Lincoln Christ's Hospital School

Lincoln Christ's Hospital School
Educating in Lincoln since 1090

 

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Margaret Thatcher’s Visit to Lincoln Christ’s Hospital Girls’ High School

From the Garton Archive: Item of Interest No 14

It is recorded in the Head Girls’ Diary 1965-1973, one of the many treasures in the Garton Archive at Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School, that Margaret Thatcher once paid a formal visit to Lincoln Christ’s Hospital Girls’ High School (LHS). This formed part of a visit to Lincolnshire during the early 1970s when she was a Cabinet member in Edward Heath’s government, and Secretary of State for Education and Science. At the time of her death it seems fitting to record that many LHS pupils would have had the opportunity to meet her, at a time when her long and controversial career was in its relative infancy. This article is also an attempt to place the visit in the context of the prevailing education policies.

One former pupil who was at LHS at the time was Jane Rimmer, née Thompson. Jane has recently had a letter published in The Times, which illustrates very poignantly Mrs Thatcher’s burgeoning political persona. An old family friend whose children were contemporaries of Mrs Thatcher, both at school and at Oxford, used to enjoy telling Jane’s mother that she once overheard a child at a birthday party saying, “If you don’t stop bossing us around, Margaret Roberts (Thatcher), I’m going to stamp on your feet!”

Mrs Thatcher had hardly been in office for more than a few months when she attracted adverse publicity as a result of the spending cuts imposed by the Heath administration. Perhaps the most controversial feature of the cuts was her part in the abolition of free school milk for junior school children aged 7 to 11. This earned her the damning epithet ‘Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher’. She justified the decision by claiming that few children would suffer as a result, and attempted to soften the decision by agreeing to provide younger school-aged children with a third of a pint of milk ‘for nutritional purposes’.

As can be imagined the decision caused a storm of vitriol from the Labour opposition, the press, parents and many members of the wider public to such an extent that Mrs Thatcher apparently considered leaving politics at the time. It is certainly revealed in her autobiography that she learned a valuable lesson from the experience, and wrote that she had incurred the maximum amount of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.

Cabinet minutes have subsequently revealed that Margaret Thatcher was opposed to the cuts herself, but was over-ruled by the treasury. As a relatively young and inexperienced politician, unrehearsed at the time in persuasive ‘hand-bagging’ techniques, she would have found it difficult to assert her views in such distinguished Cabinet company. Indeed, official records have revealed that Edward Heath had a poor opinion of his Secretary of State and her Department. Mrs Thatcher tried very hard to interest the Prime Minister in education policy, but with little success, possibly due to the ‘bad chemistry’ that apparently existed between them from the outset.

Mrs Thatcher’s record on education policy was a mixed one, as Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, has written in a recent article in The Telegraph. Although she was committed to preserving the grammar schools, partly based on her own experience at Grantham Girls’ High School, she was apparently thwarted by the Department of Education and Science, and the local education authorities, in her attempts to protect the schools from the comprehensive movement. The result was that more grammar schools were closed during her tenure than at any time before or since, and the proportion of pupils attending comprehensive schools rose dramatically in the early 1970s. In 1974, towards the end of her post as secretary of State, the City of Lincoln adopted the comprehensive pattern, and the four grammar schools closed. Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School, a co-educational comprehensive school, was formed in 1974 as a result of the amalgamation of LHS, Lincoln School, Myle Cross Secondary Girls’ School, and St Giles Secondary Boys’ School. In the county of Lincolnshire, however, the 11+ examination continued and is still in practice. Thus there are grammar schools remaining in Sleaford, Boston, Gainsborough and elsewhere.

Terence Kealey also pointed out that Mrs Thatcher was unsuccessful in her attempts to persuade the authorities to increase parental choice and to allow schools greater freedom in their own admissions and educational policies.

As Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher was responsible for many of the reforms now being reinforced and consolidated by the present Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Her Great Education Reform Bill, sometimes referred to as ‘Gerbil’, was instrumental in setting up the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and its regular cycle of school inspections. The Bill also allowed schools to opt out of local education authority control and manage their own budgets.

She could also be pragmatic, or at least politically aware. Evidence suggests that the lady could actually be ‘for turning’, as she presided over one of those fabled ‘U-turns’ on early plans to introduce student loans in the 1980s in the face of relentless opposition from students, and many Conservative voters, too. Of course their introduction was only delayed as we know.

Whatever views we hold on Margaret Thatcher’s education policies, it is worth mentioning that both Tony Blair and David Cameron have espoused many of her policies. Thus, as in other aspects of her reign, she has left a lasting legacy if albeit a divisive and controversial one.

Peter Harrod

Assistant Archivist, LCHS

April 2013