What if Jim Callaghan had won the 1979 election? – education and society in multi-ethnic Britain, an essay in subjunctive history

Image © Allan Warren

Robin Richardson

‘Thinking about what might have happened,’ says a character in The History Boys by Alan Bennett, ‘alerts you to the consequences of what did.’ Another character replies: ‘It’s subjunctive history … The subjunctive is the mood you use when something might or might not have happened, when it’s imagined.’

‘We told Rampton,’ reflected and rejoiced people of African-Caribbean heritage in Britain in 1981, ‘and Rampton told the world.’ Anthony Rampton’s report, West Indian Children in our Schools, had been warmly welcomed by the prime minister, James Callaghan, and by the secretary of state for education, Shirley Williams. The report’s essential message was that England’s education system was institutionally racist. Day by day in schools, it declared, a perfect storm of customs and policies worked against the interests of Black people and to the advantage and benefit of white people. This was an uncomfortable message for Mr Callaghan, who had not said anything remotely similar in his celebrated Ruskin speech in 1976. But his positive response to the Rampton report, supported and reinforced by Mrs Williams, laid the foundations for one of the most exciting and sustained  revolutions in education and society that these islands have ever seen.

Rampton’s document was the interim report of a committee of inquiry set up by Mrs Williams in 1979. Her decision to create the committee had been informed by a report published in 1977 by the House of Commons select committee on race relations and immigration; by the damning claim in 1969 by E J B Rose (co-founder of the Runnymede Trust) in his magisterial Colour and Citizenship that African-Caribbean children  were ‘a source of bafflement, embarrassment and despair in the education system’, and that they ‘often presented problems which the average teacher was not equipped to understand, let alone to overcome’; and by a seminal essay published in 1971 by a young teacher in London named Bernard Coard, who had been born in Grenada. Read more of this post