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From 'milk snatcher' to pioneer of autonomy

Thatcher's vision of school freedom is just being realised

Margaret Thatcher's legacy in schools from her time as education secretary, and later as prime minister, lives on to this day.

Thatcher, who died this week, arguably did more than any other politician to introduce the modern comprehensive era; then, more than a decade later, she began a revolution in state school autonomy that is still transforming education.

Her spell in charge of what was then known as the Department of Education and Science, from 1970 to 1974, may have become best known for her abolition of free school milk for children aged 7 to 11, earning her the epithet "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher". But it also meant the end of selective education for vast swathes of the country as she abolished more grammar schools than any other education secretary.

It was not what Thatcher wanted to happen: she also dropped the central government "request", introduced under Labour, for town halls to go comprehensive. But they continued to do so anyway, and when it came to the crunch she did nothing to stop them.

But this was a radically different era, before Jim Callaghan's famous 1976 "secret garden" education speech at Ruskin College, when ministers would not dream of making the kind of detailed intervention in schools that is now commonplace.

It was also a much less divided system. Thatcher's archive reveals that she was cheered when she spoke at the NUT centenary dinner in 1970 - an unlikely outcome for her counterpart today. Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary from 1990 to 2002, remembers Thatcher appearing at his union's conference in Southport in 1971 and making its leadership laugh.

The following year, she made an even bigger impression on a young De Gruchy when she proposed increasing teacher pension contributions. "Although I didn't agree with a lot of what she was saying, I was very impressed with the strength of her arguments, because we thought our case was 200 per cent," he recalls.

"So when she was elected (Conservative) leader in 1975 and people were saying 'she is just a woman and she is going to have a hard time', I remember saying to my colleagues: 'Don't underestimate her.' I think that forecast was more than justified."

The first two-thirds of Thatcher's time as prime minister can, with regard to schools, be largely characterised as a period of spending cuts and long, bitter teacher strikes. Then in 1988 came revolution with the introduction of the national curriculum, GCSEs and school autonomy.

But Thatcher was far less involved in education than her Labour successor, Tony Blair, according to De Gruchy. "I don't really think she paid that much attention to education with all the other problems she had," he says.

Her education secretary, Kenneth Baker, confirms that view. Writing in today's TES, he reveals that on his appointment in 1986 he expected to be given a list of what Thatcher wanted done, but was instead asked to go away and come up with his own reforms. "This rather counters the belief that Margaret dominated her ministers," Baker writes.

But the ideas he did produce were not always welcome. Baker and his officials favoured the broad-based national curriculum that was eventually introduced. But Thatcher wanted a much narrower solution, viewed by her education secretary as "a sort of Gradgrind curriculum". The disagreement even led to his walking out of a meeting. However, on the new drive for school autonomy they were at one.

Lord Lingfield, the former chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, says that Thatcher "believed more than anything else that schools should be as free as possible".

He recalls: "In the last words I exchanged with her, just before her illness, she said to me: 'You know that some people are frightened of freedom.' And of course in the schools sector there was a long way to go before her ambition of seeing schools free of local authority control would come to be realised."

But it was more than a start. The trend of removing state schools from the control and support of local authorities began with grant maintained schools and is being continued by free schools today. City technology colleges led directly to New Labour academies, which under the coalition are on course to make up more than half of all England's state secondaries.

See pages 40-41.

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