Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1971 Oct 14 Th
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Conservative Party Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Brighton
Source: Conservative Party Conference Report 1971 (pp69-72)
Editorial comments: Time uncertain. A section of the speech has been checked against a recording in the BBC Sound Archive (see editorial notes in text).
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2858
Themes: Education, Primary education, Secondary education, Higher & further education, Public spending & borrowing, Social security & welfare, Trade unions

May I first congratulate Dr. Denney on the excellent way in which he moved the Motion. He, like many others who spoke, has great reason to be interested in the polytechnics and other higher education institutions. But I believe that he echoed the real thoughts of many when he said that as urgent as the needs for some of the polytechnics are the needs of young children in primary schools working in bad conditions really should take priority.

I was very pleased to get a clear-cut Motion. So often Motions on education say that we must have priority for absolutely everything, and that results in having priority for nothing. I was particularly pleased with Mr. Scofield 's speech, and would gladly have given him five minutes of mine. I would bet that there is one chief education officer who knows who is boss.

The debates and the speeches have, as usual, in the sphere of education, been extremely wide ranging, and many of those who have spoken have used the time-honoured method of speaking against the Motion to put a particular point of their own which is also of great interest.

First, I will turn my attention to the Motion itself. There is a great need for improvement of a large number of our primary schools. Whatever priority were to be given anywhere else in the system, whether to nursery schools or polytechnics, will not get rid of that need. Whatever we do elsewhere, if we do nothing about the primary schools, there will still be some 5,000 to 6,000 schools built in the last century, many of which contain squalid conditions.

Up to one in five of our primary school children go to these schools. Going to primary school is quite an experience for a child in any event. They go out of home for the first time. Supposing they go out of a very nice home into a school with very bad conditions. What kind of impression are they going to get of school the first time they go? Supposing they go from a poor home into bad conditions. They are never going to have the opportunity of working in good conditions and knowing what they are like, and the bad conditions will make the task of the teachers extremely difficult.

There are some 5,000 to 6,000 bad primary school buildings, and it is—I believe rightly so—my top priority to try to get rid of these schools and replace them with good ones.

I was, quite rightly, presented with a survey by the National Union of Teachers pointing out how bad the conditions were in some schools. It was, of course, an indictment of the lack of action on the part of the last Government. Only the NUT did not quite put it that way.

Over the six years the last Government were in office they devoted about £50 million to the improvement of primary schools, including £16 million for educational priority areas. We, as Dr. Denney has pointed out, are determined to tackle the problem with very much more energy and very much more priority. We intend to spend the much larger sum of £170 million, not over six years but over a period of four years to break the back of this problem. Whatever ideas one might have about the rest of the education sector, this must come first.

I am well aware that there are problems in secondary schools, too, but secondary schools [end p1] have had more attention from past programmes than have primary schools. You will remember Sir David Eccles 's wonderful programme of secondary education and Sir Edward Boyle 's great improvement programme for secondary education. There are fewer problems there. Obviously we shall eventually have to get round to tackling them, but the primary schools must come first.

There have inevitably been some comments about the milk policy. From some of the comments made in the House of Commons one would not have thought that it was the Labour Government that abolished milk in secondary schools. They abolished it without making any provision for those who had a medical need to receive milk. They abolished it without making any provision for the sale of milk in schools. Their alternative to free milk was no milk.

We have tried to do it differently in the primary schools. Naturally we had to look to see where we could make savings if we were to have an enormously expanded education programme for school building and also more teachers, better books, etc. Among the savings we thought could be made were savings on some of the supply of milk to primary schools. Most parents can and will pay 10p a week or a little less for one-third of a pint of milk a day for their children, provided that the local education authorities will put it on sale. The local education authorities have power to sell milk in schools. May I make it perfectly clear that they did not have the power to do so until we gave them that power in the Bill which recently went through Parliament.

Sometimes as I go round the country parents say to me, “Will you issue a directive to local authorities about the sale of milk?” The answer is that local authorities have full powers to sell milk in primary schools and in secondary schools. They received a circular from the Department in these terms in August:

“It will be for authorities to decide in the light of local circumstances how far they wish to exercise their powers to sell milk, but the Secretary of State hopes that authorities will be able to make suitable arrangements wherever there is a sufficient demand for it by the pupils.” So if milk is not being supplied in schools on demand for sale, the place to go is to your local education authorities and, in view of what Mr. Scofield said, probably to the councillors and not to the chief education officer. It is my hope that when the position has settled down most local education authorities will see that milk is available on sale in schools; I believe that they should do so.

