Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1972 Apr 4 Tu
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to National Union of Teachers

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Winter Gardens, Blackpool
Source: (1) Thatcher Archive: CCOPR (2) Evening Standard, 4 April 1972
Journalist: (2) Alison Truefitt, Evening Standard, reporting
Editorial comments: Available on CD-ROM only. 1130-1230. The Times, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph reports of the speech can be found prefacing their accounts of the press conference MT gave immediately after the speech. ITN News At Ten broadcast a small section from MT’s remarks on reading standards a transcript of which has been checked against the text. The Teacher reported on 14 April 1972 that MT later commented that the walk-out by protesting teachers at the beginning of the speech had been "an ordeal". Reproduced with permission of Express Newspapers plc.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 3727
Themes: Education, Primary education, Secondary education, Public spending & borrowing, Local government, Trade unions, Labour Party & socialism, Autobiographical comments


One of the great success stories since the war has been the ability of local authorities and the churches to cope with larger and larger school building programmes. These are now running at record levels, well over £200 million in 1971/72. The figure for 1972/73 will be higher, £255 million. The main reason for this is that cost limits are being raised by 15 per cent, and I am today notifying L.E.A.s to that effect. We have kept the trend of educational building costs under constant review since the last increases in April 1971, and the increase will provide both for rising costs and for a substantial contribution to the restoration of standards. The second reason for the higher figure in 1972/73 is that just before Easter I was able to tell some local authorities, whose primary school population is still increasing rapidly, that I was increasing their minor works allocations for the coming year by £4.6m. These extra minor works will bring some relief in areas where new housing is still making it difficult to get class sizes down.

Already since the war nearly 6 million new school places have been provided, for a school population now standing at just over 8 million. But it is still the survivors from an earlier age—the grim relics still in use—that rightly cause concern. We are spending about £400 million on new secondary places in the three years 1971–74. That is an impressive figure by any standards, but it is the Victorian secondary schools we must put up with for a little longer that understandably attract the publicity.

Priority for Primary School Improvements

I need not apologise to this audience for making primary school improvements my first priority. Many of you and those you represent have to work in them. There are about one million children, and perhaps 40,000 teachers, in primary schools dating from the last century—1 in 5 of all our primary school children and teachers. To get rid of these old schools will be a long and costly business but this year, 1972–73, work will start on replacing the first 500 of them; and the progress will continue, at a faster rate, next year and the year after. I have said before, and repeat here today, that we shall tackle the old secondary schools as soon as we have made more progress with the old primary schools. [end p1]

Rural Schools

I have just approved the details of the 1974–75 programmes and letters have been sent or will soon be on their way to the local authorities. Now that we have more resources primary schools in the rural areas, largely omitted from the building programmes of the 1960s, are benefitting more and more. It was apparent from a recent survey by H.M. Inspectorate that the rural case for improvements was as strong as the urban. I have acted on this advice. For example, in the six South Western counties, from Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to Cornwall, there are 50 projects in 1974–75 for the replacement of old primary schools compared with 18 in 1972–73 and virtually none in earlier years. In East Anglia—Norfolk and Suffolk—there will be 20 projects in 1974–75 as against 9 two years earlier. For the sake of long-suffering teachers doing good work in the older rural schools I am delighted that something can now be done to ease their task.


Since I came into office I have considered over 1,400 proposals under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944, relating to secondary schools. They include the establishment of new schools, or the closure, significant enlargement or significant change of character, of existing schools. The majority relate to the introduction of a comprehensive system of secondary education. Out of this total I have rejected only 46 proposals. This is about 3 per cent of the total.

In the last year I have approved sets of proposals for the establishment of all-through comprehensive schools in 30 areas; proposals for middle school systems in 22 areas; and proposals for the establishment of sixth form colleges in a further 9 areas. These figures bring into perspective and reduce to proper proportions the very limited scale of those disputed issues which receive such a large share of national publicity. Where well-thought out proposals for reorganisation have been put forward, and where the plans are matched by the ability to implement them in reasonable conditions, they have invariably been considered sympathetically. I have always laid emphasis on the need for close and early consultation with teachers before the formulation of proposals, and I have been strongly impressed by their contribution both in the preparation of schemes and in their implementation.

