Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1972 Jun 23 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Association of Education Committees

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Bournemouth, Hampshire
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Exact time and place uncertain.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4212
Themes: Education, Primary education, Higher & further education, Public spending & borrowing, Local government finance

The programme for your 69th annual meeting is, by any standards, impressive. I do not know how many of the 42 motions tabled on the Agenda you have found time to debate in the two days since the Conference started. There is scarcely one which is not important in some way for the future of the service, and the range illustrates well the many issues to which the elected representatives and the professional officers of the authorities must give continuing attention. [end p1]

2. Any Minister on such an occasion welcomes an opportunity to make important news announcements. I believe the timing of affairs has allowed me, once or twice, to enliven my speech, and I hope your conference, with some items of this character. But I have no such revelations in store this morning. Instead I should like to invite you to join me for a little while in an exploration I have been making, in a number of speeches this summer, of a theme which embraces all the topics on your agenda and perhaps a good deal more besides. The theme is how best to allocate resources within the education service.

3. Like any exploration one must begin with maps and charts and the planning of provisions so I shall begin with the sort of documents we have to use in educational planning. Like maps and charts they have their value if you [end p2] remember that things can look quite different when you begin to get along the trail. You may run into obstacles that were not marked on the maps because nobody knew about them. Or the weather may turn nasty. There can even be hostile tribes. But some features of the landscape can hardly be missed. So, although it is foolish to set out without a plan it is equally foolish to think you can anticipate everything in advance. Educational planning is very like that.

4. The local authorities spend 85%; of the nation's education budget, even though they directly finance only a minority share of it (about 36%;) from the rates. You have to take a wide variety of decisions, on matters of great importance to individual pupils, [end p3] parents and teachers. But as well you have to be thinking as we do at the centre, about future strategy and this nearly always comes down to issues of resource allocation and priority. I see that local authorities have begun to develop machinery for the more systematic review of the services they provide and for better forward planning.

5. When considering the scale of educational advance three considerations arise immediately. First, we should like to extend the period for forward planning beyond what used to be thought sufficient. Many local authorities have prepared plans for at least the five years ahead which we use in central government planning. The trouble is some decisions taken now, certainly at the national level, will only make significant differences many years ahead. Yet we have to identify now the crucial issues of [end p4] the future. How else can we effectively shape the course of development of the education service, and not leave ourselves at the mercy of events? Long-term forecasting is inherently a hazardous business. But if we try to focus on the period between five and ten years ahead, the uncertainties are still considerable, but the process will nevertheless yield some useful information. Certainly a time-scale of this order is needed if we are to discern the broad underlying trends which will confront the education service with the need for change.

6. The second obvious consideration is that, given the increased demands for the services which the local authorities provide, mounting cost is bound to be the major constraint. This applies to services to the community as a whole as well as to certain sections of it particularly the young and the elderly. In your [end p5] sphere no doubt this constraint shows up most clearly in your forward calculations of the growing burden on your ratepayers. At the centre it is reflected in similar assessments of the weight of taxation, but has also to be related to more general consideration about the economy. [end p6]

7. The third point follows directly from the second. It is that increasing pressures which cannot automatically be matched by increasing resources mean more competition between the different services for which your authorities are responsible. This calls for more crucial and often more difficult and unpopular decisions about the choices to be made. In central government there are even wider and more varied claims on public expenditure to be considered and somehow reconciled.


8. Let us now look at some of the expenditure figures emerging from the forward planning work which the Department is doing on the future size and shape of the education budget. After two days at the seaside you will make light work of these—even with all the qualifications that have to be written into them. [end p7]

9. The starting point is the White Paper on public expenditure published last December. You will remember that this contained forecasts of educational expenditure up to 1975–76, reflecting decisions taken by the Government in the course of last year's review. This White Paper put the cost of the education budget for the whole of Great Britain at £2,895m in 1971–72, rising to £3,260m by 1975–76. This increase of £365m represented an annual growth rate of 3%;. I must emphasise that these forecasts were made at the price levels ruling at the beginning of 1971. Thus they take no account of inflation which has occurred since then or of any future rises in the levels of costs and prices. I shall be using this constant price convention throughout my reference to expenditure figures. If you are trying to see what my figures may mean for the ratepayers in your own area you will need to allow also for changing price levels. [end p8]

10. Just one other footnote to the figures. For ease of comparison with subsequent figures which I shall be mentioning, it is necessary to deduct the education expenditure for which Gordon Campbellthe Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible, that is, all educational expenditure in Scotland outside the universities. This reduces the figures I have just quoted to £2,600m for 1971–72 and some £2,925m for 1975–76, an increase in the annual expenditure rate of £325m. The two main constituents of the 1971–72 figure are in round figures £1,300m for the schools and £650m for higher education, representing respectively 50%; and 25%; of the total. The salaries of teachers account for about 70%; of the current expenditure on schools. [end p9]

