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The Thatcher Legacy and How We Learned to Hate Teachers

April 9, 2013

It is often assumed that the teaching profession never liked Margaret Thatcher because she took away free school milk for the over-sevens in her first ministerial office in Ted Heath’s government in 1970. Sadly, if that was all she did, she might be looked back on with more fondness. It is also possible to overlook the influence on education which she wielded because many of her chickens only came home to roost in the subsequent Tory government. So, without organising street parties or joining in with some of the hagiography of the moment, why and how did Margaret Thatcher exert such a malign influence on education?

To understand this it is worth looking back to 1964 when comprehensive education was an election issue and the school leaving age for some children was still 14 years. The education system generally was in poor shape, represented in the public eye by well-established and privileged grammar schools for between 10% and 20% of the local population while the other 80%, a large and largely invisible majority, were contained in secondary education, the quality of which was neither monitored nor controlled. There were some very good schools and some very bad ones. The election debate in 1964 was essentially about whether all children were likely to benefit from education and that is worth remembering because the subtext that some children are not predisposed to learn is still with us in the United Kingdom in contrast to most of our major educational competitors.

In office for the first time, Margaret Thatcher was engaged in a cost-cutting exercise but, at the same time, she supported the principles of selection and her friends in the grammar schools while many of the local authorities were moving towards comprehensive schooling. By and large, she did not challenge local authority decisions but neither did she allow the move towards the new schools to achieve critical mass. She did, however, make the decision on school milk which achieved a greater significance than it probably deserved. It is quite possible in historical terms that the real significance of this spat was that she developed a genuine distaste for teachers and their unions.

As leader of the opposition, and then Prime Minister until 1990 and, while working through a number of her protégés as education secretaries, she certainly took her revenge on the educational profession. She invented the notion of falling standards and the implicit argument that comprehensive schools were somehow to blame and used Sir Keith Joseph to develop the argument. She protected the grammar schools, eventually ring fencing them from any threat to their status.

What she also did, perhaps more subtly, was to subvert the teaching profession. Everyone remembers from that period in the early 1980s how teachers were portrayed as outdated revolutionaries locked into Marxist ideologies engaging in class war in schools and disseminating dangerously radical ideas. Of course, the unions didn’t help and the right-wing press – whose support for her is now more clearly understood – weighed in with caricatures and scare stories.

That also allowed her to begin to appropriate the curriculum. The 1944 Education Act said a lot about the structure of education but almost nothing about the curriculum but, throughout the 1980s, the well-intentioned notion to introduce a fairer curriculum with opportunities for all and with new status for vocational subjects which James Callaghan had floated got tied into being seen as the only way to secure standards and to contain the left-wing ideologues. Kenneth Baker, as Education Secretary, was not known as ‘Thatcher’s poodle’ for nothing and she pushed him into supporting external assessment as opposed to teacher assessment, and towards pencil and paper tests in the development of the 1988 Education Act. It is often overlooked how much conflict there was at this time, with the profession constantly seeking to limit the damage caused by government. There were arguments over Standard English, coursework as well as assessment and Thatcher was ruthless in seeking to win them.

So, when it looked as if the educationalists might hold sway in the new education agencies she moved in David Pascall, a BP executive, and an unknown called Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach to do her dirty work and to head up, respectively, the new National Curriculum Council and the school assessment agency, SCAA. Pascall was a loyalist and policy implementer while Lord Griffiths, was something of a Thatcher confidant, reported to be notorious for using the back entrance at Downing Street. Make of that what you will!

One of her other achievements at this time was to set up a coterie of right-wing academics and dodgy institutes to peddle the government agenda. The Centre for Political Studies often seemed to be the place where policy decisions were taken rather than the Department. A young maverick English teacher called Chris Woodhead was rising effortlessly through the system on the back of the organisation’s patronage which extended to include the Prince of Wales.

Thatcher won the fight since she held all the cards but, a little further along the line, while she was clearly in the ascendancy over education, everything came unstuck over Europe and testosterone rushes in the Cabinet and she was ousted in 1990. She left behind a clear stamp on education and mapped out a system which included retained grammar schools and a privileged independent sector, a legally stipulated curriculum, school inspection and external testing.

Subsequent governments have not managed to come to terms with this legacy because of her success in popularising the agenda. John Major and Tony Blair ran with it and Daily Mail and Telegraph readers are still quite clear in their heads that teachers cannot be trusted and need to be kept in line while they remain sure that standards continue to be eroded by crazy lefties although, as a country, we fall further and further behind in terms of world competitiveness. And. although none of them have been inside a school in living memory, these readers have helped to make sure that we still have a Thatcherite Chief Inspector (he would appreciate the label) who remains happy to blame schools and teachers rather than the system which Margaret Thatcher had such a hand in creating.



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