Education: The Milk Snatcher

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The London Sunday Express called her "the lady nobody loves," and the Sun declared: "She is the most unpopular woman in Britain." Edward Britten, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has said that her policies are "producing chaos." To former Laborite Education Minister Edward Short, she is a "national disaster." In playgrounds, children taunt her for cutting off their free milk by chanting: "Mrs. Thatcher, milk snatcher!"

The target of these angry accusations is Margaret Thatcher, 46, a blue-eyed blonde who for nearly two years has served as Britain's Minister of Education. Some criticism of the Conservative Cabinet's only female member centers on her genteel mannerisms—her Establishment tweeds and her cool, monotonous voice. "I've had everything thrown at me," she protests. "I'm too soft; I'm too hard. I think people really do resent it when you know the answers."

The more serious criticism is that she has the wrong answers, that she is an elitist, hostile to all efforts at liberalizing Britain's class-ridden school system. Traditionally, the 8,000,000 children in state schools take a rugged series of tests at the age of 11 and then are divided into the brightest 20%, mostly middle class, who go to academic "grammar schools," and the slower 80%, who are sent to "secondary modern schools." In the 1950s, authorities began slowly merging these two kinds of schools into more egalitarian institutions called "comprehensives," which now make up almost one-third of the secondary schools. Mrs. Thatcher's first official act was to slow the pace of these mergers.

Equally Bad. "I have sometimes thought," Mrs. Thatcher explains, "that some extreme advocates of equality would be happy even if all the children were in bad schools so long as they were all equally bad. I believe there is still a place for select schools of excellence." Mrs. Thatcher herself is the wife of a wealthy oilman, so she is among the 7% of British parents who can afford to send their children to expensive private schools (her 18-year-old twins went to Harrow and St. Paul's). "No one would demand that everyone live in the same kind of house," says Mrs. Thatcher. "So why shouldn't parents buy a different kind of education for their children?"

She insists that she is not indifferent to the common people, however. "I am a grocer's daughter," she says. "I served behind the counter, and there was no money for treats. I never went to a dance until the university." She went to a state school, won a scholarship to Oxford, became a research chemist, then switched to the law, specializing in tax cases. She entered Parliament in 1959 and was given a government post within three years. Says one colleague: "She could well be the first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer."

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