A little history…

I’ll lay my cards on the table here – I spent a fair amount of the eighties yelling “Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out” at various demos. So I am not going to pretend to be totally devastated by the death of the Iron Lady this week, though it certainly did feel like a momentous occasion.

I think everyone has heard plenty about her effects on the country as a whole – as befits this blog, I thought I’d have a look at what changed in education, both in her time as Education Secretary and while PM.

Let’s start here, with an interview with The Times in 1970. I was particularly taken with this quote: “I have not thought of introducing undergraduate student loans. I think it would have the effect of reducing people’s chance of coming to university where they came from parents whose incomes were fairly well down the line.”  Well, I can’t argue with that one. Pity she changed her mind by 1990 when top-up loans were introduced. From a student point of view, in fact, the early 80s were a golden age – full maintenance grants you could live on (with effort), the right to sign on in the holidays, and to claim housing benefit – it actually allowed people to go to university whatever their family background! (No surprise that got ditched).

Also interesting to read: She had no desire at all, she said, to be the first woman Prime Minister. “I hope to be here at the next election and if possible after it.” Hmmm. We always believe politicians, don’t we?

Of course, Maggie was most notorious as the “Milk Snatcher” for removing free school milk for over-7s. To be honest, at the time I was relieved – I hated school milk with a passion – it was invariably kept outside so it froze (and separated), then brought in and put by the radiator – it tasted truly vile and made me want to throw up.  Come to that, school dinners were absolutely disgusting then too – I do think school food has moved on, thank goodness!  Recently, provision of free food in schools is making a reappearance, with some LEAs providing breakfasts (and even milk!) to help support kids.

I was fascinated to read in the Times Higher Education Supplement that apparently Thatcher argued in favour of keeping the OU going, despite the need to cut costs and it not being a Tory project. This was a bit of a shock – am I going to have to change my view of her?

Maybe not. Once we get into the eighties, we start seeing the focus on changing schools – like everything else in the country – into a market, rather than a public service.  The market idea was always sold to everyone under the name of “choice”. For some, it really did give more choice – having an option to choose which school to send your kid to has to be a bonus, doesn’t it?  Well yes, for you as an individual, if you get your choice, of course it’s great. For schools and kids collectively – maybe less so – what happens to the kid who isn’t accepted by any schools nearby because they are all over-subscribed?  And what happens to the perfectly decent school which – pretty well by chance – has fewer parents opting for it, then gains a reputation for being “unpopular” and so the rush away from it starts (as there’s no smoke without fire) until the only ones going there are those turned down by their first choices, or those whose parents didn’t return the form in time?   The eighties also saw the introduction of the first tranche of different types of school – city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools

The other change was in making power more centralised. This, in my opinion, was the start of the “Don’t trust teachers to make education decisions – what do they know about it” approach!  A top-down approach to the curriculum and teacher training meant reducing the roles of the Local Education Authorities, Teacher Training institutions and teachers themselves. That’s not to say that no reforms were needed – things weren’t perfect, there were significant variations between LEAs and, from my own experience, there were more inadequate teachers about then. But whether a “Nanny knows best” approach was necessarily the answer is a different matter.

One of the big changes was the introduction of the National Curriculum, rather than one determined by the LEAs.  They did actually ask for input from a number of sources on this, from bodies such as HMI, but these relatively broad documents which also discussed extracurricular provision, values, school ethos and pupil-teacher relationships didn’t seem to have much impact on the National Curriculum produced.  Now I am a fan of the existence of an NC. There were schools – there was one near where I grew up – which would reduce the curriculum content to a ludicrous extent for some pupils (I knew one who spent ages 14-16 studying just RS, Music and Needlework, as these were the subjects she was deemed likely to gain O-levels in). There were schools which didn’t teach science (knew one of those too). Transferring between schools is never simple from a curriculum perspective, but it was harder pre-NC.

So the idea was good, and in my own subject, I think the content was OK – but ever since then, there’s been a tendency for the centralised curriculum to become a straitjacket, rather than just specify the minimum that must be included. It’s also invariably been content- and assessment-driven, and the rigid compartmentalisation had a major effect on cross-curricular approaches, which has only recently been addressed. There was  lot of pressure to deliver a curriculum relevant to “England’s cultural heritage” back then, too – sound familiar? Then there were the late unlamented key stage tests and assessments…

Another idea that first appeared back then -under Keith Joseph –  was performance related pay for teachers. That one never seems to go away, does it? I’ve gone on about it before though so I won’t expand here.

An interesting one – which I’d forgotten started back then – was the introduction of vocational qualifications such as GNVQs which were more integrated into the educational framework than their predecessors. Does this work? Still open to question, I think – I think at times we’re trying to equate oranges with apples. Though I doubt we’ll ever get to see it with Gove’s plans to dismantle most of our current structure.

One thing which Thatcher seemed rather ambivalent on was selective education. Whilst allowing local authorities to retain the right to select at age 11, she also presided over the transformation of a large number of grammar schools to comprehensive schools.  Assisted Places (giving free places at independent schools for bright kids with not much money) were one of her creations.   Personally, I don’t think the rights and wrongs of these things are clear cut. It’s undoubtedly true that the fully selective system wrote off a lot of kids at age 11, and some of the old secondary modern schools were absolute hellholes (two like that in the town I grew up in). But grammar schools, and the assisted places, gave bright kids from all sorts of backgrounds real chances.  I wish we could combine the best of the old and the new somehow, but don’t know how.

It is also fascinating to see the things that policies were introduced on, in those days – much of which you feel instinctively must have been around for ages.  Here’s a few:

  • Identifying kids with special educational needs, and producing statements on meeting them
  • Parents had to be given info about the school’s curriculum
  • Abolition of corporal punishment in maintained schools

All good things, obviously. But then we see those  other policies – forbidding “political indoctrination” (i.e. heaven help you if you say anything against the establishment), banning”the promotion of homosexuality” and requiring the”act of collective worship, wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. And Kenneth Baker’s keenness to remove control over sex education from teachers and LEAs, and give it to governing bodies with plenty of parents on them – after all, if parents wanted their children kept in ignorance, how dare schools think the child’s best interests were more important?

A mixed legacy, then. Overall I can’t help feeling that period was a bit less wrong-headed than the current incumbents, educationally speaking (i.e. there was good as well as bad). I think if you’d told me at the time I’d say that, I wouldn’t have believed you! I’m just hoping that when I’m reflecting just before I retire at the age of 79 (or whatever it will be by that time) that I don’t end up comparing Gove favourably with what’s around then – that really would be a dismal prospect.

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One Response to A little history…

  1. Harriet Lennon says:

    Always find what you say informative, stimulating and this blog never more so. Many thanks. Keep up the great blogging.

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