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!’