Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to North of England Education Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Buxton, Derbyshire
Source: Thatcher Archive: DES press release
Editorial comments: Time of day untraced.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3784
Themes: Education, Secondary education, Higher & further education, Public spending & borrowing, Religion & morality, Society

The theme of your conference is “Education and Society” . The words are simple: the prospect they open up disconcertingly wide. How we view the prospect must vary according to where we stand and where we stand is a consequence of the way we have come.

The members of this famous conference—teachers, administrators, governors, parents—have come by many ways to the point from which each now surveys the prospect. We see differently or different things, in education, in society, and in the traffic that passes between them, a traffic that increases year by year.

I cannot, by what I say, change the view each of you will have of that busy soene. Nor would I wish to change what must often be personal and profound convictions derived from many years in the service of education. But I am delighted to be able to join in, and to explore in particular some of the relationships between the law of education and policies for education. It may not be a bad subject at the beginning of our second hundred years of public education. It certainly has its place as a chapter heading under the wider title which you have chosen.

But first a word on the general theme. I have already discovered that the vocabulary of education discussion is rich in its use of paired words that present the rival claims of the individual and of society. You can also have paired professors of education to support whichever side you adopt.

One, for example, very eminent, stated what might be called the individual [end p1] thesis. “Nothing good” , Sir Percy Nunnhe said, “enters into the world except in and through the free activities of individual men and women and educational practice must be shaped to that end.”

His Sir Fred Clarkesuccessor, equally distinguished, propounded the social antithesis. He insisted that “systematic and effective education has always the character of an accepted culture perpetuating itself” . Here is the controversy between the child-centred and the subject-centred theories of the curriculum. How is one to choose when the conflicting voices of authority ring so confidently down the years?

The way of wisdom or, more prosaically, the way of survival—may be to find a balance, between the two extremes. For consider some of the paired words commonly in use among us. Innovation and tradition. Competition and co-operation. Freedom and order. Diversity and unity. Self-expression and discipline. Rights and duties. Though these are presented as rivals does not each require the other?

Each pair surely represents the two sides of a single coin. Tilt the coin too far towards the unfettered claims of the individual and the danger is that innovation moves towards novelty, freedom towards licence, self-expression towards eccentrioity, rights towards demands. Tilt the coin too far towards the unfettered claims of society and the danger is that tradition becomes orthodoxy, collaboration becomes compulsion, unity becomes conformity. May it not be one of the first tasks of education to help children to find the middle way marked out by the twin concepts of responsibility and responsiveness: responsibility for one's own actions and responsiveness to the needs of others?

But these are large and philosophic notions, and although I am told this conference thrives upon them, I would rather turn to some comments on the Education Acts and their appropriateness or otherwise to the problems of today. Perhaps the larger themes will provide a suitable backdrop to the argument I would now put before you.

We have lived this last quarter of a century with the Education Act of which Mr Butler as he then was and his coadjutor Mr Chuter-Ede, were the architects. And a very remarkable Act it was, remarkable for what it did not say as well as for what it did.

“It has enabled the central Government and the local authorities and the [end p2] churches and the teachers to accomplish a very great deal—including many things which were not, and could not have been, in the minds of the legislators of 1944.

Like all great Acts it was the child of its time. The circumstances of 1944 required a settlement, a legal settlement in which all those with a stake in education, and in particular the local authorities and the voluntary bodies, could be allotted a place and given the appropriate rights and duties. The 1944 Act provided such a settlement and it worked.

It worked at its best where it was distributing broad powers and responsibilities. The broad structure still stands. But the fact that we have had nine Education Acts since 1944—or ten if you include the Remuneration of Teachers Act of 1965—is a reminder not to try to do by legislation what is best left for other techniques of government and administration.

The former Government, by their promise of papers white to green, gave the impression that this great structure had outlived its usefulness and could no longer be adapted by periodic amendment. A new, and they implied a greater, Act was needed, a stronger structure better able to bear the loads that the following decades would put upon it. I do not share this view. It was prompted, I believe, by a confusion between structure and operation, between law and policy.

We would share their view if things we all want to do were being frustrated by limitations contained in statute. It is true of course that the Act does not give me the power to order education authorities to organise secondary education in any one particular way to the exclusion of all others. But then I am not asking for this power. It is true that the law does not permit me to impose a central direction on the organisation of higher education. But then I am not asking for this power either.

