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Department for Education and Science

Much of what was taught in schools in the 1970s was left to teachers. The official Departmental line was that the curriculum was left to schools and local authorities to decide although they funded the Schools Council as a body to promote curriculum change. In 1972 a senior civil servant wrote:

My Department does not intervene directly in what is taught in schools - this is a matter for the local education authorities and, in certain instances, the governors of schools. A separate national body exists for sponsoring research and development in the school curriculum. This is the Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations. It is an independent body financed jointly by this Department and by local education authorities. As a deliberate act of policy, the bulk of our financial support for this sort of work is channelled through the Schools Council - about £3/4m a year at present. ( McCulloch et al, 1985 p.181)

The Great Debate

In the context of the economic downturn of the mid-1970s, James Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin College speech reflected growing public concerns that the UK was not being well- served by its schools. The speech mooted the idea of a national 'core curriculum'. Shortly afterwards, under Shirley Williams as Labour Secretary of State, the Department of Education and Science and Her Majesty's Inspectors published a series of papers on curriculum issues, many of which criticised both primary and secondary schools for the lack of balance in their curriculum and for their failure to develop sufficiently planned curricula that took account of the changing needs of industry and society. Circular 14/77, which asked local education authorities about the curriculum in their areas, found substantial variation in curriculum policy across the country.

An indication of the Department of Education and Science's determination to take greater control of curriculum matters, in 1979 the Conservative Secretary of State, Mark Carlisle, oversaw the abolition of the Schools' Council and its replacement with the School Curriculum and Development Committee and the Secondary Examinations Council, the members of which were appointed by the Secretary of State (Report of Parliamentary Select , Children Scools and Families 2008).

The Growth of Quangos

A central trend of British life from the mid-nineteenth century has been the expansion of the role of government. This trend strained the notion of ministerial responsibility (Cole, 2005). Ministers were no longer able to exercise effective oversight over all the activities of their departments and many legislative, administrative and judicial powers were delegated to semi-independent bodies. During the 1930s and 1940s quasi-governmental bodies (Quangos) were established ranging from those that regulated agriculture, (the Wheat Commission, the Livestock Commission and the Sugar Commission) to those that provided funding for the arts (The Arts Council).

In Education bodies such as the Schools Council, Council for Educational Technology

Increasing criticism




The Pliatzky report

Soon after her election victory in 1979, the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, set up a critical review of non-departmental public bodies. She asked Sir Leo Pliatzky to examine non-departmental public bodies in different categories, asking questions which encouraged them to consider reducing the scope of their activities. He disliked the name quango:

'The special feature common to these bodies is that they are non-departmental and, so far from their being altogether non governmental, one of the reasons given for concern about them is that they may represent not only a spread of patronage but a concealed growth of government which does not show up in the size of the civil service.' (Pliatzky 1980)

In all, Pliatzky identified 487 executive bodies, with expenditure on capital and current account approaching £5,800 million, and employing approximately 217,000 staff. In addition, Pliatzky identified 1,561 advisory bodies, and found that it was impossible to count the number of tribunals constituted each year.

The effect of the Pliatzky Report was to encourage the abolition of executive bodies, advisory bodies and tribunals. The Government made statements from time to time announcing how many bodies had been abolished and how much money had been saved as a result. The Report itself recommended 30 executive bodies for abolition in 1980 alone, and estimated that the abolition programme would save the taxpayer £12 million per year at 1980 prices.


However ... This tacit acceptance of quangos was also reflected in the establishment of new and significant bodies, an example being the Docklands Development Corporation. "From the mid-1980s onwards the government's scepticism about the capacity of local authorities to deliver effective public services, and the desire to by-pass councils that were controlled increasingly by political opponents, led to the establishment of 'several new classes of quango"
Michael Cole












Cole, M., Quangos: The Debate of the 1970s in Britain, Contemporary British History Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2005, pp. 321–352, Routledge

McCulloch, G. Jenkins, E. and Layton, D. (1985) Technological Revolution Falmer Press, Lewes

Pliatzky Report