Margaret Thatcher explored education overhaul, archives show

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

Image source, National Archives
Image caption,
A memo from Oliver Letwin was critical of Mrs Thatcher's lack of action

Margaret Thatcher explored plans to overhaul the structure of English education when she was PM, files released by the National Archives show.

The documents from the 1980s reveal Mrs Thatcher wanted to make state schools independent of local authorities.

This has been the central plank of the current government's education reforms.

In 1986, policy adviser Oliver Letwin wrote that she had "failed" to give people more responsibility for their own lives within the education system.

Words underlined

In Mrs Thatcher's personal files, there is a critical, very direct memo from Mr Letwin - his "swansong" as a member of Mrs Thatcher's policy unit.

"You were elected to give back to individuals a greater degree of responsibility for their own lives," he wrote. "In education, you have so far failed."

He said there had been no effort to change the "framework" - a point endorsed by Mrs Thatcher with a large black tick in the margin - and that education was still "a nationalised industry".

"The provider decides what the customer ought to have, largely ignoring what the customer actually wants," he continued - words which the then prime minister underlined.

Mr Letwin, who is still an MP and a Cabinet Office minister, acknowledged that radical restructuring would not be popular in some quarters.

"It would provoke intense hostility" from the local authorities and the teaching unions, he wrote.

However, he saw it as the only way to improve the "quality" of schools.

Like Michael Gove, who stood down as education secretary in July this year, Mr Letwin believed giving power to the "customer" - the parents - would drive school improvement.

Mr Letwin suggested state schools could "declare UDI", rather like academies today, and suggested extending the "assisted places" scheme where the state paid for places at independent schools.

Parents could then have the choice of moving their children if they were unhappy with the local state school - just as Free Schools are intended to provide an alternative under the current government.

New approach

The files include a paper titled "Education without LEAs", marked "secret" - politicians and civil servants knew how controversial these ideas would be.

The documents show that Keith Joseph, education secretary from 1981 to 1986, had wanted to create 12 new independent state primary schools to show how a new approach would work.

The idea was supported by Mrs Thatcher, and other members of the cabinet were enthusiastic too.

According to a note of one meeting, then cabinet member Norman Fowler said: "It would reverse a trend for parents such as himself to send children to the private sector!"

On the memo, Mrs Thatcher scribbled: "It isn't meant for parents like him!" That idea was dropped.

It was left to Keith Joseph's successor, Kenneth Baker, to create the first state schools independent of local authorities. He set up the first City Technology Colleges in the late 1980s for secondary pupils.

School budgets

However, Lord Baker has now said he is fascinated to see Mrs Thatcher's files. "I didn't know about any of this," he told the BBC.

He said Mrs Thatcher had not told him what to do when he took over as education secretary, and had asked him to come up with his own ideas.

Lord Baker said: "I was on a rather different tangent but we got to the same destination."

Lord Baker gave schools control over their own budgets, established a national curriculum, encouraged grant-maintained schools - so setting the groundwork for Mr Gove's future rapid academies policy.

In recent months there has been growing criticism of this flagship reform.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools in England, recently called for an end to "sterile" debate over structures.

He said it was not the most important factor and that in practice there could be little difference in school improvement under an academy chain or a local council.

Since 2010 more than 4,000 state schools in England have become academies, accountable to central government rather than local officials.

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