New Labour has learnt well from Thatcher

17th April 2009 at 01:00
Thirty years after Mrs T's arrival, the Government is still strengthening, rather than dismantling, her education reforms

Thirty years after she swept to power as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher still casts a long shadow over the teaching profession. Although some of her policies have proved popular with teachers, her legacy, in terms of the way the profession is seen and regulated, has been huge - and largely negative.

The main reason for her continuing influence is that New Labour has built on her work so enthusiastically. Often, in education, it has proved more Thatcherite than Thatcher herself.

This is my verdict on Mrs Thatcher, as the anniversary of the day she was elected - May 4, 1979 - looms.

For space reasons, I will gloss over her time as education secretary in the early 1970s. Neither will I dwell on her overt - though in its time largely unsuccessful - attempt to bring about the quasi-privatisation of state schooling. This saw the introduction of city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools in a drive to break up local authorities' monopolistic hold over the running of state schools.

The true legacy of that policy has appeared under this Government. The establishment of hundreds of sponsored academies is a Thatcherite dream: they market themselves enthusiastically to parents, offer their principals performance pay according to the "bottom line" of pupils' academic results and are designed to exist largely outside the influence of local democratic accountability.

However, the most important of Thatcher's legacies concerns the way teachers are now governed. The assumptions regulating the accountability system which influences every classroom professional in the land, through league tables, data-orientated Ofsted inspections, targets and performance pay, are impeccably Thatcherite, with large dollops of Stalinism thrown in for good measure.

Thatcherite ideology supported setting up a simplistic, though no doubt electorally popular, divide between teachers - supposedly a "producer group" favouring their own interests over children's - and the "consumers" of education: pupils and their parents.

It is a moot point how much of this was explicitly articulated by Thatcher herself - I can find few references to it in her memoirs - and how much of it had its antecedents in or before the 1970s "great debate" on education.

But the notion of a producer consumer split was undoubtedly a key tenet of the privatising ideology which sprang up around her. And it continues to define the way teachers have been viewed under New Labour. Although in its model the view appears to be that the Government, as well as the education "market", must actively regulate teachers to stop them acting self-interestedly - elected national politicians and their civil servants being the only true guardians of the public interest.

Examples of this view abound in Instruction to Deliver, a 2007 book by Sir Michael Barber, the most influential Labour education thinker. In it he celebrates the power of league tables, confesses to sleepless nights over whether national Sats results will move up a percentage point and laments the departure of Chris Woodhead from Ofsted in 2000.

In arguing for "introducing market-like pressures into the public services", he quotes approvingly an assertion put forward by a fellow Blairite ideologue, Professor Julian Le Grand of the London School of Economics, that teachers, like other public servants, can never be truly motivated to serve their pupils.

Sir Michael writes: "However committed the professionals are, they can never have the degree of concern for users of public services that users have for themselves." This is as dogmatic and evidence-free as it is insulting.

Hence New Labour's use of an accountability system which sees teachers as essentially self-interested and only able to perform if they are judged against their colleagues through exam results and then put under competitive, Thatcherite pressure to perform.

This has been damaging, not just because it undermines teacher professionalism in favour of often questionable statistical comparisons, but because it encourages the reductionist notion that exam results are all, thereby promoting spoon feeding and teaching to the test. Meanwhile, universities complain of a generation of school-leavers less willing to think for themselves.

The simplistic consumerproducer divide is the biggest fault in both Thatcherism and New Labour's approach to education reform. In reality, often the producer's and the consumer's interest is the same: to do the best by young people. In effectively writing off the public service ethos which is surely present in many teachers and instead encouraging them to chase the exam results which now define their success, it has failed to harness what could surely, if better managed, be a great force for good.

Accountability in itself must be embraced. Teachers do need to answer to the public, there do need to be mechanisms to guard against bad teaching, and reform of the 1970s approach to education was needed. But the current accountability regime is dysfunctional. It needs to be realigned to support, rather than undermine, good teaching, and to foster a drive to build long-term understanding and engagement in pupils.

And the good aspects of Thatcher's reforms? Well, the advent of the GCSE and, at least in concept, the national curriculum, have been two ideas which have won lasting favour in many staffrooms.

Labour has redressed some of the less pleasant aspects of Conservative education rule, such as chronic underfunding, while of course it was right to repeal Thatcher's abhorrent Clause 28, which banned schools' supposed "promotion" of homosexuality.

But though New Labour has made many changes, it has left Britain's basically Thatcherite architecture largely unchallenged - if not actually strengthened.

Warwick Mansell, Author of 'Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing' (Politico's).

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