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The easy option: How the Ruskin Speech has become a cipher for change in British education

Peter Wolstencroft, Subject Leader at Liverpool John Moores University James Silverwood, Senior Lecturer in Business at Bishop Grosseteste University

When compared with educational systems around the world, Britain is notable for directing a high degree of ‘policy churn’ (that is, new initiatives emerging from central government) towards education. Our understanding of this revolving pattern of change is particularly well developed in the context of higher education catalogued in reports by the Institute for Government (2018; this infographic is especially helpful) and articles by Cristina Donovan (2018), among others.

For the scholar of British educational policymaking, policy churn is useful in that it delivers plentiful source material for investigating the motivation and influences behind educational reform. Recent decades have seen ubiquitous mention by government ministers when introducing new educational policies of an educational speech given by then Prime Minister James Callaghan on 18 October 1976 at Ruskin College, Oxford: Andrew (now Lord) Adonis, for example, arguing in 2006 that Callaghan’s Ruskin speech was the inspiration for educational reform pursued by New Labour governments, while 10 years later Nick Gibb citing Callaghan’s Ruskin speech in support of the retained importance of a national curriculum, are just two education ministers who have invoked memories of the speech.

The Ruskin Speech was the topic of our recent journal article published in the British Educational Research Journal (see Silverwood & Wolstencroft, 2023), the first in a series of articles and events we plan to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the speech. Its purpose was to re-investigate the original motivation for why Callaghan rose to speak at Ruskin College in October 1976.

Callaghan’s speech signposted the way for many initiatives that still cast their spell on education today. For instance, the considered need for a universal curriculum studied by all children, which was later implemented in the 1988 Education Reform Act. Callaghan further explored whether education should be more aligned with the needs of industry, especially in the provision of skills related to employability, a key theme now inculcated within the British educational sector. Elsewhere the call for a centralised inspection body was answered with the introduction of OfSTED in 1992, while Callaghan’s call for a debate on the efficacy of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ teaching methods is still to be resolved to this day.

‘Callaghan’s speech signposted the way for many initiatives that still cast their spell on education today – such as the considered need for a universal curriculum studied by all children … and whether education should be more aligned with the needs of industry.’

Using archival research, which provided us with access to original documentation produced by the Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office, we argue that the prime motivation behind the speech was to deliver support to the comprehensive educational system so that it could prosper into the future. Archival research suggested that Callaghan and his government were motivated into action in order to protect comprehensive education from those who would seek to convince the general public of its failures in order to instigate reform that would depart from its principles. Criticism of comprehensive education in Britain in the 1970s, most notably articulated across a series of ‘Black Papers’ published by those with links to the increasingly resurgent Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, had a common theme of arguing that educational standards were falling due to the progressive teaching methods employed by teachers in the comprehensive system. As we document in our BERJ journal article, the Ruskin Speech and subsequent great debate on education provided the opportunity to counter criticism and to alter public perception of comprehensive education, specifically whether it could respond to parental concerns and ensure students left education ready for the workplace, with a decent grasp of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Indeed, what is often lost in the discussions on the Ruskin Speech is that 1976 saw an Education Act passed in Parliament, establishing for the first time, the principle that education should be provided only in schools that did not admit pupils by selection. The 1976 Education Act gave the Education Secretary increased powers to compel local education authorities to prepare and submit proposals to apply the principle in their jurisdiction. This suggests that Callaghan was both fully committed to the idea of comprehensive education, and the Ruskin Speech can be seen as a vehicle to help support this commitment. Subsequently, we conclude that it was never Callaghan’s intention to launch education in Britain on a radical new educational trajectory, and where educational ministers have referred to Callaghan’s speech as justification for the subsequent transformation of education in Britain away from comprehensive ideals, they have sought to imbue the Ruskin Speech with motivations that were not shared by Callaghan and his Labour government.

This blog post is based on the article ‘The Ruskin Speech and great debate in English education, 1976–1979: A study of motivation’ by James Silverwood and Peter Wolstencroft published in the British Educational Research Journal.


Donovan, C. (2018). Distrust by design? Conceptualising the role of trust and distrust in the development of further education policy and practice in England. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 24(2–3). 

Institute for Government. (2017). All Change: Why Britain is so prone to policy reinvention, and what can be done about it. 

Silverwood, J., & Wolstencroft, P. (2023). The Ruskin Speech and great debate in English education, 1976–1979: A study of motivation. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication.