Neoliberal ideas were much stronger in the Coalition government’s education policies—in a context of public sector cuts, they focused mainly on the further marketization of education, scrapping many of New Labour’s policies to tackle inequality of opportunity
Funding cuts to education
Spending on education in the UK fell by almost 15% between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The government argues it needs to do this pay of the country’s debt.
However, critics say this is an ideological commitment to keeping taxes low. The Coalition could easily find the money to fund education if it taxed the rich more.
The Coalition greatly increased the number academies, by allowing any school to convert to an academy if the school and parents wanted it and by forcing ‘satisfactory’ or below schools to become academies.
Free Schools—free schools are new schools set up by parents or charitable organisations. They are free from the National Curriculum and give parents even more choice over schooling.
Policies to improve equality of opportunity
Scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowance AND Reduced funding to Sure Start Centres
Introduced the Pupil Premium—schools to get extra funding for each student they take from a low income household (approximately £600 per poor kid)
Introduced maintenance HE grants for children from low income backgrounds.
Standards have continued to increase
The attainment gap (between FSM and non FSM pupils has decreased)
All this by spending less.
Free schools reduce funding for other local education authority schools, advantaging middle class parents
The scrapping of the EMA lowered the stay on rate in Further Education.
Considerable regional inequalities remain—for example up north and coastal areas.
Exam practice question –
Outline three reasons why government education policies aimed at raising educational achievement among disadvantaged groups may not always succeed. [6 marks]
Answer using the (1+1) format – give a reason and explain how… do this three times for a total of 6 MARKS!
Education has long been influenced by private companies, but the rise of digital education has expanded the role of private technology companies, in public education enormously. Such companies range from the big global technology companies such as Microsoft and Facebook to smaller, silicon valley tech startups.
This post explores the companies involved, and the neoliberal, Silicon Valley mindset that lies behind what I call the ‘digital privatization of public education’.
Introduction – Digital Capitalism and Education
Schooling in the 1700s and 1800s was provided largely through private institutions, and the expansion of public education in the late 19th and 20th centuries was influenced by the commercial interests of text book publishing companies.
Digital Technology gives private, commercial interests greater potential to influence how public education is organised and delivered.
The reason for this is simply logistical – Nation States do not have the scope to develop digital technologies, and so it is massive, Transnational private technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft which are driving the development of these technologies, and the public education sectors of national governments who are their largest potential market.
All of the above mentioned companies have education divisions, oriented to developing education software and applications for use in schools, and many other companies are developing educational products: from Pearsons to Lego.
At the other end of the scale from the massive TNC sector there are hundreds, if not thousands of smaller educational technology start ups, as small-fish seek to gain a foothold in the education market.
The fact that digital education is very big business is due to the fact that the global market for education is estimated to be around $5 trillion, with the estimated market for online Higher Education ‘e-learning’ products alone estimated at $91 billion.
In short, the potential expansion of for-profit digital education is huge.
The benefits of commercial involvement in digital education
Selwyn identifies a number of (potential) benefits of the involvement of private ICT companies in bringing digital technology more into public education:
TNCs enjoy economies of scale that dwarf public sector organisations – they have global reach, and enormous sums of money to invest, and they tend to ‘think big’… as one of Google’s international heads of education puts it: ‘Technology was hard to deploy in schools and we’re making the solutions we supply very easy to manage….new technology is finally able to work for us in schools’.
The private sector emphasize the importance of quick results and demonstrable outcomes – they are, after all, ultimately accountable to their share holders.
The IT industry is clearly well poised to bring innovation into education – innovation being defined as introducing new products and ideas that support changes in the established way of doing things. These organisations thrive on thinking big and acting quickly. They pride themselves on thinking differently – they see themselves as risk takers and boundary-pushers, cultivating an ‘outsider perspective’ unfettered by establishment thinking or old money. This is especially true in the ed-tech start-up sector, in which millions of dollars are invested in hundreds of companies, only a few of which will go on to be the next ‘big thing’.
Digital Education and rise of ‘Californian Capitalism’
Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of online learning company Udacity Inc reasoned ‘Education is broken. Face it…. it is so broken at so many ends, it requires an little bit of Silicon Valley Magic’.
The idea of ‘Silicon Valley Magic’ alludes to the set of business practices and approaches that underpin the new high-tech economy and its increased interest in education.
