Thatcher's teachers

8th May 2009 at 01:00
When the Iron Lady came to power 30 years ago this week many teachers went against the `foolish liberal' label and backed her, hoping for respect and improvement

It was the teachers what won it for Maggie. An exaggeration? Perhaps. But when Margaret Thatcher swept to power as Prime Minister, 30 years ago this week, the support from teachers certainly helped. Then, as now, the popular perception was that teachers were a bunch of left-wing activists bent on indoctrinating children with liberal propaganda. And teachers' unions had been opposed to some of the policies the then Mrs Thatcher, now a Baroness, had introduced when she had been education secretary earlier in the decade. These included, famously, scrapping free milk for primary pupils over seven years old in 1971, the move that led her to be nicknamed "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher".

Yet when The TES carried out a poll before the 1979 election it indicated that six out of 10 primary teachers planned to vote Conservative. The Tories were then also the most popular party with secondary teachers - 45 per cent planned to back Mrs Thatcher compared to 40 per cent intending to vote Labour.

Indeed, teachers' support for the Conservatives was significantly higher in 1979 than it had been five years before. The TES noted after the election that its polls "revealed a high level of Conservatism (and conservatism) among the nation's staffrooms, contrary to the popular image of teachers as dangerous lefties or foolish liberals". In an article at the end of 1979, summing up the year's events, it added: "In spite of the NUT's mildly Labour image, the teachers helped put Thatcher where she is. The swing to the Conservatives was considerably higher than in the population as a whole."

Like many in Britain, thousands of teachers were disillusioned with James Callaghan's Labour government, particularly after the widespread strikes during the "Winter of Discontent". (Though what teachers made of that winter was not reported at the time in The TES - the paper was shut for nearly a year, along with the other Times newspapers, as a result of industrial action by the printers' unions).

At the start of 1979, Richard Walmsley was in his second year teaching maths and science at a school in Windsor. Now deputy head of Burgoyne Middle School in Bedfordshire, he was then a secretary of the local branch of the NASUWT. "I had joined it more as a social outlet," he said. "I found the stance of the unions at that time a little too political for my liking, but I had grown increasingly annoyed by the rigid and inflexible stance of the Callaghan government."

Mr Walmsley was further disillusioned after clashes between the local authority and the union at the start of the year so decided to quit Britain. He searched the international jobs pages of The TES and was accepted for a post at a school in the United Arab Emirates.

"I remember being very pleased when Thatcher came to power in May 1979," he says. "I hoped that her Government would respect the professionalism of teachers and I made plans to return to the UK when this had been done and things were better."

Of course, the idea that Mrs Thatcher would raise the professional status of teachers might seem laughable to some teachers now.

Neil Levis, who was then a 31-year-old English teacher at a secondary school in Wigan, says: "It was under Thatcher that teachers became the whipping boys. But I don't think we saw it coming, just as I don't think we saw Ofsted coming. There was a sense of inevitability about that election, that Labour had blown it because of the strikes."

Although a life-long Labour voter himself, he recalls talking to several teachers who voted for Mrs Thatcher that year. "The union reps in the staffroom were worried because they knew that she was a threat to the unions, but other teachers thought, `let her have a try'. The milk snatcher stuff had always been more of a joke and education wasn't a major election issue then."

This view is shared by Roger Pope, who is now principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon, but was then in his first year of teaching. "At that time, education secretaries had no real impact on teachers, so she was just another prime minister. The other lot had made a hash of things, so could a new one really be any worse? In a real sense, Thatcherism had not been invented so no one really knew what was in store."

The drive to make schools more accountable and to deliver a set curriculum had started before Mrs Thatcher came to power - Callaghan's speech to Ruskin College, Oxford, in which he criticised primary education for being a "secret garden" had occurred three years before. And Mrs Thatcher did not agree with all the policies introduced by her educaton secretaries, so should not get sole credit or blame.

Yet it was the Thatcher era that ushered in the national curriculum, league tables and the national tests - devices that New Labour later strengthened. Some teachers' accounts of working in the classroom in the Eighties stress a sense of calm before the storm, that despite the major budget cuts schools faced, they enjoyed a further decade of creativity before these reforms began in 1989.

But teachers were aware of the risks of the looming accountability culture. Writing in The TES in 1979, Geoffrey Samuel, then head of Heathland School in Hounslow, Middlesex, warned that publishing exam results would warp what pupils learnt as "there is a tendency for the examinable to drive out the non-examinable".

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the NUT, was teaching in London at the time. "From Margaret Thatcher's first year in power there was a major shift in spending on social services, with education being hard hit," she says. "Teachers' pay fell behind dramatically and the lack of funding led to many of our school buildings becoming dilapidated."

But one of Ms Blower's recollections is more surprising. "I remember that, when she'd been education secretary, she was asked on Blue Peter if there would ever be a female prime minister and she replied, `not in my lifetime'. For all her admirers there are many who wish her prediction had been true."

What are your memories of 1979 and teaching in the Thatcher era?

  • ambi
    • "I got appointed to my first teaching job on the day Margaret Thatcher was elected. It really sticks in my mind. Then during the miners' strike I was teaching in a mining village comprehensive in Barnsley and have vivid memories of driving past Cortonwood colliery every morning an hour or so after the picketing had taken place. The day the miners went back to work I got caught up following the procession so was late to school."

      • grunwald
        • "If nothing else, the sainted Margaret secured fresh paint and a few plants when she visited the school I was working in in the late 1970s. Despite the ruinous condition of the country at the time, I recall proportionately much larger requisition allowances then than ever since."

          • athame
            • "As a child at school pre-national curriculum in the late 70s and 80s I have only positive memories - particularly at primary level. I couldn't tell you what a noun was, but poetry and creativity poured out of me. Was I 3A or 4C? Who cared? I was a poet and an artist. I qualified as a teacher the year the national curriculum came in. I have never felt comfortable with it."

              • Mangleworzle
                • "I remember one general election our local Conservative MP came round canvassing for support, he knocked at the door asking if he could rely on my support to which I replied incredulously `No - I'm a teacher'. He stopped it there, which confirmed to me that they knew what they had done."

                  • Middlemarch
                    • "I got my first teaching job in 1981 so had no real frame of reference for what it might have been like pre-Thatcher. I recall there was no real change until Ken Baker became education secretary - though of course throughout the Tory regime there was precious little money to spend after the bills were paid in schools and the fabric of the buildings steadily declined until it was just shameful."

                      • tonycallaghan
                        • "As an NASUWT activist during that time I remember being prohibited from using effigies of Maggie by the chairman of Luton Town Football Club, a Tory supporter - but he took our money when we used the stadium for a strike rally."

                          • shalteir
                            • "I've worked through parts of four decades in teaching, and for me the 1980s was the best decade in the primary classroom. There were no Sats, but unlike what I have heard ministers say on radio, the time wasn't without formal assessments. It was a wonderful era, a creative time with high achievement - but only because it took some 10 years for Thatcher to dismantle that after she became Prime Minister."

                              (Comments from TES forum)

                              How teachers said they would vote

                              • 1979
                                • Primary teachers

                                  Conservative: 59%

                                  Labour: 27%

                                  Liberal: 14%

                                  Secondary teachers

                                  Conservative: 45%

                                  Labour: 40%

                                  Liberal: 15%

                                  • 2005
                                    • Primary and secondary teachers

                                      Conservative: 9%

                                      Labour: 29%

                                      Liberal Democrats: 20%

                                      Source: TES surveys.

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