24 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and the educationalists

[The Department of Education and Science] was a department with an entrenched culture and a settled agenda of its own which it pursued with little reference to ministers or the rest of Whitehall. The convention was that education was above politics: government’s job was to provide the money but otherwise leave the running of the education system to the professionals. Political control, such as it was, was exercised not by the DES but by the local educational authorities up and down the country; the real power lay with the professional community of teachers, administrators and educational academics, all of whom expected to be consulted – and listened to – before any change in the organisation or delivery of education was contemplated ...

Politically as well as temperamentally, Mrs Thatcher was antipathetic to the DES. She instinctively disliked its central project, the spread of comprehensive schools, and the whole self-consciously ‘progressive’ ideology that lay behind it. She disliked the shared egalitarian and collectivist philosophy of the educational establishment ... (John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Grocer’s Daughter, 2000, Jonathan Cape, p.212)
No doubt Margaret Thatcher was inhibited in what she could do as Education Secretary and had to implement the intentions of Ted Heath’s government. And no doubt she was also inhibited with regard to the ideas she could express without fear of condemnation.

Expressing approval of grammar (selected) schools was as far as a public figure could go in supporting the idea that there were differences between individuals and that the object of education should not be to iron these out, but to provide opportunities that corresponded to individual aptitude and inclination.

The body of agents of the collective, referred to as being considered ‘above politics’ – the teachers, educational experts, etc. – were actually almost universally left-wing, and this had a strong correlation with their attitudes in practice to educational issues. Margaret Thatcher was in favour of young people being able to rise in the world by their own efforts and by using their abilities as effectively as possible.

The grammar schools were modified by their increasing dependence on the state and by the increasing dominance of egalitarian ideology.

My experience (as a student) of grammar schools and universities was about a decade later than that of Margaret Thatcher, and by that time it was clear that the idea of people rising in society by virtue of exceptional ability and purposefulness was no longer acceptable, even at grammar schools.

Both the headmistress of the Woodford County High (a grammar school) and Dame Janet Vaughan, the Principal of Somerville College, were clearly against this idea. The former stated explicitly that if someone were able to take exams at an earlier age than usual, or to work simultaneously towards exams in more subjects than usual, these things would be unfair advantages and they should not be allowed.

Dame Janet took the view that if a person encountered any difficulties in achieving their career objectives, they should give up. Since, according to her, innate ability did not exist, their ambitions could not be based on anything objective, and they should be told to settle for something more modest.

My unfunded independent university, which could be publishing analyses of the complex issues involved in the area of education, has been effectively censored and suppressed for decades. Meanwhile, misleading and tendentious material on the topic has continued to flood out from socially recognised sources.

I hereby apply for financial support on a scale at least adequate for one active and fully financed research department. I make this appeal to all universities, corporations and individuals who consider themselves to be in a position to give support to socially recognised academic establishments.