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The Essential

Florence HorsbrughFlorence Gertrude Horsbrugh, Baroness Horsbrugh, GBE, PC

Born: 13 October 1889

Died: 6 December 1969 (aged 80)

Party: Conservative

Dates as Education Minister: 2 Nov 1951 – 18 Oct 1954 (1082 days)

Age when Minister: 62 yrs (0m) to 65 yrs (0m)

Best Fact: The first woman to hold a Cabinet seat in a Conservative government

Born in Edinburgh to an accountant father she was educated at Landsdowne House and St. Hilda’s in Folkestone, before completing a Liberal Arts education at Mills College in California.

Her initial rise to prominence was through her work as head of the Ministry of Munitions canteen during the First World War.  During this time she created a ‘travelling kitchen’ that could feed people after the National Kitchens shut, and she even managed to secure an invite to feed the Queen.

In 1931 she overturned a 14,000 Labour majority to become MP in Dundee and in 1939 gained a junior position as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Health in 1939. During this time she oversaw the evacuation of children and the beginning of NHS reforms.

After losing her seat in 1945 she stood, and won, a seat in Manchester’s Moss Side in 1950 (can’t work out if this is even more surprising than a Conservative winning Dundee) . Shortly afterwards she became Education Secretary.

Unfortunately Horsbrugh inherited a bad lot. Churchill’s 1951 government put housing as its top priority and the budget for education was slashed right at the moment that the raising of the school leaving age and the 1946 baby boom were felt in force. The lack of money for school buildings meant over-crowding and squalor. In 1954 the TES argued that her policies were vague and she suffered ‘a want of courage’.

She left office in 1954, aged 65. In 1959 she took up residence in the House of Lords.

Is she a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Highly unlikely.

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.

Ellen WilkinsonEllen Cicely Wilkinson, PC

Born: 6 October 1891

Died: 6 February 1947 (aged 55)

Party: Labour

Dates as Education Minister: 26 July 1945 – 6 February 1947 (560 days)

Age when Minister: 53 yrs (9m) to 55 yrs (4m)

Best Fact: First female Education Secretary

Born to a methodist teetotal father in Ardwick, Manchester, Ellen Wilkinson was one of only a handful of female MPs during the 1920s. Not only this, but she also came from a working class background with a father who faced several periods of unemployment and a mother who suffered long bouts of illness (she died when Ellen was 25). Eventually her father gained employment as an insurance agent, cycling around their town collecting dues, and trying to ensure families gained financial support when needed.

Educated at Ardwick Elementary Grade School, Ellen was initially asked to stay on as a trainee teacher – even though she was just a few years older than her charges.  During her first term she noticed her pupils were bored stiff, marking time until they could leave at 14. She therefore set out to teach them Addington Symond’s The Renaissance until one day she was interrupted by the Head who wanted to know why the students were no longer sitting still with their arms folded. Ellen haughtily responded: “They are sitting that way because I am interesting them”. Soon after, she was asked to leave her teaching post; the Head advised her that ‘missionary work’ might be more appropriate.

From 1924 until 1931 Ellen was MP for Middlesborough East. One of only four female MPs, the women were forced to share a single office, they could not eat in the dining room, and the one toilet reluctantly provided to them was a quarter mile walk away. After losing during the 1931 election, Ellen later took up a seat in Jarrow where she worked tirelessly on domestic issues air raid shelter preparations, pensions, stopping ‘pay day loans’ (reminiscent of the lenders currently in contention at present).

Despite her deep reservations towards Attlee as Labour leader, he still asked her to take the role of Minster for Education in his 1945 Cabinet. She was the first women to take the role, and only the second woman to enter the Cabinet. During her tenure she introduced free milk for all students, relentlessly pushed through the raising of the school leaving age to 15, and helped found UNESCO.

Plagued by illness through the last months of her life, Ellen died in February 1947. The coroner ruled that her death was caused by heart failure as a result of a drug overdose. The verdict stated that the overdose was accidental.

Is she a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Her status as the first female Education Secretary, plus her working class roots and exuberant personality mean that Wilkinson is fondly remembered. Unfortunately her short tenure, coming as it did during a financially tight time, plus her alleged ambivalence towards the ‘comprehensive ideals’ of the 1944 Education Act mean her contributions to education may not ultimately stand up to measure.

richard lawRichard Kidston Law, 1st Baron Coleraine PC

Born: 27 February 1901

Died: 15 November 1980 (aged 79)

Party: Conservative

Dates as Education Minister: 25 May 1945 – 26 July 1945 (62 days)

Age when Minister: 44 yrs (3m) to 44 yrs (5m)

Best Fact: Held position of Education Secretary for the shortest time, just 62 days.

Youngest son of ex-Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law, Richard held the position of Education Minister for just 62 days during Churchill’s caretaker government.

Educated first at Shrewsbury School and then at St. John’s College, Oxford, Law served Parliament for 23 years as an MP and a further 26 years as a peer – until his death in 1980.

As a hard ‘choice’ advocate we can only wonder what he might have done with the 1944 Education Act if he had remained in post. As it was, he had barely enough time for gathering paperwork before relinquishing the role to Ellen Wilkinson.

Is he a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Barely even in the race.

Rab ButlerRichard Austen Butler, Baron Butler of Safron Walden

Born: 9 December 1902, Attock Serai, British India

Died: 8 March 1982 (79), Great Yeldham, Essex

Party: Conservative

Dates as Education Minister: 20 July 1941  – 25 May 1945 (1405 days)

Age when Minister: 38 yrs (7m) – 42 yrs (5m)

Educated first in British India, ‘Rab’ Butler was later taught at Marlborough College and then Pembroke College, Cambridge. Like many other Education Secretaries after him, he was the President of the Cambridge Union Society.

In his Parliamentary career, Butler first acted as Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs before taking up the position as President of the Board of Education, then later the newly-invented role of Minister for Education. During his office Butler passed the landmark 1944 Education Act, the foundation for compulsory secondary schooling for all. After education, Butler subsequently served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister. He was the Saffron Walden MP for over 36 years.

Is he a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Yes. Oh yes.

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