Obituary - Angela Rumbold, 1932-2010

9th July 2010 at 01:00

Angela Rumbold was, in many ways, a typical Thatcherite Tory: tough, no-nonsense and - as education minister from 1985 to 1990 - committed to grammar education and the A-level gold standard.

But she was also atypical: always willing to speak her mind, regardless of political consequence.

Angela Claire Rosemary Jones was born in Bristol in 1932. The daughter of an eminent physicist, she attended 15 different schools as her father moved between universities.

It was during her schooldays that she first resolved to become an MP, after seeing the House of Commons from the top of a bus.

She went on to achieve a first-class law degree from King's College, London, after which she qualified as a barrister. However, she did not practise: instead, she married solicitor John Rumbold in 1958 and put her career on hold to raise their three children, Philip, Polly and Matthew.

She returned to work in 1974, chairing the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital. It was the first indication that children and education would be subjects close to her political heart.

She was elected to Kingston Council that same year, and became its deputy leader two years later. But her focus was education: by 1979, she was chair of the council of local education authorities. Here, she helped the new Conservative education secretary to reverse Labour's legislation to abolish grammar schools.

Thirty-five years after first setting her sights on parliamentary office, she finally realised her ambitions in a 1982 by-election. But even before she was selected as candidate for Mitcham and Morden, she showed exactly the kind of MP she would be. Objecting to a notice in the local Conservative club, that said "ladies should not come to the bar unless accompanied by a man", she "socked it" to her interview panel.

The by-election took place during the Falklands war, and Mrs Rumbold, benefiting from Margaret Thatcher's popularity, won the seat. It was the first time in 30 years that a governing party had won a seat from the opposition during a by-election.

After a spell in the Department of the Environment, she was promoted to education minister, with responsibility for schools. Here, too, she revealed a willingness to speak her mind, even if it involved criticising her own party. Mistress of the withering put-down, she said of her new department: "Show them a problem, and they'll just set up another committee or working party."

She began visiting schools, taking concerns about falling standards and failing discipline back to the House of Commons. In 1987, she again took on her own department, campaigning to protect England's remaining grammar schools. And she was a strong advocate for letting schools opt out of government control.

She defended A-levels, arguing against proposals for a leaner, five-subject qualification. Though some claimed she had been brought in "to keep an eye on Kenneth Baker", the education secretary found her invaluable in pushing through his Education Reform Bill.

In 1990, John Major moved her to the Home Office. She had little time for the new PM's consensual political style: again putting honesty before career, she said she could never support "the erosion of sovereignty that would come from scrapping the pound". She also told a junior colleague: "Anger and revenge are very important motives in politics."

She lost office in 1992, and became vice-chair of the Conservative Party. Her seat went next, in 1997. But she retained her interest in education: she served on the governing bodies of several schools and chaired the United Learning Trust, as well as overseeing bursary places for the Girls' Day School Trust. And she railed against the "tremendous amount of rubbish" taught during teacher training courses.

She was awarded the CBE in 1981, and the DBE 11 years later. But one of her most prized achievements was to have a swimming pool named after her at Mill Hill School. She had been backstroke champion as a girl, and remained a keen swimmer.

She was resolutely proud of her suburban life: she lived almost all her married life in Surbiton, south-west London.

Angela Rumbold died on June 19, aged 77.

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