Policies – Education

Lesson objectiveTo explore policies on education.
Lesson outcomes• Compare how they favour specific groups of people
• Evaluate the impact of them
• Explain specific social policies.

Political background

You are not tested on this page in your exam. The aim of this page is to deepen your knowledge of politics so as to understand more clearly why certain political governments made the decisions they did. 

Each of the governments which you are going to study is helped by having an understanding of the British Political Spectrum. 

More about where each party stands (for the time period we are talking about) can be found via the link here. 

The importance of this is due to being aware of the reasons why each policy was made. 

The right-wing of politics usually supports more freedom in the market and less government involvement. The result of which as been academisation. 

The left-wing of politics usually supports a more restricted market and more governmental control. Evidence of this is more comprehensive schools. 

It would be worth doing some extra research into each of the governments to use as background knowledge in your exam. 

Educational policies pre 1979

Before 1979, education was formed on 4 key policies:

l) 1870 Education Act – the first education act making a commitment to provide

education nationally

2) 1918 Education Act – the age of compulsory education was raised to 14

3) 1944 Butler Act – raised the age of compulsory education to 15 and provided

free education. This act introduced the tripartite system or three types of

school, which were meant to suit different types of students:

• grammar schools

• secondary technical schools

• secondary modern schools

4) 1965 – expansion of comprehensive schools (schools with no entry


It is a general consensus that at this stage little had changed over the years in terms of reducing inequalities, e.g. the 1965 comprehensive system act was limited by the introduction of grammar schools benefiting the middle class. ​


MC to grammar schools

Lacked parity of esteem

Conservative policies (1979-1997)

The Conservative government, headed by Margaret Thatcher, created numerous policies changing the shape of education. One such policy, which was briefly mentioned on the Policy Summary Page was the Education Reform Act 1988 which moved education more right wing introducing market forces, such as enabling parents to have greater choice.

A further policy and side effect of the marketisation is the creation of league tables. A league table was a way of increasing competition within the system so schools had to compete for higher grades. This aim was to drive up standards as better performing schools would naturally attract more students and thus receive more money. This worked to some extent, however, for poorer students the choice was just a fallacy and could not afford to move to travel to better schools therefore being stuck with the weaker ones. Again, this was only really effective for middle and upper class students.

Ofsted were introduced to measure the adequacy of schools. These results, similar to the league tables above, were published online for parents to see. This again, has many benefits, but still doesn’t provide solution for disadvantaged children.

Schools were encouraged to become independent of local authorities (previously LA’s ran schools on the government’s behalf). The result was that schools were now able to govern themselves more shaping their identity more to attract potential students (customers).

A national curriculum was introduced created by the government where students had to follow the same course nationally. This improved standardisation and allowed schools to be marked against each other more effectively. 

The effects of the Education Reform Act.

The University of Joensuu created a report assessing the impact of the Education Reform Act. Access the report here to read more in-depth as to the possible consequences. Some which are highlighted in the report are:

The marketisation process created the polarisation of the schools. The wealthier schools attracted more middle-class students, whilst the poorer schools mostly had working-class students. There are many reasons for this such as that middle-class students could manipulate the market, as well as that most schools attempted to advertise for more able students and under the conservative government most of these were middle class, so only good schools would get them.  “Under-subscribed schools suffered from poor physical conditions, insufficient learning and language support, a shortage of textbooks and other equipment needed, caused by inadequate funding, whereas “rich”, oversubscribed schools, in turn, suffered from over-crowding” (Gewirtz 1997: 224)

Teachers (58 %) in 1992 reported the negative effects of the National Curriculum (Pollard 1993). 

Not necessarily the action of having a National Curriculum, but certainly the one input in place by the Conservatives was criticised for its possible negative impact on students. “Pollard (1993: 32) and Fisher (1996) have done similar observations as some teachers in his PACE-study expressed their concern that too formal and overcrowded curriculum could affect the equality of children’s learning experiences and alienate them from learning”. 

Ofsted as seen negatively by teachers as interfering and controlling. “Some schools also conspired against feared OFSTED (Office For Standards in Education) inspections. Teachers were of the opinion that such inspections represent one of the most “…strict attempts to control teacher’s work…” and therefore conspired to mediate this by strategic compliance and impression management both before and during the visit in order to be seen by the inspectors to be complying with Ofsted criteria” (Osborn et al 1997: 63). 

