The 1988 Education Reform Act

The New Right’s 1988 Education Act introduced marketisation to British schools, through league tables and open enrolment. This post explores some of the strengths and limitations of these policies.

Last Updated on May 10, 2024 by Karl Thompson

The 1988 Education Reform Act was based on the principles of making schools more competitive (marketisation) and giving parents choice (parentocracy). The act introduced GCSEs and league tables and laid the foundations for our contemporary competitive education system.

It is the most significant policy that students need to be able to understand and evaluate within the education module for A-level sociology.

The act was introduced by the New Right and this post starts off by exploring their ideas about education and then covers the specific details of the act itself, before evaluating the impact of 1988 Education Act.

Core Aims of The New Right in Education

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.

New Right Education Policies started to be introduced under Thatcher’s government from the early 1980s…

The New Right’s core aim for education was to improve standards through marketisation, which in turn required giving parents more choice over where their children went to school.


Marketisation means creating an “education “market”. This is achieved through making schools compete with one another for pupils and government funding, in the same way in which businesses compete with each other for customers, sales and profits.

Schools that provide parents and pupils with what they want – such as good exam results – will thrive. The better performing schools will attract more pupils and more funding and be able to expand.

Those schools that don’t perform so well will go out of business and either close down or be taken over by new management who will run things more efficiently.


Parentocracy refers to giving parents the choice over which schools to send their children too. (In literal terms, it means ‘the rule of the parents’.)

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.

The New Right’s theory was that marketisation would improve efficiency in schools, which should automatically be achieved by making schools more competitive 0 therefore reducing the education budget.

(NB another aim of the New Right in education was to ensure that education equipped children with the skills for work, thus contributing to economic growth)

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 main policies the 1988 Education Act introduced were:

  • league tables
  • the national curriculum (and GCSEs)
  • Formula funding
  • Open enrolment (parental choice)
  • OFSTED (in the early 1990s).

League Tables

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.

Back in 1988 these League Tables were only available as government publications and in school’s prospectuses, but obviously today these have evolved so that they are now searchable for any school online!

League Tables today, accessible online!

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 1993, 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.

Open Enrolment (parental choice)

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.

Formula Funding

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.

The declining power of Local Education Authorities

The 1988 Education act gave more power to parents to choose which school to send their children too and more power to heads of school to manage their own budget, and these two changes together meant that Local Education Authorities lost a lot of their control over how education was managed at the county level.

Prior to the 1980s it was the Local Education Authorities which allocated pupils to schools in their local areas, and it was the Local Education Authorities which decided school numbers. Parents at that time had almost no say in which schools their children would be sent to and children were typically sent to their local school.

From 1980 parents were allowed to express a preference for the school they wanted to send their children too, the first time parents were realistically able to consider sending their children to schools miles away from where they lived. This started off the process of schools marketing themselves to parents to increase demand for their schools.

Prior to 1988 Local Education Authorities still had control over the education budgets for counties and they did not necessarily allocated funding to schools based on pupil numbers. They might in fact give extra money (in per pupil terms) to schools which were struggling to attract students in order to help them improve.

From a Neoliberal and New Right perspective the above is fundamentally flawed logic as it means that successful schools which are attracting more pupils are subsidising worse performing schools and so the 1988 Act required that LEASs hand over their money directly to schools based on pupil numbers (formula funding) which removed the power of LEAs to control local budgets.

It was this that then set the scene for successful schools to be able to expand and failing schools to collapse (and, following further policy changes later on under New Labour and other successive governments) to be taken over by successful schools.

The 1988 Education Act: Evidence that it Worked…

  1. 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.
  2. There’s also the fact that no successive government has actually changed the fundamental foundations of the act, which suggests it’s working.
  3. Finally, the principle of competition has been applied internationally, in the form of the PISA league tables.
GCSE pass rates 1988 to 2016

However, an important point to keep in mind is that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation – GCSE results may have improved over the last 30 years WITHOUT marketisation policies.

Also, just because powerful governments have expanded marketisation on a global scale, 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

Below I summarize EIGHT criticisms of the 1988 Education Act

League Tables distort teaching and learning

  • There has been criticism that the curriculum in schools has become more narrow over the years. as schools devoted more time to teaching core subjects which are assessed in SATs such as English and Maths and less time teaching creative subjects such as music and art.
  • schools increasingly ‘teach to the test’ – In order to look good in league tables which may stifle children’s ability to think critically and laterally.
  • The League Tables give no indication of the wider social good a school is doing beyond getting students results.

SATS harm children’s mental health

Concern has been expressed over the harmful effects of over-testing on pupils, especially younger pupils. Focusing on exam results and league table position causes stress for pupils as more pressure is put on them to perform well in SATS

One recent 2018 survey of primary school teachers found that more than 90% of primary school teachers think SATS impact negatively on their pupils’ well-being.

Rich Parents have more Choice of Schools

The Middle Classes have more effective choice because of their higher incomes.

  • 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.

Cultural Capital gives the middle class more choice

The Middle classes have more effective choice because of their greater cultural 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.

The best schools cream skim

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.


Inequality of Education Opportunity increases – the best schools get better and the worst get worse.

  • 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.

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.

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This post has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology who are studying the education module in their first year.

This act is the major policy change of the last 50 years in British education, and associated with the ideas of the New Right.

Students will usually move on to study New Labor’s Education policies after this one.

Sources used to write this post

Information in this post was derived from a selection of the main A-level sociology text books.

5 thoughts on “The 1988 Education Reform Act”

  1. Hi do you have the name of the textbook this information was from as I need to reference for my assignment
    thanks 🙂

  2. Hi Karl, thanks for this – really useful. Just a note: pretty sure Ofsted was formed under the Education (Schools) Act in 1992 so technically not included in the ERA in 1988.

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