But while I believe that Lord Butler built better than he knew there are some things that need amending. For one thing it would be a boon to administrators central and local, if all the Education Acts which now stand on the Statute Book could be consolidated. And I am studying how this can be done.

For another, as happens with all Acts, some parts have proved more difficult to administer while others have performed their task and are no longer needed. I shall see how these can best be brought up to date in the light of the wide range of helpful suggestions which recently poured into the Department from every major [end p3] organisation in the educational world.

The clear cut legal distinction between primary and secondary schools embodied in the 1944 Act made sense in relation to a much more uniform pattern of school organisation than we now have or than we now want. A legislative device has been found to accommodate middle schools, but the primary-secondary dichotomy does not reflect the reality of the current situation.

Again the present legal distinction between secondary and further education sometimes stands in the way of flexibility in providing facilities for educating the 16–19s. In both these respects some changes are desirable.

By the same token it would be right to amend the provisions of the law which discriminate between the “management” of primary schools and the “government” of secondary schools.

The provisions of the Act about development plans, development orders, and schemes of further education have served their purpose. The concept of a fixed and detailed scheme or plan no longer corresponds with the reality of an organically evolving system of schools and colleges. These provisions could be abandoned.

In other matters too it should be possible to adopt less rigid and less detailed formulations of the duties of local education authorities and school governing bodies, for example in the sections of the Act dealing with special educational treatment, or with the sites and buildings of voluntary schools, or with special agreement schools.

I should like to do something to improve those parts of the Act that affect parents in the exercise of the choice of schools their child should attend. At present they are not very satisfactory. Sections which describe the rights of parents do not mean quite what they seem to the layman to mean; and if disputes arise they may have to be settled by recourse to a clumsy school attendance procedure and by correspondence with the Department entailing further delays while the full details are being investigated. We must try to make the arrangements for resolving questions about choice of school simpler and quicker.

These are examples of the sort of change that seems to me to be needed. I am not suggesting that I have out and dried solutions to everything. These matters will require further thought and discussions with those concerned. But I [end p4] hope that they will illustrate the general point that most of the changes I should like to see have the character of modifications or improvements, and that to enable us to advance as we would wish, major changes in the law are not necessary. The broad balance of powers and functions between central and local government, between local authorities and the voluntary bodies in the existing legislation seems to me to have stood the test of time pretty well.

There is one other general point. Section 7 of the 1944 Act which deals with the purposes of the statutory system of education has some challenging words in it. It says that “it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community” . That does not leave much that in theory is not the business of the educational system. These things are indeed the concern of the educationist. We consider that there is something lacking in an education service which merely provides instruction and ignores wider aspects of the development of the personality.

But the Act did say “as far as their powers extend” . As used in this context the words have a legal application, but there is a wider sense in which we ought to recognise the limitations within which the schools must work.

It is very tempting, if one cares deeply about some problems in people's behaviour, as individuals or in society, to think that all would be well if only children were taught the right way to behave in this particular respect at school. And so representations are made that they should be taught to abstain from drugs, drink and smoking, to practice road safety, to exhibit racial tolerance and avoid throwing litter. These are actual examples, which have been put to me, but are by no means a complete list.

The motives of those who are urging this course are usually the highest. But I do ask them to remember that time in the schools is limited, and cannot be allocated to one purpose without reducing what is available for another; and this includes more traditional activities like teaching mathematics and history.

Young people are also subjected to powerful influences outside the schools, from home, from their contemporaries, from the mass media. The influence of the school is not likely to prevail unaided against these other forces unless it is reinforced by parents and the standards of adult society. It is unfair and [end p5] unrealistic to expect teachers to shoulder these responsibilities alone.

Against this background let us consider what are the main forces that make for development within the education service. Your experience may perhaps confirm that there are three categories—ideas, organisation, and resources.

I believe that ideas have always been, and still remain, as powerful an influence upon the development of our education system as the forms of its organisation and the availability of resources. Who produces these ideas and how are they propagated? Philosophers down the ages have been one source of ideas. More recently they have been joined by psychologists and sociologists. Teachers have both produced their own ideas and explored the possibilities of others.

