Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1971 Apr 13 Tu
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to National Union of Teachers Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Spa Hall, Scarborough
Source: Thatcher Archive: DES press release
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1200 on 13 April 1971.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2690
Themes: Education, Primary education, European Union (general)

“HELP SLOW LEARNERS IN SCHOOLS” : MRS THATCHER

The educational implications of Britain's application to join the Common Market, the replacement of 19th century primary schools and a seven point plan to help slow learners in schools were the subjects of a speech by Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the Secretary of State for Education and Science, in Scarborough today (13 April). Addressing the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers in Spa Hall, Scarborough, Mrs Thatcher said:

“First, the Common Market. I have answered a number of questions recently in the House of Commons about the effect of entry on the organisation and financing of education, on the control of the curriculum and on the control of examinations. I think it may help if I state categorically to this conference that entry to the European Economic Community would not entail central government responsibility for the curricula of schools and colleges in the United Kingdom. Entry would not of itself necessitate any changes in our present system of secondary school and university examinations. I have no reason to think that it would necessitate any changes in the organisation of education or that it would affect the method of financing education.

“You may like to have a little background to those assurances. There is no evidence that the arrangements adopted by the Six for financing domestic social services have been affected by their membership of the Common Market. The Treaty of Rome does not refer to education as such. It mentions mutual recognition of diplomas, certificates and other qualifications only in the context of “the right of establishment” , namely the freedom to practise a profession or calling in another country. In the field of school education the Six have been working for many years with the other members of the Council of Europe on exchanges of information, but no move has been made to secure uniformity. Education services are organic and in a sense an expression of the social history of the country. This cannot be rewritten, and future developments have to build on to the foundations which have already been laid.” [end p1]

On the primary schools replacement programme Mrs Thatcher said:

“We are already giving priority to the replacement and improvement of old primary schools and to the improvement of staffing standards. The 1972–73 school building programme, the first for which I was responsible, includes well over 400 projects for the replacement or improvement of old primary schools at a cost of £38.5 million—more than twice the figure for the previous year. And I have just increased the minor works allocations in 1971–73 to selected local authorities and aided schools in areas where primary numbers are growing fast or which have other special needs.

“When I announced the primary improvements programmes last October I estimated that about £200 million would be needed to replace and improve all the primary schools built before 1903 which were deficient in accommodation and for which there was a long term need. This figure was based on information provided by authorities which has proved to be incomplete in some cases, and I should like to take this opportunity of bringing the estimates up to date. The latest returns which we have indicate that the number of pre-1903 schools needing replacement or major improvement will turn out to be between 6,000 and 6,500, and that the number of pupils in them will be around 900,000 to 950,000. With the 13 per cent increase in cost limits announced last month, we now estimate that the cost of the operation in terms of building starts will be of the order of £280 million, or £260 million for England only. I should also like to extend the programme to special schools which are similarly old and deficient and this will mean a further £10 million.”

Turning to the subject of slow learners, Mrs Thatcher said:

“The subject of slow learners is one which I know members of the NUT care about deeply; and it is a subject which HM Inspectors, in recent years and in various parts of the country, have been discussing with heads of schools. Some of the figures they have reported to me have been rather startling.

“First I must make it clear that I am not talking today about those children whose disabilities are such that it is better for them to be taught at special schools where the more highly specialised teaching they need can be provided. I am aware of the security and opportunities which the special schools give to these more handicapped children.

“Today I want to concentrate on the children in our ordinary schools, and particularly in secondary schools, who progress more slowly than the rest. The reasons, as you know, are of many kinds. It may be that they are slow learners in the sense that their innate ability is low. Or it may be that they could make more progress but are suffering from other problems such as physical handicaps of one sort or another. They may have some emotional difficulty or behaviour problem. There may be social problems of family or neighbourhood. There may sometimes be a combination of such conditions. [end p2]

“The number of children with learning difficulties like these varies considerably from school to school and neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In discussions with HMIs, heads' own estimates of the proportion in their own school have been as low as 7 per cent and as high as 60 per cent—the latter in a heavily populated area with many social problems. In a representative sample of comprehensive and modern schools the average appeared to be around 14 per cent, or one child in seven, needing special help because of learning difficulties. In only about half of the schools in which inquiries were made was the desired help actually being provided.

