Thatcher’s Legacy for Learning

In the Guardian this week, the headline piece in the Education Section was written by Peter Wilby under the heading, “This Lady’s Not for Learning”. Good title and an interesting piece too but there’s one key point of contention, regarding the role of New Labour in Thatcher’s education revolution.

Borrowed and amended from Cartoonist Henry Payne, with respect

Borrowed and amended from Cartoonist Henry Payne, with respect.

The article illustrates how little Thatcher (and her successors) actually knew about education. It also shows where the foundations of Mr Gove’s thinking were established.

Mrs Thatcher was education secretary for four years and in reality, and especially by comparison with subsequent education secretaries, she didn’t really do very much. As with many ministers at the time, she tried to quash the power of the unions – unsuccessfully. As with many education secretaries since, she largely ignored the knowledge, skills, ability and expertise of the profession and tried to impose her own ideas and experiences of education as the guiding principle for the future of education in this country. As Prime Minister, she instigated a policy that left the voice of the profession dumbed and silenced for the next three decades.

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As Peter Wilby wrote,

“Her premiership saw a profound change in the ecology of education. Once, ministers largely accepted that “the experts” – schoolteachers and their unions, university lecturers, teacher trainers, local education authority officers – knew best and could be trusted to act, not only in children’s and parents’ interests, but also for the wider social and national good. The government’s role was to provide sufficient resources, subject only to economic constraints and competing budgetary demands.

From the mid-1980s, however, ministers behaved as though education were an ailing, near-bankrupt industry. Their role was to challenge, even denigrate, the views of “insiders”, to demand value for money, to impose performance management, to root out endemic “failure” and to insist on what they saw as customer satisfaction.”

And so it has continued. Where we take issue with Mr Wilby is in his next sentence.

“Future historians may see the years 1997–2010, which seemed ones of frenetic activity at the time, as just a pause in a revolution begun by Thatcher and Kenneth Baker, her most hyperactive education secretary, and completed by Michael Gove.”

As Thatcher herself said, one of her greatest achievements was the creation of New Labour, and as one of her successors also said, subsequent to her death, “And some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour Government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world.”


This was certainly the case with education. What New Labour did was to continue to shape a different relationship between politics and the education profession. The only reason that Michael Gove can act in the way he is currently doing is because the governments of Thatcher and Blair enabled him to do so. There was no pause in the “revolution” between 1997 and 2010. Much of what is now unfortunately established practice, such as the divisive league tables and academy development, was initiated during Blair’s Premiership, and he was only able to do this because of the legacy from Thatcher’s era of grant-maintained schools, the National Curriculum and the subsequent SATs and overload of tests introduced during John Major’s time in office.

Peter Wilby continues.

“But she took away from her four years in education an abiding hatred of its culture: of “self-righteously socialist” civil servants, of academics who “pounded” every “decent value” out of students’ minds, of “trendy” teachers who didn’t inculcate the three Rs, of local authorities she couldn’t control.”

It sounds as though she was set on a vengeful path of destruction the minute she became Prime Minister, and appointing the uber neo-liberal Sir Keith Joseph as her chosen education secretary (the previous incumbent Mark Carlisle was Shadow Secretary during the Callaghan administration) when she succeeded, was an act of all-out war on the profession.


She set out to destroy local authority governance and reduced it to the semblance of disorder (in some local authorities) of disempowered  disorientated and disingenuous dictatorships over schools that were supposedly, under local management of schools legislation, autonomous. Ultimately, for their own survival and self-protection, many local authorities followed governmental diktats, becoming the judge, prosecutor and attacker rather than the critical and supportive friend. Targets had to be met and it really didn’t matter who got in the way of those targets, even if it was the very children that they were supposedly concerned about.

Here’s another extract from Peter Wilby’s piece.

