Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1973 Oct 13 Sa
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Conservative Party Conference

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Winter Gardens, Blackpool
Source: Conservative Party Conference Report 1973, pp113-15
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Afternoon.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2140
Themes: Conservatism, Conservative Party (organization), Education, Private education, Primary education, Secondary education, Public spending & borrowing, Labour Party & socialism

Of the 116 resolutions submitted to this conference the majority are on one of two themes: first, choice in education, and then quality in education. I think it is right that this year we should put that emphasis on these two themes, because as Mr Stansfield pointed out in the brilliant way in which he opened this debate, statistics do not reveal everything about education, and you do not in fact necessarily achieve greater quality by just pouring in more money. It costs just as much to train a bad teacher as it does to train a good teacher.

I will heed what Mr. Stansfield said about statistics but I hope you will forgive me if later I quote one or two you might find useful in argument. Of course, every debate produces a few surprises, and I was a little surprised to find Mr Landa attributing to me views on education I do not hold and, I believe, have never expressed. May I in particular wish Mr. David Savage luck, especially from us three education Ministers on the platform in his fight against Mr. Hattersley. He will have a very warm welcome from me when he makes it. [end p1]

May I turn to the main theme which is that of choice. While for a number of parents there has been a good measure of choice, for others, as many speakers have said, we have not been able to provide as much as we would wish. I know full well that there are still many parents who are disappointed and some who have very little choice at all. Kenneth Reeves recognised this in his remarks. Our aim is to increase parents' choice; our opponents' aim is to eliminate it.

These two aims reveal a very great difference of view about the role of parents in the education of their children. I agree with many speakers that parents are the right people to have a say in the kind of education their children receive. The Opposition's view is that parents are not fit to choose for their children; the State must do it for them. Under Socialism there would only be one kind of school and that would conform to Socialist state policies. You saw how effectively Mrs Geddes of ILEA showed how Socialists in power would ruthlessly use their position not to improve education but to achieve their own party political ends. Parts of our opponents' speeches which have attracted attention, have been those concerning independent schools and I will have a word to say about those in a moment.

It is clear again, as Mrs Geddes pointed out, that what really arouses their wrath is the idea that the majority of parents who do not pay fees should have a real choice between schools, because the attack has hitherto come, until the last Hattersley speech, on choice within the State sector. It is that they have ruthlessly been trying to abolish.

Let us have a look and see what under present law an education authority can do to give a child a good chance. First, authorities have power to pay full or part fees to an independent school if that would be better for a particular pupil. Conservative authorities use this power if the interests of the child warrant it. Very few Socialist authorities do. That is not divisive; it is the very opposite. It really starts to implement the recommendations of the Fleming Report which suggested there should be more places in independent schools paid for by local authorities.

Secondly, authorities can take up free places in direct grant schools. These are schools in which 25 per cent of the places must be free and another slice are income-assisted places in that parents pay what they can afford and some parents pay full fees. These are schools with outstanding records of achievement in education, and for which there is a very large demand. Miss Williams referred to them and Mr. Savage pointed out that we have done a great deal to help them by increasing the capitation fees and by having very much more generous income scales to help parents. We know if the number of direct grant schools were doubled tomorrow they still could not satisfy the demand for the excellent education which they offer. Yet they are the schools which the Socialists hate most, and would finish off first.

Authorities can also retain those schools to which entry is based, not on income or background, but on grounds of academic ability—the grammar schools. It is interesting that some research has shown that there is less social segregation in these schools than in some non-selective schools. There are, of course, similar entry rules for a few technical schools, and I wish we had more of those, because they are very highly prized locally. Then there are the other kinds of schools to which most parents will send their children, the comprehensive schools or non-selective schools, most of which do excellent work, but some of which have problems of size, organisation and neighbourhood—which put a particular strain on the staff.

I agreed very much with Philip Boden that where there are only comprehensive schools in an area it is vital for parents to have a choice between them. We must not have rigid zoning. It is also vital that the voluntary aided schools continue, and we must recognise that ILEA is making an attack on them by refusing to put on any Conservative governors. They too are in demand because I think many people realise that schools run through the Churches often bring that extra dedication and purpose to a school which is not always present in every county school.

Now this is the law at present, as Mrs. Geddes said, and we must struggle to retain it, because this is the range which can now be offered under a Conservative Government. But I find the Opposition edict frightening in its arrogance. I quote two sentences from Mr. Hattersley 's speech—what I thought were actually the key sentences: “Competitive education which allows the few to leap further and further ahead, ensures that the less fortunate fall further and further behind; that is why the pursuit of equality of opportunity has to be replaced by the pursuit of equality itself.” You do not help problem children by refusing to let able children get ahead, or by destroying the schools built up by generations of good educationalists.

