Back to class of '44
Margaret Thatcher, Minister for Education, spelled out last week a philosophy of Tory education which will shatter the vaguely progressive consensus held by many of her Conservative predecessors. In an interview with the Sunday Times she argued that the words “comprehensive schools” were loosely used, relatively meaningless in a modern context, and ones which few people really understood.
“The phrase ‘comprehensive education’ is mentioned in the 1944 Act in its true sense, namely that every local education authority must provide a comprehensive education,” she said. “What is the ‘comprehensive ideal’? At the time of the Labour Government's circular, it was the 11 to 18 school. This is no longer the ideal.
“Some people understand comprehensive education as a non-selective system. Some understand it as schools in which there are proportions of children with all levels of ability. Yet you can have non-selective systems which have no top, middle or bottom bands of ability. It really can be a most ridiculous system.”
Schools called comprehensives are, of course, working well in many parts of the country, said Mrs Thatcher. “They have often been working best in Tory areas and for a very simple reason. It's not only because these are more homogeneous areas but because the parents are passionately concerned about their children's education.”
Mrs Thatcher sees no reason to preclude selection by ability when, in her view, there will always be selection by geography or wealth through school catchment areas. Such selection, she added, would enable one to haul a bright child out of a low-level neighbourhood school where “only a fool would say that opportunities would be equal.”
The Education Secretary reacts to all the muddled thinking she says she has perceived with a lawyer-like incredulity that there should be so many glib people to bandy around words such as “comprehensive” as though they meant something. And there is an insistence upon ad hoc decision-making that elevates it into the very cornerstone of policy.
Selection or non-selection? Grammar, comprehensive or secondary modern? Nothing is to be precluded, everything to be considered upon its merits. There is little trace of the concept of policies being derived from explicit general principles; “the best opportunities for all children” has roughly the precision of being “against sin.”
Mrs Thatcher is in many ways the quintessence of Toryism: a plague on the ideologists. Yet she, too, is doctrinally inclined at the political level. She knows that there are many types of comprehensive schools but rails against imposing “one system” or uniformity upon the country.
She is very reluctant indeed to accept evidence that the grammar-secondary modern split denies opportunities to massive numbers of children. She honestly believes that there is nothing so wrong that cannot be simply rectified by improving the secondary moderns. “This organic growth,” she said, “would be putting resources in the right place.”
Mrs Thatcher, like us all, is moved more by instances which justify her prejudices than by those which undermine them. She remembers the good secondary moderns more easily than the bad, and recalls with much pleasure the child of a constituent who said she was much happier shining at a secondary modern than struggling at grammar school—and the education, of course, was just as good.
It is true that she will disappoint some of the headier hopes of the Black Paper supporters. The stand-on-your-own-feet philosophy of Mr Heath 's Britain begins, it seems, after we leave the classrooms. “We are committed to providing a free education service and we do not have any intention of altering that principle,” said Mrs Thatcher.
Yet it says much of the political climate in general and, perhaps, of Mrs Thatcher in particular that this declaration now qualifies as news. Derrik Mercer