This mentality was described neatly by Will Hutton, based on his account of a visit to Palo Alto during the early 2010s following which he wrote of the global significance of the strain of ‘Californian Capitalism’ that characterizes Silicon Valley institutions such as Google, Oracle and even Stanford University.
‘We are increasingly living in a world where economics, politics, culture and society are being shaped by West Coast ideals of the power of computing, entrepreneurialism and risk-taking approach to investment.
The ways Silicon Valley firms seek to do business are shaped profoundly by the programming and hacking backgrounds of their main protagonists such as Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergcy Brin, Larry Ellision, Peter Thiel and so on. All of these high-tech billionnaires remain steeped in a programmer mindset where a faith in computational power and an always on networked way of life fuel a relentless focus on invention and innovation.
This is a culture of all night coding sessions and a succession of ambitiouss start-ups, most of which quickly fail, backed by investors keen to take a punt on the next ‘big thing’.
These are ventures which are based on big ideas, solving computational problems, entrepreneurialism, openness, collaboration, learning through failure and relentless self belief and optimism, based on a relentless mindset that revels in the power of individuals rather than institutions, and the creative potential of manageable amounts of renewal and disruption.
Although all of these high tech firms seek to make a profit, many of the main industry protagonists also want to ‘make a difference’ and seek to use frontier technologies to engage with immense societal challenges such as world health and global poverty, and it understands that it is part of society and owes a debt to the culture and public infrastructure that created it.
Thinking Big, spending bigger
Education is one of those sectors in which silicon valley firms seek to ‘make a difference’. This is evidenced in many different forms:
In the well-established and vast educational programmes run by all of the large multinational IT companies – often under the aegis of ‘corporate social responsibility’. These activities range from the physical design and construction of ‘schools of the future’ to the development of teacher training programmes, alternative curricula and the provision of computer hardware, software and the infrastructure to educational institutions.
There are also a range of far more ambitious initiatives such as Peter Thiel’s ‘Thiel Fellowship’ through which young people are awarded $100 00 to drop out of college and pursue their dreams by setting up a world changing business idea’; Mark Zukerberg’s ‘Start-up: Education’ through which Zuckerberg has made personal donations of $100 million to the Newark school district and $120 million to schools in the Sanfrancisco Bay area; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation boasts an extensive educational programme, including its key role in driving recent US school reforms around standardised testing and the common core curriculum. It has also spent over $470 million on US higher education reform, funding projects and generally creating what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls an ‘echo chamber of like minded ideas’.
We should also not overlook the considerable ‘soft power’ of high tech corporations in education decision making, such as with the computer industry’s considerable lobbying governments to focus more on teaching coding in schools, which now seems to be accepted universally as a ‘good thing’. The Chairman of Google, Eric Smidt has been a leading proponent of this push since 2010.
Finally, there are the various companies involved in setting up MOOCs, one of the largest of which is Coursera, bolstered by $85 million of venture capital funding.
All of these activities shows that corporate involvement in education is sometimes submerged in complex networks of influence and power, and if one finds time to follow the money, one finds that high-tech firms are in some way involved in seeking to profit from most, if not all, of the digital education initiatives out there.
It follows that the biggest movers and shakers in digital education are not educators and teachers, but rather programmers, hackers and the trillion dollar tech industry which has grown up around them.
These interventions illustrate the power which IT corporations can wield over public education, and these are increasingly strong voices in conversations about education reform, setting the tone for how education should be reimagined in the ‘digital age’.
Sources: Nick Selwyn (2016): Is Digital Education Good for Education?
The problems of the increasing role of Tech companies in public education
According to the latest police recorded crime figures there has been a significant increase in crime in the last year:
Gun crime has increased by 27%
Knife crime has increased by 26%
Robberies have increased by 25%
Stalking and Harassment have increased by 36%
At first site, what’s interesting about these figures is that they not only demonstrate a radical increase, but this abruptly reverses the recent trend in declining violent crime:
However, these figures may not actually give us a reliable picture of the actual change in violent crime because of ONE simple fact: police forces in England and Wales are facing significant budget cuts, and so there may have been a more concerted effort on the part of the police to detect and record crimes over the last year – if crime can be shown to be going up, then this can be used as evidence to not cut police funding.
