Mrs Thatcher as Education Secretary

When I left LSE in 1969 I cannot recall a single person who wanted to start their own business. Although I took over the running of AIESEC-UK the student organisation, most of my graduating class headed for the civil service; large companies or a period of further study. It was not until the advent of the Thatcher government that entrepreneurship once again became something for the new breed of graduates to consider or even aspire to achieve in large numbers.  

In reflecting on that change in society; a change that may have done more to allow the development of new industries that have in part replaced the ‘smokestack’ industries of the first industrial revolution I recalled that Mrs Thatcher’s time as Education Secretary in the Heath government has perhaps received less notice than her premiership. However, as it was on her watch that I first entered the profession as an un-trained graduate and temporary supply teacher, at Tottenham school, in January 1971 some six months after the election those years Mrs That her spent as Education Secretary may be worth a moment of reflection on the day of her funeral.

The legacy of Mrs Thatcher is best remembered by the general public through the slogan ‘Mrs Thatcher: milk snatcher’ as she was responsible for removing the right to free school milk from many older pupils. But, is that a fair summing up of her time as education secretary? Interestingly, as an aside, at least two Labour controlled education authorities, of which one was the London Borough of Hillingdon, attempted to take the ruling as only applying to the provision of milk and continued to supply a ‘nourishing beverage’ to replace the lost milk supply. This stopped in Hillingdon when Labour lost control at the next London council elections. So what else did her time as Education Secretary leave behind as a mark on the world of state education?

One of Mrs Thatcher’s first actions as Education Secretary was to continue the plan to eradicate schools built before 1906 started under the former Labour minister. I am not sure why that date was chosen, and it was interesting that Mrs Thatcher extend the plan to cover primary as well as secondary schools. Those who teach or were educated, and indeed still are being educated in schools built either substantially or completely before 1906 will know that the ambitious plan failed, and has never featured in any subsequent discussions about school building. Indeed, until Mr Blair’s ‘Building Schools for the future’ programme there was a period of almost 30 years when there was no national plan for a replacement school building programme, and Mr Blair was seemingly only interested in the secondary sector, like so many politicians both before and after him.

Perhaps Mrs Thatcher’s high point as Education Secretary came in December 1972 with the publication of the White Paper ‘Education: A Framework for Expansion’. Sadly, this document appeared just as the oil crisis was breaking, and the Barber Boom was collapsing, so its plan for a ten-year expansion programme largely disappeared in the economic turmoil of the following decade.

However, here are a few extracts from what was promised:

Nursery Education

Within the next 10 years nursery education should become available without charge to those children of three and four whose parents wish them to benefit from it. If demand reaches the estimates in the Plowden Report, some 700,000 full-time equivalent places may be needed by 1981–82. Some 300,000 are already available, half of them for children of rising five. As the extent of demand and its future growth are uncertain it will be necessary to watch the development of demand carefully in the early years. As a first step the Government propose to authorise earmarked building programmes of £15m each in 1974–75 and 1975–76. Total current expenditure on the under fives is expected to rise from nearly £42m in 1971–72 to nearly £65m in 1976–77.

Besides helping families in deprived areas—both urban and rural—in bringing up young children, the extension of nursery education will also provide an opportunity for the earlier identification of children with social, psychological or medical difficulties which if neglected may inhibit the child’s educational progress.[fo 2]

The provision of nursery education will be generally on a half-time basis but allowance has been made for about 15 per cent—as recommended in the Plowden and Gittins Reports—of three and four year olds to attend full-time for educational and social reasons. It is hoped that most of the extra nursery places will form part of primary schools to avoid a change of school when the child becomes five.

School Building

There should be a more systematic long-term approach to the renewal of school buildings, to prevent the accumulation of backlogs of obsolete buildings. But such a policy needs to be very flexible, not only between primary and secondary schools, but also to take account from year to year of variations in the level of basic needs and other factors.

The size of the Teaching Force and Pupil Teacher Ratios

School staffing standards should continue to improve progressively. The Government believe that local education authorities will welcome a broad policy objective of securing by 1981 a teaching force 10 per cent above the number needed to maintain 1971 standards. After allowing for the increase in school population and the increased proportion of older pupils, this will require about 110,000 extra teachers, bringing the total to about 465,000 qualified teachers for pupils aged 5 and over. With about 25,000 teachers needed to staff the expanded nursery programme, and another 20,000 to meet the needs of the Government’s policy for in-service training and the induction of new teachers, there would be some 510,000 (full-time equivalent) qualified teachers employed in maintained schools by 1981. The Government propose that this figure should be adopted as a basis for planning. This would represent an overall pupil/teacher ratio of about 18½:1 by that date compared with about 22½:1 in 1971.

Teacher Training and Professional Development

The Government propose to work towards the achievement of a graduate teaching profession. During probation teachers should receive the kind of help and support needed to make the induction process both more effective and less daunting than it has been in the past. Also they should be released for not less than one-fifth of their time for in-service training. For the remainder of their time probationer teachers would be serving in schools, but with a somewhat lightened timetable, so that altogether they might be expected to undertake three-quarters of a full teaching load. The Government propose to give effect to the James Committee’s recommendation that teachers should be released for in-service training for periods equivalent to one term in every 7 years of service. It is their aim that a substantial expansion of such training should begin in the school year 1974–75 and should continue progressively so that by 1981 3 per cent of teachers could be released on secondment at any one time. This involves a four-fold increase in present opportunity.

Some of these proposals have still not been achieved more than 40 years later, especially in respect to teachers’ professional development. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of attention by successive governments to primary teachers, their training and professional development that includes the current coalition. With a primary sector facing many of the same issues as during Mrs Thatcher’s tenure at Elizabeth House, the home of the Department in the 1970s, especially in relation to rising pupil numbers and the pressure on places, and a young and relatively inexperienced teaching force, it is to be hoped that the current administration will find time to do more than just talk about creating a world class school system and take the steps to ensure it actually happens.

Finally, it is perhaps the supreme irony of Mrs Thatcher’s times as Education Secretary that she is also remembered for implementing two of Labour key education policies that were blown off course by the economic crisis of 1967: the raising of the school leaving age to 16, and the creation of a largely non-selective secondary school system. Both had a massive impact on the England and Wales of the Thatcher government, and will continue to do so when the coalition introduces the further raising of the learning leaving age to 18: again a proposal initiated by a Labour government.


Sir Christopher Wren’s inscription in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the church where Mrs Thatcher’s funeral took place, finishes with the Latin words LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE which translates as, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.’ It is a thought that each and every education secretary might bear in mind when they contemplate their legacy.



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