Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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1973 May 26 Sa
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to National Association of Head Teachers Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Folkestone
Source: Thatcher Archive: DES press release
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1215 Saturday 26 May 1973.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1996
Themes: Education, Secondary education, Employment

Mrs Thatcher Rebuts Teacher Supply Criticisms

The Government's policy for teacher supply between now and 1981 represented the maximum resources it would be reasonable to invest in the staffing of schools having regard to other education claims on resources, said the Education Secretary, Mrs Margaret Thatcher today (26 May). Addressing the National Association of Head Teachers Conference in Folkestone she rebutted the criticisms that the teacher supply target set for 1981 was either too low or unattainable on the basis of present plans. She also called for changes in the deployment of teachers in the schools.

On current projections of school population 510,000 teachers would be needed by 1981—a net increase of 146,000 during the ten years starting in 1971. This planned increase represented an average annual rise of less than 15,000. In the first two years of the decade there had been a net increase of some 40,000. To continue at this rate would mean reaching the 1981 target some three years ahead of the target date. To continue the same rate of increase thereafter would involve pre-empting more resources for the staffing of the schools than the Government believed would be reasonable.

“In consequence we aim to temper the rate of increase and we plan to make this change of speed as smoothly as possible” , said Mrs Thatcher.

The adequacy and practicability of any teacher-supply target were very much affected by two factors—neither predictable with any degree of certainty. The first was the projected number of pupils, which depended ultimately on the number of children born. The second was the rate at which teachers left the teaching force— “the phenomenon we describe in rather pejorative shorthand as wastage” .

School Population

“Sometimes it seems that we have been so conditioned by the years of teacher shortage that we cannot yet fully appreciate how radically the situation has been transformed. Let us look first at school population. The annual number of births has fallen continuously since the peak post-war year of 1964. On the latest projections the number of primary school pupils aged five and over is likely to decline steadily after this year for the rest of the decade. The total school population aged five and over, which is likely to rise only quite slowly after the [end p1] impact in 1973/74 of the raising of the school-leaving age, is now projected to decline marginally towards the end of the decade. Even with the addition of the rising numbers of under-fives the size of the whole school population is likely to show a down-turn in 1982.

“The projections I am referring to do not yet take account of the fall in the actual number of births in 1972, which were of the order of 720,000 against a forecast of approaching 760,000. Preliminary returns for the first quarter of this year suggest that the total for 1973 may be down still further, possibly to around 700,000. It seems virtually certain, therefore, that subsequent revisions of projected pupil numbers will have to reflect the downward demographic trend.

“I do not need to be reminded of the danger of complacency over this question of the number of future births and its effect on school population. But it must be said that if there is to be an increase in the number of births—there is no sign at present—it will have to happen fairly quickly to have much effect on the 1981 numbers of pupils of statutory school age.”

Teacher Wastage

Mrs Thatcher said that the trend in teacher wastage had been downwards, and this had contributed to the buoyancy of teacher supply in the last two or three years. Future movements of wastage rates were impossible to predict with certainty as there were too many imponderable factors.

“It may well be that with the inevitable changes in the age pattern of the teaching force, the revised Burnham salary structure, a continuing improvement in staffing standards and the planned extension of teachers' opportunities for in-service education, training and professional advancement, the current downward trend in wastage will continue. But we may prove to be wrong in so assuming, either in the extent of any change or in its direction. It is therefore important to have flexibility in planning teacher supply.

“The distribution of the teaching force depends upon decisions which I hope can be discussed with all the interests concerned in the Advisory Committee on the Supply and Training of Teachers when it takes office. The Government have not committed themselves to a view on, for example, the balance of the teaching force between primary and secondary schools; nor on the balance between teachers of different kinds: graduates who take a one-year postgraduate course; other trained teachers—graduates and others—who take concurrent training lasting three or four years; and re-entrants, mostly married women returners, who may well need refresher courses but do not need full-scale initial training at all.

Flexibility in Planning

“The fact that teachers can be recruited from a variety of different sources [end p2] gives one welcome element of flexibility to the planning of teacher supply. There is another, at least as important. The Education White Paper foreshadows a situation in which a large part of the teacher-training system is no longer operating as a separate sector but is embodied in a diversified system of higher education. When we have a great deal of teacher training going on in institutions which also run many other courses, including the Diploma of Higher Education courses, and cater for many other students, it will be possible without much difficulty or delay to vary the number of students taking teacher training at any one time. The system can then respond much more sensitively to changes in the needs of the schools.