Then there’s the possibility that the public may be reporting more crimes – the ability to report online, for example, makes it easier to do so, and where harassment crimes are concerned, this may be due to a wave of recent campaigns such as the Everyday Sexism blog, to raise awareness of the fact that such behaviour is not acceptable.
British Crime Survey, based on accounts by victims, shows that crime is still going down, and this is generally regarded as a much more valid way of measuring the extent of crime in England and Wales than police recorded crime, as the BCS removes the subjectivity-bias of the police in investigating and recording crimes:
Below I summarize this article and add in a few comments.
Technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google have incorporated a range of design features into their mobile devices, operating systems and social media applications that make them addictive, which results in us spending longer online than we really want to, clicking on links we never intended to and making us more distracted, less rational and more impulsive than ever.
Former Google employee Tristan Harris says that all of our minds are “jacked into the system” and “all our minds can be hijacked. We are not as free as we think we are”. Harris believes that tech companies deliberately set out to make their products addictive, as they are oriented to respond to the incentives of an advertising economy and thus experiment with techniques which are most likely to grab people’s attention.
As an example, Harris points out that the Facebook icon which notifies users of new activity and ‘likes’ was originally blue, but no one used it, then they switched it to red, and everyone used it, because red is a trigger colour, which is why it is used as an alarm signal. Now the red icon is everywhere, and every time smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots, pleading to be tapped.
The most seductive design, according to Harris, exploits the psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive – variable rewards. Each time you swipe down you don’t know what’s coming next, either an avalanche of likes, or nothing, and the action even mirrors that of the slot machine: a human action to ‘pull down’, and a pause before a variable result. The pull-down to refresh was originally designed in 2009, and has since become one of the most widely emulated features in apps – even though refreshing can now be done automatically, the pull-down function remains, because if users aren’t involved in the process, then the experience is less addictive.
Justin Rosenstein designed the like feature for Facebook in 2007 – to create a means to send ‘little bits of positivity at the click of a button’, creating what he now calls ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’. ‘Likes’ were wildly successful, and hence they spread to a range of other social media platforms, and now it is the short-term pleasure of this social affirmation that is one of the features which drives people to touch, swipe or tap their phone more than 2500 times a day on average.
Tech companies can exploit such information to keep people hooked: manipulating, for example, when people receive ‘likes’ for their posts, ensuring that they arrive when an individual is most likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or just bored, and such information can be sold to the highest bidder.
James Williams, a former Google employee who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, but has now turned critic of the industry, describes the tech industry as one which has the ‘largest and most centralised form of attentional control in human history’ – he had an epiphany moment one day while working at google when he glanced at one of Google’s multi-coloured dashboards showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. He says that he realised ‘this is literally a million people that we’ve persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to do otherwise.’
Some of the Negatives Effects of Being Online
Firstly, technology may be contributing to so-called ‘continuous partial attention’ – In the attention economy (driven by the needs of advertisers) – everyone is distracted most of the time – which actually prevents us from getting things done, the complete opposite of what technology was intended to do!
Secondly, the attention economy thrives on a ‘sensationalise, bate and entertain’ logic and as a result the media is now is now more than ever biased in favour of that which is sensationalist and entertaining. People like Donald Trump do well in this environment because they are good at grabbing attention with their simplistic, emotional and extremist views – that which is rational is less likely to get attention than that which is impulsive.
Finally, and related to the above point, this may be changing how we view politics – we see it in increasingly polarised terms – because the only thing which grabs our attention at a similar level of Donald Trump is a similarly extreme reaction, in the form of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn for example.
What are the solutions to avoid getting addicted in the attention economy?
Some of the big names who created the technologies of the attention economy are actually ducking out of it themselves – having turned off their social media updates, or even uninstalled most of the apps from their hardware.
Find out More
If you’re interested in Tristan Harris’ initiative to make digital technologies less addictive – you might like to check out his Time Well Spent Website, and his TED talk below…
Related A-Level Sociology Debates
As I see it this material fits in to at least two places on the A-level sociology syllabus:
This material seems to be coming from the structuralist side of sociology – that society shapes (or at least frames) social action. See this post: ‘Sociological perspectives: the basics‘ for an overview of structure versus action approaches in sociology.
In this Channel 5 series, one family in the ‘wealthiest 10%’ of Britain swap lives for a week with a family in the ‘poorest 10% of Britain’. As I see it this programme performs an ‘ideological control function’ – spreading the myth of meritocracy.
