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Primary Education News
News Margaret Thatcher's education legacy is still with us – driven on by Gove
From 'Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher' to the national curriculum and 'open enrolment', her legacy endures, says Peter Wilby
Margaret Thatcher, it has often been observed, approved the creation of more comprehensives between 1970 and 1974 than any education secretary before or since. That is not the only paradox surrounding her educational legacy. The aim of her premiership was supposedly to take the state out of people's lives. Yet, during the Thatcher years, central government established tighter control over schools, colleges and universities than ever before.
Her premiership saw a profound change in the ecology of education. Once, ministers largely accepted that "the experts" – schoolteachers and their unions, university lecturers, teacher trainers, local education authority officers – knew best and could be trusted to act, not only in children's and parents' interests, but also for the wider social and national good. The government's role was to provide sufficient resources, subject only to economic constraints and competing budgetary demands.
From the mid-1980s, however, ministers behaved as though education were an ailing, near-bankrupt industry. Their role was to challenge, even denigrate, the views of "insiders", to demand value for money, to impose performance management, to root out endemic "failure" and to insist on what they saw as customer satisfaction. This attitude continued through Labour as well as Tory governments. Future historians may see the years 1997–2010, which seemed ones of frenetic activity at the time, as just a pause in a revolution begun by Thatcher and Kenneth Baker, her most hyperactive education secretary, and completed by Michael Gove.
When Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979, the governance of education was largely unchanged since the first world war. For schools, there was no national curriculum, no parental choice, no systematic means of monitoring performance, no publication of examination results beyond what schools themselves chose to reveal. Local authorities drew up catchment areas, deciding which children went to which schools, and distributed funds, specifying what should be spent on teachers' salaries, repairs, books and other items. The education department had little more than back-stop powers, allowing it to veto school closures or changes in character.
The universities got a third of their money in block Treasury grants distributed through a committee composed entirely of academics. The rest came from tuition fees, paid in full on every student's behalf by his or her local authority which, in turn, sent the bill to the Treasury. Only through control of the purse strings — refusing money for new buildings, for example — did central government exercise any influence over either universities or schools. Education was run on similar lines to the BBC.
As education secretary, Thatcher changed almost nothing. She withdrew a 1965 Labour circular requiring local councils to submit plans for comprehensives. But she did not block plans already in the pipeline because, by then, the 11-plus was unpopular with middle-class parents, who feared their children might fail. All she did was insist on preserving a rump of grammar schools (most of which survive) that made many "all-in" schools comprehensive in name only. Otherwise, she acted as a conventional departmental minister who, as the then prime minister Edward Heath never tired of recalling after she overthrew him as Tory leader, fought for funds to raise the school-leaving age and expand almost every sector of education. In her memoirs, she described her 1972 white paper, A Framework For Expansion, as "the high point" of attempts by British governments to solve educational problems "by throwing money at them".
Her only concession to the Treasury was to withdraw free school milk for seven- to 11-year-olds, a gift to political opponents (who skilfully conjured the image of a woman withholding her teats from babies) that earned her the soubriquet "milk-snatcher". But she took away from her four years in education an abiding hatred of its culture: of "self-righteously socialist" civil servants, of academics who "pounded" every "decent value" out of students' minds, of "trendy" teachers who didn't inculcate the three Rs, of local authorities she couldn't control.
That hatred drove her actions after 1979. The treatment of universities was compared to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. In the first big public spending cuts of the 1980s, they suffered more than any other public service. Academics lost security of tenure, so that they could be sacked as easily as other salaried employees. The university grants committee was replaced by a funding council, on which academics were reduced to a minority. The council made annual "contracts" with universities to provide student places in line with national needs for "highly qualified manpower". The government's grip over higher education was never to be relaxed: it became, over the following decades, ever tighter and more bureaucratic, as mechanisms were invented to measure teaching and research "quality".
Under Thatcher, the attempt to end local councils' grip on education began with the introduction of grant-maintained status, allowing schools to "opt out" of local authority control and receive funding directly from Whitehall. New schools, called city technology colleges (CTCs), were set up, also under government control. Thatcher hoped that most existing schools would choose "freedom" while, with the aid of private sponsorship, dozens of CTCs would emerge. In fact, fewer than 1,000 out of 24,000 schools opted out and only 15 CTCs were opened, at far higher cost to the Treasury than intended. But the free schools and academies now being created by Gove are the direct successors of Thatcher's grant-maintained schools and CTCs. They already account for more than half of all secondary schools.
Moreover, all schools today, whether under local control or not, are governed by the principles of "open enrolment" and "local management" laid out in Baker's 1988 Education Reform Act. Subject to physical limits, a school must admit any child whose parents apply; it then automatically receives funding for that child to spend as it wishes. Schools, therefore, operate in a quasi-market. They compete for customers and their business expands according to their perceived success, determined mainly by test and exam results published centrally. As in any market, customers look for trusted brands. Increasingly, private companies own and run chains of a dozen schools or more. Most judges think it only a matter of time before such companies are allowed to take profits.
If Thatcher had had her way, the CTCs would have charged small but significant fees to parents who could afford to pay, a principle she thought might be extended more widely. That part of her dream has little prospect of realisation. Nor is the national curriculum ever likely to be as she intended. She wanted to specify only the basics of English, maths and science. That would be far too narrow, Baker insisted. He designed an elaborate, detailed curriculum covering all major subjects. The content of school subjects — and even teaching methods — became politically contested territory. Arguments over whether children should be taught knowledge or skills, facts or understanding, rules or critical thinking are thrashed out in Whitehall, Westminster and the media, not in school staffrooms.
As an inexperienced and diplomatically inept minister in the early 1970s, Thatcher clashed with what was later called "the education establishment". It patronised her as an ignorant outsider, blundering into areas that she was intellectually unfitted to understand. Her revenge, taken after she reached Downing Street, transformed education at every level.