Comprehensive education has sometimes been introduced in existing buildings which were not designed for the needs of a full-ability range. It is to the credit of the teaching profession, as well as to local education authorities, that they have been able to achieve so much in physical conditions so far from ideal. I give careful attention to any plan for a school on two or more sets of premises. It is not possible to give detailed guidance for general applications, because absolute distance is not the only or perhaps the most important factor. But comprehensive schools in split premises do create problems of administration and communication, and they can often impose severe strain on the staff. So it is, I believe, for local education authorities to demonstrate that such arrangements will work, without unreasonable difficulty, and that the educational advantages outweigh the obvious drawbacks. [end p2]


Not enough attention has been paid to the advantages of smaller comprehensive schools. In January of last year there were 621 all-through 11–18 comprehensive schools and 141 of these were schools with 750 pupils or less. Many have been going for some time. They have already given ample proof of their ability to survive and succeed. Their voluntary staying on rates are well above the national average and many of them have developed strong sixth forms offering a good range of A level options. They may not offer the breadth of opportunity at all levels which is available in the larger school. But there may come a point when increasing the size of a school merely to provide greater variety of courses becomes counter-productive. Many children benefit and prosper within the atmosphere of a smaller community. This can be more important than providing ever widening course options.

I am not arguing that all schools should be small. But there is increasing evidence that the very large schools which once were seen as the norm for comprehensive organisations are no longer so regarded. I welcome this change of emphasis. At present there are about 110 11–18 comprehensive schools with school rolls which are building up to 1,500 pupils or more. We have not yet solved the problems of organisation which such schools pose. There is a tendency for teachers to spend an abnormal amount of time merely in ensuring that routine communication takes place. The development of really effective management structures within such schools is going to take time. We are only beginning to find answers. There should therefore be careful thought about the desirability of adding significantly to the large schools now in operation.


I have also looked twice at proposals for two-tier systems, particularly at the age of transfer from lower to upper secondary school. Although two years (11–13) is not an ideal period for pupils to spend in one school, and although this arrangement presents staff with a very restricted age-range to each, the arguments against fixing the age of transfer at 14 are even stronger. In looking at such proposals I have found myself worrying a good deal about the continuity of education between separate schools and, in general, I am reluctant to see the introduction of arrangements based on transfer at 14.

These are the problems I have come to identify in considering a large number of proposals. I hope it may assist your members—as well as the L.E.A.s and the many parents who are concerned in this matter—to have them put on the record.


It must be of immense satisfaction to you that in the year of your hundredth annual conference a minimum of five [end p3] years secondary schooling for all pupils becomes the law of the land. The N.U.T., down the years, has worked continuously for this reform, and your members have been working hard to make it a success. We hear criticism about whether curricular changes have gone far enough, whether the schools will be ready in time, whether the conscripts will co-operate. But we hear little of the enthusiasm and the careful planning of teachers up and down the country, which comes through as a consistent and striking feature of the returns made by 140 English authorities in response to last year's circular. Shortly after your conference breaks up I shall be publishing a report which summarises the state of preparedness. I hope you will find it, as I have done, an encouraging and stimulating document.


You will expect me also to refer to a report which has just been published, the N.F.E.R. survey of reading ability. We need to be cautious in interpreting its results. The authors themselves have very properly entered quite a number of reservations. We are justified in concluding that reading standards have not risen since 1964 and may have gone down slightly. We do not know on the basis of this one survey however what the trend now is, but reading is so important an element that we cannot afford to treat the matter lightly. I said at the time the report came out that I should be considering what further action was needed. I can announce today that I intend to set up a small committee to inquire into the teaching of reading in schools and the use of the English language. I hope that this inquiry will show whether sufficient priority is being given to these matters and whether the most effective teaching methods are being used. That will be one aim. Another will be to see whether we can improve our methods of measuring attainment. Meanwhile we are discussing with the N.F.E.R. an extension of their testing programme to include mathematics.


We shall be involved over the next two years or three years, in the transition to a new structure of local government. On this there are just two points I would make. The first is that the new authorities will still be required to discharge their functions by reference to the Education Acts and other instruments which now apply to existing authorities. This means, among other things that they will be required to set up education committees. The second is that, even during the difficult transitional stage, the impact of the changes on individual schools should be minimal.


The sheer size of the educational provision now made, and the complexities of financing it, will present the service in its new local government setting with problems both of organisation and of choice. We cannot have everything. [end p4] And we already have a great deal. Public expenditure on education in England and Wales reached £1,000m a year for the first time only some 10 years ago. It almost reached £2,000m in 1969–70 and in the financial year just ended probably reached £2,500m. Let me put it another way. At the beginning of the 1960s education spending represented 10 per cent of public expenditure as a whole; it has now risen to 13 per cent and is due to rise to 14 per cent by 1975–76. And remember that since public expenditure has now reached something like £25,000m a change of a single percentage point can mean £250m.