11. So far I have been talking about estimates based on policies. Beyond the period covered by the White Paper we have little in the way of maps or charts at all—only a general sense of the shape of the country and of the hazards that may be encountered. Perhaps a useful way to begin our survey operation here is to construct a forecast of expenditure which assumes, purely for planning purposes, that each main element in the education service continues on its present course, with no change of direction, right up to 1981–82. Expenditures can of course, like rivers, change their course, but let us begin by assuming they go on as before. Some extrapolations are more reliable than others. We can assume first that the schools continue to provide both for pupils of statutory school age and for those who voluntarily stay on. Second, let us assume that [end p10] local authorities continue to recruit the whole of each year's output of newly trained teachers from the universities and colleges of education, and that the pattern of retirement and wastage from the teaching profession follows recent observed trends. Third, in higher education we would have to assume that expansion continues at the pace necessary to maintain current opportunities for those who have the required qualifications and who desire to seek a place. Fourth, for capital expenditure the most important assumption is that future building programmes continue to include a substantial improvement element for the schools and cater for the assumed development of further and higher education. This is not a map of the future. It simply tells you what would happen if things went on as before. And again I remind you that all these forecasts are at constant prices. [end p11]

12. This seems very theoretical, and the assumptions I have referred to certainly do not reflect any commitment on the part of the Government. But the advantage of this procedure is that it does give us a starting point from which to consider the resource implications of possible policy changes.

13. In round figures educational expenditure within my own area of responsibility would have to grow by 1981–82 by over £1,000m above its present level to some £3,600m a year. This would represent an annual rate of growth after 1975–76 of a little over 4%;, compared with the 3%; provided for in the White Paper forecasts. Within this total for 1981–82 expenditure on the schools would have grown by some £400m to an annual level of £1,700m and that on higher education by some £500m to £1,150m. [end p12]

14. Even as they stand these projections raise some serious questions. Can the country afford an accelerating rate of growth in the level of educational expenditure? And how can this rate of growth be accommodated alongside the proper claims of the other services? The significance of the second question can be illustrated by recalling that it was only in the early 1960s that the share of public expenditure devoted to education first reached 10%;. Since then it has gradually risen to 13%; and if, for the sake of argument, one assumed that total public expenditure continued to grow at its current rate, the level of projected educational expenditure for 1981–82 would amount to over 15%; of total public expenditure, pretty close on one-sixth. Since total public expenditure is currently running at the rate of about £25,000m a year a change of 1%; means some £250m and is thus a sizeable [end p13] shift in the balance between one programme and another. If we are to be realistic we must recognise that it may be difficult for the education service to sustain its present rate of growth, especially if that proved to be higher than the future rate of growth of public expenditure as a whole.

15. I am not however led to the gloomy conclusion that we shall never be able to afford any further advances in the scope or standards of our educational provision. I say that emphatically. But it does mean we must examine critically the assumptions underlying the projections. It would be surprising if existing policies did not turn out, on examination, to allow some scope for flexibility which we could use to accommodate some further advances. You will doubtless notice, Mr. President, how carefully I am [end p14] choosing my words. But behind the carefully chosen words we may find a slightly sterner reality.


16. To begin however where there is the widest measure of agreement, many people think that the right strategy at the present time would be to concentrate on and extend the earlier stages of the educational system, thus helping as many children as possible to develop their full educational potential. With this strategy I agree.

17. There is support for this in the recently-published report of the National Child Development Study, whose preliminary findings were before the Plowden Committee. This study emphasises the observed inequalities, on average, of educational achievement at the [end p15] age of seven years as between children from working class families and those from middle class families. It also establishes that on average the working class child is less well off both educationally and, for example, in his general health and fitness. We must remember that all the children in the sample had been at school for only two or three years. This is a small proportion both of their eventual school life and of their own lives up to that point. We do not know whether the gap in attainment revealed at the age of seven will widen thereafter, or whether the influence of the schools, exerted over a longer period, will contain or even reduce these differences. We shall be better able to judge this when the results of the follow-up study of these children at the age of eleven become available. [end p16]

18. Some people have naturally asked whether there should not be further follow-up studies of these children. In fact the government—and I put it this way because mine is only one of the departments involved—are currently discussing with those responsible what questions might receive particular attention in a possible further survey before the children reach the end of their compulsory school age. We may need to go further. The present report relates to children born in 1958, and to the primary school position as it was in 1965. Both pre-school conditions and primary schools have developed and improved in many ways since then. So it is time we considered whether to start another long-term study with a new group of children. [end p17]

