Education means more than school milk and meals
The only woman in the Cabinet, and the most savagely criticised Minister, talks frankly to Shirley Tart about herself and her work.
Margaret Thatcher does not prowl around the country snatching milk from the hands of the nation's children, but her critics have occasionally made it seem that way.
In their view she would also be wearing a Conservative hat, pearls and a twin set as she went about her dark pastime of deliberately creating classrooms full of wide-eyed youngsters suffering from malnutrition.
For reasons not entirely clear, some people are so touchy about the Secretary of State for Education and Science that the mere mention of her name gives them blood pressure.
Plans for GROWTH
Hardly anybody talks about what has actually been taking place in education over the past couple of years and what plans there are for future expansion. Mrs. Thatcher, on the other hand, brims with enthusiasm and can quote lengthy and positive improvements in one sector after another.
She is the only woman in the Cabinet and from the way Mr Heath loyally defended her amid Labour calls to give her the sack, she looks likely for a lengthy stay in the corridors of power. Her energy, constructive thinking and shrewd approach generate their own success, and it is no accident that she finds herself occupying one of the classier rooms at the House of Commons.
The third CAREER
And for the daughter of a Grantham grocer she has shown that you don't have to be born with a mouthful of silver teaspoons in order to make your mark. Because for any 46-year-old woman it is not bad going to be at the top of your third career (fourth if you count home and family) and in the running for a salary of around £13,000 a year.
She is a barrister and was called to the Bar four months after her twins were born in 1953, but before that—with a science degree from Somerville College, Oxford, in her pocket she became a research chemist. In 1951 she married Denis Thatcher, who is divisional director for Burmah Oil, and she has represented Finchley in North London since 1959.
She has also been at the centre of one of the toughest personal attacks ever directed at a Minister. She is riding the storm exceedingly well and points out that education is about more than milk and meals in schools. However, that is not going to stop the chant of ‘Thatcher, the milk snatcher” and I don't suppose it will stop people like the chap who said he was from the Angry Brigade and announced that she would be blown up in 20 minutes' time. A huge and unsuccessful search took place for the bomb.
But because she is Minister of Education, Mrs Thatcher enjoys talking about her work and the things she considers to be improvements for the benefit of all children.
In her room high in the House of Commons the other day she said: “Primary schools is possibly the biggest single switch of expenditure. When I came into power there were one in five children in primary schools who were working [end p1] in 19th century buildings and as far as secondary schools are concerned it's only one in 20. So you see the primary schools really had lagged behind in attention to their buildings.
“This doesn't seem right because some of the buildings really are appalling, and although many people think they don't matter, they do where you are badly overcrowded and the buildings and equipment are such that they restrict the activity of the pupil and the kind of teaching you can give.
“So we really had to start to redress the balance and we did it by pumping more money into the primary school area—not by taking it away from anywhere else.”
That means more money into education, then, rather than transferring it from one section to another?
“More money in. When I came, the school improvement programme all told primary and secondary—for a year was £17 million. With the Treasury's aid I put the whole thing up to £40 million the first year and the second, third and fourth years to £44 million each year. So that's an enormous increase of money going into primary schools and in fact there are many more old ones than we thought.
Primary education was one of the first and biggest aspects, but the second thing Mrs Thatcher was determined to do was to raise the school leaving age by 1973.
“It should really have been carried out some time ago and I was quite determined not to wait any longer. I think in the kind of sophisticated world to which children go out now, 15 is much too young an age to leave school, particularly when all the secondary school system is geared to leaving at 16.”
Closing A GAP
This involves a heavy building programme for secondary schools, extra teachers and work by the Schools' Council on the sort of things young people will be taught for the extra year. Mrs Thatcher has also altered the direct grant schools so that people who are helped to send their children to one don't have to pay anything until the father is earning well over £1,000 a year net.
“These are schools with an outstanding academic record and provide for a good social mixing and give opportunities to children who would not otherwise have them. They are selective schools based on ability, and if you don't get a free place you can still apply for your child to have an assisted place and you pay according to your means.”
She is also keen to expand and improve polytechnics and close the gap between their standard and that of a university, and as a result the biggest ever building programme in this direction has been started. Nursery schools can't be extended as much as she would like because of insufficient resources to do everything, but the Government is concentrating on areas where the social need is greatest.
Mrs. Thatcher has also received the James Report into teacher training and she would like to stay in her Ministerial spot for at least the life of this Parliament, “because it is very nice to see things you have started come into being. I think there is a lot to be said for having a fairly good run at a Ministry,” she said.
She feels quite strongly that the fuss which erupted when she stopped school milk for the over-sevens has taken away attention for the real educational things.
“Education is about more than milk and meals in schools and also it is quite absurd that it should have taken up such a large amount of propaganda because the last government took milk away from secondary schools and there was no fuss at all.
“They also raised the price of school meals twice … well, they have to be raised, your costs go up. But there was very little fuss then either. I think the present Opposition is very good at kicking up a fuss. They are much better at it than I was. The whole thing has been hotly whipped up as party political propaganda, but in fact as I go around I find it hasn't carried much weight in the country. Many, many parents say ‘Jolly good thing’ and so do many teachers.”
I should say that first and foremost Mrs Thatcher is thoroughly professional in her approach to her subject, and it is not surprising that she is sometimes a bit bewildered at the reaction she seems to spark off.
Store of ENERGY
Tall, fair and elegant, she has a great store of energy, and she is as direct in her gaze as she is in her dealings. Because her constituency and her house are in London, she is able to go home at night and be there in the morning, for which she is truly grateful.
If she does get any respite from running her home and running the country's education, she likes going to the opera or theatre “for sheer pleasure. This is a rare occurrence, it's as much as I can do to run the house.”
All the same, her high rate of success in one career or another obviously gives her pleasure. Though she attributes the lot to “hard work and taking advantage of opportunities. If you don't work hard you're not there when the opportunities come along,” she said.
She was a bit bothered because she had hardly had time to pull a comb through her hair that afternoon even Ministers care about that sort of thing. And, frankly, she reminded me of a jolly and sensible headmistress.
As I left an education committee was waiting to see her en-bloc, and the lights were just going out over London.
But Ministers have to work by burning candles. At both ends.