Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1970 Sep 12 Sa
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to National Union of Teachers Centennary Dinner

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Guildhall, City of London
Source: Thatcher Archive: DES press release
Editorial comments: Evening. MT spoke in place of the Prime Minister who was forced to cancel owing to the Black September hijackings. She was cheered when she stressed the importance she attached to redeveloping old and inadequate primary school buildings (Daily Telegraph, 14 September 1970).
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1488
Themes: Conservative Party (history), Education, Primary education, Secondary education, Higher & further education

I am honoured to take part in these centenary celebrations of the National Union of Teachers. The century which has passed since this organisation was founded in the year of W. E. ForsterForster's Education Act has transformed education in this country. The number on the registers of maintained schools in England and Wales has gone up from a million and a half to eight million. And the changes in the nature and content of education over this period have been just as marked as the change in scale. We are all very conscious of the contribution which the NUT has made to these developments over the years and I am glad to be able, on behalf of the Government, to pay tribute to its work tonight.

All parties have contributed to the cause of education. Forster, the architect of the Act of 1870, was of course a member of Gladstone 's Liberal Administration. Two other great landmarks of educational legislation, Balfour 's Act of 1902 and Lord Butler 's Act of 1944, are associated with the names of distinguished Conservatives and I am proud that this should be so. Perhaps I may also note the interest which Disraeli had in education: in a letter written in 1856, composing a scheme for administrative reform for the Cabinet, he proposed reducing it to ten with a Minister of Education in the Cabinet, which you may consider a rather significant anticipation.

The educational priorities of this Government were stated very clearly in the House and elsewhere. We have given first priority to the improvement of primary schools. We said we would raise the school leaving age to sixteen as planned. We said that we would institute an inquiry into teacher training.

Clearly the NUT welcomes the emphasis on primary education. A shift of resources for the improvement of old primary schools has been a major theme at NUT annual conferences for many years. We all know that the primary schools have a vital role in laying the foundations of learning and in drawing out the potential of children during the formative years. But I know that many primary school teachers are having to struggle against the handicaps of old, unsuitable or inadequate buildings. Progress towards remedying this situation will be a major priority within our educational programme. I recognise—and my Rt. Hon. friend the Edward HeathPrime Minister recognises—that we shall be judged in this connection not by what we say but by what we provide in the primary school building programme.

Tonight we are celebrating the birth 100 years ago of compulsory education. [end p1] In 1870 society generally found it hard to accept that young people should be engaged in education at all instead of earning their living. In 1970 the problem is not public insistence on less education, but a great demand for more, and yet more, education. And today we stand on the brink of another historic step forward in satisfying that demand. A decision to extend the period of school life was taken by the last Conservative Administration. It is a matter of pride and pleasure to me that this decision to increase the scale of educational investment in the future will be implemented during the life-time of the present Conservative Administration. In between these Administrations there has been some havering and a few little local difficulties, and even now there may conceivably be doubts. May I therefore take this fitting opportunity to confirm that the school leaving age will be raised to sixteen in 1973.

On the inquiry into teacher training, I have already been in touch with your Executive on the proposals I have in mind. I shall, of course, get together with them to discuss these proposals in more detail. The last comprehensive inquiry into this subject—the McNair Committee—took place more than twenty-five years ago. In recent years questions have been raised about the balance in the courses between academic education and professional training, and the colleges' relationship with the schools and the teaching profession and about the isolation of the colleges of education from the rest of higher education. Many feel that we should find some way of enabling a growing proportion of intending teachers to be trained side by side with students who are uncommitted to a career or are committed to other careers. But we do not want a long-drawn out inquiry. We hope to take advantage of the very valuable evidence already assembled by the Select Committee on Education and the evidence given to the Area Training Organisations. In this way we hope to have a report within a relatively short period on an issue which is of vital concern both to the teaching profession and to the development of higher education generally.

These are some of the main educational concerns prominent in the minds of Ministers at the beginning of this Administration. In importance it would be difficult to find other themes to rank with these. Indeed, they have been the enduring themes of educational progress over these last hundred years.

The first attempt to obtain public money for elementary schools was in 1807. It failed.

So we fell behind other European countries. France had school boards in 1833 and by mid-century 3½ million children in public elementary schools. In Prussia it was a legal duty of parents from 1819 to send children to school, and to make sure they did policemen were provided to accompany them. The Dutch system was even older, with free provision for all who could not pay. Continental example, plus a growing awareness of urban poverty and the need for a literate labour force, led England into the decision in 1870 that schools should be built by new local school boards from local and national funds. [end p2]

It was about time. The child population was then about 4 million. Considerably more than half of them received no education at all. As for the education which was received it was possible for an HMI to write of one school:

“This cellar has two parts, front and back. The front cellar is approached from the street by a flight of stone steps, and is lighted by a small window below the level of the street. The back cellar is not lighted at all, or apparently paved or floored in any way. In these two cellars the master says he has sometimes as many as eighty children.”

It was a long struggle to get things changed. But by 1899 there were 4½ million children in the elementary schools and about 2 million of them were in board schools. Some of them are still in use. Hence the priority for primary schools of which I have spoken.

As for the school leaving age that too has had a chequered history. In 1870 compulsory attendance was at the option of the local boards. Ten years later about three-quarters of the boards had taken up the option, and the age range for compulsory attendance over most of the country was five to ten. Another Act in 1880 made it obligatory for the boards to make bye-laws. In 1893 the minimum leaving age was raised from ten to eleven, and in the last year of the century to twelve. There were still exceptions however for farming areas.

H.A.L. FisherFisher's Act in 1918 did two important things about school attendance. It raised the leaving age to fourteen, and it abolished the exceptions.

Voluntary attendance beyond the leaving age had of course long been a feature of English education. It is interesting to know that Victorian elementary schools had already sprouted what were called higher tops. The school leaving age was raised to fifteen at a later date.

As for the hazards that have beset the training of teachers, this is a subject in which your history as a union has made you uncommonly well-versed. Mr Balfour introducing his Bill in 1902 said:

“Any child who wishes to become a teacher gets made a pupil teacher, and when he has that status half his time goes to teaching and the other half to learning. What is the result? I find that 36%; have never got through the examination for the certificate, and that 55%; of the teachers have never been to a training college of any sort.”

We do not nowadays mind that teachers should spend some of their time learning. Indeed in-service training takes its place alongside initial training as a field for some useful inquiry. But it is indeed astonishing—and this was Mr Balfour 's point—that the legislators of 1870 could have failed to make provision for the education and training of the teachers which their Act was to call into service. Mr Balfour and his successors have been anxious not to repeat that historic mistake, and we today, in planning particularly to give our priorities as I have indicated are anxious that the education and training of the teachers should be the best that we can devise and implement.

In all these three fields of educational progress the NUT has played a characteristically informed and devoted part over the hundred years of its existence. [end p3] In selecting them as priorities today the Government confidently invites your continuing enthusiasm as you embark on your second century.

(In closing the Secretary of State paid tribute to Sir Ronald Gould and his continuing dedication and service to education.)