How education changed under Thatcher – Peter Wilby

Writing in The Guardian Peter Wilby provides a brief history lesson on the education system in Britain and how it changed under Margaret Thatcher – particularly universities (“[previously] run on similar lines to the BBC”) and schools curriculum, selection and funding. It’s a useful insight into how the structures work now:

“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.

“Moreover, all schools today, whether under local control or not, are governed by the principles of “open enrolment” and “local management” laid out in [Kenneth] Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act. Subject to physical limits, a school must admit any child whose parents apply; it then automatically receives funding for that child to spend as it wishes. Schools, therefore, operate in a quasi-market. They compete for customers and their business expands according to their perceived success, determined mainly by test and exam results published centrally. As in any market, customers look for trusted brands. Increasingly, private companies own and run chains of a dozen schools or more. Most judges think it only a matter of time before such companies are allowed to take profits.

“If Thatcher had had her way, the CTCs would have charged small but significant fees to parents who could afford to pay, a principle she thought might be extended more widely. That part of her dream has little prospect of realisation. Nor is the national curriculum ever likely to be as she intended. 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.”

About Paul Bradshaw

Founder of Help Me Investigate. I'm a visiting professor at City University London's School of Journalism, and run an MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University. I publish the Online Journalism Blog, and am the co-author of the Online Journalism Handbook and Magazine Editing (3rd edition). I have a particular interest in Freedom of Information and data journalism.
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