When Education Secretary Michael Gove presented the coalition’s White Paper The Importance of Teaching he declared that ‘head teachers had to be captains of their ship’. Rhetorically it was the climax of a four-decade process of change initiated by the Black Paper pamphlets that from 1969 protested against comprehensive education. They contributed to a change in national education discourse, from comprehensive education being seen as a positive to the view that it led to an ‘erosion of standards’. Furthermore, in the 1970s they inspired the Conservative Party to adopt the argument of ‘defending educational standards’ in tune with public worries about statutory comprehensive reorganisation, and New Labour to do the same.

1. Introduction:

The ‘Butler Education Act’ of 1944 named after Education Secretary ‘Rab’ Butler, established a tripartite system with secondary modern, technical and grammar schools, but very few authorities set up any technical schools. In reality the system was bipartite. After the Second World War the leadership of both the major political parties planned further reform and expansion of education. With the Labour Party’s statement issued in 1951 which endorsed comprehensive education, and the White Paper Secondary Education for All published by the Macmillan government seven years later, educational expansion was universally approved. Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in 1964, aimed to increase the number of teachers, end the Eleven Plus examination and introduce more comprehensive schools. They published Circular 10/65 in which Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were ‘requested to submit plans to the Secretary of State for the reorganisation of secondary education in their areas on comprehensive lines’. In Parliament the Conservatives did not wholeheartedly resist the introduction of comprehensive schools. After all, a Conservative Education Secretary, Sir Edward Boyle had commissioned the Plowden Report in 1967, which showed increased literacy among those who after 1948 had gone through comprehensive primary education and some LEAs such as Conservative-controlled Leicestershire introduced comprehensive schools in the 1950s. The attack on the attempt to force grammar schools into comprehensives was instead organised outside of Parliament, in a series of pamphlets called Black Papers.

2. The fight for education:

In 1968, Brian Cox, lecturer in English at the University of Manchester returned from a post at Berkeley, California. In the US he witnessed radical student protests and he was informed of similar events in Britain at for example the London School of Economics. In 1969, this, combined with his children’s experience of attending a ‘pubic’ that is a state school in the US, inspired him and his colleague Anthony Edward Dyson, with whom he had founded the literary journal Critical Quarterly in 1959, to engage in educational debate. At Dyson’s suggestion, they decided to edit a pamphlet, called ‘a black paper’ in allusion to the government’s promise to legislate. Fight for Education: A Black Paper was published in the spring of 1969 with contributions from, among others, the Conservative MP Angus Maude, the writer Kingsley Amis, and the warden of All Souls College Oxford, John Sparrow. The aim of the pamphlet was to criticise the use of equality as a rationale for educational reform, summarised in the preface by the editors as showing that ‘competition has given way to self-expression’. Amis concluded that educational expansion had sacrificed quality in education because ‘more has meant worse’. When they criticised the pamphlet, supporters of comprehensive education labelled Cox and Dyson as Conservative supporters, despite the fact they had voted Labour in 1966. In a speech to the National Union of Teachers Education Secretary Edward Short said that ‘‘the publication of the Black Paper was one of the blackest days for education this century’. Other observers saw the fact that 15,000 copies had been sold as ‘evidence of a swing to the right by academics and writers who supported Labour in the 1964 and 1966 elections’. Criticism that they had ignored facts led Cox and Dyson to publish a second pamphlet in October 1969.

3. The crisis in education:

Black Paper Two: the Crisis in Education was devoted to secondary education, with contributions from scientists such as Professor Hans Eysenck, headmasters such as Dr. Rhodes Boyson, and political dissidents from Eastern Europe such as Tibor Szamuely. The involvement of Boyson was crucial. Previously he had criticised the predominance of independent school contributors since it ‘plays into the hands of someone like the Rt. Hon. Edward Short who can condemn all the articles as reactionary’. As a headmaster of a successful comprehensive school Boyson contributed an essay on how such schools could succeed. He had also left the Labour Party over its policy to introduce a compulsory rather than voluntary policy of reorganisation to comprehensive education. Ralph Harris, director of the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs also contributed. This made the Black Papers more affiliated to right-wing political ideas instead of the bipartisanship the editors initially wished to convey. There was, however, a split in the Conservative Party between the leadership and the members, who had always defended selection in education and grammar schools. Margaret Thatcher, appointed shadow Education Spokesman in 1969, privately sympathised with the preservationist view, so Cox and Dyson viewed her favourably: ‘Mrs Thatcher has got the message’, Dyson stated in a letter to the philosopher Imre Lakatos, another contributor.. Her first major act as Education Secretary, after the Conservatives had won the 1970 general election, was the publication of Circular 10/70 that withdrew the previous government’s circulars. She did not, however, veto further suggestions from LEAs to form comprehensives if they were submitted voluntarily.

