Rachel Reeves: The passion that drove Alive Bacon and the rise of comprehensives

Alice Bacon pictured with Clement Attlee.

Alice Bacon pictured with Clement Attlee.

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IN the final extract of a three-part serialisation, Rachel Reeves explores pioneering Leeds MP Alice Bacon’s record as Education Minister.

ALICE Bacon had taught in an inter-war secondary modern, had fought to get comprehensive education at the top of Labour’s offer to the electorate in the 1950s, and would be the minister who would ultimately manage much of the battle that would determine the success or failure of the comprehensive drive.

As Alice had told the Commons in 1954, she might now be “a politician but, I taught children from the ages of 11 to 15 for some years before I came [to the Commons], and my belief in the comprehensive school is derived, not from my membership of the Labour Party, but from my experience with children”.

A few months after Anthony Crosland’s appointment as Education Secretary, he started encouraging local authorities to establish comprehensives in their areas by offering financial assistance to build new schools and classrooms – if, and only if, they moved towards ending the 11-plus. The deal was set out in Circular 10/65, released by the DES in July 1965. It was a piece of tactical mastery, broadly reflecting the twin objectives Alice Bacon had been campaigning on for the previous 20 years: overcrowded lessons taking place in dilapidated buildings, and the drive for comprehensive education to end the spectre of a life-defining exam at the age of 11.

In 1967, Alice was moved from the Home Office to the Department for Education – a chance for Alice to put into practice the issue she cared most passionately about: comprehensive education.

Alice’s drive for comprehensive education and her determination to reform the system is illustrated by some internal battles at the DES. Shirley Williams remembers in the 1967 reshuffle Patrick Gordon Walker, Alice’s former boss while shadowing Rab Butler at the Home Office, became Education Secretary and Alice a Minister of State at the Department.

Alice soon discovered that Shirley was to be appointed to oversee schools. While Shirley was on holiday, Alice asked for her files to be moved so that she would be attached to comprehensive education policy, and Shirley be put in charge of Higher Education and Science on the grounds that Shirley had been a lecturer. Shirley was horrified when she found out, but Alice had succeeded in getting her way.

Speaking as Education Minister in a debate at the 1967 party conference in Scarborough, Alice argued that it was “absolutely unthinkable” to retain a selective system of education. “The Government could not tolerate such a situation,” she thundered. “If local authorities refuse to comply with requests to change to a non-selective system or delay unreasonably, I give you my pledge that the government will not hesitate to legislate.”

Comprehensive education was Alice’s passion and now at the Department for Education and Science, she had a chance to do something about it.

Even Margaret Thatcher, as Education Secretary, did not roll back the process set in train by Crosland, and turned down less than 10 per cent of the proposals for schools to go comprehensive. The proportion of pupils attending such comprehensives thus rose again from the 32 per cent Alice Bacon had left behind in 1970 to 62 per cent by 1974.

Consistently arguing for the end of the 11-plus and helping achieve the roll-out of comprehensives in the late 1960s was arguably Alice Bacon’s greatest personal and political legacy and certainly the reform she was most proud to have been part of.

At the 1969 party conference, Alice told the delegates that she was pleased to promise that “in the next session of Parliament, we shall introduce a short Bill dealing with this one specific subject [of the comprehensive]”.

The intention of this bill would ‘make selection illegal’ and continue the expansion of comprehensive schools seen under the Wilson government. The resolution was passed unanimously. But a year later, Labour was out of office.

Without power, Labour could not make the changes they wanted to schools and education policy.

Rachel Reeves is the Leeds West MP. The launch of Alice In Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon, takes place tomorrow at 6.30pm in Waterstones, Leeds.

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