Very Near The Line: An Autobiographical Sketch Of Education And Its Politics In The Thatcher Years by Donald Naismith
AuthorHouse, £9.95

The title of this interesting little book derives from an Appeal Court judgement by Lord Denning in 1971.

The case in question concerned 19-year-old Bradford student teacher Gillian Ward, who was appealing against her expulsion from Margaret McMillan teacher training college after she was discovered with a man in her room in the halls of residence, contrary to college rules.

The man who was said to have come very near to crossing the line of his responsibilities in the case, which Ward lost, was Donald Naismith, Bradford’s then-assistant director of further education.

Gillian Ward was in fact one of four young women accused of breaking the rules whose cases were heard by a college disciplinary committee, which Mr Naismith attended.

“It was clear that Gillian Ward’s offence stood out from those of the others and as such, I pointed out, deserved a greater penalty. The governors decided on expulsion,” he writes.

Although this case, which made headlines at the time, forms only a few of the book’s 130 pages, it allows the author to make a general point about the state of education in the early 1970s, a subject that was to prompt Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan to call for a national debate in October 1976 and spark former Conservative Education Secretary, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, to do something about it during the 11 years when she was Prime Minister.

“Ill-discipline in schools and colleges was becoming a major concern. The Gillian Ward affair took place against a background of widespread student unrest and militancy, spilling over from the 1960s.

“Then, throughout Europe, students had been on the march, most dramatically in Paris where they had almost brought down the government. Students in Bradford posed a reassuringly lesser threat.”

Nevertheless, Mr Naismith was sufficiently perturbed by the organisational disarray at Margaret McMillan, in the process of leaving local authority control, he felt obliged to take an interest.

It should not be inferred from this case that education in Bradford was historically lax. Mr Naismith outlines in the book’s introduction, Bradford’s education record, from its pioneering beginnings when run by an enlightened School Board, greatly outstripped national averages at elementary and secondary school levels in the late 1920s.

At the heart of the national upheavals in education during the 1980s and 1990s was, Mr Naismith contends, the failure by central government to understand how many people depended and would always depend on publicly-provided services for their start in life.

“I for one never forgot how much I owed the council school education I had received in the city of Bradford where I grew up, which had taken me, like countless others, from a working-class background to university.”

Between 1974 and 1994, as director of education for the London boroughs of Richmond-upon-Thames, Croydon and the Wandsworth, he saw at first hand the revolution in education that overthrew the bond between local and national government. This book is a memoir of Mr Naismith’s experiences.

Towards the end of the book he writes: “In viewing local government as irredeemably and inherently obstructive, Mrs Thatcher was mistaken. Her revolution would have made more headway had it enlisted the same capacity for innovation and cooperation shown by such local councils as Richmond, Croydon, Wandsworth and many others.”