MRS THATCHER CALLS UP PARENT POWER
No Minister of Education has had a rougher ride than Margaret Thatcher. What impels her, she reveals in this frank interview with Ronald Butt, is the passionate concern for the right of parents to choose for their children the kind of school and teaching they, and not the educational Establishment, think best.
Margaret Thatcher has never been forgiven for not being Edward Boyle. That, rather than school meals and milk cuts, is her real offence in the eyes of the new educational Establishment.
They could understand and appreciate Boyle's efforts to wean the Conservative Party to the current trends of educational fashion, both in school structure and teaching attitudes. It was quite another thing to have to deal with a Minister who was actually prepared to try to modify the trend in the light of the rather different philosophy on which she had been elected.
Lord Boyle, after all, had announced in 1966 that if he became Minister he would not immediately withdraw the Labour circular pressing local authorities to go comprehensive. But Mrs Thatcher showed disconcertingly true Tory attitudes by immediately withdrawing it—and then producing her own circular 10/70 which restored freedom to local authorities to propose, or not to propose, comprehensive schemes. She has even had the temerity to stop a small number of comprehensive schemes in response to local opinion.
The basic explanation of the animus with which this energetic, competent and intellectually well-equipped Minister has so often been treated is that she has offered a challenge (for some still cautious) to the educational fashion which had held unchallenged sway for so long and which is still dominant among “educationalists.”
And in Mrs Thatcher's time at her Ministry, there have been signs of a genuine shift of educational attitudes among some teachers, as well as many parents—particularly in the direction of a greater concern for educational standards and the quality of teaching and learning. It is a clear shift in Mrs Thatcher's direction. But the battle between two educational philosophies is still very much on.
I went to see Mrs Thatcher soon after the London “Go Comprehensive” campaign had got under way, with letters to The Times arguing that the very existence of selective schools jeopardised the progress being made by the comprehensives. And as I explored Mrs Thatcher's educational philosophy, the outstanding thing that became clear is that she is whole-heartedly on the side of parent-power—or at least enough of it to redress the balance against some of the educational doctrines which have seemed to many parents to put literacy, numeracy and discipline at a discount. She told me:
‘Parents can best exert influence through local authorities. Frequently, when I am going round, I will have parents saying to me: ‘What can we do? We don't like this method of teaching; or we don't like this approach; or we don't think they are learning reading or language early enough.’
I have to tell them in the end: ‘If you really don't like it, and if your child isn't progressing, have a word with the head teacher. And if you're still not satisfied, or feel that you want your child to go to a school with a different kind of philosophy and approach—the only thing is to approach your education authority and have him transferred to another school, though an extra change of school is not always good for a child.’
Parents' choice has not exactly been a favoured educational concept in recent years, yet here was the Secretary of State actually underwriting it. so I asked her how schools could become more responsive to parents and to outside opinion. Could it be done by making governing bodies more effective? And when parents had a different idea of the standards of literacy or discipline from that of the school, how could they bring these to bear on the almost non-accountable teaching profession? Mrs Thatcher said:
‘That is the crux of the matter. On the whole, I don't think governors take very much part in these things—they usually leave it to the head teacher and staff. Whenever I meet governors and say: ‘Look you have enormous powers if you wish to use them,’ some of them are quite unaware of them. They don't use their powers over the curriculum. Local authorities usually give them a little booklet explaining their powers but they usually carry on the practice of leaving it to the teachers.
Parents can learn much about what and how children [end p1] are being taught through good Parent-Teacher Associations and might exert influence through them. They should certainly let their views be known to the staff.
Of course, the parent is more likely to be converted to the teacher's point of view if the child is getting on well.
If the child is not doing well, I am not sure that the parents could actually alter the philosophy of the school.
But they should certainly have as much information as possible, both about the subjects taught and the school's teaching methods. For these are the things that you wish to take into account in your choice of school—particularly secondary school.
I myself have comparatively few powers by statute over the content of teaching, except that the inspectors are constantly going round to see what is taught and I also have to give approval to any changes in the examination system.
But I've come across more debate over teaching methods than ever before—about what is the right way to teach and at what age children should be moved to more formal methods.’
I pointed out that parents could not always get their choice (which was why some in London had last year held their children out of school) and suggested that it wasn't just a matter of parents' influence on a particular school but of whether they had any choice between schools.
‘You can never have a choice for everyone—that is the weakness of the system—but that should not leave you to have no choice at all but to try to increase the choice where you can.
Take a comparatively large village—you can't have a comprehensive and a grammar and a secondary modern and a church school of each kind—it is just not reality. In a large town you can have a choice.
Of course if it were all comprehensive there would be no choice at all even in a large area. It would be a deliberate limitation of choice on the part of many parents.’
She was even more outspoken about “banding” and “bussing” —a system practised by numerous local authorities including the ILEA in London. Children are banded into ability ranges and then a number of them, often against parents' wishes, are sent by bus to other areas to preserve an equal spread of ability.
‘Banding and bussing of course is far more rigid selection. I mean, it's three bands of selection—the top, the middle and the below average. …
I don't like it at all. This ultimately leads to direction of children to specific schools not because that is the best school for them to go to but because it is someone else's judgment about where they should go.’
In some areas, had not choice gone beyond recall?
