MARGARET HITS BACK
Few Ministers of recent times have found themselves more frequently under fire than Margaret Thatcher, the Secretary of State for Education and Science. A disproportionate number of the policies for which she is responsible have figured large in the party political arena: school milk, student unions, comprehensive schools; and the left-wing press have gone out of their way to be rude about her.
The Sun, for example, has described ‘Mrs Thatcher, milk-snatcher’ as ‘the most unpopular woman in Britain’ and ‘leading the (Conservative) Party back to the dark ages’. William Hamilton MP, fresh from his attacks on the Queen, has called her, ‘a reactionary cave-woman’; Teachers' World ‘the grey lady of Curzon Street’; and, in a more civilised fashion, Alan Watkins in the New Statesman has compared her to ‘the boy with red hair at the back of the class who is always being accused of talking’ (ignoring the fact that she is blonde). Even the Young Conservative news-sheet Tomorrow has written of ‘this Minister who can't win’.
An examination of the facts, however, produces an entirely different picture. Present Conservative education policy is the result of careful studies while the party was in opposition and has received wide support, particularly the emphasis on the primary schools. Mrs Thatcher is now putting it into practice with courage, despite substantial obstacles placed in her way by entrenched educational interests. Much of the hostile comment—and not merely that in the popular press—has been distinguished by a quite incredible disregard for truth.
To put the record straight, the CPC Monthly Report asked Mrs Thatcher to comment on the more important issues.
A number of journalists (for example, Bernard Levin in The Times of 16th December and Geoffrey Goodman in the Daily Mirror of 7th December) have suggested that not enough is being done to get rid of slum schools. How good is our record in this field?
Criticism of us on this subject can only be deliberately perverse. We shall be improving and replacing nearly one thousand slum primary schools in the next two years and another thousand in the two years after that. This is where the most urgent needs are to be found: dilapidated buildings, antique plumbing, heating and lighting, poor design, inadequate play facilities, and so on. The Conservative Party has accepted the findings of the Plowden Report on primary education, which showed how conditions in the first years of a child's education were of crucial importance to later development; and so we are doing more than three times as much as the last Labour Government in this direction.
The critics say, however, that we are only doing it at the expense of the secondary schools—for example, the Thomas Calton School in Peckham where you are blamed for the dilapidated state of the building.
It is nonsense to say that secondary schools are being neglected. Very substantial improvements to existing secondary schools are taking place through the special allocations of money made as a result of the raising of the school leaving age: £43½m. this financial year and £53½m. next. There has, it is true, been a decline in the amounts allocated for ordinary improvements and replacements to secondary schools. But this started in 1967 and was carried out by Labour Ministers.
Apart from this, however, it is quite clear that the primary schools should receive the higher priority. One in five of our primary school children are still in pre-20th Century schools; which is true of only about one in twenty of secondary school children.
There is an important point to be made about the Thomas Calton School, too. Some of the press have given the impression that I was preventing improvements which were already planned and would otherwise have taken place. This school has never been included in a building programme; indeed, the ILEA Handbook about secondary schools in Southwark says that ‘after extensive adaptation, re-equipment and re-organisation, the school now has good facilities …’ Including the Thomas Calton School in the 1973/4 programme would only be possible at the expense of nine primary schools containing more than 2,000 children. In my view, the needs of these young children should come first.
You say that large sums of money are being spent on the secondary schools in connection with raising the school leaving age. Wouldn't it be better spent in other directions? And won't raising the leaving age saddle the secondary schools with a quarter of a million unwilling, even violent fifteen-year-olds? [end p1]
I think we must remember that the raising of the leaving age to sixteen has been the long-term policy of all governments since the 1944 Butler Education Act. The present measures were planned by the last Conservative Government and continued by Labour—although they postponed it. We are now carrying it through. The syllabus in secondary schools is geared to a leaving age of sixteen: for example the ‘O’ level and ‘CSE’ examinations. Of those who leave at fifteen, about 91 per cent leave without either. The extra year will enable very large numbers to obtain qualifications which they could otherwise not have, and the Schools Council has done three years work in planning the curriculum. On the question of violence: surely it is wrong to deny additional opportunities to large numbers of pupils because of a potentially violent minority? The correct answer is for the LEA's to provide additional help to those schools where violence becomes a problem.