“These estimates of children needing special help are borne out by a somewhat more rigorous research study made of over 2,000 children aged 9–11, by Professor Tizard and Dr. Rutter and Dr Whitemore in the Isle of Wight. A team of skilled investigators found that one child in every six had some degree of disability which interfered with their learning process. If these figures are applied nationally it could mean that there are nearly 350,000 children in our secondary schools with disabilities sufficiently marked to call for some level of specialised help to enable them to make maximum progress.

“In recent years however there have been many other problems to meet, and schools have had sometimes to concentrate on other problems—changes in organisation, changes in curriculum, sheer expansion in numbers. Despite all the efforts from a great many teachers it would seem that the slow learners have not always had their full share of attention, and are still not receiving it.

“Some schools have special departments, others may have a special form, others give special tuition in basic skills in remedial sessions. A good deal of interesting work is being done and HM Inspectorate applaud the way in which slow learners are accepted naturally into school social life and activities. But as we all know, in too many schools staff are struggling against considerable odds. Rooms and facilities are not always adequate for the sort of approach teachers are trying to adopt, or would like to adopt.

“Individual members of staff are giving these youngsters a great deal of thoughtful attention. But some are themselves inexperienced, even probationary teachers who need guidance, and yet are being given virtual sole responsibility for slow learners classes at the outset of their teaching careers. Should there, I wonder, be a professional view emerging about the staff who should be doing this work?

“I want to begin discussions about what we can do within the available resources to provide these children with the teaching and opportunities they need. Some of you may be reflecting that social and community pressures and inadequate home backgrounds make equality of opportunity difficult, and that preventative or remedial action needs to be taken as early as possible. Of course this is so.

“That is why we are doing a good deal through the urban programme to expand [end p3] nursery education in socially deprived areas. So far over 15,000 extra nursery places have been approved at a capital cost of about £4 million, three quarters of which comes direct from the Exchequer. These resources are being concentrated in such a way that, in some deprived areas, the number of nursery places will be increased by as much as 50 per cent. And the Home Office are similarly using the urban programme to grant aid local authority expenditure on suitable playgroups in deprived areas.

“When some of you came to see me after your last conference to discuss some of the resolutions that had been passed, you mentioned the desire of some schools to admit all their reception classes in September if they had places available. I know that there are few areas where this can be done without infringing the restrictions imposed by Circular 8/60. But I would like you to know that I am well aware of the feeling among many of your members that a single annual entry of all children becoming of compulsory school age has great educational advantage, and I am including this question among all those affecting the under-fives which my Department are currently reviewing.

“What more can we do? The first essential, I am sure you will agree, is that if secondary schools are to give these children the best opportunities they must be able to identify them, but to do so as unobtrusively as possible. The slow learner needs confidence in himself and in his progress. This may be shattered through comparisons, whether explicit or implicit, between his efforts and those of abler pupils; by work done in the first weeks of term which show how little he knows and how uncertain are the foundations of his learning. If he later sees himself to be falling further behind he is likely to become apathetic and disruptive.

“Second, there must be a partnership between school and family and all who have expertise and knowledge to contribute. Schools and local authorities will know best how this co-operation is to be achieved. But it will surely be necessary for schools to think carefully about the way in which easy co-operation can be arranged: between teachers, who see the children daily at school, and other professionals—nurses and doctors, psychologists, education welfare officers and social workers—who are also concerned with their welfare.

