Education in England:
a brief history

Introduction, Contents

Chapter 1 600-1800
Chapter 2 1800-1860
Towards a state system
Chapter 3 1860-1900
Class divisions
Chapter 4 1900-1944
Taking shape
Chapter 5 1944-1951
Post-war reconstruction
Chapter 6 1951-1970
The wind of change
Chapter 7 1970-1979
Recession and disenchantment
Chapter 8 1979-1990
Thatcherism: marketisation
Chapter 9 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 10 1997-2007
The Blair decade
Chapter 11 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 12 2010
What future for education in England?

Chapter 13 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
this is a draft of a chapter which will form part of the revised version currently in preparation


Organisation of this chapter

Political background
End of the post-war consensus

Selection: broken promises
Circular 10/70
1976 Education Act
Lurch to the right

The Great Debate
The Black Papers
Teaching Styles & Pupil Progress
The William Tyndale Affair
Ruskin College Speech
Education in Schools

Special educational needs
Child guidance

1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act
1971 Teaching Council (Scotland) Act
1972 Children Act
1973 Education Act
1973 Education (Work Experience) Act
1973 Employment of Children Act
1973 NHS Reorganisation Act
1973 Employment and Training Act
1976 Education (School-leaving Dates) Act

1972 James Report
1975 Bullock Report
1977 Taylor Report
1978 Warnock Report
1978 Waddell Report
1977-82 Matters for Discussion
1978-85 HMI surveys


Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Chapter 7 : 1970-1979

Recession and disenchantment

Political background

The decade began with a Conservative administration led by Ted Heath (pictured), elected in June 1970 with a Commons majority of 30.

Heath needed to make cuts in public expenditure and his new secretary of state for education - one Margaret Thatcher - offered, among other things, to abolish the universal provision of free school milk. This was achieved in the 1971 Education (Milk) Act and led to the jibe 'Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher'.

In 1974 there were two elections. The first, held on 28 February, was inconclusive. Heath could not bring himself to promise proportional representation - the Liberals' price for a coalition - so Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour administration.

Wilson went to the country again in October but the electorate was still indecisive and gave him a majority of just three. His education secretaries were Reg Prentice (March 1974) and Fred Mulley (June 1975).

Heath's political career was effectively over and in February 1975 he was replaced as leader of the Conservative Party by Margaret Thatcher.

Wilson resigned in April 1976 and was replaced by Jim Callaghan. In September 1976 Callaghan appointed Shirley Williams as education secretary and in the following month he gave his famous Ruskin College speech in which he called for a 'Great Debate' about the nature and purposes of education.

Callaghan might have been re-elected had he gone to the country in the autumn of 1978, when opinion polls indicated that Labour would win. But he chose not to and, following the 'winter of discontent' when trades unions called multiple strikes in protest at prolonged pay restraint, he lost the election in May 1979 to Thatcher's Conservatives.

End of the post-war consensus

The economic background to the period was not auspicious. The oil crisis and subsequent recession of 1971-3 'fundamentally altered the map of British politics' by exposing 'all the underlying weaknesses of Keynesian social democracy'. The governments of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan were all 'unable to breathe new life into the old system'. The post-war 'welfare capitalist consensus' had relied on increasing prosperity to foster social unity. 'When that prosperity disintegrated, so, too, did the consensus' (Chitty 2004:31).

The post-war consensus finally collapsed under the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-79, amid mounting inflation, swelling balance of payments deficits, unprecedented currency depreciation, rising unemployment, bitter industrial conflicts and what seemed to many to be ebbing governability. The Conservative leadership turned towards a new version of the classical market liberalism of the nineteenth century. Though the Labour leadership stuck to the tacit 'revisionism' of the 1950s and 1960s, large sections of the rank and file turned towards a more inchoate mixture of neo-Marxism and the 'fundamentalist' Socialism of the 1920s and 1930s. (Marquand, 1988:3, quoted in Chitty 2004:32)
The recession 'provided a rationale for economic cutbacks in education not only in England but in most advanced western industrial countries' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41).


In addition, the 1970s saw the beginning of a 'general disenchantment with education as a palliative of society's ills' which first found expression in the USA following 'the supposed (and some hold premature) evaluation of the Headstart programmes as a failure' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41).

