Teaching machines and Mrs Thatcher

I’m finishing off a conference paper on the history of industrial trainers in Britain. You might not find this a thrilling topic, though I’d argue that it contributes to our understanding of educational practices in the wider context of social and economic change. But as always in historical research, you find some intriguing odds and ends along the way.

I was distracted by an exchange in the House of Commons in 1971 between a Yorkshire MP and the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Here it is, in full:

Mr. Proudfoot asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what advice is available from her Department to education authorities on the subject of teaching machines.

Mrs. Thatcher Responsibility for the selection and purchase of equipment and materials rests with the local education authorities. It is open to them to seek advice from members of HM Inspectorate, and they frequently do so.

As Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher was notable mainly for ending the much-beloved policy of supplying free milk to school children. She also signed off the Russell Report on Adult Education, though she carefully delayed its implementation until after the following election.

But who was Mr Proudfoot, and what was his interest in teaching machines? Wilf Proudfoot was a Scarborough-based businessman, whose main interest was his chain of supermarkets, though he also branched out into commercial radio. He was elected MP for a West Yorkshire constituency in 1970 by a margin of 59, and lost the seat in 1974.

Proudfoot used his parliamentary status to lobby noisily and persistently for the interests of retailing and commercial broadcasting, earning him the nickname of ‘Radio Proudfoot’. For those who love an obscure anecdote, he also appointed a certain Christine Holman as his secretary – now the D-list celeb and ex-MP’s wife Christine Hamilton.

Proudfoot’s interest in teaching machines was straightforward. Like a lot of business owners, he saw training as a cost, and was keen to reduce it as far as possible. He was impressed by the claims made for teaching machines, which had been developed – with government support – on the basis of behaviourist theories of learning.

Basically, behaviourists based their approach to learning on a simple stimulus-response model of behaviour change. In short, you do not need to know what happens inside the brain during learning; what matters – and can be measured – are the changes in behaviour that result. New skills and knowledge can be taught piecemeal, in small linked sequences, with immediate feedback at every stage; progress to the next stage depends on the correct response.

Where there was large scale demand, these sequenced learning packages could be, and were, mechanised. It was widely believed that teaching machines were cheaper than humans, particularly for mass training, and they were also introduced into schools in areas such as language learning. Similar principles still underly some approaches to computer based learning today.

Meanwhile, you have to admire Thatcher’s ability to dodge a question – a skill she continued to exploit for some years. Wilf Proudfoot, meanwhile, trained as a hypnotherapist and went on to run his own practice in Scarborough.

For more on the history of behaviourism and training in Britain, see my paper at: http://www.academia.edu/1062180/Behaviourism_and_training_the_programmed_instruction_movement_in_Britain_1950-1975


4 thoughts on “Teaching machines and Mrs Thatcher

  1. I loved this piece, John! Thank you. I especially liked the clarity and relevance you packed into a short and perhaps to many not completely necessary explanation of behaviourism, with hints regarding its potentially baleful influences. Mrs. T’s careful footwork and Proudfoot’s clonky self-interestedness were also graphically touched in. The titbit about Christine Hamilton was icing on the cake! I hope you draw lots of interest with the forthcoming book.


    • Yes, Alastair, I’ve written about the IVS and its camps – and want to do further research on them, so I was grateful for your link. It was an important movement that must have had an enormous influence on its participants’ lives. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about them.

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