19. Education cannot remedy all social ills, such as the physical and environmental handicaps highlighted in this study. But to the extent that we are able to devote resources to the improvement of conditions in our schools—and I have in mind as much their everyday working conditions as the provision of new or better buildings—the gainers are likely to be the areas which are most in need of improvement. Among these are areas of declining population, which have benefited little from the policy of concentrating on roofs over heads. [end p18]

20. I made clear in a recent debate my acceptance of the educational case for a widespread extension of nursery provision, but may I remind you that a system of nursery education expanded to anything like the Plowden scale, even if provided very largely part-time and in nursery classes rather than nursery schools, would require a capital investment of over £100m spread over the decade. It would generate some £50m a year of recurrent expenditure more than we would by then be spending on under-fives on present trends. And it would ultimately need some 12,000 more teachers.


21. There are other changes that we can begin to think about. We can foresee a period of some years in which the size of [end p19] the school population will be rising more slowly than in our recent experience. The number of primary school children in particular will remain virtually stable for several years. How can this be turned to advantage? Many would say that in the breathless rush to keep our school building programmes abreast with rising numbers and their movements, we have not paid enough attention to the renovation of our existing estate. I have already launched a massive programme of replacement of our oldest primary schools: and I see this as eliminating, over a period, some of the backlog that has been allowed to build up. I wonder if you see need for us to include in our planning, not only through minor works or on special occasions, regular provision for keeping up to date the national [end p20] stock of school buildings. In terms of priorities this raises the question of the importance to be attached to capital improvements, as opposed to other kinds of improvements, and of the scale of resources it would be right and practicable to allocate for this purpose against other competitive demands.

22. What other changes must be considered? There is general support for the proposition that more should be done to enable teachers to bring themselves up to date in the course of their professional lives. While many of the proposals in the James Report have aroused strong controversy, there has been general endorsement—at least in principle—for the proposals for more in-service training for our teachers. This will not be cheap. [end p21] I recently told another Conference that I estimated that this recommendation, and the parallel one on the licentiate year, would cost some £25m–£35m per annum for the teachers' salaries alone; and at least another £10m per annum would be needed to provide them with the necessary facilities.

23. There are claimants too for more to be done under the heading of non-teaching costs. This rather inaccurate term includes the provision of books, equipment and other tools of learning, as well as non-teaching staff and the maintenance of the premises. At present we are spending annually about £350m on this miscellaneous group. In ten years time, on present projections, this could exceed £500m. About half goes on [end p22] the premises; one-third on staff; and only the remaining one-sixth on educational materials and equipment. Such costs have not in the past figured significantly in central government policy. This is because they have traditionally been regarded as the preserve of local authorities. The time may be coming when we must take a more positive attitude towards this important block of expenditure. By observing good practice in the schools we might try to frame standards and targets for certain components of this expenditure. I am thinking particularly of the provision of non-teaching staff, especially those who support the teachers, and of the provision of books, materials and equipment. [end p23]


24. But before leaving the schools, and turning to higher education, there is one other important issue in resource allocation. Some of your authorities have already been giving anxious thought to the staffing of the schools, and to the recruitment and employment of the teachers necessary to maintain that staffing, during the second half of the decade. I say the second half of the decade because decisions already taken go a long way to determine what will happen during the first half. These questions are now particularly timely. For many years the shortage of teachers was so severe that, with brief exceptions, the long-term need to improve the supply of teachers was hardly questioned. [end p24]

25. However, during the last few years there has been a marked improvement in pupil/teacher ratios, and this is likely to continue. The improved supply of teachers gives us the opportunity to assess the benefits we stand to get from different rates of improvement in school staffing, compared with other policy developments that may be open to us. The fact that several of these other developments also need additional teachers to implement them may mean that these competing priorities can be presented in a way which makes the comparison easier. [end p25]

26. The problem is really one involving three dimensions. First, the supply of teachers which the training system could produce if required. Second, the demand, on the part of the local education authorities who will have to employ them, for the teachers necessary to implement agreed policies. Third, the cost in terms of money raised from rates and taxes, of employing those teachers. No solution is satisfactory which imposes unacceptable requirements in any of these three dimensions. It is not my purpose today to suggest what the solution should be, but I hope that by giving you a few facts and figures I can throw some light on the problem. [end p26]

27. First of all, the supply of teachers. There are 384,000 in the schools at present. The output from the colleges of education and the university departments of education is sufficient to increase this number by about 18,000 or a little more each year. At this rate, assuming you employed them all, the teaching force would number 455,000 by 1976.

