Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1972 Jul 8 Sa
Margaret Thatcher

Interview for Spectator

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Interview
Venue: Unknown
Source: Spectator, 8 July 1972
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Item listed by date of publication. The second part of the interview - appended to this item - was published on 15 July.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3548
Themes: Education, Primary education, Secondary education, Higher & further education, Family, Society, Social security & welfare, Women

Something positive to believe

Margaret Thatcher talks

Q

Do you think of yourself as a bricks and mortar minister?

MT

I certainly think of myself as having to carry out the manifesto from the last election. Now, when we came to power the state of primary schools was not good. Some of them, of course, were outstanding, but there were a large number which were operating in buildings not fit for a modern kind of curriculum, and not really physically fit for some of the children. You will remember that the Plowden Report highlighted the problem, so we had promised to take these primary schools in hand, and I regarded it as my first duty to do so. As events happened it turned out there were more even than we thought. We thought that there were about three thousand sub-standard primary schools in the last century, we now know that there are at least six thousand and the programme is therefore going to take longer.

Q

How do you feel the building programme generally is getting along?

MT

Well, there are several parts to it. The primary school programme is now going well and is under way. We can't do as much for the old fashioned secondary schools as we would like, but the problem is nothing like as great as that of old primary schools, because a lot of attention had been given to old secondary schools. Nevertheless, with raising the school leaving age I would like to be able to do more for those schools because then, I think, we could probably offer the kind of curriculum to appeal to the young people who are staying on. As far as the basic need programme is concerned—that is building new schools in new areas where there are new housing estates and new towns—this is going well. When people see what a new school can look like and what it offers they are then even more dis-satisfied with the facilities they have got in their own school.

Q

Even your sharpest critics have admitted, I think, that you have been extremely successful in keeping the education financial provision up, but you have had a great deal of savage criticism on personal grounds, and on grounds of principle. I wonder if this has got anything to do with your views on what you were talking about just now, the kind of curriculum you want or your views on quality in education?

MT

I think when I came into education, just after the Election, the debates seemed to be focusing on the structure of education—whether you should have comprehensive schools, secondary modern schools, grammar schools—on buildings, as you have already pointed out, and on the structure of higher education. The real thing about education is not the arrangement or organisation of it so much as what goes on in the schools and whether or not you are succeeding in teaching the young people what they ought to be learning, teaching them lessons and experience suitable to their talents, equipping them for life outside and bringing out all of the many facets of talent that each and every child has within him.

Q

You said something very interesting recently, and I am quoting you here, “We are feeding doubts into our children, not beliefs and I sometimes think we have now begun teaching doubt without teaching them to believe.” Would you like to elaborate on that?

MT

Well, I think a lot of teaching nowadays is done by questioning and that of course has a very important part to play, so that you don't automatically accept anything without knowing why. But it is a very easy process to teach a child to question any [end p1] thing. It is much more difficult to teach them to question with a view to coming to a positive belief at the end of it, and if you are not careful, by a quite ordinary process of mental cross examination, you can cast doubt on anything. But really, you can't live a very constructive life on doubts. You have got to believe in something quite positive.

Q

Do you feel that you might have run into sharper than ordinary criticism because your critics didn't have the same views of what children ought to be taught to believe?

MT

I think that they had concentrated wholly on the secondary reorganisation problem—whether in fact you should abolish all forms of selection from secondary education—and that that became a kind of artificial question. You will have, of course, to have selection later in education. You can't turn out doctors, engineers, dentists, nurses without having people selected for those courses because they are able to follow them, and are suitable for them. Now the question is, at what stage do you start to select? I think I am more interested in getting the kind of education for a child which is suitable to his abilities and aptitudes than I am in a kind of artificial question, should every child in an area be educated in the same school building?

Q

There is another point, within this philosophy of cross examination in a context of belief that you have been talking about. It is obviously very important to have ability in a language of some kind, and it seems from your recent public statements, that the thing that you have been most excited about is the setting up of the Bullock Enquiry into the use of English.

MT

Yes, I think that is so. First the National Foundation for Educational Research report on reading came out, which indicated first that the improvement was not being sustained and that there might even be a falling off in the ability to read.

Q

You say that very coolly, but isn't it really a dreadful indictment of the last twenty years?

MT

It is most disturbing, because I was going on to say that this has come over a period when we have been pouring money into producing more and better teachers. Now, this is a double disappointment. First one always expected that there would be a steady improvement; secondly, either the standing still or the falling back has come at a period when we have been putting large sums of money into education—both into buildings and into improving the proportion of teachers to pupils. So it is very serious indeed. But I think it is wrong just to confine it to reading—reading is a part of the use of language, and you have probably noticed if you watch interviews on television or hear them on radio, or when you are working with young people, how difficult some of them find it to express their views or to express even comparatively simple ideas.

Q

Do you feel that the judgement of the NFER Report in a way sustains all that you believed about the lack of concentration on quality in education, while a red herring of a debate about systems of education and organisation has been pursued?