This century has seen the massive expansion of what I might call corporate thinking about education. Parliaments, parties, associations, unions, committees, councils ministries, experts have come forward with ideas of their own. Following the second world war we have seen the growth of organised research, to find out facts, to test existing ideas and to develop new ones.

But in the last decade or so I believe yet another, and in some ways more powerful agency has been at work. As our society has come to see the value and importance of education and come to demand more and yet more of it for its children and youth, so people have come to have ideas about the aims of education and about what they want to obtain from it.

I welcome this wealth of ideas, though it complicates the life of those who carry the responsibility for running and developing our national system of education.

Changes in ideas often involve changes in organisation.

There are basically two attitudes to organisation. One is to build up a structure which you believe is right—it might perhaps be called the architectural approach—and oblige people to work within it. The other is to go for a network of living institutions—call it the organic approach—where there is room for adaptation and experiment. I am myself convinced that the organic approach is better. It suits our way of life in this country. For the architectural approach you must be sure you have all the right answers, whereas good ideas can come from any part of the service at any time. [end p6]

Children and students are not all the same, nor are their parents or their teachers. In my view the strongest and most generous education system is one whose organisation, whose institutions are as various and different from each other as the needs of people they serve and the people who serve in them. If schools are different from each other, it does not follow that the children in one kind are having a worse deal than the children in another.

From time to time there are pressures on the education service to embrace some one method of organisation whose advocates deem it to be so obviously right and just and so plainly of universal application that any conscientious Secretary of State must try to impose it and all conscientious local authorities and teachers must welcome its imposition. Fortunately the fashions in educational doctrines tend to wear themselves out long before they have done too much damage. One theoretical truth succeeds another. Meanwhile, in an illogical and untidy pattern, real schools, real colleges and real universities get on with the real work of education.

In the quarter of a century since we started to improve and expand the schools sector of the education service we have had many occasions to modify the law to match new ideas or to remove out of date inhibitions on experiment. But we have changed little of real substance.

We retain, as I believe we should, an independent sector alongside the vast public sector. Within the public sector a substantial stake is held by the churches, and in between wholly public and wholly private there is the small but important direct grant system.

We retain in the state system, schools of a wide range of character. If those who enacted the 1944 Act had suffered from the delusion that secondary education could only be organised on the basis of different types of school to cater for different types of children the law would not have allowed for any development of non-selective schools—a fact which enthusiasts for non-selection should take to heart.

One of the current organisational changes which is full of interest and promise is the middle school. It was one of the unforeseen consequences of the 1944 Act, amended by the 1948 Act, that it left no room for this development, thus illustrating that legislation is not best used to lay down precise rules about how schools may and may not be organised. In 1963 the West Riding made a [end p7] proposal for 9-to-13 schools, but it conflicted with the law as it then stood and the law had to be altered to allow the experiment to be made.

History has conferred diversity upon our institutions of higher education, and this too we should cherish.

The tremendous expansion after Robbins brought a surge of experiment, the development of new kinds of institution, new courses, and new patterns of organisation. Students' needs are becoming more varied and more specialised but to a large extent the higher education system can meet them. Not since the Middle Ages have new universities been founded on the scale we saw in the 1960s.

Some of these foundations, precisely because they were new, had a unique opportunity of developing new forms of organisation, new approaches to subjects and disciplines, and experimental methods of teaching and assessment.

The polytechnics are a further and perhaps outstanding example of the diversity in higher education. I see them as complementary to, and not in competition with, the universities, fulfilling a purpose that is closely related to, yet in many significant ways different from, that of the universities.

And so I turn finally to the third of the three factors which I mentioned earlier as being the main determinants of educational development—namely resources of manpower, materials and money.

If we look back over the last decade, using statistics recently published by the Department, we see that total public expenditure on education in England and Wales rose from £760 million in 1959–60 to £1,850 million in 1968–69 an average rise of over 10 per cent a year. Some of this increase simply reflects the fall in the value of money. Even allowing for this, the rate of increase was still around 5 per cent a year or cumulatively an increase of over 60 per cent. This year, for the first time, the total is likely to reach £2,000 million.

Three pressures have contributed to this massive and continuing growth.

