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Chris Skidmore MP: Margaret Thatcher set the terms of the education debate we have today

Chris SkidmoreChris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.

One of the many things that is being said of Baroness Thatcher in the light of her sad death last week, from across the political spectrum, is that she set the political landscape in which we still live today. This is certainly true in education; during her time in power there was a fundamental shift in approach which lasts to this day.

One of the key legacies is the idea, which we now take for granted, that parents should be able to make informed choices about what is best for their child. Prior to the 1980 Education Act there has been no obligation for local authorities to take account of parents’ choice of school.

Parents weren’t only being deprived of choice; they were also not being properly informed about the quality of their child’s education. Under Thatcher, schools became obliged to publish prospectuses giving details about examination results and Inspectors’ reports ceased to be secret.

For the first time parents were able to hold schools to account. They could see when schools weren’t doing well enough, or were ignoring recommendations made by inspectors, and would then be able to vote with their feet. To help this work schools were given more flexibility to expand in response to demand from parents. The idea that money would follow pupils was introduced, so that popular schools wouldn’t lose out if they wanted to grow and take on more pupils.

These, like much of her legacy, do more than survive: they set the terms of the debates we have today. No one would dream of trying to make Ofsted reports secret again, or of taking away parents right to choose schools, though Labour fought it at the time.

Similarly, the principle of a single-tier exam system is now widely accepted. In current education debates much of the Labour opposition centres on accusations that the Government is trying to return to a two-tier system. What they always neglect to mention is that it was Thatcher who introduced a single-tier exam system at 16, replacing O-levels and CSEs with the single GCSE qualification which we have used ever since.

Having successfully set the terms of the debate, Lady Thatcher also laid the foundations for the education policies which continue to occupy Governments today. While introducing the national curriculum, ensuring that all children would receive teaching in a basic range of core subjects, she also began the move towards letting schools become more autonomous, in line with the notion at the heart of her education policy that parents should be given real choice. The 1987 Conservative manifesto included promises to give schools full control over the use of their budgets and, starting the move towards academy schools, the right to apply for a direct grant from what was then known as the Department of Education and Science, making them independent from their Local Education Authority.

Amidst all this innovation during her time in charge it is often forgotten that this was also a period of great investment in education, challenging the myth that she was an ideological cutter of public services. Spending per pupil increased by 41 per cent over her premiership, and pupil-teacher ratios fell in primary and secondary schools by 1.7 and 1.2 respectively. She left an education system where participation in Higher Education was up, rising by 5 percentage points from 1985 to 1990, and where, at whichever point they left education, pupils were better prepared for employment.

Lady Thatcher is said to have joked that, contrary to popular opinion, she did believe in consensus, so long as it was a consensus that she was right. In education, as in other areas, this is something she has to a great extent achieved. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference shortly before her resignation she said the most important things the Government had provided in education were “freedom, choice and competition”, and what she next wanted to see was “far more schools becoming independent state schools”. These principles and aspirations have dominated education policy ever since.

What’s more, in the same speech she also foresaw some of the problems we are dealing with today. She was worried grade inflation would be allowed, eroding the value of qualifications, and that curricula wouldn’t be sufficiently demanding. As she forcefully put it, “Asking too little of our children is not only doing them an injustice, it's jeopardising our national future”.

As in so many other areas Lady Thatcher left a lasting legacy in education, and she set the terms of the debates we have today. Though this hasn’t been significantly challenged it hasn’t gone unthreatened, and we must do all we can to protect what she achieved, and heed the warnings she left us with.


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