Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.


  share     tweet  

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!’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

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


Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle