Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

From 'Milk Snatcher' to Pioneer of Autonomy: News

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

From 'Milk Snatcher' to Pioneer of Autonomy: News

Article excerpt

Thatcher's vision of school freedom is just being realised.

Margaret Thatcher's legacy in schools from her time as education secretary, and later as prime minister, lives on to this day.

Thatcher, who died this week, arguably did more than any other politician to introduce the modern comprehensive era; then, more than a decade later, she began a revolution in state school autonomy that is still transforming education.

Her spell in charge of what was then known as the Department of Education and Science, from 1970 to 1974, may have become best known for her abolition of free school milk for children aged 7 to 11, earning her the epithet "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher". But it also meant the end of selective education for vast swathes of the country as she abolished more grammar schools than any other education secretary.

It was not what Thatcher wanted to happen: she also dropped the central government "request", introduced under Labour, for town halls to go comprehensive. But they continued to do so anyway, and when it came to the crunch she did nothing to stop them.

But this was a radically different era, before Jim Callaghan's famous 1976 "secret garden" education speech at Ruskin College, when ministers would not dream of making the kind of detailed intervention in schools that is now commonplace.

It was also a much less divided system. Thatcher's archive reveals that she was cheered when she spoke at the NUT centenary dinner in 1970 - an unlikely outcome for her counterpart today. Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary from 1990 to 2002, remembers Thatcher appearing at his union's conference in Southport in 1971 and making its leadership laugh.

The following year, she made an even bigger impression on a young De Gruchy when she proposed increasing teacher pension contributions. "Although I didn't agree with a lot of what she was saying, I was very impressed with the strength of her arguments, because we thought our case was 200 per cent," he recalls.

"So when she was elected (Conservative) leader in 1975 and people were saying 'she is just a woman and she is going to have a hard time', I remember saying to my colleagues: 'Don't underestimate her. …

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