Thatcher’s education legacy

Chris Husbands

She established more comprehensive schools than any other secretary of state for education. She raised the school leaving age.  She set up the Bullock Committee which produced a ground-breaking report on language and learning still held in awe by teachers of English.  She accepted the James Report on teacher training and in-service education recomend that teachers should be released for in-service training for periods equivalent to one term in every 7 years of service. Her most substantial White Paper –  Education, A Framework for Expansion –  envisaged that within ten years “nursery education should become available without charge to those children of three and four whose parents wish them to benefit from it” , that the number of teachers in schools would increase by 10% above the number required to maintain existing class size.  She was given a standing ovation at a National Unions of Teachers conference.  She set up the commission which produced the  Warnock Report on special educational needs, and the legislation based on the report introduced the concept of statementing to secure appropriate provision for children with additional learning needs.  Her government funded the most lavish programme of technical and vocational curriculum development the country had ever seen.

She did not introduce local financial management of schools – that had been done by local authorities such as Solihull – but the 1986 Education Act extended financial management to all schools. She did not introduce parental choice – which still does not exist as a legal right in England – but the 1981 Education Act gave parents the right to express a preference on which school their children should go to. She introduced the first statutory entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum England had seen.  Her 1988 Education Act introducing this national curriculum was, at the time, the largest single piece of legislation Parliament had enacted, though she subsequently regretted the excessive detail the act had introduced. She introduced national testing at 7, 14, 11 and 16.  The ‘City Technology Colleges’ introduced in 1988 prefigured City Academies;   ‘grant maintained schools’ – for all practical purposes revised as converter academies in 2010 – were harbingers of autonomous schools. She abolished tenure for university academics. For many years she was nicknamed ‘milk snatcher’ for the 1972 decision to remove free school milk for children over  the age of 7.

This was the education legacy of Margaret Thatcher. As an expansionist secretary of state for education in the Heath government of the 1970s and as a dominating Prime Ministerial figure in the 1980s she straddled two quite different eras in educational politics:  the period of confident expansion and investment which preceded the economic crisis of 1976, and the period of painful adjustment to financial realities of the 1980s.   Her legacy shapes education:  universal nursery education, prefigured in the 1973 White Paper is now seen as a cornerstone of social policy. The education participation age raised in 1973 is now being raised again.  No British government will ever abandon the idea of a National Curriculum, nor will local financial management ever be rolled back. Her legacy defines the education world which we all operate in and it was not substantially changed by John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron nor any of the ten secretaries of state for education who have held office in the twenty four years since she left Downing Street.

Her legacy remains divisive: divisive between those who see competition, market forces and the accompanying accountabilities  as drivers of higher efficiency, improved performance and greater transparency,  and those who see them as corrosive of collaboration, community and professional integrity. But however divisive the debates remain, the 1973 White Paper and the rather different 1986 and 1988 Education Acts continue to shape the debate about education. It was an earlier Conservative minister for education, David Eccles, who in 1960 spoke of the curriculum as a ‘secret garden’ into which politicians should not venture.   Margaret Thatcher, as secretary of state and as Prime Minister tore down the walls of the secret garden – well, comprehensively.

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Posted in Chris Husbands
22 comments on “Thatcher’s education legacy
  1. jimsweetman says:

    Yes, I agree the potency of the legacy but you’re too kind. She manufactured the de-professionalising of teachers by turning the public against them and that has been, and is, intensely damaging. Here’s my take:

    • Chris Husbands says:

      It was the potency of the legacy i wanted to get over, and the important point about comprehensive school!

      • 3arn0wl says:

        I wonder if the rise of the comprehensive school is paralleled with the rise of the independent school? Grammar & Secondary Modern vs State & Independent. The apartheid of education constant?

  2. I could have sworn milk was removed from secondaries by Labour in 1968 and that Maggie wanted to keep milk for OVER 7s but Heath overruled her?

    • jimsweetman says:

      You’re correct on the first point. Thatcher claimed to have learned a lesson from the milk snatching – that the political odium outweighed the savings … I don’t know about Ted Heath, who does?

  3. “The right to express a preference…” – this phrase meant exactly and only that, but it was openly peddled as parental choice. It was a cruel myth, believed by many voters, and over the years has created havoc among school managers and turmoil in families.

