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Chris SkidmoreChris
Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education
Select Committee. Follow Chris on
Twitter
.

One
of the many things that is being said of Baroness Thatcher in the light of her
sad death last week, from across the political spectrum, is that she set the
political landscape in which we still live today. This is certainly true in
education; during her time in power there was a fundamental shift in approach
which lasts to this day.

One
of the key legacies is the idea, which we now take for granted, that parents
should be able to make informed choices about what is best for their child.
Prior to the 1980 Education Act there has been no obligation for local
authorities to take account of parents’ choice of school.

Parents
weren’t only being deprived of choice; they were also not being properly
informed about the quality of their child’s education. Under Thatcher, schools
became obliged to publish prospectuses giving details about examination results
and Inspectors’ reports ceased to be secret.


For
the first time parents were able to hold schools to account. They could see
when schools weren’t doing well enough, or were ignoring recommendations made
by inspectors, and would then be able to vote with their feet. To help this
work schools were given more flexibility to expand in response to demand from
parents. The idea that money would follow pupils was introduced, so that
popular schools wouldn’t lose out if they wanted to grow and take on more
pupils.

These,
like much of her legacy, do more than survive: they set the terms of the
debates we have today. No one would dream of trying to make Ofsted reports
secret again, or of taking away parents right to choose schools, though Labour
fought it at the time.

Similarly,
the principle of a single-tier exam system is now widely accepted. In current
education debates much of the Labour opposition centres on accusations that the
Government is trying to return to a two-tier system. What they always neglect
to mention is that it was Thatcher who introduced a single-tier exam system at
16, replacing O-levels and CSEs with the single GCSE qualification which we
have used ever since.

Having
successfully set the terms of the debate, Lady Thatcher also laid the
foundations for the education policies which continue to occupy Governments
today. While introducing the national curriculum, ensuring that all children
would receive teaching in a basic range of core subjects, she also began the
move towards letting schools become more autonomous, in line with the notion at
the heart of her education policy that parents should be given real choice. The
1987 Conservative manifesto included promises to give schools full control over
the use of their budgets and, starting the move towards academy schools, the
right to apply for a direct grant from what was then known as the Department of
Education and Science, making them independent from their Local Education
Authority.

Amidst
all this innovation during her time in charge it is often forgotten that this
was also a period of great investment in education, challenging the myth that
she was an ideological cutter of public services. Spending per pupil increased
by 41 per cent over her premiership, and pupil-teacher ratios fell in primary
and secondary schools by 1.7 and 1.2 respectively. She left an education system
where participation in Higher Education was up, rising by 5 percentage points
from 1985 to 1990, and where, at whichever point they left education, pupils
were better prepared for employment.

Lady
Thatcher is said to have joked that, contrary to popular opinion, she did
believe in consensus, so long as it was a consensus that she was right. In
education, as in other areas, this is something she has to a great extent
achieved. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference shortly before her
resignation she said the most important things the Government had provided in
education were “freedom, choice and competition”, and what she next wanted to
see was “far more schools becoming independent state schools”. These principles
and aspirations have dominated education policy ever since.

What’s
more, in the same speech she also foresaw some of the problems we are dealing
with today. She was worried grade inflation would be allowed, eroding the value
of qualifications, and that curricula wouldn’t be sufficiently demanding. As
she forcefully put it, “Asking too little of our children is not only doing
them an injustice, it's jeopardising our national future”.

As
in so many other areas Lady Thatcher left a lasting legacy in education, and
she set the terms of the debates we have today. Though this hasn’t been
significantly challenged it hasn’t gone unthreatened, and we must do all we can
to protect what she achieved, and heed the warnings she left us with.

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