Mrs Thatcher’s vision: schools Independent of Local Authorities

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Letwin's note to Mrs Thatcher
Letwin’s note to Mrs Thatcher

The recently released Cabinet Papers from the 1980s show Mrs Thatcher as being keen on the idea of making state-funded schools independent of local authorities. It is a vision which for the political parties has something of an all-conquering character given its adoption by all the main parties. Mrs T may no longer be with us but her mark runs deep in a our national affairs.

Of course, one can over-personalise politics and we should remember that Mrs T had a team of largely like minded people and that the the neo-liberal turn had an international character. In fact the papers show some Mrs Thatcher’s colleagues being keen on going rather further and faster than she was prepared to do. One such was Oliver Letwin who told her in the clearest possible terms that in education her policies had been a failure. He wrote

If I have understood it correctly, the ultimate purpose of this Government is not economic but moral. You were elected to give back to individuals a greater degree of responsibility for the conduct of their own lives.

In many fields you have succeeded or have at any rate begun to succeed. In education, you have so far failed.

One of the papers in the collection is headed “Education without LEAs” and is market secret. The idea of keeping such a thing secret today is unimaginable since the policy of removing schools from LEAs has proceeded by leaps and bounds under the present Coalition government (without, it has to be said, more than minimal opposition from Her Majesty’s opposition).

Letwin’s central idea was that parental choice would force up school standards, another idea that is common currency today. He also favoured vouchers but that did not have universal support in Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet and another right-wing ideologue, one-time education minister Sir Keith Joseph, decided against it after looking into its practicality.

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