“Third, the kernel of the educational task is to provide for the educational needs of each pupil. This is no easy task. As you know better than I, their needs are not met merely by simplifying the traditional subject matter of the more able, or by a slower pace. Many will require remedial help in the sense of making good deficiencies. But your experience may suggest that there are others with more limited inherent capabilities, who will always need work of a different kind to provide them with their own opportunities for successful achievement. As the Schools Council report on young school leavers succinctly said “When pupils are unable to do as the successful do, they very quickly withdraw from the learning game” . [end p4]

“Fourth, if slow learners are to have their fair share of attention, changes of organisation and practice may be necessary in many secondary schools. They cannot for example obtain experience in practical skills unless sufficient time is made available in workshops, laboratories, art and housecraft rooms. They work slowly and need time: are the changes of a time-table operating in 40-minute units throughout the day suitable for them? At the same time slow learners are members of the school community and capable of playing their part in many school activities: organisational changes must not be such as to stop them taking part, not should they become a self-contained department taught exclusively by only one or two teachers.

“Fifth, we must look at training arrangements. I do not underestimate the intellectual and emotional demands of this work. It calls for considerable analytical ability and knowledge of the learning process, for qualities of organisation and leadership, and for a capacity to understand and co-operate. Traditionally it has been the practice to regard professional training for work with handicapped children, including slow learners, as a matter for in-service rather than initial training. Between 300 and 400 teachers annually attend one year or one term courses dealing with learning difficulties. This is clearly not adequate, but represents a considerable proportion of the total number of teachers who are seconded for all kinds of further education and training.

“In anticipation of the transfer of responsibility of mentally handicapped children to the education service, a number of special three year courses have been started in various parts of the country. I hope that further courses of this nature, but widened to cover the problems of children with less severe learning handicaps, will be started in the next year or two. Some colleges with expertise in this field have introduced optional courses in this subject which can be attended by students following the normal three year courses. I hope that the number of these courses will also increase as more colleges develop their expertise in and understanding of learning difficulties.

“Sixth, as well as the improvements which will come through the initial training system and from normal in-service training, teachers in secondary schools will gain much from regular contacts—both organised and informal—with those in primary schools and in special schools. This is a valuable function of the growing number of teachers' centres, which I hope will be encouraged. Many primary schools have suffered the handicaps of large classes and crowded buildings; their heartening achievements with their slow learners may offer useful guide lines to secondary schools. Secondary schools may profit if teachers with primary or special school experience join their staff. They will also profit by observing, discussing, and experimenting with the types of organisation and presentation which will be found in primary and special schools.

“Seventh, the allocation of staff. It is not, I believe, so much extra resources that are needed as a conscious realisation of the different needs of slow [end p5] learners in deploying existing resources. But I do not rule out all possibility of some increase of teaching resources. Fortunately the total number of teachers is now rising and will continue to do so, whereas the growth in pupil numbers, except in the year when the school leaving age is raised, will tend to fall off. Already, of the net increase of about 18,000 teachers this year, we can count 9,000 or so as being available to improve standards in one way or another. In later years, except for the one in which the effects of raising the leaving age come to bear on the schools, the improvement factor will be something like two-thirds of the net increase in teacher numbers. Many of the extra teachers will be needed in the primary schools but the secondary schools will have a share; and some of the extra teachers ought to be used to reduce the size of classes for slow learners and to provide a specialised curriculum for those who need it.

“The allocation of teachers between schools is a matter for local education authorities. I am sure that they already bear in mind when allocating staff the fact that some schools carry a greater responsibility than others in providing for slow learners. As between local authority areas the quota system is sufficiently flexible to meet any special needs. Some authorities already have large extra allocations because of the number of deprived children for whom there must be provision; insofar as deprivation and backwardness often go together, the needs of these pupils are already being recognised. But any authority that would like to have more teachers in order to make better provision for this disadvantaged group of children is free to apply for an additional allocation.

“This seven-point programme is a beginning, on which further expert professional opinion is needed. I believe your union, and other teachers organisations, would welcome a new initiative at this time to do more for those who most need help. During the next few weeks I shall be consulting the teachers' organisations and the local authority associations about the terms of a circular, so that we can move this whole question nearer the top of the educational agenda. I want the authorities, with their heads of schools, to look carefully and systematically at what is being done and what ought to be done, and to let me know what they find and what conclusions they reach. When we have all considered together the objectives and the measures needed, we shall be in a better position to adjust our educational policies in a way that recognises the needs of these children.”