IN 1945 Leeds elected its first woman MP, Alice Bacon, a miner’s daughter from Normanton and a school teacher. Alice became MP for Leeds North East with one of the biggest swings to Labour in the country.
Alice was passionate about the ability of education to transform people’s lives. She was one of the lucky few who got a scholarship to go to the grammar school which opened up opportunities to Alice that most of her contemporaries at the secondary modern could never have dreamed of.
But from an early age Alice knew that the system was unfair. At age 11, children were branded as successes or failures and just one test decided the fate of young people; and at that time in Normanton it ultimately determined for boys whether you were destined for a life down the pits or not.
It became Alice’s political, social and personal mission to open up the chance of an excellent education for all, not just a privileged few with all the opportunities that meant a better future.
As an MP in the 1940s and 1950s, Alice gave speech after speech in the House of Commons on the value of education and the importance of “comprehensive” schools – she spoke on the subject more than any of her Parliamentary colleagues. And, as a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, she made sure it was at the top of Labour’s agenda at elections too.
By the 1960s Alice had the chance to put her politics into practice. With a Labour government, led by Huddersfield’s Harold Wilson, and with the Grimsby MP Antony Crosland as Education Secretary, comprehensive education was being established. The white heat of technology; the rise of the meritocracy; the aspirations of working class parents and their children; and a Labour government who wanted to break down vested interests and offer opportunity combined to see the advance of the comprehensive school and the demise of the grammar and secondary modern.
Alice Bacon was at the forefront of this movement. In 1967 Alice was moved from the Home Office to the Department for Education where she was responsible for schools policy. By the time Alice left the Department for Education in 1970, 32 per cent of all children were educated in comprehensives, up from just 10 per cent six years earlier. And it was a tide that not even Margaret Thatcher (Education Secretary 1970-74) could reverse, with 62 per cent of children taught in comprehensives by 1974.
Alice said that her commitment to comprehensive education “did not come from political dogma but from the reality of teaching in a secondary-modern school”. Alice was rooted in her community and wanted more children to have the chance to get on in life and succeed.
Forty-six years on from retiring from Parliament (Alice served as an MP 1945-1970, and remains the longest serving woman MP in Yorkshire), She would be dismayed to see that the Government are thinking of allowing more schools to select based on a crude exam.
Alice, comparing Tory Rab Butler’s Education Act to Thatcher’s direction of travel, once said that “Butler in ’44 was more progressive than Thatcher in 1970. She is yesterday’s women with yesterday’s ideas”.
Today Theresa May risks undoing social progress which will be bad for people’s life chances and for our economy; it risks too many young people being written off even before they have the chance to fly.
The truth is, selection at 11 for two different schools is divisive, unfair and entrenches inequality. Just 2.6 per cent of children at grammar schools are on free school meals compared with more than 15 per cent for all secondary schools. Poorer kids don’t get the private tutors that are often needed to get into selective schools.
Instead of entrenching privilege and focussing on good schools for a few, the Government should look at Alice’s record and priorities; ensuring all children get a good education, reducing class sizes especially for younger children, replacing dilapidated school building and improving teacher training. Alice and Harold Wilson’s governments have a good record of improving education for all.
I am proud of Alice’s legacy in Leeds and nationally. If this Government attempts to bring more selection into our schools, I will oppose it every step of the way.
Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West. Her book Alice Bacon: Picking your Battles will be published in the autumn.