All pupils to study maths until 18…?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of making all students study maths until they are 18?

Rishi Sunak wants every student in the U.K. to study maths up until the age of 18 (1)

In his first speech of 2023 Sunak stated that he wants people to better equipped with numeracy skills so that they are better equipped to deal with an increasingly data-driven society and to manage their personal finances.

A further argument for making some kind of maths or numeracy lessons compulsory until 18 is that doing so should make British students more competitive internationally: many other countries which are higher up the PISA league tables do so, such as Finland and Canada.

Approximately half of 16-18 year olds currently do maths or science subjects at A-level, but most of these are those who achieved lower than a C grade at GCSE and are forced to resit their GCSE.

Only a minority of students who get C and above in maths go on to do a maths related subject at A-level, there are currently at least 400 000 16-18 year olds in Further Education institutions who are qualified to maths or science subjects but aren’t doing them, having opted for humanities subjects instead (20)

The speech was thin on details but the government has ruled out making A-level maths compulsory at 16-18 and has suggested that developing some innovate approaches to teaching numeracy post-16 will probably be required.

Increasing Maths Teaching: Supply and Demand Challenges…

On the supply side, the government is currently 5000 maths teachers short of its recruitment target.

A brief look at the statistics illustrates this: there were only 35 771 Maths teachers in state secondary schools in 2021, compared to 39 000 English teachers, with one in eight maths lessons being taught routinely by a non-specialist.

It seems unlikely that the government is going to be able to recruit more maths teachers given the 24% real terms pay cut teachers have been subjected to since 2010 and the current below inflation 5% pay increase being offered by the government for 2023.

And jobs in teaching are going to be especially unattractive for maths and science graduates, given that maths and science degrees tend to be gateways to higher paying careers.

A related supply problem is that sixth form colleges have seen drastic real terms funding cuts compared to other sixth form providers in recent years, being 20% underfunded in comparison, so these probably don’t have the funds to boost 16-18 math provision effectively.

On the demand side there is the problem that most students simply do not want to do maths related subjects beyond the age 16, and forcing all students to spend an hour or two a week studying a subject they don’t want to is a waste of resources, and so increasing maths provision could come at the expense of teaching students a broader range of subjects that they think will actually be of use to them.

There are a whole load of other subjects students could be usefully taught besides maths, such as critical thinking, political issues and debating contemporary news items civilly, for example.

And besides this A-level maths is actually the most popular subject already, with entries having increased from 83 000 in 2018-19 to almost 89 000 in 2020/ 2021. (3)

Finally, forcing 16-18 year olds to do maths won’t help the 8 million adults in the UK who only have primary levels of numeracy.


This post is most relevant to the sociology of education, especially education policies.


(1) BBC News (January 2023) Rishi Sunak Wants All Pupils to Study Maths Until Age 18.

(2) The Guardian (January 2023) Multiplication of Teachers and Funds Needed for Sunak’s Post-16 Maths Policy.

(3) Gov Data on STEM A-level subject entries, accessed January 2023.

Learning During Lockdown

students from independent schools did 7.4 hours more schoolwork per week during lockdown compared to students from state comprehensive schools.

Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds had significantly more support from their schools during lockdowns compared to students from lower economic backgrounds.

This is according to the latest findings from a contemporary longitudinal study (1) being carried by the Sutton Trust which is analysing the short and longterm consequences of the disruption suffered by students during the Covid lockdowns.

Social class differences in learning during lockdowns

Better of schools (in terms of FSM provision) were able to adapt much more quickly during Lockdown one to minimise disruption to student learning compared the most deprived schools.

Students attending independent schools (compared to state grammar and state comprehensive) and students attending the least deprived schools by FSM provision were more likely to receive online lessons during lockdowns; more likely to get more frequent online lessons; had more access to teachers outside of lessons; and suffered fewer barriers to learning such as lack of access to laptops at home.

By lockdown three the support offered to students by the more deprived schools had caught up with that of the least deprived schools, but significant differences remained.

