On the face of it, there might not appear to be any kind of consequential relationship between two apparently unconnected events held on successive days this week – the funeral of former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher on the one hand, and The Spectator’ s one-day Schools Revolution conference on the other. At the most superficial level, one looked back while the other looked forward – but they’re perhaps connected in a more direct way than might be thought.
Think back to two of the seminal policies of Margaret Thatcher that enabled her to win three elections in a row by capturing the C1/C2 aspirational working class vote: the sale of council houses to their then current tenants at a discount, and the privatization of state-owned companies with preferential share allocation going to their employees. Both were wildly popular with their beneficiaries. The majority of eligible council tenants enthusiastically took up the offer to become home-owners for the first time and possess something tangible to pass on to their children. Over 90% of employees of the privatized utilities bought shares in their employer, ignoring instructions, and sometimes intimidation, from their trade unions not to do so.
Both were, predictably, wildly unpopular with the Left. Firstly, they removed from its control and allegiance a portion of the electorate which the Left had arrogantly always assumed was irretrievably in its own camp, and which it had long sought to keep there by socialist-communitarian housing and employment policies. Secondly, they exposed as hollow and mistaken the Left’s ideological narrative that even the skilled and aspirational working class recognised that they had no class-interest in participating in enterprise capitalism. Given the chance to acquire property, they grabbed it. This, more than anything else, explains the Left’s visceral hatred of Thatcher – at the elemental level of political philosophy, she proved them to have been wrong all along. They have never forgiven her for it.
Much subsequent comment focussed on how the ex-council houses were sold at a profit, or on how briefly privatization shares were held. But what is appreciated more rarely is that those two policies enabled an expansion and, crucially, a widening of the base of the country’s economic capital, beyond a formerly narrow section of relatively affluent owners, to an extent never before achieved.
Back now to The Spectator ‘s one-day Schools Revolution conference, and Education Minister Michael Gove. He recognises that Britain’s state education system, where the increasingly obstructionist, even militant, Left-dominated teaching unions to which most teachers belong resist almost any move to shift the balance of advantage away from producer-interest capture, is failing its charges. We are sliding inexorably down the PISA tables, particularly in maths and the science subjects. Only the teaching unions and Labour politicians bother any more to maintain the fiction that improving exam grades are down to higher achievement standards rather than grade inflation. Universities have to devote significant parts of first-year degree tuition to remedial teaching because students aren’t up to the levels of literacy and numeracy that tertiary education demands. 5 London secondary schools spend almost £0.5m annually because a majority of pupils arrives barely able to read. Surveys of employers find that the students labelled “outstanding” by their teachers turn out to be anything but.
Gove is trying to change this. He is aware, in a way that too many of the teachers’ unions’ leaders, at least, seem unable to acknowledge, that the 21st century economy will put a premium on brain capability rather than brawn capability to an unprecedented extent, and that not equipping children for it will lead, not just to an under-performing economy but lives whose potential risks being frustrated. Encouraging the provision of free schools and academies, holding teachers more rigorously to account, strengthening the curriculum, and giving more power to parents, are seen as the key elements of this.
But, in a sense, he’s covering ground that’s been covered before. The core libertarian education idea, whereby parents get vouchers to “purchase” childrens’ education from a range of competing providers, which may or may not include the state, isn’t new. But it was specifically seriously considered by Thatcher and Keith Joseph in the early 1980s, in the form of what were then called education “credits”. As happens now, the Left-dominated teaching unions opposed it, as had been expected: but the most insidious institutional opposition, which sadly prevailed, came from within the Department, already, 30 years ago, effectively captured by collectivist groupthink.
Yet the so far small numbers of free schools that have opened, are once again, proving the Left to be wrong. Nine out of every ten of the free schools opened under the Coalition are oversubscribed: once again the aspirational, given the chance of obtaining what the Left says they have no interest in obtaining, are falling over themselves to try and obtain it. No wonder the Left-dominated teacher unions are objecting.
And there’s another parallel, too, with the 1980s. The better a country’s overall standard of education, the higher its social capital. It translates into more volunteering, more cultural appreciation, more civic engagement. A failing education system leaves the majority of social capital in the hands of an elite few: a better one widens the base of the country’s social capital.
Just as Thatcher’s council house sales and utility privatizations widened the base of economic capital in the 1980s, in fact.