In this article, I look back to the immediate run-up to the 1979 general election, which gave Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party a victory over Jim Callaghan’s Labour Party and led to a massive shake-up in education, the consequences of which are still with us today.

But what were things like for teachers back then? What were their concerns? What were politicians saying about education in their manifestos and what might that tell us about where we are today as we face another election that seems likely to end not in a landslide but stalemate.

How education became a hot election issue in 1979

In the run-up to the 1979 election teachers were taking industrial action in pursuit of a 30% pay claim. In the end, they settled for 8%. On March 12 this year, the Education Secretary awarded teachers a 1% pay rise, which the Guardian felt able to describe as a ‘pay boost for teachers’. How times and expectations change.

Image of a newspaper headline reading 'offer of 8 per cent totally inadequate'

But back then things were not looking too rosy in, what Jim Callaghan’s policy adviser Bernard Donoughue, had termed ‘the secret garden’ of education in response to criticism of the Prime Minister’s 'Great Debate' speech at Ruskin College, in 1976. This speech marked the first great meddling in education by central government with what and how children should be taught and assessed and how teachers should be held accountable for it.

Motions and manifestos

Then, as now, the teacher unions typically gathered for their annual conferences during the Easter holidays. We can gain some insight into the mood of teachers by looking back at the motions they were discussing, some of which are strikingly familiar.

The NUT, for example, was considering motions on the control of the curriculum: ‘Conference notes with concern the growing trend toward central control of the school curriculum, in particular the arbitrary comparison between Secondary Schools by examination results…’, calling for an end to corporal punishment in schools, and demanding educational maintenance allowances for 16-19 year olds. There were also motions expressing concerns about the consequences of raising the school leaving age to 16 in 1972, arguing that ‘a small minority of children are totally unsuited to full-time school education after attaining fifteen years of age. (The Teacher, Vol 34, No 2, Jan 12, 1979).  The school leaving age rises to 18 this year.

The more conservative NAS/UWT agreed with its NUT colleagues on the issue of who should control the curriculum, affirming in its conference report ‘the long-established right of the teaching profession to determine matters of curriculum within schools’. However, it parted company over the issue of corporal punishment, reaffirming ‘its passionate view that members of the teaching profession… should continue to use all reasonable forms of discipline, including corporal punishment’. (Schoolmaster and Career Teacher, May/June, 1979, p. 10.)

At the same time, politicians were setting out their plans for education in their manifestos. The Conservative Party manifesto, 1979, for example, focussed on ‘higher standards of achievement in basic skills’, promising an end to Labour’s 1976 Education Act, which had compelled local authorities to reorganise along comprehensive lines and to introduce the ‘assisted places’ scheme whereby ‘bright children from modest backgrounds’ would be enabled to go to public schools’. Teacher training would place ‘more emphasis on practical skills and on maintaining discipline’. These remain familiar tropes of Conservative educational thinking.

The Labour Party manifesto was an altogether more radical document aiming to make all local authority schools comprehensives over the following decade and promising, ‘to end, as soon as possible the remaining public subsidies and public support to independent schools.’ They also promised mandatory awards to all 16-18 year olds on full-time courses and to roll out nursery provision to 90% of four year olds and half of three year olds.

But it wasn’t all politics…

Cartoon drawing of two people talking with the text 'one day I would like to be a head of department or headmaster - perhaps even a dustman'. One of the biggest changes to have affected education over the last 35 years is the rapid rise of ICT. It’s hard to imagine now that computers were still new to schools in 1979. Fred Smithies, the Assistant General Secretary of the NAS/UWT, commented that ‘last year has seen a realisation on the part of many people that micro-electronics (the silicon chip) are about to change significantly most aspects of our lives… it would be a disaster … if schools and teachers were to try to resist the tide of events.’ And as a reminder of how relatively cheap computers have become, J. Pearce, in a letter to the NUT’s The Teacher on March 16, 1979, commented, ‘with the present price for a suitable minicomputer running at between £1,000 and £2,000 … there is no scope for the average primary school to get one.’

1979 also saw the appointment of Charles Mungo as the first black comprehensive school head in London. Current figures are hard to come by, but in 2011, according to a Guardian analysis of DfE figures, there were still just 160 black head teachers in the country’s 21 600 schools, and only 30 of those were male and only 10 of those were in charge of secondary schools.

Teachers were also involved in campaigns to stop councils disrupting children’s education by forcing them to move out of one area into another. Then this was about Gypsy children being moved around boroughs due to the lack of permanent caravan sites, today the same thing is happening due to the bedroom tax.

So, what might we conclude from all this? Whether it’s new wine in old bottles or vice versa we can expect politicians to continue ploughing up the not-so-secret garden of education for many elections to come. Whether any of them will see their flowers bloom remains to be seen.

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