There is much to say about Margaret Thatcher’s influence on education. While she gave the green light to the creation of more comprehensives than any of her predecessors during her term between 1970 and 1974, Thatcher also increased central government control over schools, colleges, and universities.
Thatcher’s era marked a significant shift in the education landscape. Prior to Thatcher, government officials deferred to the expertise and judgment of schoolteachers, unions, university lecturers, and local education authority officers. The government would provide resources based mainly on economic constraints and competing budgetary demands. However, by the mid-1980s, the government began to overtly challenge the views of "insiders", and demand greater value for money, performance management, and customer satisfaction.
Ironically, Thatcher’s ultimate goal was to reduce the state’s influence in citizens’ lives, yet her government tightened their control over education. Future historians may look at the years 1997-2010 as just a temporary halt in Thatcher’s education revolution, which was completed by Michael Gove.
Before Thatcher’s time, the governance of education wasn’t much different from that during the First World War. Schools had no national curriculum or means of monitoring performance, and parental choice was not an option. Local authorities decided which children would attend which schools and how much specific items like teacher salaries, repairs, books, and others should cost. In short, the education department had very minimal powers, only allowing them to veto school closures or character changes.
In universities, block Treasury grants provided a third of their money, and the rest came from tuition fees paid on behalf of the student by their local authorities. The department had similar powers as they had with schools; they could only intervene through control of the purse strings.
As education secretary, Thatcher didn’t change much. She withdrew a 1965 Labour circular requiring local councils to submit plans for comprehensives but allowed already existing plans to continue. Thatcher only insisted on preserving grammar schools that were comprehensive in name only. She fought for funds to raise the school-leaving age and expand almost every sector of education like a typical cabinet minister.
The only thing Thatcher did was cancel free school milk for seven-to-11-year-olds, a motion that earned her the nickname "milk-snatcher." However, Thatcher left her position with an intense animosity towards the education culture, notably towards "self-righteously socialist" civil servants, academics who "pounded" every "decent value" out of students’ minds, "trendy" teachers who didn’t teach the three Rs, and local authorities she couldn’t control.
Thatcher’s abhorrence for the education culture led her to take further actions. Universities suffered significantly during the first significant cuts of the 1980s, with academics losing their job security. Thatcher replaced the university grants committee with a funding council that provided student places in line with national needs for "highly qualified manpower." The government’s grip on higher education only grew tighter and more bureaucratic in the following decades, with mechanisms invented to measure teaching and research "quality".
Nowadays, all schools, regardless of their governing body, abide by the principles of "open enrolment" and "local management" which were established by Baker’s Education Reform Act in 1988. Schools are obliged to accept any child whose parents apply, up to the maximum capacity allowed by their physical premises, and receive funding for that child to spend as they see fit. This means that schools operate within a regulated market, where they compete with each other for customers and their success is determined primarily by their test and exam results, which are published centrally. As in any market, customers (in this case, parents) seek out schools with a good reputation. Recently, we’ve seen more private companies acquiring and managing chains of a dozen or more schools. It is widely believed that such companies will soon be allowed to take profits.
Thatcher believed that the CTCs would charge modest fees to wealthier parents, which she felt could be applied more broadly. It’s doubtful that her vision in this regard will ever become reality. The ‘Thatcher curriculum’ is unlikely to be implemented as she originally intended. Thatcher wished to define only the basic disciplines of English, Math, and Science. However, this was considered too narrow by Baker, who developed an extensive syllabus that covers all subjects, resulting in the content of school subjects and teaching methods becoming a contested political issue. Debates surrounding whether children should be taught knowledge or skills, facts or understanding, rules or critical thinking are conducted in Whitehall, Westminster, and via the media, not in the teacher’s lounge.
As an inexperienced and diplomatically challenged minister during the early 1970s, Thatcher struggled with what was later known as ‘the education establishment’ who looked down on her as an uneducated outsider who was fumbling around in areas she was intellectually unqualified to comprehend. Later, after she reached Downing Street, she took revenge by transforming every aspect of education.