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.
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 Education 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
Below I summarize EIGHT 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
- 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 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Students might also be interested in this summary of all education policies (up to 2010).
Sources used to write this post
Information in this post was derived from a selection of the main A-level sociology text books.