When they first came to power in 1997, Tony Blair, the leader of Labour Party (dubbed ‘New Labour’*) announced that his priorities were ‘education, education and education‘,
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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.