For example, by lockdown three:

  • Students from the least deprived schools were doing 2.9 hours more schoolwork per week than students from the most deprived schools.
  • 71% of students from the least deprived schools reported having 3 or more online lessons per week compared to only 53% of students from the most deprived schools.
  • Only 6% of pupils from higher managerial backgrounds reported only having a mobile device (rather than a computer) to access learning compared to 14% of pupils from routine/ manual/ non-working backgrounds.  

Teacher contact during lockdowns

73% of students from independent schools reported having contact with teachers outside of lessons at least once a week during the first lockdown compared to only 43% of students from comprehensive schools. This gap had narrowed by the third lockdown with 77% of students from Independent schools and 52% of students from comprehensive schools reporting teacher contact.

Students from the most deprived quintile reported more teacher contact than those from the least deprived during the first lockdown and there was almost no reported variation during the third lockdown.

Hours of schoolwork during Lockdowns

Students from independent schools did almost twice as many hours schoolwork per week during the first lockdown compared to students from state comprehensive schools. The gap was narrower during the third lockdown with independent school students reporting 23.7 hours per week compared to 16.3 hours per week for comprehensive school children.

Pupils from the least deprived quintile did 3.2 hours more schoolwork per week during the first lockdown than pupils from the most deprived quintile and 2.9 hours more during the third lockdown.

Provision of online lessons during lockdowns

During the first lockdown 94% of independent schools provided online lessons compared to only 64% of state comprehensive schools. By the third lockdown state comprehensives had caught of a lot but there was still a large difference with 96% of independent schools providing online lessons compared to 87% of comprehensive schools.

By the third lockdown 95% of the least deprived schools (by FSM provision) were providing online learning compared to only 80% of the most deprived schools.

The above differences are significant but if we look at the amount of online learning which took place (immediately below) we find that independent schools and the least deprived schools were much more likely to provide MORE online classes…

How many online classes during lockdowns?

84% of pupils at Independent schools reported having more than three online lessons per day during the first lockdown, compared to only 33% of students from state comprehensive schools. The figures were 93% compared to 59% respectively during the third lockdown.

71% of students from the least deprived quintile reported having access to three or more online lessons a day during lockdown three compared to only 53% of students from the most deprived quintile.

NB this basically means that students attending the more deprived schools were more likely to get very little in the way of online learning, just one or two lessons a day, while students attending the better off schools were more likely to get three or more lessons, closer to a regular school day.

Barriers to learning during lockdowns by social class

Students faced several barriers to learning during lockdowns including:

  • Minimal provision of online lessons or, in some cases, no online lessons.
  • Internet connectivity problems.
  • Inability to access teachers during the lockdown periods.
  • Lack of access to desktop or laptop computers and having to rely on mobile devices.
  • Having to share a device with siblings.
  • A small percentage of students didn’t have any devices to access online learning
  • Lack of a quiet study space.
  • Parents who lacked the confidence to help students with learning during lockdowns

Students from lower social class backgrounds were more likely to suffer barriers to learning during lockdowns compared to students from higher social backgrounds.

For example 34% of students from higher and professional managerial backgrounds reported infrequent teacher contact during lockdowns compared to 39% of students from routine/ manual/ never worked backgrounds. The figures for having to share a device were 9% and 15% respectively for these two social classes.

Pupils without a device during lockdowns

Only 2% of pupils from independent schools reported not having access to a suitable device by lockdown three compared to 11% of pupils from state comprehensives.

5% of pupils from the least deprived backgrounds reported no access to a suitable device during lockdown three compared to 19% from the least deprived quintile.

Conclusions and policy implications…

15-18 year olds doing GCSEs and A-levels suffered just as much learning loss as younger students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds suffered proportionately more learning loss. Thus the pupil premium should be extended and paid out for 16-19 year olds for a couple of years. ATM Pupil Premium ends with year 11 students.  

By lockdown three 30% of all year 11s who needed a laptop had received one, which was significant. However, HALF of all students who lacked a laptop or didn’t have access to one during the pandemic still haven’t received one.