They two families swap houses, budgets and leisure-timetables for a week – in episode two for example, the poor family, living on the rich family’s typical weekly disposable income, have to live off about £3000 per week, while the rich family, have to live off just under £200 per week, and in this episode, both families seem to be genuinely hard working and just, well, nice.
The meat of the programme consists of watching the families hanging out in their respective houses, doing whatever activities the other family would normally do, and meeting their respective friends/ work colleagues, including some running reflections on how ‘nice’ it is to be rich, and what a ‘struggle’ it is to be poor.
Here’s how the programme performs the function of ideological control – basically it spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy‘.
It misrepresents what the top 10% look like – the narration keeps talking about how the rich family is in the top 10%, they are, but their weekly disposable income of over £3K, and the fact that they own 12 restaurants and employ 60 odd people, puts them easily in the top 1%. This fact alone really annoys me – it is the extreme minority that lives like this. I worked this out using the IFS’ income calculator)
The family in the top 1% are further unrepresentative in that the father genuinely worked his way up after failing school, cleaning toilets and then getting into restauranteering. This is most definitely NOT how the majority get into the top 1%, especially since social mobility has been declining in recent years.
The working class father keeps saying ‘I want my children to see this and want this’ – he seems to take the experience of his week in the rich mans world as evidence that anyone can make it if you try hard enough – in fact there is LESS CHANCE TODAY HIS KIDS than he would have had to climb the career ladder.
Maybe the same point as above – the working class guy has 4 kids – I wonder what the actual chances of all four kids from one working class family independently becoming millionaires actually are? It’s probably lottery odds.
The ‘luck’ word is mentioned once, apparently it’s all about hard work. NO – this view is just plain wrong, Malcome Gladwell convinced me of this in his book ‘Outliers’
Personally I think this series (if it carries on this vein) is lazy and appalling television – it wouldn’t take much to add in some depth analysis, have some commentary or stats overlying how likely it is for someone to go from working class to millionnaire, for example.
There’s also absolutely no mention of the sheer injustice of the fact that both sets of parents are doing similar amounts of ‘work’ but the rewards are so incredibly different, and no mention of how good it is that we’ve got social housing so at least the poor family have a decent house.
In short, my intense dislike of this show stems from the misleading portrayal of the richest 1% as representing the richest 10% and from its total lack of analysis of the actual chances of social mobility occurring.
NB – It was also quite dull viewing. If you think it sounds a little like Wife Swap, it’s much less entertaining as it’s the whole family doing the swapping, so there’s much less conflict.
In May 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition government came to power. The Conservatives were the more dominant party and their views were correspondingly more strongly represented in educational policy.
An ideological commitment to cutting public spending framed Coalition policy more broadly, and spending on education fell in real terms during this period, reflecting the strong influence of New Right/ neoliberal ideas on education during this period.
Whereas New Labour had focused on opening up academies in the most deprived areas of the country in order to improve equality of educational opportunity, the Coalition made it possible for any school to convert to an academy (converter academies)
As the academization process evolved, schools which received a satisfactory or below OFSTED grading were forced to convert to academies even when the majority of parents (90% in some cases) did not want the school to convert to an academy (sponsored academies).
By 2013, there were 3,304 academies in England – almost 15 times as many as in May 2010, when there were 203 academies, and today more than two-thirds of all secondary schools are now either open as academies or in the pipeline to become academies.
The Coalition also oversaw the growth of academy chains – around 2000 schools are now in academy ‘chains’ with around 400 schools leading these chains, working with others to raise standards.
Evaluation of Academies
There is little evidence to suggest that academies today do better than LEA schools when you compare like with like.
A Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by anon-profit charitable trust.
Unlike Academies, Free Schools are new schools, many of which are run by parents. They are not required to follow the national curriculum, as long as they teach English Maths and Science, and they do not have to employ qualified teachers.
Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.
Evaluations of Free Schools
The main criticism of Free Schools are that they are a drain on other schools in the local area – if parents withdraw students from other local schools, those schools will suffer reduced funding (following formula funding), which is a problem given the fact that there will be a duplication of resources.
Evidence also suggests that Free Schools benefit children from high income households, but do nothing for children from low income households, thus they are a matter of using tax payer money to increase social class inequalities: Research by Shepherd (2012) found that free schools took in a lower proportion of FSM pupils compared to other local schools, while Rebecca Allen (2010) summarises the Swedish experience of Free Schools as one which benefits children in affluent, middle class urban areas.
