Monday, 8 April 2013

Thatcher: Education Secretary

"We construct simple images of politicians but look carefully at the records of Thatcher, Reagan, Carter, etc. and those images dissolve."
Canadian author Dan Gardner on twitter earlier today

For a conviction politician Baroness Thatcher's could be extremely pragmatic. Nothing shows this side of her political character better than her time at the Department of Education and Science (1970-74).

Her own views were typical for a Tory at that time: a supporter of selective education with a traditional curriculum; concerned that universities were full of time-wasting hippies and so on. Yet she abolished more grammar schools than anyone else; defended the right of teachers to define their own curriculum and secured funding, against the Treasury's wishes, for a significant expansion of Higher Education.

Her first act as Secretary of State was more in keeping with her reputation. She scrapped the requirement that Labour had placed on LEAs to move to a comprehensive system. This, though, had little effect as most council's plans were too far progressed.

(Nevertheless the press - including most of the Tory papers - thought she had gone too far. The Sun wrote "it is wrong to abandon the target of making all state secondary education comprehensive...Mrs Thatcher's idea of leaving everything to local choice - or local chance - won't work.")

She was unable to convince many councils to retain selective education and ended up signing through 3,284 schemes for comprehensivisation. Under her stewardship the number of children in comprehensives doubled from 30% to 60%.

There was, perhaps, little she could have done to halt the flood but it's interesting that she didn't really try to fight. She could, for instance, have tried to persuade cabinet colleagues to legislate to give her more power to stop structural reform. Until her final years she had a good eye for the fights she could win and she knew this wasn't one of them.

Her views on pedagogy were solidly traditional. She had a strong dislike of what she saw as "value-free" child-centred teaching. But again she did nothing to challenge the standard view of the time that politicians had no business interfering in the classroom. Indeed soon after taking office she gave a liberal defence of the status quo: "A Minister should not have power over ideas...I would not like to see over here a system as in France where all schools keep to the same curriculum". (Of course she changed her mind as Prime Minister - though she thought Ken Baker's curriculum was far too long.)

Her major achievement as Education Secretary was to use her legendary stubbornness to win significant extra funding for her department. Her 1972 Education White Paper ("A Framework for Expansion") promised a 50% increase in spending over the next ten years - which puts the £9 million saved from her infamous school milk cuts into some perspective. This spending led to further increases in numbers going to Higher Education; new primary school buildings and a large increase in the number of teachers. Even more ambitious plans for free nursery places were scrapped as the economic downturn gathered pace.

These proposals were so popular that she won over many educationalists who had initially scorned her as a right-wing Tory. She even won a standing ovation at the 1972 NUT conference.

Her own memoirs suggests she was somewhat embarrassed by her record at the DES describing the 1972 White Paper as "all too typical of those over-ambitious, high-spending years..."

Nevertheless she accepted the praise at the time and her comparative success set her up for a long-shot leadership challenge....

(Quotes taken from John Campbell's biography)


  1. Thank you Sam - an excellent and insightful commentary into what else Thatcher achieved in a period best remembered for one policy, where she "incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit".

  2. "But again she did nothing to challenge the standard view of the time that politicians had no business interfering in the classroom."

    I think you hit on a key point here, it just wasn't politically conceivable (in a mainstream party political sense) that the behaviour/performance of our schools and LEAs should be seriously scrutinised and tackled in that era by Ministers. It was a light-touch regime that allowed institutional mediocrity to thrive.

    It is a rich irony that she presided over a Government that introduced the National Curriculum.

    I also find it equally fascinating that Keith Joseph proved to be relatively un-radical (by his own standards) as Secretary of State for Education and Science.

    I also think it's a shame that she didn't seek to put more rocket boosters under the school autonomy agenda in the late 1980s. Surely it was an idea that might have appealed strongly? Yes we had the first tranche of GM schools and a handful of CTCs, but did the growth of school autonomy and the breaking of the LEA choke-hold have to be such a slow-burn agenda over the last 20-25 years, given the political capital she had?

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