The first is the sheer increase in numbers as the age groups of children entering the educational system rose steadily in size.

Secondly, the higher aspirations among young people and their parents for a longer period of education and for one which reaches a higher level of qualification. These are reflected in the remarkable growth in the number of young people remaining at school for sixth form studies or entering further education for work [end p8] of a similar standard, and in the surge of demand for all the sectors of higher education.

Thirdly, there are the pressurs for improvement in standards. We see this most obviously in demands for new and better educational buildings, and for more teachers.

For much of the last twenty years the pressure of numbers was predominant and restricted the scope for improvements. The need to provide for growing numbers in the schools, together with internal movement of population, limited the resources which could be devoted to improvement and replacement of schools; and the same remorseless growth in the school population seemed for some years likely to frustrate all the efforts to improve the pupil-teacher ratio. As a result of these three pressures expenditure on schools during the 1960s, while remaining much the largest single element, grew more slowly than expenditure in most other sectors of education. It fell from three-quarters of the total at the beginning of the decade to less than two-thirds at the end.

The history of this period might appear as a running battle between the three pressures I have just described and the limitations which the needs of the economy imposed on public expenditure. On the whole the pressures tended to win the day.

But economic considerations were sometimes able to make themselves felt, albeit through hasty and rather erratic measures, and they were gaining in influence towards the end of the decade. Hence perhaps the growing realisation of the need to treat education as a major consumer of resources in the public sector and to consider its claims along with those of its competitors in a regular and systematic way.

The time has passed when the case for a particular educational advance could rest solely on its own merits, regardless of its relationship with the current level of expenditure and other claims for improvement of the service.

It is of little value to assert as self-evident that, because education is a good thing, more of it in any direction must be better and ought to be provided instantaneously. We could say the same of health and housing. Of course there are many valuable extensions of the service and improvements in its quality that we should all like to see. [end p9]

But the task of government is the hard one of deciding priorities between all these desirable improvements, and any decision in favour of one must imply postponing others.

Local authorities are, of course, well accumstomed to making difficult decisions on the relative priorities for the development of their own services. They have to operate within financial and other resource constraints just as I do. They are already alive to one important issue of this kind which may not come upon us until the second half of this decade but which nevertheless needs to be examined well in advance. This is the question of staffing standards in the schools.

The need to improve these standards has long been accepted as one of the main priorities for the education service, and the colleges of education and training facilities elsewhere for teachers have been greatly expanded for this purpose. This was undoubtedly a sound judgement on priorities, and there is still need for further improvement in staffing standards at least to take us well clear of the impact of the raising of the school leaving age.

But it is a serious question whether, in the second half of this decade, it will be right to continue the output of teachers at the present rate and thus to pre-empt a very large share of the total resources available for improving the operating standards of the schools.

This then is the framework for advance, legislative, conceptual, financial. It is an elaborate framework, but in our generation public education has become an elaborate business.

One of the pleasures of my office—and it has its pleasures as well as its problems—is to meet many visitors from overseas. Sooner or later they ask me what are our educational goals in Britain and how we set out to achieve them.

I have no ready formula at my fingertips, but a statement prepared in answer to this question by the representatives of more than twenty nations who gathered at an OECD Conference in Paris last summer is worth quoting as it has received little publicity in this country:

‘There are certain fundamental aims which are as permanent as they are far-reaching. These are: to afford to every boy and girl, to every man and woman, the best possible opportunity to discover and to achieve, no [end p10] matter at what stage in his development or career, his or her full potentialities for self-fulfilment, not as an individual over against society, not as a social or economic unit subordinated to society, but as a “person-in-community” with all that this implies for rationality and human sympathy; to do this in such a way as to offset so far as possible cultural and environmental handicaps to equality of achievement; to do it in such a way as to make the most equitable and productive use of limited resources, by reference to a clear scale of priorities; to do it in such a way as to make the best possible match between the aspirations of each person and the manpower needs of the community; and, last but not least, to do it in such a way as to give through the social organisms we adopt or adapt, the greatest possible scope to the participants in the educational process—the teachers, the students, the parents, the administrators, the public at large and those who represent them—contribute their energy, their wisdom, their ideals, and their skills to the success of this complex social and political enterprise.’