MT

I do think it's time that we turned more of our attention to quality, and to seeing that we are turning out children from schools capable of leading a fairly good life in society. Of course, the reading enquiry follows on the first one which we did on the training of teachers which is the same subject: are we training teachers to teach in the right way?

Q

It is traditional, is it not, that the Department and the Minister or Secretary of State don't interfere too much with what teachers want to do and their views about how teaching ought to go along or what methods ought to be used?

MT

Well, I am grateful to you for raising that. It is not only traditional, but in a curious way in the Act the responsibility for curriculum is with the local education authorities, and they usually delegate it to the head teacher. So I have no direct control over the curriculum. On the other hand, right in the first section of the Act, one has a duty to promote education, and I don't think therefore one can wholly ignore the curriculum content.

Q

Do you feel the kind of concern you have just expressed about, as you say, either a stand-still in literacy or an actual decline, coupled with the enquiry you are now setting up, is now meeting with general assent in the profession and local authorities?

MT

I think it is meeting with very widespread assent. Not only on the part of teachers and local authorities, but also on the part of parents.

Q

How far back does this go? You see, you again said recently, pointing to the National Children's Bureau Report: ‘From Birth to Seven,’ that, apparently, Scottish children at the age of seven were brighter in this respect of linguistic capacity than English children. Why? And how far back have you got to start at the educational system?

MT

I think—it may be a curious reason—that Scotland tends to have concentrated on what are called the less “progressive” [end p2] methods of teaching reading, based on phonetics and systematic training, and it would seem that those are the better ways of teaching young people to read. You ask me also how far we go back. The fact is that the educational system cannot compensate for a bad home and parents who don't look after their children. The home, the standards it sets, the interest the parents take, is still the most important, most influential thing in a child's life. We can do a little to try to make up for it, but we can never wholly make up for the lack of a secure home and parents interested in their children's progress. And also, I think, parents knowing how to encourage them. You see, there have been an awful lot of what I might call fancy educational theories flying about. First that you mustn't teach a child to read before it goes to school or before it is ready to read. I am not sure that this is right: I visited a primary school in Ipswich where the headmaster there had I think done it absolutely right. He had parents coming to see him, and they all knew that children are ready to learn long before they are five and are learning before they are five; and so he got a booklet out for parents whose children were going to come to school telling them what they should do to help. He told them to read to the children, and to make a point of talking to them a lot. Of course, some parents arne't very articulate themselves, and this is where their children perhaps don't pick up the vocabulary or the habit of talking to others.

Q

How much of this community in social education do you think is possible and how much do you think you can do to help it?

MT

It may take quite a time. I think you need quite a number of social workers in some areas and to some extent we can tackle it from the educational end. Young girls, in particular, are taught domestic science—at school. They should—and many often are—be taught how to manage the family budget, how to tackle the problem of bringing up children, and one should be able to teach them what to do at home with the family and to help the family and to help young people. Sometimes, when I go around I ask young girls, now when you get married and have the minimum of furniture what are your first purchases going to be? Is it going to be a vacuum cleaner or a refrigerator? Are you going to concentrate on the kitchen or try to have a nice living room? And it is interesting to see how much they sort out from a combination of their own experience and what they have learned at school. I think with some of the fifteen and sixteen year old girls, who may be parents by the time they are twenty that one could do a great deal by telling them how best to bring up children in the early stages and telling them where they can get advice.

Q

But nonetheless that would require something like a generation at least.

MT

Generations are short now.

Q

Given the undoubted achievements of the English educational system, as something we really rather like to boast about, you have nonetheless painted a fairly depressing picture of quality in education?

MT

I hope I haven't. I am afraid we always tend to concentrate on the areas where we are having problems. There are enormous achievements. The general standard is rising. One tends to judge it by examination results; the numbers getting ‘O’ level certificates are going up, the numbers getting some certificate of education are increasing. But there are still a lot of young people leaving school at fifteen who don't have the opportunity to take either. Either the chance or the challenge. Because I do believe that children respond better when they have a challenge to meet. And if they are leaving school at the age before than challenge occurs—then the whole approach to secondary education may be affected. But the general achievement has been very considerable, as is shown by the large numbers who want to enter higher education or want to take some form of training.

Q

There is no doubt that your announcement of an enquiry into the use of English was very well received, and I think the report on teacher training colleges was quite well received too, and certainly when people disagreed with it they treated it with respect. But you have been at the centre of some very unpopular educational controversies over which you have come in for a great deal of criticism of a very barbed kind. I wonder how you feel about the legacy of some of these.

MT

Well, the curious thing is that the biggest controversy had nothing whatsoever to do with education. It was school milk, and in fact I thought the political aspect of the controversy was exaggerated. [end p3]

Mrs Thatcher interviewed (2)

Q

What about the controversy over comprehensives?

MT

That, you know, has quietened down a good deal. Ironically enough we are getting far more objections now to changing the character of a really good grammar school than we were when I came into office. I think people are far more concerned now to keep first class schools going, and to pull up the standard of the others. They are no longer willing just to see a good school disappear, uncertain of what will take its place. You need to have two things: first, to keep the good schools, to keep the quality, and second to pull up the standard of the schools which are not good enough. Now, there are places where you can create a comprehensive scheme without any trouble at all: everything goes very smoothly and it is good for parents, teachers and children. These are the schemes that give no trouble at all.