Further and Higher Education
The Coalition also raised the limit on tuition fees for Higher Education to £9000.
Policies Designed to Tackle Inequality of Educational Opportunity
The Pupil Premium
Introduced in 2011, the Pupil Premium involved giving schools extra funding based on the number of FSM pupils they took in – worth approximately £600 per FSM pupil.
One criticism of the Pupil Premium Policy was that it did not necessarily get spent on FSM pupils.
Further and Higher Education
The Coalition scrapped the EMA scheme, and replaced it with a £180 million bursary scheme, targeted at those in the very lowest income households, and given directly to schools and colleges, rather than paid to individual students.
In Higher Education, the government required all universities to promote fair access to HE and introduced a fees bursary scheme for students from the very lowest income households.
Overall Evaluations of Coalition Education Policies
Standards have continued to increase
The attainment gap (between FSM and non FSM pupils has decreased)
All this by spending less.
Free schools reduce funding for other local education authority schools, advantaging middle class parents
The scrapping of the EMA lowered the stay on rate in Further Education.
Considerable regional inequalities remain—for example up north and coastal areas.
Harlambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives
New Labour were in power from 1997-2010, and during those years they certainly introduced an impressive range of new education policies – some of which were inspired by New Right principles and focused on enhancing marketization: increasing competition between schools and choice for parents, and others which were inspired by old social democratic principles, focusing more on improving equality of educational opportunity and helping the disadvantaged.
New Labour also introduced a range of new vocational education policies, but that will be dealt with in a future post.
New Labour polices inspired by the New Right
The New Right emphasized the importance of introducing free-market principles into education in order to make schools more competitive and give parents more choice – New Labour carried this on by keeping all of the main policies associated with marketization (league tables, OFSTED etc.) and by increasing the number of specialist schools; they also increased the role of the private sector in education through academies and PFI initiatives; and they increased expenditure on vocational, work-related training, which was in line with New Right ideas that education should prepare children for the world of work.
Specific details of how neoliberal ideas influenced New Labour education policy
Labour greatly expanded the role of specialist schools
State secondary schools can apply to become specialist schools in one or two of ten specialisms (e.g. maths, science, sports etc.). In order for their application to be successful, they need to raise £50 000 from private sector sponsors, which will be matched by the government. Specialist schools are allowed to select 10% of their students who show an aptitude in the schools specialist subjects (which relates to the seletive education topic, this is a form of selection by aptitude).
Specialist schools demonstrate New Labour’s rejection of the Old Labour idea of of the ‘one size fits all comprehensive school’. Specialist schools provided diversity and offered more parental choice, fitting in with the New Right’s marketization agenda. According to the then education secretary Estelle Morris ‘ Specialist schools and Colleges will have a key contribution to make in raising standards and delivering excellence in schools’. (Chitty 2002)
In 1997 New Labour inherited 196 specialist schols from the Conservatives. Then years later, there were over 2500 specialist schools, over 75% of all specialist schools.
Labor Increased the Number of Assessments and Targets schools were subjected to
New Labour largely welcomed the testing and assessment regime introduced by the Conservatives. They increased the number of targets schools had to reach, as well as the amount of information which schools had to publish in league tables.
New Labour continued to assess schools regularly using a range of ‘target indicators’ such as pupil achievement Key Stage Tests, GCSEs and A Levels, OFSTED inspections and also truancy and exclusion rates.
League Tables were changed so that schools had to publish data on ‘value added’ – the difference between the level of achievement students came into a school with (measured through SATs) and what they left with (ultimately still measured by GCSEs.
New Labour policies inspired by the Social Democratic View of education
The Social Democratic view of education emphasized improving equality of opportunity and tackling social disadvantage through state education. The main policies introduced to achieve these goals included Academies, Sure Start, Education Maintenance Allowance and also a general increase in state-expenditure on education.
Education Action Zones
Education Action Zones were set up to raise the attainment levels of students in low income, inner city areas. By 2003 there were 73 EAZs in England, funded by central government with additional funding from business. An action forum, made up of parents and representatives from local schools and businesses and from local and national government ran each zone.
