Margaret Thatcher, education reformer

Foreign policy isn’t all that Margaret Thatcher and her team had in common with Ronald Reagan and his. The 1980s also saw much crossing of the Atlantic—in both directions—by their education advisers, too. Bill Bennett, for example, hosted U.K. education secretary Ken Baker on multiple occasions, and the Downing Street staff team, too. We reciprocated.

The U.S. and the U.K. were both awakening to being “nations at risk,” due in no small part to the parlous state of their public education systems, and reformers in both countries were pushing for big changes—changes that their respective “education establishments” didn’t want to make.

On both sides of the sea, standards, assessments, accountability, and school choice were surfacing as ideas, and becoming policies and programs. The teachers’ unions didn’t want any of this, but it was beginning to happen anyway, as was the gradual disempowerment of what the Brits call “local education authorities”—and the delegation of greater authority to the school level.

It happened faster on their shores, mostly because the central government in London wasn’t gridlocked—the Tories were in firm control at the time—and because its decisions were (and still are) the ones that counted. (At least in K–12 education, the British government resembles one of our state governments more than our federal government.)

Here’s a good summary of the U.K.’s 1988 Education Reform Act, perhaps the high-water mark of “Thatcherism in education,” and its aftermath. (This was written in 2004 by Christopher Woodhead, who served as Britain’s chief inspector of schools in the late ’90s.)

It has been 16 years since Britain’s Conservative government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced the Education Reform Act. The law created a national curriculum for all state-supported schools as well as a national system of student testing and school inspections. The act was a determined attempt to diminish the power of local education authorities (which are similar to America’s school districts) and to devolve resources and responsibility for meeting national standards to individual schools. And it has been seven years since the Labor Party and its prime minister, Tony Blair, came to power, pledging to raise standards with a blitz of initiatives and reforms. Labor’s proposals included introducing national literacy and numeracy strategies in order to improve the learning of basic skills; establishing Education Action Zones that would encourage local businesses to work with schools; funding after-school homework groups; creating courses in citizenship; revising the national curriculum; and setting up a task force of leading educators to advise on new reforms. 

Observe the continuing reform momentum under Blair, due in no small part to the solid work of Michael Barber at Downing Street, which continues today under David Cameron and his nonstop, visionary education minister Michael Gove.

Yes, there have been hiccups and alterations along the way, many for the better, some not. (Read onward in that 2004 account by Chris Woodhead and you will find much dissatisfaction.) And no, the educational outcomes still aren’t where they need to be. But this also parallels our experience in the United States: continuing in the right direction toward reform, making some mid-course corrections, with more effort still needed.

On her side of the Atlantic, this three-decade reform enterprise really did start with Margaret Thatcher, and I doubt it would have continued through changes of party, prime minister, and education ministers had the movement not been fundamentally right-headed, as she was on pretty nearly everything she touched.

Allow me the privilege of one brief anecdote. Toward the end of Mrs. Thatcher’s time as prime minister, several other American men and I, finding ourselves married to prominent, hard-charging women, formed an imaginary group we dubbed the “Denis Thatcher Society.” It never actually did anything but was a continuing source of merriment and teasing for ourselves and our estimable wives.

It so happened, a couple of years after Lady Thatcher re-entered civilian life, that most of us were invited to an event in D.C. in her honor. Her husband accompanied her. Over a glass of wine, in an effort to make small talk, we told him of the society we had founded in his honor. Big mistake. Sir Denis was not amused. It could not have been amusing much of the time to be her husband, either.

But what a legacy she has left. It’s hard to picture Margaret Thatcher “resting in peace,” but it’s important for those who cherish her memory to know that her impact was felt and appreciated far beyond the borders of her own land.

This piece first appeared in the National Review Online.

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