There has also been some comment on this primary school Motion about nursery schools. We should all like to do much more for nursery school education. It so happens that in Britain we start primary school rather earlier than most continental countries. We start at 5. All the European countries start at 6, and 2 of them—Denmark and Norway—not until 7. So we are already ahead of many countries in the age at which we start our compulsory education. This is to the benefit and advantage of our children.

We should like to lower the age and have more children at nursery school. The problem is that it is a very expensive process. When I go round to meetings I often give the figures of costs of education in various types of schools, and people are often surprised at how high the costs are. The cost of educating a child in a nursery class attached to a primary school on present standards is £140 per year per child. If it is a class in a nursery school, it is nearer £200 per year per child. In a primary school the similar figures are £97 per primary school child per year and in secondary schools £186 per year per secondary school pupil.

When we come to higher education, you will see why it is very expensive there. For an under-graduate place, whether in a polytechnic or a university, on average it is £1,000 a year per undergraduate, and for post-graduates the cost is £2,000 per year.

I state these figures so that people can see the enormous sums that are spent on educating our people and also the very high cost of expanding into the nursery sphere. Because of that, I believe that we must concentrate our nursery provision on the deprived areas where the children get least chance of all of getting a good start in life. That is why we have attempted to put our priorities under the urban programme. I know that some local authorities are following the practice of taking children into primary school at the beginning of the year in which they reach 5. This is where they have the classrooms and the teachers to do it. I know that in some areas this is very welcome.

As everyone else has gone off the subject of primary education, may I be permitted to say a few words about secondary education? Beginning of section checked against BBC Sound Archive:

There has been a certain amount of criticism about raising the school leaving age. Yes I'm very well aware of it. There has always been criticism. I think ever since 1893, every time there was an attempt to raise the school leaving age. Indeed I think in 1893 the Privy Council said that they hoped that by fixing the age at 11 they hadn't fixed it too high and hadn't deprived parents of the earnings of the children who they would naturally wish to contribute towards the family budget. And every time there has been a raise since, then some of the similar arguments have applied.

Now it's my belief that many people wouldn't be against the raising of the school leaving age at all if they could be assured that in that final year the young people at school would learn things which would be of great use to them in tackling the problems they will meet in the world outside. (Applause).

I think the argument is not against raising the school leaving age but doubts about whether the curriculum in the secondary schools is satisfactory. (Applause).

Now we have made great efforts through the School's Council about the curriculum. Most of us are very much aware of this criticism. There are new curricula programmes drawn and the problem is to get them to the teachers in the schools. But I think there are many reasons for raising the school leaving age. A question was asked in the House about how many children who left school at the age of 15 had either “O” or “CSE” qualifications, because it is important to get a qualification [end p2] because it makes it easier you in the industrial training system, easier for you to go into the further education system, easier for you to get a good job with an employer.

And the answer is as follows. Of those children who leave school at the age of 15, some 91 per cent have no “O” level or “CSE” level at all. Of those who leave at 16, it is only 7 per cent. Now I believe that many of that 91 per cent are quite capable of getting an “O” Level or “CSE” Level, and will do so if given the opportunity. Also we must recognize that this generation will face far more changes in circumstances and a far more rapid rate of change in society than any that we have ever encountered, and it is doubly important therefore, that before they leave school they should have a basic education sufficient to enable them to adapt to that changing society and to take further training whenever necessary. [End of section checked against BBC Sound Archive:]"

Raising the school leaving age was first moved by one of my predecessors, Sir Edward Boyle. It was postponed by the Labour Party. We have put a lot of effort and money into extra buildings, extra teachers and a proper curriculum. I believe it is time for it to go up and I believe it will be of great benefit to the average child when it does go up. I think 15 is still too young and too immature an age to put some of our children out into the complex world and into the complex industry which they meet. It would be far better if they had an extra year in which to mature and far more guidance could be given to them during that year at school.