As a result, politicians were beginning to call for teachers to become more accountable. In 1974 the DES established the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) to 'promote the development of methods of assessing and monitoring the achievement of children at school, and to seek to identify the incidence of under-achievement'. Teacher accountability would become a priority for both major parties following Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976.

Selection: broken promises

Circular 10/70

With Margaret Thatcher as education secretary, Ted Heath's Conservative government issued Circular 10/70, in which it announced that it would accept no further LEA plans for wholesale comprehensivisation - it would only accept proposals for individual schools.

In fact, LEAs continued to submit plans - presented as individual school plans - which Thatcher accepted. Indeed, she sanctioned more comprehensivisations than any other education minister before or since. The halfway point was reached during this period - there were now more children in comprehensive schools than in selective ones.

When Wilson was returned to power in 1974, many in education hoped that Labour would now finish the job and go for total comprehensivisation. But once again the party failed to live up to its promises.

1976 Education Act

The 1976 Education Act (22 November 1976) stated the principle that:

local education authorities shall, in the exercise and performance of their powers and duties relating to secondary education, have regard to the general principle that such education is to be provided only in schools where the arrangements for the admission of pupils are not based (wholly or partly) on selection by reference to ability or aptitude. (Section 1(1))
The principle, then, was crystal clear: no selection. Unfortunately, the rest of the Act hedged about this principle with so many conditions and loopholes that its effect was negligible. 'There was no legal requirement to end selection, and the Act produced no visible effect' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11).

The Act was repealed by the Conservatives in 1979.

  • Download the Education Act 1976 (pdf text 148kb).

    Lurch to the right

    Conservative politicians were beginning to demand 'consumer-oriented education' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11). They wanted the Schools Council abolished, more national testing, the school leaving age put back to 15 (it had been raised to 16 in 1973), and they called for national inquiries into 'everything progressive' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11).

    Not to be outdone, the Labour government took its own dramatic turn to the right and 'announced a sudden halt to the forward march of comprehensive change' (Benn and Chitty 1996:11-12). Its 1976 'Yellow Book' School Education in England: problems and initiatives, commissioned by prime minister Jim Callaghan and produced by the DES - was supposed to be secret but was widely leaked to the press. It promoted 'the imposition of a new "agreed" core curriculum and claimed that the reorganisation of secondary education was now complete' (Benn and Chitty 1996:12). This was nonsense - eleven plus selection still existed wholly or partially in more than half of LEAs.

    The Yellow Book was about much more than pedagogic method:

    The DES aimed not just at reshaping practice through judicious advice, but at bringing to a halt what seemed to be the spontaneous and deep-seated tendencies of the school system, towards localised, piecemeal, unsupervised, professionally led and progressive-influenced reform in primary schools and throughout the state system. (Jones 2003:95)
    With Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976 and the 'Great Debate' which followed, comprehensivisation slipped off the political agenda. It disappeared from view altogether in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government came to power and set out to transform the country's schools into an education market place.

    The Great Debate


    By 1976, the Labour government was in deep financial trouble and Callaghan (pictured) was pressured by the US and by the right wing of his own party to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The cuts in public expenditure which were forced on him increased unemployment and worsened the provision of education and other public services.

    Callaghan told the Labour Party conference 'that his government was making a definitive break with the post-war past - a break that embraced not only financial policy but the social and political order that economic growth and full employment had enabled' (Jones 2003:73).

    The Black Papers

    The worrying economic climate provided the context for the views presented in a series of five 'Black Papers' written by right-wing educationalists and politicians.

    The first, published in 1969, specifically focused on the progressive style of education being developed in the primary schools as 'a main cause not only of student unrest in the universities but of other unwelcome tendencies or phenomena' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41).

    All five Black Papers - supported by the right-wing press - attacked the concepts of comprehensive education, egalitarianism and progressive teaching methods. They deplored the lack of discipline in schools and blamed comprehensivisation for preventing 'academic' students from obtaining good examination results.

