How successful do you consider the Education Reform Act 1988 to have been?
The Education Reform Act (or ERA) was brought in by the secretary of state Kenny Baker and introduced a national curriculum and a system of testing and assignment for all state schools in England and Wales. This, in turn, gave greater control to schools by reducing the role of LEA’s. This essay will first summarise the pre-ERA situation, then describe the changes brought in by the ERA, before critically evaluating these and concluding that, while it was a step in the right direction, the ERA also had significant disadvantages.
Before the ERA was introduced schools were run under the Butler Act of 1944. The Butler Act presented 3 types of schools: Grammar Schools, which were mainly geared towards middle-class students with academic aptitudes; Secondary Modern schools, for the working class, and Technical Colleges. The Butler Act ended up legitimising and reproducing inequality, with the belief that academic ability is genetic rather than a product of upbringing as the two social classes were channeled into two different types of schools that offered unequal opportunities. When Comprehensive schools were introduced in 1965, their aim was to overcome the class divide produced by the tripartite system and to make schools more meritocratic. However, they continued to reproduce inequality. Grammar schools still existed, and working-class pupils now went to Comprehensives rather than Secondary Moderns. It was merely the myth of meritocracy that made it appear that there were equal opportunities in education, regardless of class background. Teachers would continue to place middle-class children in high streams, while condemning working-class children to lower streams, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the aims of the ERA was to tackle this problem of self-fulfilling prophecy and to encourage diversity. The Conservative Government at the time, led by Margaret Thatcher, was heavily influenced by New Right and Neo-Liberal perspectives. Therefore there was a prevalence of ideas such as increasing choice and encouraging individual responsibility to raise standards, while wider patterns of social inequality were not considered.
It introduced two new types of schools: Grant Maintained schools and City Technology Colleges. Grant Maintained Schools were financed directly by central government (rather than the local authorities) and were self-governing, with the governors and the head-teachers making decisions about staff employment and the curriculum. City Technology Colleges were also introduced for 11-18-year-olds and were financed by the central government and private sector sponsorship and taught the national curriculum with a specific concentration on maths, science, and technology.
Furthermore, the National Curriculum was introduced by the ERA in 1989. This ensured that the Government had complete control over what would be taught in England and Wales. 5-16 Year olds in state schools has to study 3 core subjects of English, Maths, and Science, plus 7 foundation subjects. The aim was to provide a better quality of education for all by ensuring that all students were taught the same subjects. Students’ progress was then to be formally decided by national tests in core subjects at the end of key stages 2, 3 and 4 (although in 2003 the government removed KS3 SATS). These tests would measure student’s performance against others in their age groups. Measures could then be taken to improve the performance of children, as well as the performance of the schools, who were below the level that was expected of them. In 1992, all secondary state schools were instructed to publish the results of their SAT’s, GCSE’s, and A Levels, and local branched league tables were based on these results. While some provided raw results only, others would use a value-added measure, showing the progress of students. This would provide parents with information on where to send their children and was intended to encourage competition between schools and spur head teachers and staff to improve their league positions. The changes introduced by the ERA led to many improvements for some schools but also created further inequalities for other schools.
The rising marketization of schools is a very good example of this bifurcation between successful and struggling schools. Parental or consumer choice was a crux of the Act, unlike the Comprehensive structure where children had to attend a certain school depending on where they lived.
There were some advantages of this new system. With the introduction of formula funding, school funding was now chosen by pupil numbers and nothing related to class. Parents would be attracted to schools with higher-class facilities and teaching standards. Schools were were given an incentive to improve their teaching standards, which would benefit the children who were attending them. This competition and choice gave parents a chance and encouraged schools to compete to raise standards and league table positions, which would provide information to parents on which schools were the best.
However, there were also considerable disadvantages of this ERA reform. Popular schools were oversubscribed and could, therefore, choose which pupils they wanted. They would recruit middle-class, higher achieving students to make certain of success in the SATS and other exams. Middle-class parents were still at an advantage, they could afford to live in the best catchment areas, could offer their children more support, and even pay for private tutoring. Some middle-class parents were “privileged skilled choosers” who could become school governors or offer donations to maintain their child’s place in a higher achieving school. These developments led to middle-class students continuing to obtain a better education than their working-class peers. On the other hand, schools that achieved bad results would become less popular with parents, attract fewer new pupils, and less money would be available to improve student standards in those schools. This increasing unpopularity led to a spiral of decline for some schools and increasing numbers of working-class students with a below par education.
This inequality continued to widen between better performing schools in middle-class areas and their counterparts in working-class areas. Aforementioned high-performing schools would obtain economic and educational capital, while for schools whose performance was steadily declining the process operated in the opposite direction. Unpopular schools lost income and found it difficult to attract the best teachers or provide new equipment and facilities. This would make it even more difficult for them to attract motivated and high-achieving students, their SATS results would fall, and their funding would be reduced. Their low positions in league tables would mean continuing to only attract working class pupils and therefore their results remained poor.
There was also further harmful impact on children. Every school’s incentive was now to improve in order to obtain higher levels of funding. This led to a astounding amount of pressure on students to do well, leading to stress-related issues. Schools would now focus their efforts on pupils more likely to get higher grades and would prioritize the teaching of SATS rather than an overall education. Consequently, the national curriculum continues to lack choice and diversity. This was the government decreeing what counts as knowledge, and the national tests at 7,11 and 14 were used to their advantage to help keep a tight control of the curriculum. The division of knowledge into attainment subjects has also caused concern. Children who have not reached the recommended level for their age group are seen by themselves and others as a failure, again leading to a spiral of decline.
In conclusion, Thatcher's marketization policies through the Education Reform Act 1998 was effective in emphasizing how important educational achievement is and offering rewards to students and educational establishments that achieve. However, these reforms continued to perpetuate the class divide and with the spirit of decline, would damage working class futures. It is plain to see that the ERA was a step in the right direction, but the neo-liberal focus on choice and individual responsibility hid social inequalities and allowed them to continue.
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