Inevitably there have been a number of comments about secondary re-organisation and here we have one of the most difficult problems in balancing the powers between central and local government. Lord Belstead, who is second on my right, and myself have to tackle some of these applications for re-organisation when they come in. Both of us know that Section 13 of the 1944 Education Act—which was the section under which the changes take place—was not designed for circumstances such as those under which we are getting massive applications to change the nature of secondary schools. It is my own belief that a number of the problems would go if those who are tackling the re-organisation, who had the wish to get rid of selection before the age of 16—inevitably there will be some selection in the higher stages of education—would look at the possibility of smaller comprehensive schools.

As you know, I have never been a great advocate of size. I think there are a lot of demerits attached to size as well as a lot of merit. Many young people who have problems during their adolescent period would find those problems easier to solve within the atmosphere of a smaller school with staff who stay, rather than in the atmosphere of a very large school, sometimes in a difficult area with a high turnover of staff.

The Department publishes a document called Trends in Education which has been giving examples of work in smaller comprehensive schools. The opinions expressed therein are not official in any way, but there was an interesting article on the small comprehensive school—a three-form entry school with an excellent time-table. The author, Elizabeth Halsall, looked at all the evidence on small comprehensives and came to the conclusion that many of them can work extremely well and do work extremely well. I will quote from what she said, because many of you will have to consider re-organisation schemes. She said this: “The strengths of the small school have been considerably under-rated, though there is much research on the strengths and weaknesses of small and large institutions generally …” “Persons in small institutions are absent less often, are more punctual, more productive and more interested in the affairs of the organisation, find their work more meaningful, participate more often and function in positions of responsibility more frequently and in a wider range of activities.”

No one is saying that they should all be smaller comprehensive schools; there is room for some large ones as well. All schools cannot be comprehensive schools, because of some of the buildings and organisational arrangements, will not yield to it. But I do hope that those who make it their prime objective to get rid of selection before the age of 16 would fully consider having more smaller comprehensive schools than is normal at the present time.

Some speakers have said how important it is to get parents working with the schools. I agree with everything that is said in that direction. The Newsom and Plowden Reports pointed this out. You get maximum progress when parents co-operate with teachers and local education authorities, and when the progress of the pupil is fully discussed between the school and the parents. On the odd occasion when I have had to use my powers under the 1944 Act to issue a Directive, I am glad to say it has been on the side of the parents against authority, where that authority has used its powers deliberately to eliminate all choice in respect of a particular group of parents.

Many speakers have been interested in and anxious about what is taught in the schools and the teaching methods. There is no one supreme method. A good teacher will use that combination of methods which secures the progress of the pupil. I do not think we can lay down any particular method but you will know that I asked Lord James to look at teacher-training methods, and I hope we will have a report by the end of this year on what action we should take to improve those methods and the organisation.

As far as teachers and class sizes are concerned, the supply of teachers continues to improve. We have about 18,000 more in the service each year, and this has led to a very welcome reduction in the size of classes and reduced the number of over-sized classes, in fact the number of children in such classes is falling quite rapidly; only 5 per cent or so in 1971. The achievements have been very considerable.

Mr. van Straubenzee, on my right, deals with higher and further education. The three of us do the whole part of education. We all get involved in all sectors, but he specialises on higher and further education and we shall be considering together some of the other problems raised.

I have listened to all of the speeches with the [end p3] greatest possible interest, because there are some important decisions on higher and further education to be made during the next year. We have to decide the size of university expansion, and this against a background of shortage of accommodation in some of the university towns. We hope to improve the standard of polytechnic buildings in the further education sector, particularly in things like libraries, in one of our building programmes. None of us is forgetting about that sector. Indeed the characteristic of education is really that there is expansion and improvement in every part of the service.

May I just give you the forecasts for expenditure over the next four years, because one of our speakers was anxious lest there would be a reduction in expenditure on education. I can assure him there will be no reduction in expenditure on education; indeed with all our difficulties the cuts have not fallen on education. Over the three years to 1974 expenditure on education is forecast to rise by 11 per cent in real terms. Expansion in primary education, secondary education, further education and higher education—the story is one of expansion and improvement all round.

But our top priority has fallen to the schools through which all children go—the primary schools. I think this is right. We also give great priority to the average or less than average child in our secondary schools by going ahead with the raising of the school-leaving age.

In our education policy our object is to give those who have a bad start a better start and a better chance, and for the rest to go on steadily improving. It is a policy of levelling up.

The reality of our policies has been expansion and more for the primary schools. The reality is that we shall succeed with the primary schools where the Labour Party failed.

I urge you to pass the motion with acclaim.