Aan Ofsted report on EAZs praised some initiatives, such as homework and breakfast clubs. The report found some improvements in standards at Key Stage 1, but no change at Key Stage 3 or GCSE.
Excellence in Cities
The Excellence in Citiies programme gradually replaced EAZs, targetting local education authorities in deprived areas. The main initiatves of EiC were special programmes for gifted students, city learning centres with IT facilities, learning mentors and low-cost leasing for home computers.
Various reports evaluating the EiC programme produced mixed results: in general they indicated only limited success and the EiC programme was ended in 2006.
Sure Start Children’s Centres are responsible for delivering services for children under 5 and their families.
The core purpose of Sure Start Children’s Centres are to improve outcomes for young children (primarily aged 2-4) and their families, with a particular focus on the most disadvantaged families, in order to reduce inequalities in child development and school readiness.
Four core aims of Sure Start Centres included:
To provide high quality and affordable early years education and childcare.
To raise Parenting aspirations, self esteem and parenting skills.
To improve child and family health, primarily through providing education and information about local health services.
To acting as a hub for the local community, building social capital and cohesion.
In centres in the 30% most disadvantaged areas extra the centres provides childcare for a minimum of 10 hours a week, while in more affluent areas, support was limited to drop-in activity sessions for children, such as stay and play sessions.
By 2010, there were over 3300 Sure Start Centres.
A major evaluation of Sure Start programmes examined over 7,000 families in 150 Sure Start areas and found that while parents valued them, there was little measurable improvement in child development, with the exception of lower levels of childhood obesity.
The academies programme introduced by New Labour was primarily aimed at failing schools and by May 2010 there were 203 academies in England. New Labour thought that Academies could both raise standards and tackle inequality of educational opportunity simultaneously.
Traditionally school have been overseen by local councils who have managed admissions policies, term dates, pay for staff and other aspects of education in their areas, and they have provided a number of services to schools as well. In return, schools have given councils 10% of their funding. This ensured uniformity across a council area and meant the provision of education could be managed effectively.
Academies are schools which are no longer controlled by local councils and they get to keep 10% extra funding for their schools. More importantly, academies are completely independent from local councils and can set their own term dates, admissions policies; staff pay levels and much more. It is argued the extra freedom for schools gives allows them raise standards.
Academies are sponsored by an organisation which is responsible for overseeing the running of the schools. Sponsors could include businesses, charities and faith groups. For example, Lord Harris, the owner of “Carpet Right”, runs the Harris Academies which now operate 23 schools, including the Harris Academies in Purley, Crystal Palace and Merton. Commercial sponsors which take over schools must provide £2 million of additional finance.
A 2010 study by Stephen Machin (Machin and Vernoit 2010) found that academies that had been open for at least 2 years had 3% more students who achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A-C.
However, critics of academies say that the only reason they achieve better results is because they take fewer pupils with special needs or behavioral problems.
The Education Maintenance Allowance
Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was paid to students aged 16-19 who were from lower income families. Students received the funding if the attended all there lessons and achieved their performance targets. The funding was designed to help with the hidden costs of education and there was a progressive approach, with the least well of pupils receiving £30 a week and the better off pupils received £20 or £10.
Evaluation of New Labour’s Education Policies
In short, New Labour successfully raised standards in education, but they were much less successful in reducing inequality of educational opportunity – the ‘attainment gap’ between working class and middle class children remained stubbornly high under New Labour.
Focusing on the successes, it’s important not to understate the importance of this as an achievement – the number of students passing 5 good GCSEs (the early academies helped here), and progression onto Further (EMA helped here) and Higher Education increased steadily under New Labour.
Specialist schools were very successful in raising standards, however, this was largely because they selected a disproportionate amount of middle class pupils.
In terms of tackling social class inequalities, most of their policies failed (except for the early academies and the EMA) – EAZs, EiCs and Sure Start were appear to have ultimately been a waste of money in this regard.
Paul Trowler (2003) argued that Labour were unrealistic in their expectations of what education could achieve in terms of tackling social class inequality. As Trowler sees it, education alone cannot tackle deep-rooted social inequalities.
Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives
*The 1997-201 New Labour party/ government wanted to change the image and perspective of their party so that they could appeal to a wider type of voters. They wanted to appeal to the middle classes, who traditionally voted Conservative, as well as working classes, who had traditionally tended to vote Labour. So they renamed themselves ‘New’ Labour. This meant that some of their beliefs were in line with “New Right” views which are more commonly associated with the Conservative Party, and some continue with traditionally ‘Old’ Labour or Social Democratic views.
