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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”

While reading all the Education Secretary biographies I’m also thinking about ways to ‘measure’ their greatness. One academic working on a similar question is David G. Winter, a political psychology professor at the University of Michigan. Winter studies the personalities of US Presidents (in particular) and investigates whether certain personality types are more or less likely to become ‘great’ Presidents.

One of his early works “The Power Motive” (1973) argues that politicians have three main motives:

  • Affiliation – Wants to belong, be liked, favours collaboration over competition
  • Achievement – Wants to set and achieve stated goals, want to be ‘the first person’ to do something, thrive on overcoming difficult problems
  • Power – Wants to control and influence others, win arguments, gain status, enjoys competition and ‘winning’

By looking at the things President’s have said during ‘off-the-cuff’ interviews or speeches (and daily schedules of activities), Winter found that Presidents with a high “power” motive are mostly like to be rated rated as “great” by historians. Winter theorises that ‘Power’ people are more likely to be ‘great’ because they enjoy the feeling of being in charge so much that they even enjoy its downsides. Conversely, achievement and affiliation seekers become frustrated by the impossibility of achieving every goal or of being liked by everyone and therefore become disllusioned, withdrawn and leave their role earlier.

Could this explain Education Secretaries?

Ellen WilkinsonEllen Wilkinson – For much of Ellen’s life she appears to have held a ‘power’ motive however when selected as Minister, she appears to have gone into achievement overdrive absolutely obsessed with the implementation of the ‘Raising of the School Age’ and becoming very despondent when faced with difficulties. Several historians have argued this lack of ability to achieve what she wanted contributed to her untimely death while still in office.

Estelle MorrisEstelle Morris – Appears to be a classic example of affiliation. In her first interview after resignation she explained how she did not want togrow  “a thicker skin” to deal with the fact that people no longer liked her. Instead, she left the role.

Indeed, people often think that affiliation is the ‘nice’ motive – but the prickliness and defensiveness that comes when their motivation is shaken is not fun to work with.

Michael Gove

Michael Gove – So far Gove appears to be a classic “power” lover, perhaps most clearly revealed when recently questioned at an Education Select Committee about glitches in his policies he nonchalantly replied: “Coherence comes at the end of the process”. To think that whatever one does is inevitably going to come good suggests the motive is not meeting a clear goal, nor of being liked,  which leaves only one other choice!

This is only the start of my thinking about this issue, but it’s certainly an interesting thought. What has motivated past Education Secretaries? And does it matter?

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”

 

How many Education Secretaries can you recognise?

Skillful illustrator Malcolm Laverty has contributed a full set of Ed Secretary images to the site. Not only do they brighten up the site, but they also use styles that capture either the time period or tone set by each Minister. Have a look: how many can you name?. (Hovering the cursor over an image reveals the answer….)

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Education Secretaries by Malcolm Laverty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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