28. Second the demand for teachers. An expansion of nursery education on the Plowden scale might ultimately need 12,000 teachers, in addition to those who would otherwise be teaching under-fives. The recommendations of the James Report, about training in the first year of service, and in-service training thereafter, would require 15–25,000 teachers who at any time would not be serving in the schools. [end p27]

29. This does not allow for any improvement in staffing in the schools and in reducing class sizes further. In fact, by 1981 50,000 extra teachers would be required simply to maintain the present staffing standards. This may sound surprising. The explanation is that the older secondary school pupils need (and enjoy at present) a much more favourable PTR than younger children, and that over the next ten years they will come to make up a much higher proportion of the total school population. Now, on top of that 50,000 we should need 20,000 more teachers for every 5%; of improvement in school staffing that we decide to aim at during the decade—and I need not tell you of the continuing pressures to reduce class sizes below their present level. [end p28]

30. So much for demand; what about the third dimension, cost? To maintain present staffing standards without any improvement to the end of the decade would require 50,000 additional teachers; expanding nursery education and implementing the recommendations of the James Report could bring this up to something like 90,000. Any teachers needed for the improvement of staffing standards would have to be added to this figure. If you reckon that each extra 50,000 teachers you employ will in the end cost about £100m a year, even at today's salary levels, you will see that very large sums are involved. The expansion of nursery education and in-service training would involve other costs besides teachers' salaries, but their claims can most directly be measured alongside those of further improvements in staffing standards in [end p29] terms of their implications for the future total requirement for teachers, and the deployment of the teacher force. It is precisely those questions, Mr. President, which must form the background for the further discussions which will I hope take place between us shortly, on these difficult issues of priority, and I can reasonably look to you then for some indication of the extent of your willingness to employ more teachers and to pay their salaries.

I gather, Mr. President, from your address that this is a matter which is already the subject of some thought among your members.


31. Finally, we must look again at where the figures seem to be taking us in higher education. In your opening remarks, Mr. President, you advised me to take a close look at the constantly escalating cost of higher education. On the admittedly somewhat arbitrary assumptions which underlie the expenditure [end p30] projection I offered for 1981–82 the cost of higher education, within my own area of responsibility, would rise by some £500m over the 10 year period. This would account for nearly half the total projected increase of expenditure in that period, and would represent an annual growth rate of 6%; over the decade. At this figure higher education would be pre-empting the possibilities for improvements elsewhere in the education service.

32. This is not an appropriate occasion to debate the merits of the Robbins principle. Varying estimates of future demand have now been made from different sources. They all indicate that, if one accepts the Robbins principle, there is no unique translation of this into a required level of entry to higher education at any given time. In fact there is considerable scope here too for the proper exercise of our judgement as to where [end p31] and how fast we want to go.

33. Not only that: once one has reached a decision about an appropriate level of entry this does not in itself settle what the cost has to be. There are two stages in between. There is first the translation of entry into total number of students in the system, and secondly there is the application to that number of appropriate unit costs. The forecast of expenditure which I quoted earlier assumed that the average length of course and the cost per student year for different kinds of course would remain very much the same throughout the whole 10 year period. In fact however I can see considerable scope for flexibility in both these respects, and I read with particular interest a recent leading article in the Times Higher Education Supplement urging the higher education system to consider a number of suggestions which would result in varying these factors. As the many new foundations among the universities and the polytechnics grow to maturity during the 1970s I would expect to find scope for some reduction in unit costs. Their initial costs were weighted by the need to provide major facilities in advance of the build-up of their planned student capacities.

34. More attention should also be given to the proportion of postgraduate students in higher education. These contribute to a longer average length of course, and the cost is considerably more expensive year for year than the average undergraduate course. I know there is a natural tendency for individual departments to wish to build up their postgraduate strength as a sign of their maturity and academic standing. But the result in recent years has been a rapid increase in the total number of postgraduate students which has slightly out-stripped the growth in university student numbers as a whole. It is not self-evident that, because the higher education system needs to be developed to provide opportunities for suitably qualified young men and women, there is a corresponding justification for expanding postgraduate provision even to keep pace, let alone improve, [end p32] its relative position.

35. Again let me emphasise that my remarks are directed not simply to saving money, but to finding room for some re-shaping of the balance of resources within education. I was particularly pleased to notice that the leader I quoted from the Times Higher Education Supplement took that line and challenged the higher education community to acknowledge the claims of nursery, primary and secondary education.


36. Mr. President, if I have not been able to give you any hot news this morning I hope you may feel that our time together has not been wasted. I have tried to pick out some of the choices facing us, and to provide a framework and a rough ready reckoner for working out some possible answers. We have in recent months entered into discussions together on a number of matters which, important in themselves and for the daily welfare of the service, do not raise the same sort of questions as those I have mentioned this morning. We are already discussing meals and transport. I am about to call a gathering on discipline and similar matters, and I am glad to see you have something on your agenda on this. There is continuing discussion on the various James proposals. If you see advantage in some further exchanges on the wider topics I have broached this morning we shall be very happy to meet and talk with you.