Papers released under the ‘thirty year rule’ show Margaret Thatcher pushed ahead with the implementation of the new GCSE school examinations despite opposition from teaching unions. Even though she hated the new system for 16-year-old’s, she still went ahead with them, fearing the country would be damaged if the government lost a battle with the unions.
The exams were designed to grade every single pupil from ‘A’ to ‘G’ in order to enable businesses to distinguish between non-academic school leavers. Although Thatcher believed they would lead to a ‘duming down’ for brighter pupils, they did give access to exams to every pupil.
When the Trade Unions set out their stall against them, a senior aide claimed she had “no option but to go ahead”. One memo written for her by her private secretary, Mark Addison, states: “You are concerned that the new approach which GCSE embodies will lead to lower standards, a shift away from the traditional approach to learning in favour of a ‘can’t-fail’ mentality, [and] assessment by the pupils’ own teacher with the consequent risk of introducing more bias.”
The papers relate to the year 1985 and have been embargoed ever since, but have now been released by the National Archive at Kew. It releases almost all government papers after thirty years, aside from the ones that still have implications for national security.
Today’s release has once again thrown light onto the Thatcher administration. At the time they were written, Britain was riven with divisions as a result of Trade Union power, something Thatcher had tried to curtail during the Miners’ strike.
The National Union of Mineworkers had challenged the government’s power several times since their creation and always won. However in 1984 and 1985 Thatcher was not willing to back down, and the legendary struggle almost resulted in a civil war as the government feared both Lancashire and Yorkshire Police might change sides and back the miners.
The papers show that Thatcher saw defeating the Unions as by far the most important priority of the government. As a result she allowed the GCSE’s to go ahead, something that today is regarded as a mistake.
But her actions have been applauded by Andrew Rosindell MP, a Thatcher loyalist Conservative from Romford. He said: “These papers show that Lady Thatcher was willing to put the national good first. Every year we get more and more reassurance that she was the greatest peacetime Prime Minister.
“She knew that challenging the vested interest of the teaching unions was vital. Modern politicians can learn a lot from her example.
“Lady Thatcher did not leave everything perfect, but it was a work in progress. I believe Michael Gove has gone a long way to completing many of the reforms she would have wanted to put through schools had she not been prematurely removed from office.”
Other papers show Thatcher’s concern about the growing tide of football hooliganism in Britain. She was also begged by the Irish government to work towards peace in Northern Ireland to “avoid a civil war” on the island.