    In the last two Black Papers (1975 and 1977) contributors went beyond 'the cautious conservatism of the first three documents' (Chitty 2004:46) and advocated voucher schemes under which parents would be issued with a free basic coupon valued at the average cost of schools in a local authority area. The editors of the 1975 Paper wanted education vouchers trialled in at least two areas, and in the last Black Paper a 'Letter to Members of Parliament' said:

    The possibilities for parental choice of secondary (and also primary) schools should be improved via the introduction of the education voucher or some other method. Schools that few wish to attend should then be closed and their staff dispersed. (Cox and Boyson 1977:9, quoted in Chitty 2004:46)
    These arguments for choice, competition and parental control of schools - and the questioning of the very concept of a 'national system, locally administered' - would be taken up with enthusiasm by Margaret Thatcher's administrations from 1979.

    The five Black Papers were:

    • 1969 Fight for Education: A Black Paper edited by CB Cox and AE Dyson. Critical Quarterly Society.
    • 1969 Black Paper Two: The Crisis in Education edited by CB Cox and AE Dyson. Critical Quarterly Society.
    • 1970 Black Paper Three: Goodbye Mr Short edited by CB Cox and AE Dyson. Critical Quarterly Society.
    • 1975 Black Paper 1975: The Fight for Education edited by CB Cox and R Boyson. London: Dent.
    • 1977 Black Paper 1977 edited by CB Cox and R Boyson. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

    Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress

    Another influential document of the time was Neville Bennett's report on his research at Lancaster into primary school teaching methods. Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress (1976) was represented in the media as 'a condemnation of so-called "progressive" methods in the primary school' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:41).

    Bennett concluded that 'formal' methods (whole classes teaching, regular testing and competition) resulted in pupils being four months ahead of those taught using 'informal' methods.

    His study was widely criticised, particularly for its use of oversimplified categorisation of teaching methods, but it was represented in the media as 'a full-scale scientific study of "progressive" teaching methods which proved that they simply did not work' (Chitty 2004:37).

    The objections of critics were, predictably, largely ignored.

    The William Tyndale Affair

    Those who sought to attack progressive education methods were given ammunition by the 'William Tyndale Affair'.

    In 1974 some of the staff at William Tyndale primary school in north London introduced radical changes associated with an extreme form of romantic liberalism. The result was a violent dispute among the staff and between some of the staff and the school managers.

    Chaos ensued as the staff lost control of the school and its pupils. Local government politicians and the local inspectorate became involved and, ultimately, there was a public inquiry in 1975-6 into the teaching, organisation and management of the school.

    The affair raised a number of crucial questions which centred on issues such as:

    • the control of the school curriculum;
    • the responsibilities of local education authorities;
    • the accountability of teachers; and
    • the assessment of effectiveness in education.

    Callaghan's Ruskin College Speech

    This, then, was the political, economic and educational context in which Callaghan began the 'Great Debate' about education with his speech at Ruskin College Oxford on 18 October 1976.

    Callaghan called for a public debate on education which would allow employers, trades unions and parents, as well as teachers and administrators, to make their views known. He said he had been 'very impressed ... by the enthusiasm and dedication of the teaching profession', but he acknowledged that there was 'criticism about basic skills and attitudes' and he argued that there was 'a need for more technological bias in science teaching'.

    Underlying the speech was the feeling that the educational system was out of touch with the fundamental need for Britain to survive economically in a highly competitive world through the efficiency of its industry and commerce:

    I do not join those who paint a lurid picture of educational decline because I do not believe it is generally true, although there are examples which give cause for concern. I am raising a further question. It is this. In today's world, higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill. Therefore we demand more from our schools than did our grandparents.
    The speech was viewed with suspicion by many teachers, who still held the view enunciated in 1954 by National Union of Teachers general secretary Ronald Gould that democracy itself was safeguarded by 'the existence of a quarter of a million teachers who are free to decide what should be taught and how it should be taught' (quoted in Timmins 1996:323).

  • Read the full text of Callaghan's Ruskin speech.

    The speech was followed by various DES and HMI initiatives regarding the curriculum, the establishment of the Assessment of Performance Unit and the beginning of mass testing by LEAs.