Children have very real differences in aptitudes, abilities, skills and interests, and their personalities as well. To seek to establish equality is to deny them the opportunity to develop their unique talents and to deny society the richness and variety which stems from human differences.

To help problem children this Government has been the first to introduce a programme under the educational budget of nursery schooling especially directed in the early years to help the deprived areas, and has the largest school building programme of any Government of any Party in the past.

As for the Draconian utterances on independent education, let me say also—and Norman St. John-Stevas dealt with this at the Headmasters' Conference—that the right to be independent of the State in education, health, housing, employment, personal saving and personal expenditure is a fundamental right in a free society. This independence is the true and only guarantor of individual liberty. I agree with Robert Jones when he extended his remarks on independence to the right to have an independent university.

A number of speakers have dealt with the voucher system. I will not go into it in detail because I think Miss Williams dealt with some of the practical difficulties that would arise. I think the real problem at the moment is that [end p2] we have too many schools which still need bringing up to standard, and we should have to do that in justification to the parents of the children who go there, before we contemplated a voucher system. The scheme introduced in America is very different from the one which people have in mind here. It was more a scheme which depended on choice of curriculum in the school in your own administrative county. I would point out that parents can and should take more interest in the curriculum offered in their schools, together with the atmosphere and attitudes in those schools to society at large. I think they will continue to do so and can do so without the introduction of a voucher system.

There were a number of separate points which may I just comment on? Kenneth Reeves raised the question of rate of rejections under Section 13 and its application to comprehensive schools and to changes in the character of schools. He put his view and I hope he will respect that many people in this Conference have another view, a view that grammar schools and comprehensive schools can and do co-exist. I hope he will agree that it is really up to Governments to provide for those majorities or minorities, whichever they will be. Government should not ride roughshod over the wishes of minorities of parents.

The answer to his point about the increase in the rate of rejections comes from one scheme, the Birmingham scheme, which had a large number of schools in it and a large number of objections to it which were properly made and which brought much joy to many people in Birmingham.

I agree with Clive Landa and the Young Conservatives. We need to do more about career guidance; a survey carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate will be coming out next week. I agree much with Miss Williams and David Savage that we should pay even more attention to special education. We have made provision vastly to increase the number of special schools and to increase the number of teachers training for those schools. Indeed, on special education, this Government's record again is an all-time record and I hope will continue to be so.

Criticisms, however, of a few schools in a few areas should not obscure the fact that the general story in education is one of great progress and increased opportunity. Here come the odd statistics, and I will race through them as fast as I can. The proportion of GNP spent on education is still increasing; it came to me as 6.3 per cent; in the year 1971–72 it went up to 6.7 per cent. The share of public expenditure taken by education is still increasing, and this shows the priority which we in the Conservative Party attach to this vitally important subject. In the years 1968–9 it was 13.8 per cent, it is now 14.9 per cent; our future plans take it up to 15.4 per cent. So let no teachers' union ever say that education is being starved of resources.

In spite of all the difficulties we have made a record advance in school building programmes, and I have authorised from the beginning of 1972 to the end of 1976 £1,000 million or more on the school building programme alone.

Those schools are in the programme and planned. They have been costed but I expect the costs will go up for reasons which you know well, and there will be a circular coming out about that shortly.

On the theme of quality, I put it first when I was returned to power in the Conservative Government. We appointed a Committee to consider the quality of teacher training. The James Committee reported. We accepted its recommendations and we are now implementing them.

On quality, with regard to the use of English the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Alan Bullock, has a Committee sitting on the use of language, and I hope that it will report by next year because I agree that we are failing our children if we do not turn them out properly equipped in literacy and numeracy as well as in the creative arts.

Since we met last year the great ten-year programme for educational advance has been published, costed and is now being carried out. It involves substantially increased expenditure and new policies in five directions. They are, first, a new nursery programme; second, a larger building programme for the renewal of secondary and special as well as of primary schools; third, a larger teaching force—145,000 more teachers over the decade to 1981—and this should improve the staffing standards in our schools; fourth, a new initiative to improve the initial and in-service training of teachers; fifth, the development in higher education of a wider range of opportunities for both students and institutions, including the polytechnics which have an especially good programme of which Mr. Griffiths spoke.

In office we have set new records of educational achievement. For the future we have planned, costed and published a ten-year programme. We are continuing to investigate methods of solving some of the far-reaching problems of language and numeracy and to launch programmes of research on nursery and special education. This coming Parliamentary session, 1973–4, will mark the passage of 30 years since the great Butler Education Act. It was an Act which foresaw and provided for many advances, some of which are now a matter of history. It still remains to us to improve those opportunities for parental choice which were enshrined in the Act and which are contained in today's resolution. I gladly accept that challenge.