Shirley Williams at the Labour Party Conference, Brighton, 1979. (Mike Lawn/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Shirley Williams – her legacy for education

Shirley Williams secured a selective school for her own daughter – but did not understand why other parents might want that choice


Whenever a senior British politician dies, irrespective of what they achieved, it is only a matter of days before a talking head in a late night television studio will quote, pityingly,  Enoch Powell’s famous truism that all political careers end in failure, and that whatever the recently deceased accomplished in office has no lasting legacy.  

It’s easy to see how this neat, rather reductive, statement can be applied to figures like Benn, Foot, Crosland, Joseph, each of whom are now fading from our collective memory, but perhaps less so to Wilson, Thatcher and (the very much still alive) Blair, because each of these seem honoured to have ongoing and contested legacies. If Powell’s observation is mostly accurate, then perhaps the only way we can judge if a political career was a success is if, alive or dead, Labour or Tory, they continue to generate outrage on Twitter and on the Op-Ed pages of the Guardian and The Spectator.

How then should we judge Shirley Williams, who died on Monday? There is no doubt that Williams’s death has brought to an end an astonishing political life. How many ambitious MPs dream of founding a political party and actually go on to achieve it? It’s not easy (just ask Chuka Umunna). But when the Gang of Four founded the Social Democratic Party they set in train a series of events which, unintentionally, helped them create a more moderate – and electable – Labour Party (until Miliband and Corbyn put a stop to such self-indulgent silliness). But the SDP ended in failure, so, well, there’s Powell’s damning judgement again.

But sometimes it is these unintentional consequences that stubbornly survive not only politicians’ careers, but do so in opposition to what they actively campaigned for. They become inverted legacies, and so too it is likely to be for Williams, and nowhere more so than in education. Should you care to read the many obituaries over the coming days, or the inevitable pieces written by other fading politicians, a theme which will inevitably dominate them will be education.

It is here, the econiums will state, where Williams’s passions lay, and it is in schools where her impact was most felt. Williams, Secretary of State for Education from 1976 to 1979,  was a vocal critic of grammar schools and a strong supporter of comprehensives: “I have never in any way regretted them and I still believe strongly in them” she said in 2012 (although that didn’t stop her moving as close as she could to the highly-selective Godolphin and Latymer School so that her daughter could attend it before it became a private school in 1977, politely turning down the opportunity of converting to being a comprehensive school). 

It is typical of many of the opponents of choice in our school system that they have not only benefited from academic or financial selection themselves (Williams attended St Paul’s Girls School) but that they also want to deny such a privilege to others. Tony Benn attended Westminster, Tony Crosland went to Highgate, and Jeremy Corbyn surrounded himself with former public schoolboys who all despised the elitism they personified and strongly believed in schools they did their best to avoid. The comprehensive school model is, for the Labour Party, close to being as beyond criticism as the NHS. In fact, this is increasingly so for the Conservative Party as well (when was the last time you saw a Tory politician photographed in a fee-paying school, or saying anything remotely generous about schools that are outside the state system?).

the abolition of direct-grants is “still probably the UK’s worst-ever education policy”

Although the NHS and comprehensives share many similarities (most obviously being free at the point of use), state schools have never been as loved by the great British public as our hospitals, nor have teachers been as idolised as nurses and doctors (nobody clapped for us when the schools reopened, no school-inspired Danny Boyle tributes featured in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics). Perhaps that is because the profession is blighted with trade unions that are, for the most part, a national embarrassment. Or it could also be that too many comprehensive schools simply don’t work well enough, and never have. If they did, then independent schools wouldn’t need to exist. 

But not only have fee-paying schools survived the educational reforms that Williams played such a part in shaping, they have thrived partly because of them. The assault on grammar schools, and on other manifestations of academic elitism, her and her party’s promotion of educational meritocracy, consistently failed to meet the aspirations of parents who were ambitious for their children and did not much like the look of the local secondary school.  It was Williams who was responsible for the abolition of direct-grants which, according to Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute is “still probably the UK’s worst-ever education policy”, and one which Margaret Thatcher quickly tried to mitigate by introducing the Assisted Places Scheme (which helped around 75,000 children gain access to schools they could never have dreamt of attending, transforming their lives in turn). 

If the vision for schools that Williams so strongly believed in was shared by the electorate then we would not now have a fragmented (or, if you want to be generous, diverse) educational system that is dominated by academies, as well as single sex schools, faith schools, grammar schools and secondary moderns, and, of course,  fee-paying schools, many of which are heavily over-subscribed.  

Of course, constant political meddling and underfunding has contributed to this state of affairs, but you could also make a strong case that selection – anathema to the comprehensive ideal that Williams fought so hard for – is deeply embedded in the ambitions of parents and cuts across class and political allegiances. Being unable to accept this, being unwilling to understand what the public want, preferring instead to adhere to policies which one feels the public need is, too often, an act of failure.

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