Rishi Sunak's maths plan: why James Callaghan's Great Debate on education is a lesson from history

There are historical parallels in the Prime Minister's maths speech with James Callaghan's Great Debate, which may not bode well for Sunak, writes Steven Fielding

Rishi Sunak's maths plan is reminiscent of James Callaghan's Great Debate (Image: Kim Mogg / Getty)Rishi Sunak's maths plan is reminiscent of James Callaghan's Great Debate (Image: Kim Mogg / Getty)
Rishi Sunak's maths plan is reminiscent of James Callaghan's Great Debate (Image: Kim Mogg / Getty)

A few months after entering Number 10, an embattled Prime Minister declared, in a widely publicised speech, that there was an urgent need to rethink how the country educated its young, so to equip them better for life after school and particularly for the world of work.

James Callaghan, for it was he, hoped to provoke a Great Debate on education when he spoke at Ruskin College, Oxford in October 1976. He succeeded; and the consequences of that debate have been profound. The autonomy of educators has been decisively eroded in favour of direct ministerial intervention, leading to a national curriculum, a greater emphasis on the basics of literacy and numeracy and a firm stress on measurable outcomes. Arguably, Callaghan’s Great Debate culminated in the controversial reforms of Michael Gove when Education Secretary in David Cameron’s government.

It is not clear how the Labour Prime Minister would view such a legacy. But his was a speech with impact, one moreover backed by Callaghan’s genuine interest in the subject: as a working-class boy whose formal schooling ended at the age of 14, he knew how important education could be.

The current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, could not be more different to Callaghan. Educated at one of Britain’s most expensive private schools and so almost inevitably an Oxford graduate, he has nonetheless also recently made a speech on education. Sunak’s intervention has been more focused, but his intentions are strikingly similar being concerned an ‘anti-maths mindset’ is holding back pupils, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, and harms their prospects in later life but also that of the wider economy. To that end, Sunak has appointed a group of advisors to explore the merit of creating a new maths qualification and making students study the subject until they are 18.

Few actively oppose Sunak’s objective of placing a greater importance on maths, although a YouGov poll taken on the day of his speech found 68% of Britons did not think anyone should be embarrassed by being bad at the subject. Most criticism has focused on the need for a significant increase in education funding if the Prime Minister’s words are to have any results. With state schools running out of money, teachers under-paid, over-worked and now increasingly on strike, this is by no means a small concern. But it is not unprecedented: back in 1976, Callaghan’s speech was interrupted by students protesting at his government’s cuts to the education budget.

It is said that, as with Callaghan’s Great Debate, Sunak’s intervention on behalf of maths is the result of a heartfelt and deeply personal interest. Perhaps it is, but it would be naïve not to imagine that there are other motives in play. Even Callaghan was accused at the time of having selfish political interests in making his speech.

Callaghan’s government was trying to solve Britain’s profound economic problems by keeping incomes down and curtailing spending. This caused him much trouble within his own party, many of whose members demanded more socialism instead of, as the Cabinet minister Tony Benn saw them, watered-down Conservative policies. Voters were not exactly enamoured either and Callaghan’s Great Debate was one way he hoped to build a bridge between himself and disgruntled Britons, especially those who flirted between Labour and the Conservatives. It worked to the extent that his speech was well received by the right-wing press, which saw it as marking a move against ‘progressive’ teachers and the restoration of more traditional methods.

This helped reinforce Callaghan’s own personal popularity, for the Labour Prime Minister, who enjoyed a calm, reassuring even avuncular persona was always rated more highly than the Conservative leader, a certain Margaret Thatcher. But this was not enough to prevent Thatcher leading her party back into power in May 1979, largely a result of Callaghan’s inability to prevent a ‘winter of discontent’ due to millions of public sector workers, fed up with squeezed living standards, going on strike.

Rishi Sunak is currently also much more popular than the Conservative party he leads. Party strategists hope his reputation as a professional, pragmatic problem-solver will have positive consequences for the party come the next election. Certainly, since he replaced Liz Truss, Labour’s massive poll lead over the Conservatives has narrowed. Along with his more partisan Five Pledges, Sunak’s ostensibly apolitical speech on maths is part of the attempt to further project Sunak’s super-competent persona, being the kind of apparently sensible and moderate initiative that might impress voters uncertain who to support in 2024.

James Callaghan’s experience however suggests that on its own this will not be enough. However well-disposed voters might be to a party leader, it is their party that still ultimately matters; and if the government they lead is not seen to be fixing the country’s basic problems, then, come election time, a nice speech on the future of education, one whose consequence lie years into the future, will not save them.