The New Right refers to a set of ideas that emerged in the 1970’s. It has significantly influenced the policies of the UK Conservative Party and is a set of political beliefs about how the country should be run. New Right ideas have most been mostly strictly followed by the Conservative when they have been in power in the UK firstly, 1979-1997 and again since 2010.
Core Aims of The New Right in Education
The New Right’s core aim for education was to improve standards through marketization, which in turn required giving parents more choice over where their children went to school.
Marketisation – Refers to aim of making schools compete with one another for government funding i.e. the better a school does the previous year the more money a school receives the following year. This essentially makes schools into “businesses” competing with one another i.e. making an education “market”. Schools that provide parents and pupils with what they want – such as good exam results – will thrive, and those that don’t will go out of business and either close down or be taken over by new management who will run things more efficiently.
Parentocracy – The New Right’s views education and parents as the customers. For marketization to work parents must have a choice of where to send their children. Parental choice directly affects the school budget – every extra pupil means extra money for the school. For example, if a school is guaranteed the 500 local children will attend their school their would be minimal competition between schools i.e. minimal competition for funding the policy won’t work unless parents a choice over which school to send their pupils to! To make this word schools have been required to publish a prospectus which includes their examination and test results since 1988.
Private schools have always operated on these principles – they charge fees and compete with each other for customers. The New Right believed that state schools should also be run like this except that it is the government that funds the schools, not the fee-paying parents.
A second core aim of education was to improve efficiency in schools, which should automatically be achieved by making schools more competitive 0 therefore reducing the education budget.
(A third aim of the New Right in education was to ensure that education equipped children with the skills for work, thus contributing to economic growth, but for more on this see the post on Vocational education.)
The New Right’s 1988 Education Reform Act put in place the policies which aimed to achieve the goal of raising standards. This is the act which more than any other has shaped the modern education system. The 1997 New Labour and the 2010 Coalition Government which followed kept to the basic system established in 1988.
The 1988 Education Act: Specific Details
The New Right introduced school league tables in which schools were ranked based on their exam performance in SATs, GCSES, and A levels. The tables are published in many newspapers and online. The idea behind league tables was to allow parents to easily assess which schools in their local areas are the best. A bit like “What car?” magazine, but for schools.
The New Right theorised that League tables would force schools to raise standards because no parent would want to send their child to a school at the bottom.
The National Curriculum
The national curriculum required that all schools teach the same subject content from the age of 7-16. From 1988 all schools were required to teach the core subjects English, Maths, Science etc at GCSE level. GCSE’s and SAT’s were also introduced as part of the National Curriculum.
The logic behind league tables was that with all schools following the same curriculum it made it easier for parents to compare and choose between schools (parentocracy), and GCSE and SATs meant every student, and more importantly, every school was assessed using the same type of exam.
Established in 1988, OFSTED is the government organisation that inspects schools. OFSTED reports are published and underachieving school are shut if they consistently receive bad reports. The aim of OFSTED is to drive up standards. The aim of this policy is to raise standards
OFSTED Raised standard because a poor inspection could result in new management being imposed on underperforming schools.
From 1988 funding to individual schools was based on how many pupils enrolled in that school. Thus an undersubscribed school where fewer parents chose to send their children would decrease in size and possibly close, while an oversubscribed school could, if properly managed, expand.
Open Enrolment and selection
Open Enrolment is where parents are allowed to select multiple schools to send their children too, but only specifying one as their ‘first choice’.
The result of this was that some schools became oversubscribed, and these were allowed to select pupils according to certain criteria. The government stipulated some criteria (children with siblings already at the school got preference for example, and those closest to the school also got preference) but eventually the government allowed some schools to become ‘specialist schools’ where they were allowed to select 10% of their intake due to aptitude in a particular subject – maths, music or sport for example. Also, faith schools were allowed to select on the basis of faith.
Arguments and Evidence for the 1988 Edudcation Act
Probably the strongest piece of supporting evidence for the New Right’s policies on education is that they have worked to improve GCSE results nearly every year for the last 30 years.
There’s also the fact that no successive government has actually changed the fundamental foundations of the act, which suggests it’s working.
