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.