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George Tomlinson

George Tomlinson

Having left school at 12, George Tomlinson nevertheless crept his way to the lofty position of Education Minister. His biography, completed from manuscripts after his untimely death, describes his quirky sense of humour and even-handed wisdom:

On Education

1. In the Daily Express, 1948, defending the raising of the school leaving age: “Why should not a crossing sweeper be thinking of Shakespeare while he is leaning on his brush? He is going to lean on it anyway.”

2. As President of the Association for Education: “The real value of education to me lies in this: that it enables the individual to pierce the crust of things, to get beneath the surface, to see through the exterior to the reality what lies behind and beneath.” 

3. On his motive for being Education Minister “I was glad of the opportunity to carry a step further a vow I had made as a youth deprived of the opportunity of a secondary education through poverty, that no handicap of a similar kind should be allowed to stand in the way of any young person if any action of mine could prevent it.”

4. On The Spectator’s unkind editorial about him: “They say there’s an ignoramus at the Ministry of Education  and they’re quite right, but perhaps it’s only a man who’s never had any education himself who can appreciate it to the full”

5. At the NUT conference in 1947: “At a pinch you might do without Parliament. You could do without the Minister: you could certainly do without Civil Servants and almost as certainly without local education authorities. Without any or all of them the world might not seem much worse. But if there were no teachers the world would be back in barbarism within two generations.”

6. On class sizes: “I realise that it is not economical or common-sense to train a teacher and then put him in charge of such a large class that all he can do is prevent the children from breaking the furniture.”

On Employment & Politics

7. On his being appointed as Minister of Works in 1945: I was put in charge of building materials when there wasn’t any”

8. Pointing out that the unemployed of the Depression were the army of the War: “There never were unemployables. There were neglected members of the community who saved the situation in the country’s greatest need”

9. When officials vetoed his policy on grounds of precedent: “Ah’m not ‘ere to follow precendents. Ah’m ‘ere to make ’em. If it were just a case o’ following precedents you’d have no need of me, you could carry on on your own.”

On death

10. On his death bed the biographer, Fred Blacburn, asked George what was giving him comfort as he lay in bed. Tomlinson answered that he was comforted because he would win either way. When pressed to explain Tomlinson said: “If I get better I shall go to Blackpool and rest with Ethel. If I don’t get better, I shall go to Heaven and rest with my Saviour”

George TomlinsonGeorge Tomlinson

Born: 21 March 1890

Died: 22 September 1952 (aged 62)

Party: Labour

Dates as Education Minister: 10 February 1947 – 26 October 1951 (1719 days – double the usual average)

Age when Minister: 56 yrs (10m) to 61 yrs (7m)

Best Fact: Left primary school to work in a cotton mill

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Born to a large working-poor family in Rishton, Lancashire, Tomlinson’s parents immediate took out death insurance after his birth due to the doctor’s advice that he would only live for a matter of weeks.

This would be only the first of many times that Tomlinson overcame odds stacked against him.

After leaving school,  aged 12, to become a cotton mill worker, George became intent on finding a way to ‘get out’ of factory life. During his teens, Tomlinson attended night school classes on textiles and decided that he liked learning and his local church enough that he wanted to become a preacher. To prepare for the church entrance exam, he studied each night for three years. Getting up at 1.30am, he read through the night until heading to the mill at 5.30am, where he would work a full shift, go home, eat dinner, sleep, and then start again. Finally, after years of work, he was called to London to take his oral entrance exam. He failed.

Over the next two decades Tomlinson instead threw himself into trade union and local government activity. His most favoured positions involved education or textiles workers. In 1935, Tomlinson returned to Rishton, working at the Weavers’, Winders’ & Warpers’ Association where he took part in the Textile Workers’ Parliamentary Panel. Through his work there, and the accolades he had gathered over the previous decades as a local councillor, he was eventually asked to stand as MP.

Ten years after entering the House of Commons, and only a few days after the unexpected death of Ellen Wilkinson, Tomlinson was finally asked to take up the role he had wanted to get his hands on ever since he had been denied schooling of his own. He would, at last, be Minister for Education.

Two issues were most prominent during his tenure: school-rebuilding and the recruitment of thousands of new teachers. Tomlinson’s prior position at the Ministry of Works helped him gain the resources needed for 6000 new prefab classrooms, and by the end of 1947 a scheme was in place bringing in 13,414 new teachers via 55 college providers. He also began a reform of the examination system (sounds familiar) and worked tirelessly to ensure the raising of the school leaving age.

Removed from office after Labour lost the 1951 Election Tomlinson described the position of Education Minister as his ultimate goa statingl: “I am always happy as Minister of Education. Any man who could not be happy as Minister of Education has not power within him to be happy at all.”

Is he a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Almost universally respected during his tenure, it is hard to think of another Ed Sec who was so widely admired across the education spectrum. That Tomlinson ‘saved’ two failing policies also means his record sounds impressive, but it also means he was not the ‘creator’ of any great vision or policy which means that he is rarely remembered by most people today. (He was certainly new to me).  Perhaps what Tomlinson best shows is that greatness in one’s own time does not always translate into ‘greatness’ as defined by those in the future.

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