We now await the government’s grammar school white paper. There is a tussle of views: will it be before the pre-election campaign period starts or will ministers wait until after Article 50 and the union conferences? (Or, perhaps, will they use those two as cover and slip it out in the middle, thus proving they don’t like the policy much at all?)
While the future is unknown, the story of past education white papers is not.
The first “white paper” was created in 1922 by Winston Churchill in response to conflicts in Palestine, but an education paper did not appear until 1943. Educational Reconstruction was a somewhat optimistic title given that Britain was still deeply entrenched in war, but it was the precursor to the 1944 Education Act that introduced state grammar schools. According to the paper it did so because “courses must be available to suit the needs and aptitudes of different types of pupil or student”.
However, it is noticeable that the paper briefs against the use of tests – unless necessary. It reads: “In the future, children at the age of about 11 should be classified not on the results of a competitive test, but on an assessment of their individual aptitudes largely by such means as school records supplemented, if necessary, by intelligence tests, due regard being had to their parents’ wishes and the careers they have in mind.”
Even more interesting is that grammars are not pushed as a social mobility tool for getting kids to university. Actually, the white paper aims to do the opposite!
Since 1997 there has been a white paper ever 2½ years, on average
It states that “too many” able children are educated in a way that prepares them for university and “too few find their way into schools from which the design and craftsmanship sides of industry are recruited”. In 1943 the great concern was rebuilding the nation once the war finished. In many ways, it’s a bit like trying to build a nation that will need a lot of skills once it leaves Europe!
Between 1943 and 1992 there were only three more schools-related white papers – all by Conservative governments. In 1974, Education: A Framework for Expansion proposed increases in the school leaving age. Better Schools in 1985 laid the pathway for relaxing local authority control, and Choice and Diversity in 1992 ushered in Ofsted.
That’s one paper every 16 years, on average. For the past two decades, however, things ramped up. Since 1997 there has been a white paper ever 2½ years, on average. When Justine Greening’s grammar school paper is released that will drop to one every 2 years and 2 months.
The names of papers have also become jazzier. Labour started off sensibly with Excellence in Schools (1997) and Schools: Achieving Success, but by 2005 titles had morphed into pseudo-marketing. Labour’s last-ditch attempt at showing credibility on education policy under Gordon Brown was the particularly painful Your child, your school, our future paper, which makes it sound as if Brown was trying to secure his own seat on the throne on the backs of other people’s kids and jobs. (Which, frankly, is precisely what the policy was designed to do.)
More astonishing than the names is the similarity of some of the language. In 2005, Labour proposed a “national schools commissioner”. It also said it was putting academies “at the heart” of its school plans and that it wanted to see “more setting by ability”.
We must now wait to see what the next chapter of this history will be called.