    The debate was characterised by the increasingly detailed interventions of central government into schooling:

    The interventions began in the form of spending cuts and developed into a strategy for relating education to a large-scale programme of social and economic restructuring: the education revolution of the 1980s and '90s had its origins in the conflicts, crises and realignments of the 1970s. (Jones 2003:74)

    Education in Schools: A Consultative Document

    Expanding on Callaghan's theme, the green paper Education in Schools: A Consultative Document acknowledged that there had been positive developments:

    Primary schools have been transformed in recent years by two things: a much wider curriculum than used to be considered sufficient for elementary education, and the rapid growth of the so-called 'child-centred' approach. (DES 1977:8)
    It commended many aspects of these developments:
    In the right hands, this approach has produced confident, happy and relaxed children, without any sacrifice of the 3Rs or other accomplishments - indeed, with steady improvement in standards. Visitors have come from all over the world to see, and to admire, the English and Welsh 'primary school revolution'. (DES 1977:8)
    However, it went on to suggest that few teachers had sufficient experience and ability to make the new approach work:
    It has proved to be a trap for some less able or less experienced teachers who applied the freer methods uncritically or failed to recognise that they require careful planning of the opportunities offered to children and systematic monitoring of the progress of individuals. (DES 1977:8)

    It concluded that 'the challenge now is to restore the rigour without damaging the real benefits of the child-centred developments' (DES 1977:8).

    Special educational needs

    Child guidance

    Circulars from the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Social Security in March 1974 recommended that the child guidance service should be based on a multi-professional team, providing assessment, diagnosis, consultation, treatment and other help.

    LEAs and health authorities were asked to extend the available help to children with behavioural, emotional and learning difficulties.

    The Court Committee's report on Child Health Services Fit for the future (1976) recommended 'that the child guidance clinics and psychiatric hospital services should be recognised as part of an integrated child and adolescent psychiatry service' (quoted in Warnock 1978:26).


    A Circular issued in March 1975 The Discovery of Children Requiring Special Education and the Assessment of their Needs examined the process of discovery, diagnosis and assessment of children with special needs. It emphasised its multi-professional character and stressed the value of informality and the importance of parental participation.

    It also introduced an improved set of forms for recording the educational, medical, psychological and other data required for deciding the nature of a child's special educational needs, and a summary sheet for use during the process of assessment, placement and review.

    Comments received in 1977 from LEAs indicated their general satisfaction with the new procedures and their wish to develop them further (see Warnock 1978:30-31).


    Section 10 of the 1976 Education Act required LEAs to provide for the special education of all handicapped pupils in county and voluntary schools, except where this was 'impracticable or incompatible with the provision of efficient instruction in the schools' or would involve 'unreasonable public expenditure', in which case it could be given in special schools or, with the secretary of state's approval, in independent schools.

    The provision (an amendment of Section 33(2) of the 1944 Education Act) was to have come into force on a day to be 'appointed by the Secretary of State'.

    However, in January 1977 secretary of state Shirley Williams announced that before deciding to introduce the new provision she proposed to consult widely with educational and other interests and also to await the findings of the Warnock committee (see Warnock 1978:34-5).

  • Download the Education Act 1976 (pdf text 148kb).


    In addition to the Acts mentioned above (the 1976 Education Act and the 1971 Education (Milk) Act), the following Acts were passed during this period:

    1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act

    (23 July 1970) discontinued the classification of handicapped children as unsuitable for education at school.

  • Download the Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970 (pdf text 60kb).

    1971 Teaching Council (Scotland) Act

    (17 February 1971) allowed the secretary of state to deduct Council membership fees from employees' salaries.

  • Download the Teaching Council (Scotland) Act 1971 (pdf text 64kb).

    1972 Children Act

    (27 July 1972) ensured that the minimum age at which children could be employed would not be affected by any further change in the school leaving age.

  • Download the Children Act 1972 (pdf text 44kb).

    1973 Education Act

    (18 April 1973) made provisions regarding the operation of certain educational trusts.

  • Download the Education Act 1973 (pdf text 296kb).

    1973 Education (Work Experience) Act

    (23 May 1973) enabled education authorities to arrange for children under school leaving age to have work experience as part of their education.

  • Download the Education (Work Experience) Act 1973 (pdf text 52kb).

    1973 Employment of Children Act

    (23 May 1973) laid down new regulations regarding children's employment and its supervision by local authorities.

  • Download the Employment of Children Act 1973 (pdf text 144kb).

    1973 National Health Service Reorganisation Act

    (5 July 1973) transferred responsibility for the school health service in England and Wales to area health authorities: the change was effected in April 1974. A similar change took place in Scotland (see Warnock 1978:30).