4. Goodbye Mr Short:

After the election the attacks on the Black Papers shifted from the claim that egalitarianism in education was an instrument of equality to allegations that comprehensive education would raise standards and foster civic duty. With this in mind, a third Black Paper entitled Black Paper Three: Goodbye Mr Short was published in November 1970. Its purpose was threefold: to ‘clarify the position for the future’; to ask the Conservative government for ‘a settled policy of moderate reform’, and to address specific accusations such as that contributors to the Black Papers endorsed a return to the Eleven Plus examination. In fact, as contributor Marjorie Bremner pointed out, those who had mentioned the Eleven Plus examination had been against it. Other contributors included Rhodes Boyson and this enforced the arguments of their opponents that they were closely associated with the Conservative Government. In 1970 Boyson, Cox and Dyson met Margaret Thatcher who thanked them for their support. In 1973 their connection with the Conservative Party was further strengthened when Boyson and Cox, together with the Conservative MP Leon Britton, advocated that ‘school vouchers should be seriously considered as part of Conservative policy’. Finally, with the foundation of the Conservative fringe group the National Council for Educational Standards, Cox, Boyson and Dyson had, in the words of Clyde Chitty, created a situation in education where ‘the Old Right had given way to the New’. The idea of greater parental participation in education encapsulated in the school voucher scheme was intended to be a suggestion of how the Conservative government could reform education. It became the main argument in a new Black Paper, published when the Labour Party had won the two 1974 general elections.

5. Black Paper 1975:

Cox and Boyson, who in 1974 had been elected Conservative MP for Brent North in London, edited Black Paper 1975: the Fight for Education. Their main message was that ‘the Conservative Party’s suggestion of a voucher would give parents more control and would be widely welcomed’. The political journalist Ronald Butt defended Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Education Secretary because she had been ‘non-conformist to the orthodoxy [of progressive education] … in her own department’. Reviews of Black Paper 1975 contrasted the impact the papers had made with the lack of educational initiative shown by the Labour government. The Economist, which previously had endorsed a full-scale comprehensive reorganisation, acknowledged that the Conservative Party was united and that

‘their case is persuasive’.

6. Black Paper 1977:

In 1976 when James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister he reintroduced education as an important political issue. It was decided he should give a speech on education after a foundation-stone-laying ceremony at Ruskin College in Oxford on 18 October 1976. When its content had been leaked to the press it was redrafted to include an appeal to return to the three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. Despite the fact that Callaghan declared his speech not to be ‘a clarion call to Black Paper prejudices’ it was widely interpreted as such. The Times saw it as he ‘had put his black paper cloak around him’. Whatever sense of temporary vindication Callaghan’s critique of education might have given Cox and Boyson, it was diminished by Education Secretary Shirley Williams’s consultative document which opined that ‘comprehensive reorganisation must be completed’. A fifth and final Black Paper entitled Black Paper 1977 was therefore published. As editors Cox and Boyson pointed out that Williams at least had acknowledged one of their arguments, when she admitted that ‘large comprehensives had proved unsuccessful’. They also continued their involvement with the Conservative Party. Education spokesman Norman St John Stevas had launched the ‘Standards ‘77’ Campaign in response to Williams’s 1976 Education Bill which required LEAs to move to a fully comprehensive system. But Cox, unlike Boyson who had established himself firmly on the right of the party, tried to maintain an element of political independence. After the Conservative Party had won the 1979 election Boyson was appointed Under-Secretary for Education and contributed to laying the foundation of a core curriculum and to the introduction of more vocational training in secondary education. He was labelled by the left the symbol of the ‘New Right’ in education and was accused of having introduced ‘backdoor privatisations’. Cox continued his involvement in the capacity of advisor and writer for the Conservative Political Centre while he taught at the University of Manchester.

7. Legacy:

In 1970 supporters of the comprehensive school such as Caroline Benn and Brian Simon attributed some of its apparent failure to the Wilson government’s ‘lack of full strategy’. Harold Wilson’s unwillingness to use statutory enforcements had as one outcome the fact that the Black Papers ‘monopolised the debate for years’ and paralysed the left’s educational thinking. The support that Cox and Dyson eventually gave the Conservative Party was because they saw Margaret Thatcher, first as Education Secretary, then as Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister, as having endorsed what Roger Dale has called ‘deservingness’ in education.