‘I agree. I'm afraid that is so. That is the reality of politics. What I am concerned about is that it shouldn't go even further. Look, I was reading this when travelling last weekend (and she reached for a copy of Time Magazine). There is an article about Sweden. Now just look at this. It frightens me and I am terrified that this idea may well be behind some of the thinking here.
‘The Social Democrats’ view of equality means that where nature has created great and fundamental differences in abilities these must not be allowed to determine the individual's chances in life but rather that society must intervene to restore the balance.’
It is absolutely appalling. It is so totally opposite to what oneself believes is the job of the education system, which is to draw out the talents in a child to equip him for life in society. Then it's over to the child to exercise his talent to the benefit of himself, society and his own family. But I have been terrified that a comprehensive system which permitted nothing else could lead to a certain amount of levelling down and not to drawing out more and more the talents of individual children.
I think the argument that we have had over banding and [end p2] bussing and direction is one against which the general public have revolted. They also do not like the very large schools unless they are run by an extremely talented head teacher and staff. There are, of course, some very large schools which are run extremely well, because they have got devoted and very talented head teachers and obviously unique staff around them.’
We then turned to her new nursery school programme and her attitudes to the teaching of reading and language. She was emphatic in her belief in the importance of getting children into comparatively systematic education under the age of five to start them in the art of communication.
‘Some of them will not have learned the art of communication and would not have learned it unless they have come to school. Mothers don't always spend time talking to the children except to a minimum extent possible for ordinary life. They don't spend time reading to them. …
Now, I find all sorts of interesting theories developing (and education is full of theories) to the effect that really the middle-class child has probably had a much more organised home background—a much disciplined home background—and that child might want a good deal more freedom in school. The child who comes from a background where there is just no organisation, and is allowed to do as it likes, really requires a much more organised society in school, though they will have to vary it, bearing these two factors in mind. Above all, nursery education should give a child a much better command of language right from the start, and I would think that you should be able to get a command of numeracy earlier in a primary school than you would otherwise.
If a child has any handicap—a reading difficulty, a difficulty in talking or a difficulty in being with other children—the earlier you can spot it, identify it and deal with it, the most chances you have of overcoming it.’
Following the findings of the National Foundation for Educational Research on the failure of children's reading to improve, Mrs Thatcher set up a special inquiry, under Sir Alan Bullock, into reading. Supposing the Bullock Committee recommended changes, what could she, as Minister, do to implement them, in view of her limited powers over the curricula?
She thought teachers would be only too keen to avail themselves of the committee's advice. Normally, there was a great demand for any new theory, idea or advice.
But, I pointed out, some teachers thought there was too much worry about formal reading achievements and that children could be left to develop in their own good time.
‘Yes, that has been a theory, I know, that's been growing up. It worries me a great deal.
The reality is that there are some children who, fixed to that doctrine, will never develop and one nevertheless has a duty, I believe, to see that they are equipped for the business of life. There have been one or two theories that I've heard (I hope they're not very widely practised) that these days a child does not need to read so much because so much information comes from television and radio.
If you don't give them the capacity to read and to dip into literature, you're failing the children. And if parents feel this, then I hope they will say so very firmly to their local councillors, because ultimately it's your local education authority that has the responsibility. Parents must make their views known, if they're not satisfied, to those who carry the responsibility” … .
A number of teachers tell me that they were never really taught the different methods of reading or how to go about it. I hope that the NFER's report coupled with the Bullock Committee, will really revivify their interest in it. And perhaps we can monitor some of the results.’
A test to assess a teacher's competence every five or ten years, as in some countries, was absolutely out of the question. She preferred to rely on inservice training.
What could be done to improve staff/pupil ratios to compete with the independent schools?
There are dangers she thought, in comparing the independent and state schools too closely. Many independent schools were boarding schools which need more staff for round-the-clock activities. They had a higher proportion of sixth-formers as well.
But there was a steady improvement in the maintained schools. The ratio was not automatically improved by extra teachers, because they did not always go into the classroom. They might be used to give existing teachers more time off to prepare work or used as counsellors, remedial workers or specialists.
‘Younger teachers tell me that extra staff tend to be used for increasing the options in the Sixth or upper forms rather than for reducing the class sizes among the 11s, 12s, 13s and 14s, which is often exactly where you need it reducing. Particularly if, as there are, some tricky cases coming from primary schools in city areas where reading and literacy are not all they might be.
We had about three years when we had thousands of extra teachers going into the schools. It was not showing in our statistics of class sizes but it was showing in our statistics of improving ratios.’
We ended by talking about the increasing tendency to discuss education on left-right political lines. She thought the real difference was between those who did and did not think that every child must go to one sort of school and be taught in the same building [end p3] if they are from the same area.
‘I regard such uniformity as wholly artificial. You should be much more prepared to adapt your education to the talents of the child, and if that requires a different school from a comprehensive school and if the parents want it, I think you must provide for that. I will have nothing to do with levelling down.
All my life I've been trying to give children opportunities to develop their own talents to the full. And that I'll just continue to do.
Quality has become right-wing. Egalitarianism, is, of course, left-wing … . I certainly don't think we started it … Look, there's a new type of school in comprehensive education—let's try it Where it's good, where it works, let's continue with it. But for heavens sake, let's not throw out every other single good school in favour of a new doctrine particularly in view of some of the experiences in other countries.
Anyone who is doing a job as Minister of Education will be in the public eye and will have to stand a good deal of criticism. The important thing is to know what you want to do and continue to do it if you believe it's right.’