  4. It was James Callaghan who made the greater contribution to opening up the “secret garden” of the curriculum, in his Ruskin College speech of 1976, and the political focus on education, pedagogy, raising standards and a relevant “core curriculum” were almost all initiated at that time.

  5. 3arn0wl says:

    David Eccles’ instinct regarding the National Curriculum was and still is right!

  6. Miss Honey says:

    Thatcher broke into the garden and thereby began the process of ever-increasing political interference and control which has led to the present sorry state, in which teachers cower in their schools and faculties of education under the constant surveillance of the political police (Ofsted).

  7. The issue of the inviolability of the ‘secret garden’ is a moot point. In most countries, schools and education professionals are accountable to some degree to the nation they serve, and our country should be no different. It’s generally a question of balance.
    I always felt (from the first moment I read it) that Callaghan’s Ruskin speech was a critical turning point. He initiated many changes and – for his time – he got the balance right. As in so many things, Thatcher was unbalanced.
    Also, to be fair to Tony Blair, his governments injected funding into education when it was in a desperate mess. I remember too well the awful years of the mid-1990s, with overcrowded and crumbling schools in chaos. That decline was halted for a while – until the madness of Michael Gove arrived on the scene.

  8. Miss Honey says:

    There is a difference between accountability and control. We were accountable to HMI. We are subject to Ofsted. The power to enforce absolute compliance under threat of closure, which is what many faculties of education face, let alone schools, takes political interference well beyond mere accountability.

    There is a story told of Margaret Thatcher suggesting to the last truly independent head of HMI that she would “send in my inspectors”. To which she got the reply, “They are not your inspectors, Prime Minister, they are Her Majesty’s Inspectors.”

    Accountability not political control.

    • On that point, you are dead right, Miss Honey!
      I think that’s what I meant by balance – the spectrum of accountability goes from reasonable to unreasonable, and the area of dogma-driven interference, where we are now, is classic Thatcherism, reincarnated in mad Michael Gove-ism.
      Fortunately, I think most HMIs understand this – though perhaps not all.

  9. […] “Thatcher’s education legacy” (IOE Blog) […]

  10. Jessica says:

    For anyone interested in these subjects the IOE Archives holds a wealth of documents that give the acts, reports and papers mentioned in Chris’ post historical context. There is too much to list here but a few searches show that we hold a variety of material on the school leaving age debate ; the full set of papers of the Bullock Committee; a search on the
    James Report will bring up this list; and the oldest document we hold on school milk dates from 1921

  11. […] out on Twitter last week, and at its heart was Margaret Thatcher. There has been much talk in the educational world about the former Prime Minister’s legacy to schools and universities.  Like almost everything she […]

  12. Beth Budden says:

    Reblogged this on bethbuddenteacher and commented:
    A very topical debate…

  13. Alex Rendall says:

    I realise that your list is not intended to be fully comprehensive, but one important measure which you did not mention in your article was Clause 28. Admittedly this was not ostensibly an Education policy (being part of the 1988 Local Government Act) but its effect on educational institutions and their ability to provide support to LGBT students should not be underestimated or forgotten. As a student I was fortunate that I had teachers at my school who were not afraid to talk about LGBT issues openly, despite the Clause forbidding local authorities to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Thatcher’s legislation forced (and in some cases, allowed) many schools and colleges to ignore the problem of homophobic bullying, which had a terrible effect on LGBT young people who would have benefitted from support from their teachers and peers at such a difficult time in their lives.

    • Chris Husbands says:

      You are quite right and I realised the Cl 28 was an omission from my list. Thankyou for drawing it to attention.

  14. […] legacy defines the educational world we all operate in”, continued the Institute for Education director and “was not substantially changed by John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron nor […]

  15. […] There is also little doubt that many of the changes will be long-lasting and will permanently change the face of education. Academy policy in England is the most obvious example, but Labour have said that with the exception of the non-QTS policy they wouldn’t change the other reforms either. In historical terms, no education secretary achieved so much in their time of office and long gone are the days when politicians felt education should be left to those who knew what they were talking about. […]

  16. […] may therefore be bewildered to know that it was the aspirational Margaret Thatcher who established more comprehensives than any other Secretary of State for Education. She was also responsible for introducing the national curriculum and the dreadful GCSE […]

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