“We must and will keep the situation constantly under review. But we can be confident that the aims we have set ourselves are within our reach. We can indeed expect a continuing improvement in staffing standards. We can extend educational opportunities to large numbers of children under five. We can give teachers growing opportunities for in-service education and training at intervals throughout their working lives. And we can develop the means of giving new teachers the kind of systematic help, support and further training they need at the outset of their professional careers” .

Deployment of Teachers

Speaking about the deployment of teachers Mrs Thatcher said that very high priority should be given, for example, to the elimination of very large classes; and to the provision of smaller teaching groups for children of lower ability: not merely remedial classes, but also classes for non-academic students who learned slowly and needed more individual help. There was need for a positive policy of deploying the growing teacher force to secure a rise in the general standards of literacy and numeracy among our less able pupils.

“As more and more teachers are received into the system and the pupil/teacher ration thereby improved, I expect to see a roughly corresponding reduction in the size of classes.

“The growth in teacher supply has resulted in an increase in small-group working. But there is some evidence which suggests that, all too often, it is the sixth form, already working with small groups, which has proportionally benefited most from an increase in teacher numbers. I must admit that some sixth-form arrangements cause me concern. For example, a study of the secondary schools of one large urban authority revealed that about one-third of the teaching groups of first-year A-level students consisted of one or two pupils. I hope—and believe—that this is an extreme case. Another large authority which has 18 secondary schools of various types with more than 2,500 A-level students, organises them in over 700 subject-groups with an average size of 8.6. Of these subject groups the 150 smallest average three students apiece. I cannot believe that, with many lower-ability students in secondary schools being taught in groups of around thirty, we [end p3] can afford to use our teaching force in this way. Under such conditions it is no wonder that, while the number of our GCE successes goes up and up, our general standards of literacy and numeracy obstinately refuse to go the same way. To achieve this we need, I suggest, to use more able and experienced teachers further down the school.”

Mrs Thatcher said that she was not advocating a lowering of the standards of teaching for the more able students for she believed it was important to give a really sound preparation to those going on to higher education. But she also believed that, by suitable organisation, a teaching deployment concentrating more where the need was greatest could be achieved without materially reducing the standards of sixth-form teaching.

Mrs Thatcher suggested that where there was a small group of pupils taking a particular subject some arrangements should be made for them to visit a school with a stronger class. “Similarly, where technical A-level subjects, available at the local college of FE, are offered in some schools to ones and twos, would it not be more sensible to arrange for these students to attend the college for these subjects? I am aware, of course, that in some schools such arrangements already exist. What I am proposing is that a considerable extension of such co-operation is highly desirable in the interest of the more efficient deployment of our teaching force.”

The direction of a school, especially a large one, was a complex management exercise but the effective utilisation of all resources including buildings was important, said Mrs Thatcher.

Choice of Priorities

Mrs Thatcher said that she hoped to receive within the next few weeks a report of the survey of careers education which the Department and the Inspectorate had carried out in maintained secondary schools and special schools in England and Wales.

“I shall be particularly concerned to find out how much time is given to careers education, and in general what part it plays in the programme of work which schools carry out. It is clear to me that teachers with special responsibility for coordinating careers guidance need an added professional expertise.

“Public discussion too often tends to give the impression that the central problem in the relationship of pupils and teachers is discipline; but this suggests a rather negative attitude. In reality I believe that the central preoccupation of teachers, and particularly head teachers, lies in something very much more positive—they are chiefly concerned to mobilise the energies and enthusiasms of growing boys and girls, and to harness those energies to a programme of work which is not only valuable in itself but useful as a preparation for the next stage.” [end p4]

Exploring the World of Work

Boys and girls from about the age of 13 needed the opportunity to explore the world of work which was a natural part of general education, and all of them, whatever their ability, were entitled to take part in it.

“In the fifth year they must make a choice. For some the choice lies between continuing in full-time education or leaving school to take up an apprenticeship or an unskilled or semi-skilled occupation. For those who decide to enter the world of work at the statutory leaving age, it is very important that what they do in their last year should enable them to leave school poised for training, ready for the routine of the adult as opposed to the school life, prepared to take responsibility for themselves and to co-operate with others.

“This suggests a programme of work containing a vocational element. I use the word “vocational” in its broadest sense—I do not mean that because the boy is destined to enter the building trade or a girl to be a hairdresser, either building or hairdressing should be part of the school curriculum. Training for specific occupations comes later. But young people of fifteen are much more likely to be motivated if they can see some purpose in what they are doing in school, and if they realise that somebody recognises both their potential and their aspirations. Much of their time and energy needs to be spent in making quite sure that the basic skills are mastered and used; but work experience or work observation, visits to a variety of firms or, in some circumstances, a linked course with a college of further education may all contribute to their general education and involve them at the same time in activity which makes them feel that they are being in a true sense prepared to go out into the working world.”