The Yellow Book (1976)

The Yellow Book (1976) (text)

School Education in England:
problems and initiatives

The Yellow Book (1976)

Secretary of State for Education and Science

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

Background notes

The Yellow Book was commissioned by Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and produced by the DES. It was supposed to be secret but was widely leaked to the press.

I am grateful to Professor Clyde Chitty for kindly loaning me his copy of the Yellow Book, from which the text presented here was prepared.

He has also provided the following introduction to it:

A good deal of mystery and speculation surrounds the origins and significance of the so-called Yellow Book (proper title: School Education in England: Problems and Initiatives), which was completed in early July 1976. In particular, there have been two popular misconceptions about its authorship and influence: firstly, that it represented the thinking of Her Majesty's Inspectorate (HMI), on the state of school education in the mid-1970s; and, secondly, that it was the basic inspiration for the Ruskin College Speech, which was delivered by Prime Minister James Callaghan in Oxford later in the year, on 18 October 1976, and which inaugurated the Great Debate on Education (1976-77).

Interviewed by Clyde Chitty in July 1986, former Senior Chief Inspector of Schools Sheila Browne (1974 to 1983) denied HMI responsibility for most of the sentiments expressed in the Yellow Book, and emphasized that it was the work of DES officials without significant HMI input. For example: the Document's criticism of many of the new trends in primary-school teaching would not have been made by an Inspectorate which had done so much to pioneer 'progressive' methods, in the wake of the 1967 Plowden Report. And Sheila Browne's version of events is substantiated by a close examination of the style and language of the Yellow Book itself where we find a number of phrases, which also appear in other DES publications of the period.

Where authorship of the final version of the Ruskin College Speech is concerned, Prime Minister Callaghan made it clear in his book of memoirs, Time and Chance, published in April 1987, that this was the work of the Downing Street Policy Unit, established by Harold Wilson in 1974, and headed in 1976 by Bernard Donoughue. Confusion arose because it was decided to 'leak' sections of the Yellow Book to The Guardian and The Times Educational Supplement, a few days before the Prime Minister delivered his key Speech. This was obviously intended to prepare Callaghan's audience for what they were about to hear, but it also gave credence to the view that the two documents must be intimately connected. In reality, Donoughue wanted the Speech to be seen by the media as a forthright statement of the need to make schools and teachers more accountable, and as a direct challenge to the teaching profession in general, and to the National Union of Teachers in particular.

That said, and despite its limited circulation, the Yellow Book is an important document in its own right, and can be viewed as a DES attempt to restore public confidence in the state education system, at a time when it was regularly coming under attack in sections of the media. Of its many themes, three stand out as being of particular significance: the need to establish generally accepted principles for the composition of a 'core curriculum' for the secondary school; the need to make suitable provision for vocational elements within the curriculum; and the need to challenge the view that 'no one except teachers has any right to any say in what goes on in our schools'.

Clyde Chitty
April 2015

The document online

The complete document - including the appendices - is presented here in a single web page.

The original A4-size document was typewritten, with no formatting other than centred headings and underlining.

I have corrected a handful of typing errors. Otherwise, the text presented here is as printed in the original.

The charts are presented as images and are embedded in the text where they were in the printed version.

The above notes were prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 5 May 2015; they were revised on 6 May 2021.