Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away this week. A controversial figure, she had the distinction of being the first female and longest serving prime minister of Britain, best known for conservative, limited government, and anti-statist policies.
While most of the world knew her as the Iron Lady for her role in the Cold War politics, she had acquired another political moniker early in her career as Education Secretary: "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher." This nickname was given to her following her decision to reduce milk subsidies to school children to fulfill earlier campaign promises. In her autobiography, Thatcher referenced the incident remarking she had incurred the maximum political odium for minimum political benefit.
When it came to education, Thatcher had a interesting record during her time as Prime Minister, working to centralize primary and secondary education away from local authority and privatizing higher education through the introduction of fees.
Thatcher implemented a core curriculum and national standards for secondary schools arguing that that it was the government's job to see that children get a basic education, "We do not want to dictate the total of education to teachers, but it really is a core curriculum. Not in every subject, but in core curriculum, and to work out a syllabus in certain fundamental subjects: arithmetic, English — spoken, written and some of the literature — and basic science ... This ought to be a part of the education of every child, and parents are all for it because they want their children to be taught."
In the Conservative Government Manifesto of 1979, Thatcher discussed the need to promote higher standards of achievement in basic skills, "We shall promote higher achievement in basic skills. The Government Assessment of Performance Unit will set national standards in reading, writing, and arithmetic." In the Education Act of 1980, Thatcher enacted policies which gave public money for children to go to private schools and gave parents greater power in governing bodies and admission at schools. Echos of Thatcher's policies can be seen in the United States in debates over school choice and voucher programs. School reformers in the U.S. are seeing choice models take off and strongholds of teacher's unions in areas weakening.
As Prime Minister Thatcher sought to increase market forces within higher education, introducing fees at universities. Thatcher oversaw the introduction of fees for international students at higher education, prior to 1981 international students were educated essentially for free. Universities feared the move would decrease international students, and following an initial dip have since soared. A lasting legacy of Thatcher's university policies is both Tony Blair and David Cameron instituted fees for undergraduates — moves which were highly unpopular among students but have allowed for better university funding and universities to be more receptive to student needs.
Margaret Thatcher, a defender of smaller government and deregulation in education policies, understood there was a limited role for government in people's lives. She sought to have the government serve the public interest and the people, rather than have people in service for government. By campaigning for higher education standards and introducing market measures into education, she understood Britain would be better for it.