Mrs Chips

From school meals to school selection policies, Margaret Tulloch has been a tireless campaigner for state education for half a lifetime. She spoke to Laurie Penny

November 14, 2008
5 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.

When Margaret Tulloch’s children were six and eight years old, the Thatcher government scrapped the nutritional guidelines for school meals and allowed schools to outsource their catering. The company given charge of feeding her children in Merton, London, soon filled the school canteen with sugar, chips, fish fingers and other cheap fried food, claiming that this was what the pupils wanted to eat, not to mention returning the business a healthy profit.

Instead of meekly accepting the government’s corporatisation of her children’s mealtimes, Tulloch, now 62, decided to act. She joined her local parent-teachers’ association and started organising marches down Merton High Street to demand better standards of care for the borough’s young people.

So began half a lifetime of dedicated education activism. Tulloch, who originally worked as a researcher in microbiology, quickly became involved with CASE, the Campaign for State Education, serving as their spokesperson for 16 years until 2004. She is now a trustee of RISE (Research and Information on State Education), chair of the Advisory Centre for Education and secretary of Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for fair admissions, an end to selection in schools and a higher standard of quality state education for all.

Tulloch is a tireless protester against the social exclusion that results from school selection. ‘The focus of Comprehensive Future is to attempt to persuade the government to end selection at 11. We try not to talk about abolishing schools – we need all the schools we have – but instead about abolishing selection,’ she says. ‘All we want is a system where children don’t have to face tests that tell the majority of them that they’ve failed at a very early stage of their lives.’

Tulloch is doubtful that Labour has delivered on its education promises, and is particularly critical of initiatives such as allowing selection in specialist schools, foundation schools and academies.

‘The dying stages of the last Tory government allowed some schools to select on “aptitude”, but Labour has extended that,’ she says. ‘It’s shocking that we have a situation where we have more, not fewer children facing selection at 11 after ten years of a Labour government.’

She is disappointed that the legacy of the selective grammar school system continues, with the old 11-plus exam still casting its shadow over schoolchildren up and down the country: ‘A significant minority – a minimum of 15 per cent – of young children still face that barrier at the age of 11. In areas like Kent and Buckinghamshire there are families where three generations have failed the 11-plus, entrenching social stagnation.’

She is also no fan of academies. ‘Why is it necessary to take schools out of the maintained system in order to improve things for young people?’ Tulloch asks. ‘I’m horrified that this has happened under a Labour government. It’s a bit of a return to the 19th century when the great and the good were in charge of education. It’s entirely possible to improve standards without returning schools to the semi-secret world of selective, semi-private, corporate education.’

She acknowledges, however, that: ‘To be kind to this government, there was a strong lobby for early education in the 1980s with which CASE was involved, and the current Labour government has improved that immeasurably with programmes like Sure Start, although the impact will take a long time to be known.’ And she concedes that ‘we did a lot of campaigning about class sizes, and the incoming Labour government really listened to us over that’ when it imposed a limit of 30 pupils on primary school classes.

‘I don’t ever claim individual responsibility for achievements, but in terms of the campaigns that I was involved in through CASE over those years, I do think that we made a difference in terms of the involvement of parents in school organisation,’ she says. ‘When I first became involved in CASE, the idea that schools should help parents to help their children learn was virtually unknown. That concept has become much more accepted as the norm, and in terms of what the government considers important.’

‘The idea that people who are not teachers have a role in the accountability of schools has meant that education is more valued, and it’s more difficult for politicians to spend less on education,’ she continues.

‘No political party can now put education at the bottom of the pile. It used to be the case that when the education debate was called at the party conferences everyone would go and have a cup of tea – well, not any more!’

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) recently honoured Margaret Tulloch with the Fred and Ann Jarvis award for education campaigning by non-NUT members. She believes that activism is an essential tool for involving local communities in politics, and for changing the tide of political thought: ‘Its importance has to do with helping to create a climate of expecting things to be different, and pointing to areas where they should be.’

‘One of the first actions of the Thatcher government was to remove the nutritional guidelines for school dinners. Now we have a Labour government finally introducing them again. Clearly on the school meals front, change has finally come, although I do wish it had done more than come full circle. I wonder sometimes why I keep having to find these brick walls to bang my head against,’ says Tulloch. ‘Who knows – maybe I am a natural born rebel after all!’


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’