  • Download the National Health Service Reorganisation Act 1973 (pdf text 2.4mb).

    1973 Employment and Training Act

    (25 July 1973) established the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) which would later oversee the Technical and Vocational Initiative (TVEI).

  • Download the Employment and Training Act 1973 (pdf text 1.5mb).

    1976 Education (School-leaving Dates) Act

    (25 March 1976) a very brief Act amending the summer school leaving date.

  • Download the Education (School-leaving Dates) Act 1976 (pdf text 56kb).


    1972 James Report

    The James Report Teacher Education and Training recommended a broader role for the higher education colleges, and the White Paper Education: A Framework for Expansion promoted diversification and rationalisation.

    With the dip in the birth rate resulting in fewer children in the schools, the government announced (in Circular 7/73) a halving of the number of student teachers. It also became clear that the government intended to increase the proportion of student teachers trained through the one year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).

    1975 Bullock Report

    The Bullock Report A language for life made wide-ranging recommendations on the teaching of English.

    1977 Taylor Report

    The Taylor Report A New Partnership for Our Schools recommended major changes in the management of schools - including a greater role for parents on governing bodies - which were implemented in the 1980 Education Act.

    1978 Warnock Report

    The Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, chaired by Mary (later Baroness) Warnock, was appointed in November 1973 by secretary of state Margaret Thatcher. Its remit was:

    To review educational provision in England, Scotland and Wales for children and young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind, taking account of the medical aspects of their needs, together with arrangements to prepare them for entry into employment; to consider the most effective use of resources for these purposes; and to make recommendations. (Warnock 1978:1)
    Its wide-ranging report Special Educational Needs was presented to the secretary of state in March 1978.

    1978 Waddell Report

    The Waddell Report School Examinations recommended a single exam at age 16 to replace the GCE and CSE. (The first GCSE exams were taken in 1988).

    1977-82 HMI: Matters for Discussion

    As part of the 'Great Debate' (see above), HMI produced a series of 15 discussion documents under the series title Matters for Discussion:

      1 Ten Good Schools (1977)
      2 Classics in Comprehensive Schools (1977)
      3 Modern Languages in Comprehensive Schools (1977)
      4 Gifted Children in Middle and Comprehensive Secondary Schools (1977)
      5 The Teaching of Ideas in Geography (1978)
      6 Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools (1978)
      7 The Education of Children in Hospitals for the Mentally Handicapped (1978)
      8 Developments in the BEd Degree Course (1979)
      9 Mathematics 5 to 11 (1979)
    10 Community Homes with Education (1980)
    11 A View of the Curriculum (1980)
    12 Modern Languages in Further Education (1980)
    13 Girls and Science (1980)
    14 Mathematics in the Sixth Form (1982)
    15 The New Teacher in School (1982)

    1978-85 HMI surveys

    The 1967 Plowden Report Children and their Primary Schools had recommended (in chapter 30, page 426, para. 1164) that surveys of the quality of primary schools should be conducted at least once every ten years.

    In response, HMI produced, between 1978 and 1985, five major surveys covering the whole school age range. They were:

    1978 Primary education in England
    1979 Aspects of secondary education in England
    1982 Education 5 to 9
    1983 9-13 Middle Schools
    1985 Education 8 to 12 in Combined and Middle Schools


    Benn C and Chitty C (1996) Thirty years on: is comprehensive education alive and well or struggling to survive? London: David Fulton Publishers

    Chitty C (2004) Education policy in Britain Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

    Cox CB and Boyson R (eds) (1977) Black Paper 1977 London: Maurice Temple Smith

    DES (1977) Education in Schools: A Consultative Document London: HMSO

    Galton M, Simon B and Croll P (1980) Inside the primary classroom (The ORACLE Report) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

    Jones K (2003) Education in Britain: 1944 to the present Cambridge: Polity Press

    Marquand D (1988) The unprincipled society: new demands and old politics London: Jonathan Cape

    Timmins N (1996) The five giants: a biography of the welfare state London: Fontana Press

    Warnock (1978) Special Educational Needs Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the education of handicapped children and young people. Cmnd. 7212 London: HMSO

    Chapter 6 | Chapter 8