Melchett the frustrated pioneer

The release of the 1979 papers reveals the acknowledgement of defeat over the last major attempt to get rid of academic selection. The champion was a long haired youth in his twenties, Lord Melchett, a Labour peer and NI minister at the time. Now heading up the Soil association and a militant opponent of GM foods, the old Etonian boy wonder of the day pressed ahead with a comprehensive Green Paper which described the proposed new fate of every secondary school. The openness was commendable and should be emulated today. But at the time – 1976 when it started – opinion dominated by the troubles was unprepared and the reforms were picked off one by one. However, Peter Melchett’s revised transfer procedure essentially survived until last year. From the quotations in historian Jonathan Bardon’s piece in the Irish Times, you can almost see the pursed lips of the leading civil servant’s damning with faint praise (really very courageous, minister). But in his mandarin fashion – (his successor would hardly have expressed it in quite the same way today) – he was imaginative enough to wonder about something that still puzzles me about the DUP’s education outlook, even if like me, you don’t see bog standard comprehensivisation as the solution.

“Another oddity is that, if there is solid ‘working-class’ support for reorganisation, it has failed to emerge. I do not believe this could have happened in England – there would be some expression of the view of the ordinary working man. We need to think about this.”

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As well as chasing the UU vote, you would think the DUP would be keener to advance the interests of their “working class” core. But of course, small “c” conservative instincts die hard.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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