All of these facts, again, are from the article above, so please refer to that. ​


  • Lack of parental choice
  • Poor standards in some schools
  • Banding and streaming along class lines.

Evaluations – ERA

  • Competition did increase standards
  • Selection by mortgage
  • Cream skimming/ polarisation
  • MC more choice – cultural capital, skilled choosers….
  • Also criticisms of league tables – teaching to test
  • NC – ethnocentric

New Labour’s policies (1997-2010)

With the failures of socialist economic principles stemming from Old Labour, New Labour focused more on right-wing principles, such as marketisation. Therefore, New Labour policies were created such as:

  1. Building on Margaret Thatcher’s policy, Academies were introduced to underperforming schools.
  2. An emphasis on women returning to work was key and free childcare was introduced for children.
  3. Schemes such as Sure Start (1999) were established aiming to help struggling students.
  4. Excellence in Cities (1999 as well) aimed at helping poorer students through extra funding and helping gifted students though providing tools and help.
  5. Tuition fees were introduced, despite much opposition from student unions. This aided the middle and upper class who had the money.
  6. Ofsted became stricter on trying to fix failing schools.

 Critics have assessed the many issues of Labour’s shift from left to right-wing. Many left-wing policies to reduce the educational difference between rich and poor were used, but conflicted by right-wing principles such as tuition fees and marketisation. There were many factors in addition to those mentioned under this module which has affected the success of Labour’s policies. Under Tony Blair, greater immigration occurred as the UK grew closer to Europe. Until recently, the effects of these policies have only been measurable. Overall, immigration seems to have created a positive outcome and experience on British students as the various cultures forced British students to question the importance of education.

 The Wolf Report (Wolf, 2011) is a key piece of legislative surrounding vocational education. The full report can be accessed here. The highlight of the report focused on the failing vocational qualifications that exist and further acknowledged that the courses do not lead to jobs failing young people. As a consequence, it was recommended that compulsory that all students stay in education until 16 and greater efforts made to ensure all placements lead to jobs.

 A key evaluation point of New Labour’s attempt at improving education was that it created ‘selective education’ and developed ‘parentocracy’. Selective education refers to how schools and academies now have the ability to be more selective of the students that they have. One major criticism when measuring the success of academies is that they take a lower count of challenging students to ensure good data, however, those students need to go somewhere. Parentocracy refers to the increasing power that parents have in aiding their child’s education. This is evidential more so in middle-class families who are more well off to support their child with tutors etc.


  • Early academies rose standards in poor areas a lot (Mossbourne)
  • Generally better at improving equality of opportunity than the New Right
  • Parents liked sure start but it didn’t improve education (improved health)
  • Tuition fees put working class kids off (connor et al)

Coalition (2010-2915)

Ball and Exley (2011), describe these policies as a mix of old and new. 

New-style academies, 

After 2010, all state schools had to become academies. In 2014, just 56% of all schools in England had academy or FS (below) status. 

Free Schools

These are similar to academies, but local people have a greater say over their running. They were originally created to try to minimise inequality as students who only have failing schools locally, could create their parents create the school. 

Pupil Premium

This replaced EMA and in effect gave schools more money for taking Pupil Premium students. Each school also had a budget which they had to spend directly on minimising and reducing the gap. 


Ball and Exley claim that the coalition favoured traditional subjects over newer ones and this too was the case for methods of teaching e.g. teachers having more power to punish students. The English Baccalaureate system was introduced to promote core subjects. In 2012, nearly half (49%) of all students undertaking GCSE were enrolled on the EBAC system. This was compared to 22% two years earlier. This directly affected the popularity of certain A-Levels too. 


The national curriculum was rewritten and courses made more demanding. Also, coursework was removed from GCSE and A Level. Courses also became linier, rather than modular meaning that all exams are at the end of the second year and overwrite any and all grades in the first. Previously, AS levels counted half of an A2. 

Performances targets

A new “Progress 8” measure of school performance was introduced in 2016. This assessed schools on harsher measures and tried to prevent the manipulation of data.


  • Standards have carried on raising
  • Academisation and Free schools are both ideological – no evidence they improve standards more than LEA schools
  • Free schools – advantage the middle classes/ duplicate resources
  • Pupil Premium – too early to say! But gives parents less control than EMA.

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