There are three distinct pressures which contribute to this growth. The first is the increasing number of children and young people, and older people as well, for whom the service has to provide. For the next few years this may be a less important factor than in the sixties—in the primary age range at least numbers will remain relatively stable. But a factor which began to take on a quite new significance during the sixties, and will continue during the seventies, is the increasing desire among young people to prolong their education beyond the school leaving age. The second pressure is for improvements in the standard of education, whether through better buildings, more and better trained teachers, or improved supplies of books and equipment. Thirdly there are pressures for the extension of the education service into areas where its coverage is at present limited or incomplete—in nursery education for example which was placed at the head of the agenda at this conference. These three figures together provide a formidable impetus for the further rapid expansion of education expenditure. As we look towards the second half of the seventies, what are the prospects? Mr. Howard Glennerster has attempted to cost some targets for expansion which were recently put to him. (In Willing the Means published by Council for Educational Advance, March 1972.) He estimates that an increase in the annual rate of public expenditure on education of something over £1,300m would be needed by 1980, an annual growth rate over the decade of more than 5 per cent.

Last year's White Paper on Public Expenditure gave education figures up to 1975–76. If we try to extrapolate from these figures to 1980, simply assuming a continuation of existing policies and trends, our rough calculations lead to a figure not very different from Mr. Glennerster 's. This means two things, and they are both very important. First, if his and the Department's total are broadly of the same order, and his provide for new specific commitments and ours do not, then the cost merely of continuing present policies is much greater than Mr. Glennerster allows for. In fact it could cost as much to continue present policies to 1980 as Mr. Glennerster estimates will be needed to achieve all the new targets he has included. Secondly, therefore, a commitment to a major new objective would involve a further substantial addition to the bill on top of his figures if all the other trends were allowed to continue without change. [end p5]


The expansion of nursery education, to which you have given pride of place in your discussions this year, is an obvious example of such a new commitment, which would add to the total bill. At the same time I would ask you not to underrate what has been achieved so far. Excluding rising 5s, by 1971 there were 165,000 3 and 4 year olds in maintained schools. Of these nearly 40,000 were in nursery schools (half of them part-time), 70,000 in nursery classes (again half of them part-time), 70,000 in nursery classes (again half of them part-time) and nearly 60,000 in the reception classes of primary schools. Together these children represented about 10 per cent of the combined 3 and 4 year old age groups. And these figures take very little account of the extra 20,000 nursery places so far approved under the Urban Programme, most of which had not come into use by January 1971. These places have so far been concentrated in the deprived urban areas, including areas containing a large number of immigrant pupils. Most people think this is right, although I am sorry that in this respect the rural areas have so far been left behind.

I would not argue for a moment that this is enough. But expansion will clearly be expensive, if only because a generous pupil/teacher ratio is required. We must therefore pause to consider the problems which arise from this or any other major reform which constitutes a substantial charge on resources. Mr. Glennerster, in his booklet, offers us one answer. He simply aggregates the additional cost of all the selected targets and tells us that if we wish to see these achieved we must accept a correspondingly higher rate of taxation. I admire his honesty in compelling his readers to accept that there is no easy and painless way of financing higher levels of public expenditure. But one can well imagine his arguments being used in other spheres of public expenditure, particularly the other social services, to suggest how we should deal with the very justifiable claims to do more for the old, the sick and the needy. If all these claims were dealt with simply by aggregating them, the rate of taxation which would be required to sustain this level of public expenditure would be totally unacceptable to the people of this country.


How then are we to tackle the situation? Certainly not by abandoning plans for the further improvement of the education service—the substantial measures I have already announced to develop and improve the service at many levels are sufficient proof of this. But those measures—and here I come to the heart of the matter—all represent deliberate choices to give priority for advance to a certain limited number of objectives at any one time and over any one period. To make choices of this kind is never easy nor popular, since it is the essence of a choice that it involves rejecting, or at least deferring or slowing down, some very worthwhile proposals in favour of those which are given overriding priority at the time. And when a choice has to be made, existing policies and existing levels of expenditure cannot escape scrutiny.

In this situation what should you expect of me, and what may I reasonably ask of you? It is for Government to take major decisions about resource allocations difficult or even painful though they may be. I make no complaint [end p6] about this, though I know that it brings no easy popularity. But in a democracy it is better if Government decisions can follow public discussion of the issues involved. If public opinion is to be healthy, the discussion needs to be vigorous, well-informed and fair-minded. The N.U.T., because of its size and its influence, and because of the professional expertise of its members, can contribute much to this debate.

I have spoken openly on this subject because I know it is one that closely concerns you. You do not hesitate to speak plainly to me. I have not hesitated to speak plainly to you. We should be fair neither to each other nor to those outside the service if we concealed the constraints which will condition future progress.