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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Callaghan's great education debate
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website, at the NUT conference

Lord Callaghan at a political conference in 1979
Lord Callaghan set the ball rolling for the national curriculum
Former prime minister Lord Callaghan, who died on Saturday, was instrumental in starting a "great debate" which led to fundamental changes in UK education.

In a speech at Ruskin College in 1976 he spoke of "legitimate public concern" about trendy teaching methods.

He referred to "unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching, which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not".

Ultimately it led to the national curriculum for England and Wales and greater central government control of a system which had been regarded as a "secret garden", the special preserve of the teaching profession.

His intervention was the start of a process which led to greater information and rights for parents.

Union opposition

In many ways it led to reforms such as the introduction of parent governors and the introduction of school inspections.

At the time, all the teachers' unions strongly opposed politicians' having any role in what was taught in schools.

No education minister would propose changes without consulting the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

But at its annual conference on Sunday the current general secretary, Steve Sinnott, paid his tribute to Lord Callaghan.

He said people were wrong to say that he had held the four great offices of state (home and foreign secretary, chancellor and prime minister).

'Great debate'

He had not held "the most important office" - that of education secretary.

"Perhaps if he had been secretary of state for education he would have been able to deal better with the issues in the 'great debate'.

"I think the debate needed to be one which engaged with everybody, including teachers and teachers' organisations," he said.

So it was not as positive a debate as it might have been - which in turn would have smoothed later discussions in the 1980s and 90s, he said.

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