Also, can I just say there has been a lot of publicity about problems that have been occurring in large city centre comprehensive schools and also, almost everywhere I go I find both teachers and parents very worried about large comprehensive schools. They think that the children feel less happy in a very large school than in a smaller one.

Q

But to extend this question of assessment of quality into other fields than schools, of which you said that you are now concerned that content and quality in school teaching have been to a great extent shunted aside for non-questions. Are you happy about quality in higher education, and would you feel as willing to make judgements about, say, university education and its standards, as you are to make judgements about schools?

MT

I don't think I have any way of doing that. Certainly the number of people getting degrees is going up enormously, certainly the kind of course which you can take in higher education for a degree has changed considerably. You still get a large number of the traditional ones along the lines of the stricter mental disciplines; and then you get a number of others which are perhaps hybrid courses.

Q

Your tone of voice suggests that you prefer the stricter, older ones.

MT

I think that some of them make higher mental demands, because they are more exacting. For example some scientific courses, mathematics, languages, literature, history, etc, are exacting. I have the impression that some modern courses in different subjects concentrate more on discussion than on a demanding syllabus. As one young student said to me recently, if you are taking an exam in law you have got to know the law and you have got to know some of the answers. If you are doing it in politics or perhaps in sociology you can go on discussing ad infinitum.

Q

What do you see as your major problems in dealing with higher education?

MT

The main problem we have to decide is whether we go on providing courses for all of those who have the requisite A level qualifications and who want to go to university. It is a very difficult decision to make because I think there may be more people who, by their level of ability and attainment, could go into higher education, if they wished to, and if we provide the places. How far should we go on expanding higher education knowing how costly it is and that other things like improving some of the secondary schools and expanding nursery education also need attention? It really is a question, therefore, of choices in education—because the resources are limited. It is not only a question of weighing educational demands against other educational demands, but against other educational demands, but against other things that a government wants to do, like giving more help to the elderly and disabled. I think there is one school of thought which holds that we shouldn't go on expanding higher education indefinitely when, on our present programme, we already turn out enough people with graduate qualifications to supply the economic needs of the nation. They then go on from that to say: Aren't you breeding discontent if you are giving people graduate degrees when you know full well there will not be enough graduate calibre jobs for them all? The other school of thought says, well, you try to educate people up to the full level of their ability: won't you be creating problems if some can't get the education which they know they are capable of? Of course, there is something to be said for both viewpoints, and in the end we shall have to try to reconcile the rival demands against the resources available. So, the biggest thing is numbers. There are a number of things I [end p4] think you could do to reduce the unit costs of higher education—some of them might be workable, some not. I think one of the reasons why we have had little student trouble in this country is because those who have gone on to higher education really have experienced genuine dialogue between themselves and the professors and teachers in universities and colleges. There has been a high proportion of staff compared with the number of students—rather more than in continental colleges.

Q

You have had trouble this year, of course, over the financing of student unions.

MT

Yes, this is comparatively small. We have still not got public accountability for the use of public money, and I think this is quite wrong.

Q

On the general question of higher education, and particularly the question of students, in spite of the fact that, as you say, our troubles in this country have been comparatively mild compared to those in other countries, there are nonetheless certain aspects of civic discontent fostered among students and teachers.

MT

They are part of the other problem, being taught to doubt, being taught to debunk anything and everything.

Q

And you would feel that that tends to go back to the beginnings of education?

MT

Well, there are certain fundamental bases of our society here. The family is the basic unit of society. You have a rule of law that has also been quite basic to the freedoms of our society. Democracy is another essential feature of our society. Of course there are difficulties about any particular course of action and there are exceptions. Some families break up because of very difficult personal or other circumstances. The rule of law sometimes leads to difficulties, if you get people intimidated, and afraid to give evidence. But democracy does offer the possibility of a change of government by reasonable means, and so everyone has a chance to put their views and have them accepted, except those, perhaps, who don't want a democratic system. But those are all really quite basic things in our society and if you go on debunking them, go on debunking the rule of law, suggest that the family is not a good unit of society or try to challenge democracy by having pressure groups which have enormous power, and therefore try to wield power beyond their numbers against a will that has been democratically expressed in elections, then you are fundamentally overthrowing society to try to get your own views adopted. For most of us it is not a choice between right or wrong—that would be easy. Every single course of action has its weaknesses, but it also has its strengths, and it is weighing up the two and coming to a conclusion which matters.

Q

One final question. Suppose you stay in education for the life of this Parliament, and are not moved to some other job, and supposing the Parliament lasts for five years, what would you like to feel you had done in those five years?

MT

I would like to feel that we had improved the quality of education and that we were turning out young people from the educational system better equipped in two ways. First, to face the life in the society that they will find. And second, better equipped in the sense that we have enabled them to develop their own talents so that they have some resources of their own. They should then be able to avoid the problems of boredom and of not knowing what to do with their time or their lives.