From the 'milk snatcher' to a pioneer of schools' autonomy

12th April 2013 at 01:00
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.

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

Her spell in charge at the then 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 eternal epithet "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher". But in those four years, selective education ended in vast swathes of the country as she abolished more grammar schools than any other education secretary.

It was not a switch she wanted: 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 Thatcher did nothing to stop them.

But this was a different era, before Jim Callaghan's famous 1976 "secret garden" speech, 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 spoke at the NUT centenary dinner in 1970 and was cheered - an unlikely outcome for her counterpart today. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union from 1990 to 2002, remembers seeing the then education secretary appearing at his union's conference in Southport in 1971 and making its leadership laugh. The following year, Thatcher made an even bigger impression on a young Mr de Gruchy when she proposed increasing teachers' 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, for 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 Mr de Gruchy. "I don't really think she paid that much attention to education with all the other problems she had," he said.

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

But the ideas he produced were not always welcome. Lord Baker and his officials favoured the broad-based national curriculum that was eventually introduced. But the PM favoured 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. Grant maintained schools began the trend of removing state schools from the control and support of local authorities that 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.

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