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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.

93% of Education Secretaries attended private or grammar schools. Only two did not.

1 Rab Butler Marlborough
2 Richard Law Shrewsbury School
3 Ellen Wilkinson Ardwick school
4 George Tomlinson Rishton Wesleyan School
5 Florence Horsbrugh Lansdown House
6 Geoffrey Lloyd Harrow School
7 David Eccles Winchester
8 Edward Boyle Eton
9 Quintin Hogg Eton
10 Michael Stewart Christ’s Hospital
11 Anthony Crosland Highgate School
12 Patrick Gordon Walker Wellington
13 Edward Short College of the Venerable Bede
14 Margaret Thatcher Kevesten & Grantham Girls’ School
15 Reg Prentice Whitgift School
16 Fred Mulley Warwick School
17 Shirley Williams St Paul’s Girl School
18 Mark Carlisle Abingdon School
19 Keith Joseph Harrow School
20 Kenneth Baker Hampton Grammar
21 John MacGregor Merchiston Castle School
22 Kenneth Clarke Nottingham High School
23 John Patten Wimbledon College
24 Gillian Shephard North Walsham Girls School
25 David Blunkett Royal National College for the Blind
26 Estelle Morris Whalley Range Grammar
27 Charles Clarke Highgate School
28 Ruth Kelly Sutton High School
29 Alan Johnson Sloane Grammar School
30 Edward Balls Nottingham High School
31 Michael Gove Robert Gordon’s College

The first was brought to my attention by @oldandrewuk who pointed out that David Blunkett bucked the trend. Denied the opportunity to sit the test for grammar school, Blunkett was sent to the residential Royal National College for the Blind. Once there his teacher insisted blind children did not need qualifications and instead taught him to type.

The second escaped my radar because he barely went to school at all. Only when reading his biography did I learn that George Tomlinson became a cotton mill ‘half-timer’ when he was aged 12. By 13, he worked there full-time.

Does it matter?

One can argue that the place where a Minister is schooled doesn’t really matter. Yet when George Tomlinson took up post The Spectator did not see it that way. Their editorial said:

“To put the Ministry of Education, concerned as it is with the whole range of secondary schools, grammar, modern and technical, as well as the primary schools, in the hands of a man who left a primary school at the age of 12 and has had no other formal education at all – that, it must be said again, is a surprising proceeding which raises disturbing questions as to what the conception of education in the present Government’s view is.”

Funny how a similar furore was never kicked up about the very many Ministers from independent schools who had not experienced a single one of these school types.

245px-Sir_Winston_S_Churchill

When Rab Butler was summoned by Churchill to be informed of his new position as President of the Board of Education, Churchill was typically forthright.

Butler’s biography explains what Churchill said:

I now want you to go the Board of Education. I think that you can leave your mark there. You will be independent. Besides,” he continued, with rising fervour, “you will be in the war. You will move poor children from here to here,” and he lifted up and evacuated imaginary children from one side of his blotting pad to the other; “this will be very difficult”. He went on: “I am too old now to think you can improve people’s nature. Everyone has to learn to defend himself. I should not object if you could introduce a note of patriotism into the schools.” And then, with a grin, recalling our conversation the previous week, “Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec.”

When Butler said that he should like to directly influence the school curriculum but that such moves were commonly frowned upon, Churchill answered earnestly: Of course not by instruction or order but by suggestion”

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.

Ellen Wilkinson

FROM ELLEN:

On losing her Parliamentary seat: “It does an MP good to see that what he regarded as the centre of Britain’s whole life is to most folk a curious assembly with incomprehensible ways”

On transparency – “We do not doubt that justice, as a general rule, done. But it should always be remembered that justice is not enough. What people want is security for justice and the only security for justice is law publicly administered”

On the 1925 Zinoviev’s letter scandal – “A really good scare proves better than any argument”

On witticisms: “No authority can discipline anyone with a sense of humour”

On the BBC: “The BBC General is the judge of what we ought to want”

On house building: “I am sick of hearing about the sacred rights of private property. I want to hear about the sacred rights of human life”

On the grammar-school system: “If we are committed to three types of school one grand thing about the scheme is that it won’t work – at least not peacefully. It would hit the middle classes who would scream. Pupils of grammar or technical ability (with high IQ) should be separated on a functional basis, not by going to physically different/separate schools…let the lower IQs find their level in separate classes; arouse [their] interest by a practical side to their tuition; but don’t let the stigma of lower IQs attach itself to the whole school”

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FROM OTHERS:

Paddy Scullion’s memory of Ellen: “Full of fire in a short fur coat”

Amy Mitchell on why Ellen remained unmarried – “Ellen was always so anxious to put the world to rights that love affairs had to wait”

Jack Lawson, Methodist Minister, on her death: “Quite simply (her passion) arose from the urge of compassion for mankind and a vision of the world that might be”

 

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.

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