G C T Giles
Granville Trelawny Courtney – but always known as GCT Giles – was an old Etonian, find of recalling, in an amused way, both that Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had been his fag at school and that he was the head of one of the first comprehensive schools in
Britain. (For foreign readers, let me rush to explain that `fag’ is a near-archaic term for school boy servant [!] and that Eton is a notorious private school (perversely termed “public” in the UK and that comprehensive schools are what they say they are open to all.)
A Cambridge scholar who served in the army in the 1914-18 war. In its aftermath he served in disabled servicemen’s resettlement for the YMCA and then worked in journalism. His experiences in World War One seems to have shifted Giles towards first the Labour Party and then the Communist Party, in 1926; early influences included E.D. Morel and Sylvia Pankhurst.
Giles joined the Teachers Labour League (later Educational Workers League) in the 1920s. He was also an executive member of the Educational Workers International. He was headmaster of Acton County School from 1926 to 1956.
In the 1930s, he was involved in support for victimised teachers in Germany and Spain. Giles was on the National Committee of the British Committee for the Relief of German Teachers and was associated with the International Committee for the Relief of Victimised Teachers (he was particularly concerned with Spain).
From at least 1931, Giles played a significant role within the Communist Party’s Teachers’ Advisory. His particular advocacy of a struggle for a high Basic Scale as the main road to professional status evoked massive response. Giles was, year after year, unanimously elected as leader of the Middlesex Teachers’ Panel, effectively a negotiating forum. Middlesex teachers achieved particularly favourable conditions of service, largely due to the leadership of Giles in what was a model joint negotiating committee with the County Authority.
He became a member of the Executive of the National Union of Teachers, its Vice President in 1941, and eventually its President in 1944, the year of the ‘Butler’ Education Act. In that year he was also Chairman of the Teachers Panel of the Burnham Committee. Giles thus achieved a considerable degree of influence at a crucial period in British educational history, and did so in spite of his well known Communist sympathies – he was on the Executive Committee of the Party for about seven years.
Giles was a pioneer advocate of the Comprehensive School and his book, `The New School Tie’ and his famous lecture at a north of England educational conference in 1946 were landmarks in the campaign for comprehensive education. His considerable personal qualities seem to have enabled him to win the admiration of many with quite different views. He has been described (by Max Morris) as “a man of quite extraordinary charm, almost magnetic attraction and formidable persuasiveness”. Yet there were times, in 1940 and again from 1948 onwards, when Giles rightly feared for his job and, understandably, he and many Communists fought for a key NUT campaign to be for `security of tenure’ for teachers.
Even so, it was inside the NUT that internal attacks on the considerable Communist influence in the teaching profession began – with articles in ‘Teachers World’ in March and April 1948, which were part of what seems to have been a largely successful campaign to get candidates for office to declare whether or not they were members of the Communist Party. In 1948 this successfully undermined John Mansfield’s bid for the Vice-Presidency, and reduced Giles’ vote for the Executive.
In October 1948 the attack was renewed through what was later acknowledged to have been a fabrication – a widely circulated leaflet issued on behalf of the ‘Young Communist Action Group’, which turned out to be a fictitious body not part of either the Communist Party, or the Young Communist League. The leaflet demonstrated to the electors how to use the PR system to get the five Communist candidates elected. Its effect, as intended, was the reverse – Giles lost his place in 1949 and did not regain it until 1952. Communists, supported by others, pressed for an official NUT enquiry, its report failed to trace the source of the hoax.
MI5 files from 1949 on the perceived `penetration’ of the education system by the Communist Party were released in 2005. [Foreign Office paper FO 371/77385 1949 National Archives] One contains a note written in August of that year by MI5 on Communist attitudes towards education and the recruitment of teachers as what it saw as being part and parcel of “a struggle against the mastery of capitalism”.
The agency reported that it had infiltrated the Communist Party and obtained extensive internal information, despite the fact that the Party attached considerable significance to “the safeguarding of membership particulars”. It was said that the Communist Party of Great Britain attached “considerable importance” to recruiting teachers and that this was reflected in the Party having some 775 teachers amongst its then 38,766 membership.
The Foreign Office commented on the MI5 memorandum: “that education is considered not only as an important field for exploitation but also as analogous to an industry, is not perhaps without significance”. The report also touched upon Communist Party activities amongst Commonwealth and Empire students, and internal activity in the NUT aimed at gaining access to the leadership of the union.
Throughout the cold war period, considerable and vituperative open attacks on Giles in particular, and Communist teachers in general, were made in the press, especially in 1949; such campaigns used the safeguard against libel that comments in parliament provided, especially in 1954, when an onslaught against Giles was initiated by John Eden MP. In October 1950 Middlesex County Council refused to endorse the appointment of R P Neal (see entry on Reg Neal) to the headship of Bounds Green School, and then imposed a blanket ban on the appointment of Communists or Fascists to Headships.
The leading opponent of the Communists was the Chairman of the Education Committee, Alderman Hoare, a supporter of the anti-Communist group, ‘Common Cause’. By implication he accused Giles of Communist indoctrination in the school. Common Cause set up a Teachers Committee, which held a stormy local public meeting in 1953.
The dispute dragged on for years. Union embargos of posts proved ineffective, and the NUT failed to get a majority of Middlesex staff in 1956 to vote for a strike. It required a change of political control on Middlesex Council to reverse the ban. Giles retired from teaching in 1956.
Unquestionably, the NUT is today what it is, a genuine trade union and not a professional association, largely because of the principled and brave leadership that Giles and so many of his comrades gave in their day.
Giles and his wife Betsy, also a life-long Communist, lived in Chiswick, west London, for very many years.
A composite of many minor sources has been used to assemble this biography. But the following may be noted.
- The WCML archive possesses material donated after Giles’ death in October 1976. See:http://www.wcml.org.uk/tu/nut_giles.html
- Max Morris, G C T Giles Education For Tomorrow: No 68, 2000 reprint of `Education Today and Tomorrow’ fromshortly after Giles’ death
- National Archives – www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
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