The legacy of Margaret Thatcher


Conviction is a greater enemy to truth than lies  – Nietzsche

Margaret Thatcher became Minister of Education at the start of my undergraduate course, and remained in that post during my teacher training and my first year of teaching.   She and her policies made a great impression on me, to the extent that after just three years of teaching in the UK I left the country to teach overseas.  For that I suppose I should be grateful to her, as she was instrumental in launching me into international education.

One of her brainwaves was to cancel the free milk which at that time was distributed in schools, leading to protests against ‘Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher’ and earning her the soubriquet ‘Thatcher the Snatcher’.   I had not been particularly political while at university, most of my time being divided  between the river, the rugby field and the Rowing Club bar (with the occasional detour to lectures and labs.)  However, when I was assigned a period of teaching practice at a school in a Category D village in County Durham it was an eye-opener.  Category D villages were ex-mining communities where the pit had been closed, and a government decision taken to make no further investment in any public infrastructure.  Pot holes were not filled in, bulbs in street lamps were not replaced, bus services were curtailed and families for whom the village had been home for generations were left to get the message that they should move out.  The inhabitants were desperately, and hopelessly, trying to hang on to the remnants of their community, but there was no shop, no pub, no café, the school had minimal resources, and now we could not even give them free milk!

The children at the school were normal, lively youngsters, with as much potential as could be found anywhere else (after all, it takes intelligence to transcribe a Geordie accent with accuracy, and my students did this in their spelling all the time;  I leave it to the reader  to decipher the official spelling  of the phonetically accurate ‘ejog’ and  ‘yrntn’.)  Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear that their potential was unlikely to be fulfilled, and that the creeping despair all around them would almost certainly snuff out their curiosity, their enthusiasm, and their hope.

Category D villages were not invented by Margaret Thatcher, but they certainly fitted in with her proudly stated conviction that ‘society does not exist’, and that individuals must look out for themselves.  As Prime Minister she went on to do all she could to make that viewpoint a reality, destroying much of the social fabric of the UK and laying the foundations for the obscene excesses of the financial sector.  She would be delighted by the efforts of Michael Gove, the current UK Minister of Education, to make schools more competitive, more selective, and more focussed on enabling the few to succeed at the expense of the many.

As teachers we are always urged to criticise the work, not the student, and I remind myself to limit my loathing to what Margaret Thatcher stood for and believed in, rather than her as a person.  She was undoubtedly a ‘conviction politician’, and as Nietzsche’s quote indicates, they are the most dangerous, because they cannot be dissuaded.  Margaret Thatcher has left a legacy in education as much as anywhere, and her views are worryingly evident in the educational policies of many jurisdictions;  I, for one, regret it.

PS  ‘ejog’ = hedgehog,  ‘yrntn’ = wire-netting