Dame Angela Rumbold: Outspoken Tory minister and staunch Thatcherite who worked tirelessly to raise educational standards

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The Independent Online

Angela Rumbold was the daughter of a distinguished scientist, and throughout her political career, initially in local government, then as a minister in the Department of Education, and latterly as a chairman of governing bodies and of the Governing Bodies of Girls' Schools Association, she displayed a profound concern for the maintenance of the highest educational standards and the improvement of state education.

Less than a decade in local government saw her rapid rise to chair the education committee in Kingston, to become deputy leader of the borough council in 1976, chairman of the Education Committee of the Association of Municipal Authorities in 1979 and Chairman of the Council of Local Education Authorities from 1979 to 1980. In this last post she worked tirelessly to help the new Conservative Secretary of State, Mark Carlisle, deliver not only the reversal of Labour's legislation to abolish grammar schools, but two major pieces of educational legislation in 1980. Subsequently she campaigned for the abolition of ILEA and the return of education to the London boroughs.

In 1982 Bruce Douglas Mann honourably resigned his seat on leaving the Labour Party for the SDP. Rumbold, campaigning fiercely in defence of Mrs Thatcher's Falklands policy and against the inadequacies of London Transport, won the subsequent by-election by 4,424 votes, the first by-election gain by a governing party in more than two decades.

Although she found the atmosphere in the Commons "one of slight condescension", she speedily made her mark with a maiden speech devoted to the need for useful youth training and a call for the return of capital punishment. In July 1983 she was appointed Nicholas Ridley's PPS at the Treasury and subsequently at the Department of Transport.

Although a staunch monetarist and Thatcherite, she never hesitated to be critical of the government where she thought it in error, as with the new arrangements for opticians in 1984. She also took issue with the Monday Club and resigned from it in April 1984. She became involved instead in drafting No Turning Back, and in the formation of the right-wing group of that name inside the parliamentary party. She was a strong advocate of both educational vouchers and student loans, and later became an active member of the '92 Group.

Promoted to be Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department of Environment in September 1985, she was transferred a year later to the Department of Education as Minister of State. She had been sharply critical of its habits – "show them a problem and they'll just set up another committee or working party" – and in office she found senior officials largely out of sympathy with the direction of Conservative education policy. In March 1987 she found herself having to wage a battle inside the department to protect the remaining grammar schools. She was a strong advocate of City Technical Colleges and despite her own local-government past, became an advocate of allowing schools to opt out from local government control.

When the Higginson Committee wished to see the reform of A-levels she was staunch in their defence, egged on, perhaps, by Mrs Thatcher. Kenneth Baker found her help invaluable in getting his Education Reform Bill through the Commons, and she helped ensure that governing bodies would have greater responsibility for the curriculum and finance. Although she remained a strong proponent of student loans, she was uneasy about involving the banks in the scheme and might well have preferred to see repayment secured through the tax system. Towards the end of her time in the department she was thought to be a waning force and there were rumours that she would be dropped. Instead she found herself transferred to the Home Office as Minister of State in July 1990, where she took charge of the prisons, inner cities, data protection, shops and animal welfare. She was also given charge of the ministerial group on women's issues.

Left out of Major's Government in 1992, she was made Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party responsible for candidates, where she encouraged a number of women to pursue a political career. Baroness Varsi has paid tribute to her role in "paving the way for many women of great talent to enter politics." She was not, however, an enthusiast for positive discrimination.

Although she never resiled from her support for a common market in Europe, she was hostile to the common agricultural policy and to the European central bank, and she caused some embarrassment to the leadership at the start of the 1997 election campaign when her manifesto came out strongly against British membership of the euro, and had to defend her position on Newsnight.

Angela Claire Rosemary Jones was the daughter of Professor Harry Jones FRS and his wife, Frances O'Neill. She was educated at Notting Hill and Ealing High School, the Perse School in Cambridge, and King's College, London, where she took an LlB. Although she later qualified as a barrister she never practiced. She was later to take a degree in the history of art at the Cortauld Institute. She attributed her interest in politics to an early confrontation with Dr Edith Summerskill when she was 17, and between 1956 and 1959 she acted as Sir Edward Hulton's personal assistant. In 1958 she married John Marix Rumbold, a solicitor, and they had two sons and one daughter. In 1974 she founded and was the first chairman (1974-76) of the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital.

Her political career began with her election to Kingston Borough Council in 1974 and she remained on the Council until 1983, serving as deputy leader to Michael Knowles from 1976 – the "Michaelangelo partnership". However her interests lay in national educational politics, and as chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' education committee, she was instrumental, together with Alistair Lawton of the Association of County Councils, in bringing together the Council of Local Education Authorities to look after the interests of education. After her election to Parliament in June 1982, she held the Mitcham and Morden seat at three general elections before losing it in 1997.

She had already plunged back into the voluntary sector; although initially critical of the assisted places scheme, when it was abolished she took the chair of the Minerva Fund for the Girls Day School Trust 1993-2001; its declared purpose was to fund bursary schemes which would serve the same ends. She chaired the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the Independent Schools Council and was the co-Chairman of the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools.

She also chaired a number of governing bodies, among them the Mill Hill School Foundation from 1995 until 2004, where she was instrumental in setting up its pre-prep school, Grimsdells; Danes Hill School in Oxshott; Surbiton High School; and Wimbledon High School. She was also vice-chairman of Tolworth Girls School, a comprehensive in Kingston.

A tough-minded right-winger, tall, rangy, with vivid auburn hair that seemed to match her outgoing personality, Angela Rumbold coupled great warmth with formidable powers of argument and an ability to deliver a withering putdown without causing offence. She was energetic, indefatigable and obviously capable. If there were moments when she could seem as bossy as her great idol, Margaret Thatcher, they were tempered always by a great sense of humour and an ability to be disarmingly self-deprecating. Her contribution to public life was immense and to be celebrated.

Angela Claire Rosemary Jones, politician: born 11 August 1932; Councillor, Kingston upon Thames, 1974–83; MP, Merton, Mitcham and Morden 1982–83, Mitcham and Morden 1983–97; PPS to Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1983, to Secretary of State for Transport 1983–85; Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment 1985–86; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science 1986–90, Home Office 1990–92; a Deputy Chairman, Conservative Party 1992–95), a Vice-Chairman 1995–97; CBE 1981, DBE 1992; married 1958 John Marix Rumbold (two sons, one daughter); died 19 June 2010.