I’m certain that Margaret Thatcher meant well when she questioned, in that article in Women’s Own in 1987, whether there is such a thing as society. But it’s a comment that, twisted ever so slightly, has come to haunt social and political policy. The comment was made as Thatcher rounded on all those whose gut reaction, whenever they come across a problem, was to expect government to sort it out for them. “Sort it out for yourself,” we can still hear Thatcher saying, “and if necessary get your friends to help.” It is a sentiment with which I largely agree, and its why I see the purpose of education as being to strengthen young people so as to stand up to the vagaries of life. Yet I also believe, as I’m sure Thatcher did, that there are moments for all of us when our own shoulders are not strong enough, and we need someone else to lean upon. Someone else is, I believe, almost always preferable to some organisation.
If I’m going to lean on somebody else’s shoulders, then I need to be strong enough for other people to lean on me when they can’t cope. It’s what the Bible commands its adherents to do, “Love they neighbour as thyself.” That is a tough injunction when your neighbour is cantankerous, smelly, or in any other way unpleasant. Thatcher was not the first politician (and certainly won’t be the last) to use the Bible to justify her political creed – like her, of course, I agree that the Good Samaritan could not have been as generous as he was if he had had no money himself, but that was not the essence of the problem.
Most unfortunately Thatcher got carried away in that article when she tried to reduce it to simplicity: “There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families.” It was those 17 words that caught the media’s attention. Few heard the next part of the sentence which said “no government can do anything except through people.” This is a sentiment I heartily endorse because it is what the individual does without having first to be told to do so by somebody else which gives a community strength. Now, although the public thought Thatcher said “community”, she actually said “society.” This, together with the way she ended that sentence by saying “and people look to themselves first” which has done so much damage. It has given birth to the age of the individual.
Twenty-two years later when I, an early enthusiast for Margaret Thatcher, exalt educationalists to realise that a balanced education is like an old-fashioned stool with three legs that can achieve balance on any surface – the legs being the home, the community, and in the school. It is the home in which people grow emotionally; it is the community from which they gain inspiration, and it is from the school that they develop their mental and intellectual skills. That sense of a balanced education took a massive knock when people at large convince themselves that they no longer had to worry about community. That reduced the stable three-legged stool to a precarious two legs. “Ah, but families have largely disintegrated in my part of the world, so that takes out another leg.” This leaves youngsters even more precariously balanced on a single leg.
That is why policy makers have tried to convince themselves that schools can do it all. Which, I would argue, always was, and always will be, an impossible task.
See Action 4 of Briefing Paper