The issue which has seemed to have caused the most controversy since you became Secretary of State is school milk. Do you, perhaps, regret having made the decision?
There has certainly been a lot of comment on the subject and a great deal of it has been very ill-informed. One of the worst examples was an editorial in The Sun of 15th October which stated that Mrs Thatcher ‘yesterday defended her outrageous policy of stopping free school milk for the under-sevens’ (sic). But free milk for the under sevens is of course continuing unchanged. I have not even stopped all free school milk for the over-sevens: those who really need it will continue to receive it free as before. And the Labour Government, after all, abolished general free school milk for the secondary schools.
By this measure we shall save £9m. a year, enough to build seventy-five new primary schools. When one considers the matter in terms of priorities, there is no doubt in my mind where the money should go. Parents cannot by themselves build new schools; this is something which only the Government can and must do. Most parents, however, can buy their own children milk, and I very much hope that this is what they will do. The Milk Marketing Board has suggested a number of excellent ways in which milk can be made available on a ‘paid for’ basis to those children who are no longer eligible to get it free.
Another interesting thing is that public opinion is by no means as much in support of free milk for all as the Opposition would like us to believe. In Merthry Tydfil, for example, a survey conducted by the town's weekly newspaper found that the public were two to one against the Council's campaign opposing our policy, and three to one against free milk being paid for from the rates.
The Labour Opposition has also made a fuss about some of your decisions on comprehensive re-organisation. There was the case, for example, of Rydens School in Surrey where Mr Short accused you of a ‘tennis court’ plot to defeat the wishes of the local council.
The basis of Conservative policy on secondary re-organisation is absolutely clear: parents should be given a choice of school wherever possible. In the case of Rydens School I agreed that it should become comprehensive, but also, under Section 68 of the Act, gave the parents in that school's catchment area the choice of taking the 11 plus to go to a selective school. But for this action there would have been no choice of school at all for children of grammar school ability.
For the same reason—to expand the area of choice—we are determined to support the direct grant grammar school, as a half-way house between the independent and state systems. They must give 25 per cent of their places free to children of all backgrounds, the remaining parents paying what they can afford. I might emphasise that the increased grant I have made to these schools is only restoring the cuts made by the last Labour Government in 1968 as a temporary economy measure, with an additional sum to take account of rising costs.
Turning to higher education, both the students and the university vice-chancellors have come out very strongly against the Government's suggestions for reforming the finances of student unions. Even the Conservative students have proposed something different. Do you now think that the idea of reform was perhaps a mistake?
A number of separate problems are involved here. First, there are the complaints from local authorities, who are compelled to pay student union dues in addition to the grant, although they have no say over the amount and the unions are not publicly accountable for how it is spent.
The second, about which the Conservative students are rightly worried, is the issue of ultra vires payments by unions to political causes like Black Power, the Upper Clyde Shipyard and so on. Some student unions have refused to give financial support to university Conservative organisations while paying out to extreme left-wing bodies both inside and outside universities.
Then there is the ‘closed-shop’ aspect. One student was reported in the Evening Standard as saying: ‘if there was an option about paying money to a student union I wouldn't pay. It's only because it's taken out of my grant that they get a contribution from me’.
The major criticism made about the solution favoured in the consultative document is that channelling union funds through the university and college administrations would reduce student autonomy and produce added tension with the authorities. It perhaps isn't realised that such a system already exists in the case of capital expenditure.
Now that we have deferred action on this matter for a year we shall have more time to discuss alternative proposals, including the idea of a registrar. One objection to this, however, is that it would do nothing to meet the anxieties of the local authorities.
There are some worries about the speed with which universities have been expanding in recent years? What are our plans in this direction?
This is a field in which the Government will soon be taking crucial decisions. If we continue to expand the universities and other sectors of higher education at the rate they were expanded over the last ten years, there may not be enough money to expand nursery education as much as we would wish, nor to embark upon a large secondary school improvement programme.
We have, however, an important programme for expanding the polytechnics and colleges in the further education field. For instance, we have increased the polytechnic building programme from £4.7m. in 1971/2 to to £16m. in 1973/4. This should open up new opportunities for large numbers of people outside the schools and universities, for whom provision is at present far too limited.
Finally, why do you think the left-wing is picking on you?
Perhaps they think that I'm a dangerous woman. I'm inclined to take it as a compliment.