By David Chaytor

Shirley Williams was one of the first patrons of Comprehensive Future and remained so until her death in April 2021.  She spoke at the parliamentary event in 2002 which was to lead to the subsequent launch of Comprehensive  Future as a national campaign in 2003.

She was a lifelong supporter of an education system based on equality of opportunity whilst constantly reaffirming that the meaning of the word ‘equal’ is not the same as that of  ‘identical’. Her first opportunity to influence change directly came with her appointment as the Minister for Schools (1964-66) in the first Wilson Government.

She proved to be a thoroughly efficient, reliable and popular Schools Minister; She took on the responsibility for overseeing the consequences of the famous Circular 10/65,  which invited local authorities to submit schemes for the reorganisation of secondary schools on comprehensive principles.

A decade later she returned to office as Secretary of State for Education (1976-79) in the Callaghan Government and inherited a system in which 75% of children now attended non-selective secondary schools. The withdrawal of funding to the direct grant schools had been announced. Circular 12/76 reiterated the need for the remaining local authorities to submit comprehensive reorganisation schemes. However, by then the public mood, and the political and economic landscape, was changing.

The broad consensus that had supported the phasing out of the 11-plus in the 1960s was fracturing. Large numbers of direct grant grammar schools refused to abandon selection and chose to become wholly private. Certain local authorities became increasingly recalcitrant and delayed or refused to submit their reorganisation plans. Within months of her appointment, in the controversial Tameside judgment, the Law Lords had ruled that the Government did not have the legal authority to force local authorities to abandon selection at 11.

By then the Government had other priorities as the economic crisis deepened and the post-war consensus collapsed. Jim Callaghan launched his ‘Great Debate’ on education, attempting to deflect the increasing stridency of attacks from the Black Paper lobby,  and focussed on the need for higher standards and greater accountability.  However, the Tameside judgement remained in force and the 1974 Labour Manifesto intention of ‘finally ending the 11-plus’ remained unfulfilled.  In September 1978, Jim Callaghan famously decided (like Gordon Brown exactly 29 years later) not to call the general election which he was widely expected to win. The rest is history.

Shirley Williams’s comprehensive revolution remained unfinished.

After 1979 her career was dominated by her efforts to restructure British politics, initially as President of the SDP and later as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. From 1988 to 2000 she taught politics at Harvard and subsequently took on numerous international academic and diplomatic responsibilities. She chose to retire from the House of Lords in 2016 following the Liberal Democrats’ catastrophic defeat in the 2015 election.

Shirley was a woman of remarkable contradictions. Passionately non-conservative, the most significant political decision of her life (in 1981) contributed to a further decade and a half of  Conservative Government. Widely thought of as the person most likely to become the first woman Prime Minister, she declined to put herself forward for the leadership of the Labour Party in 1979 and for that of the SDP in 1981. Highly cerebral and a hugely distinguished academic, she  talked politics in a language with which many millions of voters could easily identify.

Above all, she was a woman of consistent political convictions. Whilst, reluctantly, willing to change her party identification, she remained absolutely committed, unlike some of her critics, to a set of basic political principles: peace and internationalism, electoral and constitutional reform, equality and social justice. And she believed that equality of opportunity in education was the absolute prerequisite of a just society.

Shirley Williams was the only single parent Secretary of State for Education in British history and the only one to have been arrested on a picket line showing solidarity with low paid women workers.

She was also the only one to have consistently and publicly supported the abolition of academic selection at 11 throughout her subsequent career. We publish below extracts from one of her most powerful articles on the subject, published in The Independent in 2001. 

‘It was not just sad, but shocking, to watch the New Labour government join in the attacks on comprehensive schools last week. It was appalling to hear the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary talk about “bog standard comprehensives”. Of course, there are some dreadful schools in all categories; there are some marvellous ones too. But when did he last praise teachers in hard-pressed inner-city schools for the job that they are doing?

Comprehensive schools in England and Wales have been traduced, misrepresented, undermined, under-financed and creamed of some of their brightest pupils by such schemes as assisted school places in independent schools. Yet their achievement has been substantial. Hundreds of thousands of boys and girls in the past 30 years have gone on to higher education, and to professional and technical training, who would never have passed the cruel and wasteful 11-plus selection system.

Let’s go back to 1964, to remind people of what education used to be like. Then, more than four children in five were sent, at the end of the primary stage, to secondary modern schools. They started their secondary education knowing they had failed the 11-plus examination. For most of them, that meant abandoning whatever ambitions they or their parents might have cherished for a career in the professions. Only a handful of secondary moderns had a sixth form. Selection at 11 for most children determined their future, and consigned them to semi-skilled or unskilled jobs.

By the mid-Sixties there was a broad consensus in favour of comprehensive education, extending from solid Conservative education authorities such as Devon to solid Labour authorities such as those in South Wales. As comprehensive schools became widely adopted, more pupils stayed on beyond the compulsory school-leaving age. From a tiny minority of graduates, the UK saw more than a third of its children move on to higher education in the space of a generation. This increase was rooted in the comprehensives, which in 1998-99 produced 87,000 pupils with two or more A-levels, to which should be added another 3,000 in the sixth-form colleges. From the remaining secondary moderns came just over 1,000, from the grammars 9,000, and from the independents 33,500. I remain immensely proud of that achievement by the comprehensive schools.

Opponents of comprehensive education always close their eyes to the waste of talent inherent in selection. They invariably compare the comprehensives not, as they should, to the whole output of schools, but to the grammar schools. The four-fifths who went to the secondary moderns are not part of their calculations. For the great crime of the comprehensive school was to break down the barriers of class that underpinned a system based more on social background than on merit.

The comprehensive system was – and is – compatible with different rates of learning and with an element of specialisation among schools. It was not comprehensives but the National Curriculum imposed by the former Tory education secretary, Kenneth Baker, that stopped schools from offering advanced work in subjects in which they were strong. This not only squeezed out teachers’ creativity and the space schools needed to develop their own contribution to education, but also forced music, the arts and field sports to the margins of the school day.

The Government now proposes to introduce even earlier specialisation. I am all for a less rigid curriculum, and for schools being able to build on their strengths, providing children get a broad and balanced education. I agree, too, that work experience can be valuable for 13- and 14-year-olds who are bored by school. But they should remain school-based, and their school years should be extended to allow them to complete the general secondary course alongside their practical work.

More worrying, the Government proposes a plethora of routes into secondary education. Don’t be fooled: we will see parents and teachers using every avenue to get their children into whichever seem to be the elite schools. And who can blame them? But those without influence, information or a sense of how to work the system will lose out once again. There will be devastating consequences for teachers’ morale in those schools that can’t specialise, because they don’t have teachers qualified to do so. It will become even harder to recruit good staff.

So, yes, I’m angry. Angry because the comprehensive system was undermined by the Conservative governments of the Eighties and Nineties. Angry because teaching has become a miserable profession, assailed by instructions from central government, by demands for tests and assessments beyond what is needed to encourage children, and by league tables that take no notice of the children teachers have to educate.

David Blunkett told the House of Commons last week that the Government proposals were in the great tradition of Tony Crosland. I can only say that the Tony Crosland I knew and worked with in creating comprehensive schools must be turning in his grave.’