“Under Thatcher, the attempt to end local councils’ grip on education began with the introduction of grant-maintained status, allowing schools to “opt out” of local authority control and receive funding directly from Whitehall. New schools, called city technology colleges (CTCs), were set up, also under government control. Thatcher hoped that most existing schools would choose “freedom” while, with the aid of private sponsorship, dozens of CTCs would emerge. In fact, fewer than 1,000 out of 24,000 schools opted out and only 15 CTCs were opened, at far higher cost to the Treasury than intended. But the free schools and academies now being created by Gove are the direct successors of Thatcher’s grant-maintained schools and CTCs. They already account for more than half of all secondary schools.”

Be they grant-maintained, CTCs, academies, free schools – this diversification of governance for schools was motivated by politics and not by pedagogy, and so it remains today. Whilst a pretence of providing a more cohesive and positive schooling for children and young people was the excuse for this polarisation policy, in reality, it was much more about reducing a level of bureaucracy that many in Westminster believed was unnecessary and divisive, or as Wilby says “self-righteously socialist”.


We must, at this point, make a statement about middle-tier governance of local education authorities, without fear of contradicting our previous point. Prior to Thatcher, there were some excellent examples of careful and constructive management of education in local areas, with ILEA and other major cities such as Birmingham and Manchester being prime examples of how positive and critical support, led by educationalists, could have a significant impact on the education and the wellbeing of children and young people. Some would argue that ILEA had its problems and certainly its failures but this model of management was an important and now missing part of education, reduced as it has been to yet another level of intrusive and misdirected accountability. For the last two decades, local education authorities have been reduced to tick-sheet managers whereas in the past they provided, in some cases, excellent educational advice, training and support to many in schools who needed the guidance available.

Of course writing today, the day after the consultation on the new National Curriculum has closed, we’re mindful of Thatcher’s legacy on the type of learning and content that takes place in our schools. It was her government that introduced the over-prescriptive, non-negotiable National Curriculum with its wodge of white subject folders that cluttered up many a school staffroom.


Yet, as Wilby says,

“She wanted to specify only the basics of English, maths and science. That would be far too narrow, Baker insisted. He designed an elaborate, detailed curriculum covering all major subjects. The content of school subjects — and even teaching methods — became politically contested territory. Arguments over whether children should be taught knowledge or skills, facts or understanding, rules or critical thinking are thrashed out in Whitehall, Westminster and the media, not in school staffrooms.”

Well, it looks as though she has finally got her way! The stringency and extent of the programmes of study that have been outlined in Gove’s proposed curriculum are limited to these core areas, potentially to the detriment of other curriculum areas that, in some schools, will be squeezed to tokenism. Thatcher wasn’t interested in the Arts. She had a renowned lack of humour and her list of records that would potentially accompany her to her Desert Island indicates a distinct lack of “musical intelligence”.

With Gove, she’s got what she wanted – an Anglo-focused curriculum, steeped in the traditional and archaic practices of ‘language development’ that largely ignores what professionals, over a period of half a century, have agreed is the best form of pedagogy. Emulating her tunnelled vision approach to life, Gove has written down that there is only “one way” to learn how to read, there is only “one way” to develop writing skills and there is only “one way” that we should look at the world through history – the British Way! She really was a “lady” not for turning, and evidently not for learning either.


Gove is Thatcher’s child. Born in 1967, raised by non-conformists like the Iron Lady, attending elite colleges of Oxford after some time being educated in the state sector – traditionalist to the very core. Thatcher would be proud of him, and that’s not supposed to be a positive statement.

Thatcher did her damage to many areas of her non-existent society, and education didn’t escape her reactionary policies, for all her limitations in dealing with education personally. Peter Wilby concludes his piece with a paragraph full of dystopia, illustrating the education world in which we find ourselves today.

“As an inexperienced and diplomatically inept minister in the early 1970s, Thatcher clashed with what was later called “the education establishment”. It patronised her as an ignorant outsider, blundering into areas that she was intellectually unfitted to understand. Her revenge, taken after she reached Downing Street, transformed education at every level.”

Written on the day of her funeral, please, please, let’s not continue with this current situation as yet another legacy of her destruction. Let’s collaborate, unite and philosophise together to ensure that the children of the 21st century don’t become “Gove’s children” in the way that he became hers.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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