Facts, truth and reality

There are a number of facts doing the rounds about Margaret Thatchers time as Secretary of State for Education and Science. It is not my intention to make absolute statements about what is and is not the truth of these statements, simply to lay out some evidence about a couple of them. There are no doubt other pieces of evidence which people might want to consider before coming to a conclusion about the facts.

My contention is simply this – the facts as stated give a misleading (at best) impression of the reality of events

Fact 1:

As SoS she converted more grammar schools to comprehensives than any other.

As a factual statement this is true. Stated baldly it tends to give the impression that conversions were her desire. However, the reality is more complicated. Schools were converting as a result of circular sent out by the previous Labour SoS, Anthony Crosland in 1965, almost 5 years prior to Mrs Thatcher becoming SoS. There is more detail about this here. So Local Authorities were 5 years into a process by which they had been “incentivised” into converting from Grammar to comprehensives. In reality, how many do you think were going change that process unless “incentivised” the other way? I would say that the impression given by the “fact” is misleading.

Fact 2:

Margaret Thatcher was given a standing ovation at the 1972 NUT annual conference.

What does this statement convey? To me it is intended to suggest that teachers of the time were largely in tune with and sympathetic to the policies being put forward by the SoS.

News video (Clip 6 on this page – http://www.itnsource.com/en/compilations/people/politicians/?lr=s17110602) from the time makes me think otherwise. It suggests that the “standing ovation” was at least in part a walkout by up to 10% of the delegates. There is dispute about this, with the authorised biography of Mrs Thatcher stating that the walkout happens part way through the speech. To me it looks clearly like it is happening at the same time that the platform has risen to applaud. I’ll leave you to decide. The interview with the delegate after also makes it clear that there was a fair gap between teachers and politicians.

As I say, I’m sure there are other pieces of evidence that can go into the balance to help people decide the reality around these facts. Even when the history is less than 50 years before we can already see the mists closing in around the truth. Maybe this is an argument for ensuring that we teach our children to look at all the evidence and be able to understand its provenance and to properly weigh it before accepting a “fact” at its face value. Maybe for some its a very good reason to stop that happening.

It used to be said that history was written by the victor. That may still be true, but it is now true, more than ever before, that history is understood by those who have access to the evidence. In years gone by that was a restricted few. Now that access is more democratised. Perhaps it will improve our understanding of history.