The blind spot in her iron gaze

12th April 2013 at 01:00
To lead a comprehensive in the Thatcher era was to feel ignored

My overwhelming recollection from the Thatcher era was a feeling of not being valued for the job we were doing.

Here was a prime minister who had been education secretary, during which time she had established more comprehensive schools and abolished more grammars than any other secretary of state, before or since, yet she appeared to denigrate the work of comprehensives.

Her first education secretary, Mark Carlisle (1979-81), admitted that he "knew nothing of state schools, having used them neither for myself nor my children". He introduced the assisted places scheme for bright children to go to independent schools, the (not very) hidden message being that they wouldn't do well in all-ability comprehensives so an escape route had to be created for them.

From the point of view of a head of a successful comprehensive, that hurt.

So too did the continual funding cuts. As the 1980s and 1990s wore on, the school buildings got worse and worse. There was no money for new classrooms and we had 20 grim mobiles. The lower school was a former secondary modern built as separate schools for boys and girls. It had outside toilets. In the Thatcher era, redecoration took place every seven years, or longer, and routine maintenance was poor or non-existent.

On the curriculum, I recall being bitterly disappointed when Thatcher vetoed the recommendations of Professor Gordon Higginson to reform A levels but delighted when Keith Joseph introduced the GCSE - perhaps the most "comprehensive" reform of all.

It was with Joseph that Thatcher created a culture of competition between state schools, believing that the market would drive up standards. I found ways to cooperate with local schools but the climate made it difficult.

Thatcher and her secretaries of state never really tackled the accountability issue, except in 1984 by publishing HMI reports on the infrequent school inspections that took place. League tables and Ofsted came after her era, but grew inevitably from it.

The biggest positive change for heads was the introduction of local management of schools in 1990. As head of a local authority school, at last I had some freedom over spending priorities, staffing and building maintenance.

Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976 was the first time that a prime minister had spoken out about education and it was therefore surprising that, while she was prime minister, Thatcher made few, if any, education speeches. Perhaps she didn't understand that those of us working in public service would have liked our work to be appreciated - or perhaps she really didn't value it.

That is certainly how it felt.

Dr John Dunford was head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School from 1982 to 1998.

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