The Black Papers provided the Conservatives under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher with the argument that comprehensive schools led to the erosion of standards to underpin the criticisms of the ‘permissive society’. It inspired New Labour to adopt their core argument of academic independence with ‘the idea of independent non-fee-paying state schools’. They did not advocate grammar schools but ‘in every other respect we broke with the traditional comprehensive state school’ according to Tony Blair. Philip Brown defined it, to increase the extent of ‘parentocracy’ in secondary education. During the Brown administration, the policy was readopted by the Conservatives and modelled on the so-called ‘free school system’ in Sweden though when in government the Conservatives had introduced the National Curriculum, which eroded those academic freedoms they had set out to defend. So the Black Papers did not succeed in their initial aim of challenging educational expansion when it was carried out at the expense of excellence in education, as symbolised by the grammar school and academic independence. However, they did challenge educational expansion when, according to Edward Short, they provided ‘a frenzied defence of the undemocratic status quo’. In the 1970s their argument was enforced by a genuine parental concern fuelled by examples where progressive education had led to academic disintegration. Assisted by the economic crisis of the 1970s, they contributed to a realignment of ideas that was one aspect of the notion of ‘Britain in decline’.

David Linden

A review of:

Francis Beckett (ed.): The Prime Ministers Who Never Were

Biteback 2011 £14.99

Counter-factual history has been popular for some time, possibly because there is less history being taught and because we all like to fantasise. This collection of fourteen highly entertaining essays is the latest in that genre and to my certain knowledge there is at least one more in the pipeline.

Counter-factuals are useful in many ways; they are the equivalent of control experiments in science except that one cannot actually change the outcome merely understand it better. One takes an important turning point in history and changes one detail that might have developed otherwise, then studies the effect. Quite often there is no difference – the particular detail turns out not to have been of all-engrossing importance. At other times one can see that history could so easily have gone another way.

There are rules about counter-factuals, though. There is no point in writing about anything but real turning points; the counterfactual has to be credible; and the outcome has to be based on real historical knowledge and not be simply wishful thinking. Sadly, the little tome, entertaining though it is, falls down on almost all of those.

In the first place who the Prime Minister is rarely makes overwhelming difference to events. Some small difference, maybe, but overwhelming no. There are exceptions: had it been one of the Tory wets who had become party leader in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979, things would probably have gone very differently internally and externally. Similarly, had Lord Halifax accepted the Premiership in 1940, things would probably have gone differently. As it happens, I am not sure about that, though most historians, starting with John Charmley, think so. Would Halifax have managed to come to an agreement with Hitler? Did he even want to? It is not clear but they are both legitimate questions for discussion. One could even argue, as Peter Cuthbertson does, that without the destructive effect of the Brighton bomb Norman Tebbit would have become Prime Minister (very possible) and there would have been no Maastricht Treaty, no agreement with the IRA and Thatcherite reforms would have continued. I think I go along with two of those but my guess is that Prime Minister Tebbit might well have signed that pesky treaty.

As for the other Prime Minister who Never Were, the essays are pure fantasy. Ten out of fourteen are about Labour possibles (or wannabes), which, in itself indicates that this is not true counter-factual but more of the “don’t I wish” school of history. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had more Labour governments or, at least, a Democratic Centralist Party, created by Rab Butler, in power for most of the twentieth century? That is not true counter-factual history.

The Prime Ministers who never became that did not for the most part because they did not actually have what it takes. Austen Chamberlain and Rab Butler, two of the Conservatives (the other two being Halifax and Tebbit), were not near misses. They would both have had to be completely different personalities to have grabbed the historic possibilities. Interestingly, there is no essay about Curzon who was a real “contender” unlike Austen Chamberlain.

Of the ten Labour possibilities, Neil Kinnock actually lost an election and not particularly narrowly; Michael Foot could not have become Prime Minister in a million years; John Smith, having contributed handsomely to the Labour defeat in 1992, was unlikely to win afterwards; and Hugh Gaitskell would, as almost everyone knows, have lost in 1964 as he had done several times previously. After all, even new broom Harold Wilson barely managed to win. A much more interesting counter-factual would have been a discussion of Sir Alec Douglas-Home winning the 1964 election, which would have been a real possibility and would have made a great deal of difference.