Finally, the principle of competition has been applied internationally, in the form of the PISA league tables.
Having said all of the above, just because powerful governments have expanded marketization, this doesn’t necessarily mean it works for everyone, and there are plenty of criticisms of the negative consequences of the 1988 Education Act – as below…
Criticisms of the 1988 Education Act
Focusing on exam results and league table position causes stress…. Concern has been expressed over the harmful effects of over-testing on pupils, especially younger pupils.
League Tables distort teaching and learning
schools increasingly ‘teach to the test’ – In order to look good in league tables which may stifle children’s creativity and broader learning and expand again
Schools put more emphasis on core subjects than on creative subjects
The League Tables give no indication of the wider social good a school is doing beyond getting students results.
The Middle Classes have more effective choice because of their higher incomes – this works as follows…
Selection by mortgage -houses in the catchment areas of the best schools are more expensive, meaning those with money are more likely to get into the best schools
Transport costs – middle class parents more able to get their children to a wider range of schools because they are more likely to own two cars.
The Middle classes have more effective choice because of their greatercultural and social capital
Stephen Ball (2003) refers to middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’ – they are more comfortable dealing with schools and use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending schools on offer. They are also more used to dealing with and negotiating with teachers. If entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.
Ball refers to working class parents as disconnected choosers – lacking cultural and social capital they tend to just settle for sending their children to the local school, meaning they have no real choice.
Schools become more selective – they are more likely to want pupils who are likely to do well
Stephen Ball talks of the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general the schools with more middle class students have better results. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market.
The experience of schooling becomes very negative for failing students
More testing means more negative labelling for those who fail
Schools put more effort into teaching those in the top sets to improve their A-C rates
Students who go to sink schools stand little hope of doing well.
Inequality of Education Opportunity increases – the best schools get better and the worst get worse. Polarisation of schools occurs because…
The best schools become oversubscribed – often with four or more pupils competing for each place. This means that these schools can ‘cream skim’ the best pupils – which means they get better results and so are in even more demand the next year. Schools are under pressure to cream skim because this increases their chance of rising up in the league tables.
Building on the above example… The next best school then skims off the next best students and so on until the worst schools at the bottom just end up with the pupils who no one wants. The schools at the bottom turn into sink schools…they just get worse and worse as no one chooses to go to them.
Sources used to write this post
Information in this post was derived from a selection of the main A-level sociology text books.
The 2017 A level results revealed that boys beat girls to top grades, with 26.6% of boys achieving the top grades A-A* compared to 26.1% of girls. This is the first time in years that boys have done better than girls at A level, and suggests that they may be starting to close the ‘gender gap‘ in education.
However, such general analysis may actually be misleading, at least according to some recent analysis carried out by statisticians on behalf of Radio Four’s More or Less.
Firstly, girls are outperforming boys at all other levels (all other grades) at A Level.
Secondly, a lot more girls do A levels than boys, and it’s problematic to talk about how well boys are doing without taking into account the seemingly higher proportion of boys who have been judged, by virtue of their GCSE results, not to be competent to do ‘A’ levels in the first place.
Finally, if you analyse the results on a subject by subject basis, you basically find that the above data is skewed by the A level maths results.
Maths is the subject with the highest proportion of A-A* grades of all subjects, with nearly 18% of 18% of grades being A or A*, and 60% of exam entries are by boys. Contrast this to English Literature, where 75% of entrants are girls, and only 9% get an A*, and you can pretty much explain the .5% in different in high grades by these two subjects alone.
Overall, girls got more As and A*s in 26 of the 39 A level subjects.
Maybe pulling all of these 39 subjects together and just presenting the overall percentages is not helpful?
The 53-year old librarian at Sapiennza University in Rome – identified only by her first name, Anna – took two days off work in order to accompany Cucciola to the vet for two different operations.
She told her employers that as she is unmarried and lives alone, her dogs are in effect her ‘family’ – and argued that the days off should therefore be treated as paid compassionate leave.
‘It is a significant step forward that recognized that animals that are no kept for financial gain or their working ability are effectively members of the family’ said Gianluca Felicetti, of the Italian animal rights group whose lawyers helped Anna present her case to her employers.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is most obviously relevant to the families and households module, especially the Personal life Perspective which says that people increasingly see pets as part of the family, and this is a clear example of this view of the family gaining legal recognition in Italy.