Cullinane, C., Anders, J., De Gennaro, A., Early, E., Holt-White, E., Montacute, R., Shao, X., & Yarde, J. (2022). Wave 1 Initial Findings – Lockdown Learning. COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study  Briefing No. 1. London: UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities & Sutton Trust. Available at:

Comparative Education

comparative education studies are useful to policy makers because they allow the ‘adaptation’ of best educational practice, but there are problems because what works in one culture may not be so successful in another!

Comparative education studies involve comparing aspects of one nation’s education system with another and analysing the reasons for similarities and differences within those systems.

Typical motives for doing a cross national comparative studies of education systems would be to find out why some countries get better overall outcomes (in terms of qualifications) for their pupils, or why some countries have better outcomes for disadvantaged students, and thus better equality of educational opportunity.

Comparative education studies have become increasingly popular in recent years and are one response to the increasing interest in education globally, as evidenced by the PISA testing regime which publishes comparisons of student performance in standardised international tests.

Why compare education systems…?

Comparative education studies are themselves part of the globalisation of education and there are different reasons why actors may wish to compare education systems.

Probably the most obvious is the pragmatic aim to improve education policy – this is where policy makers in one country will employ researchers to study aspects of education systems in another country to see what works well with the intention of adapting or even just copying those aspects for use in their home country.

Such studies may be done by policy makers in post-industrial countries hoping to maintain their competitiveness in a fast changing global economy, or by developing countries hoping to use education to modernise quickly.

One specific phenomena which has led to recent increase in this kind of practical study is ‘PISA shock’ – where countries have found their positions in the PISA league tables to be lower than expected, which can spur them on to conduct research into the education systems of countries higher up the league tables looking for ways to improve their own systems.

Besides pragmatic reasons for comparative education studies some researchers also do purely academic studies, just to develop a deeper understanding of how education systems interact with other institutions within a society – purely focused on theory building and with no intention of applying findings at a policy level.

Bartram (2018) notes that international comparisons of education are increasingly motivated by economic and political reasons rather than purely theoretical motives.

Problems with comparing national education systems

Educational practices need to be considered in the context of the local culture.

It may not be possible to simply lift aspects of one education system and apply it to another and get improved results, because educational practices which ‘fit’ the culture in one country might not fit the national or local cultures of another.

For example, in Western countries educators have introduced more collaborative learning in recent decades (such as more group work) and this has led to improved performance for most students, but this may not work as well in some Asian cultures which are more sensitive to ‘public image’, and in such cultures more individualised ‘sit down and be quiet learning may get better outcomes for students.

You also have to think about WHO is doing the comparisons and applying the (potential) policy changes. Often such research studies are dominated by western experts who may well regard western models of education as superior to traditional indigenous, community based models which may be regarded as inferior.

There is actually a long history of this, stretching back to colonial times when Western powers used their education systems a means of subjugating indigenous people in their colonies, but even after independence new states were coerced into accepting Western education systems as a condition to receive international development aid (Nguyen-Phuong Mai, 2019).

It is simply not the case that Western practices can be transplanted and fitted into local indigenous cultures with easy success, and in many cases countries and local cultures simply don’t want this kind of education, as is the case in many Islamic countries for example.

There is also a problem with comparing results obtained from international tests such as the PISA tests: for those countries appearing near the bottom of the international league tables it is easy to blame their education systems for their poor performance, but this simply may not be the case – it could be a range of other factors such as the prevailing wider economic problems in those countries.

In fact, there is some research (Pasl Sahlberg, 2015) that shows that neoliberal marketised education systems which preference parental choice do not yield better educational performance, even though this has been the dominant educational ideology of the last 40 years.

Signposting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

The material above is most relevant to the sociology of education module, developing the theme of the relationship between globalisation and education.


Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Has Education in the U.K. become more Personalised…?

Personalised learning means listening to student’s needs and tailoring teaching and learning to meet those needs.

Personalised learning involves putting individual students at the centre of the learning experience, listening to their voices, understanding their individual strengths and limitations and tailoring teaching and learning strategies to their individual needs. It also involves working with them to help them realise their full potential and allowing students an element of choice in what they study through flexible learning pathways, which may entail schools working in partnership with institutions outsides of the school.

A useful analogy to help understand the concept of personalised learning is to contrast it to the world of production.

Personalised learning is the equivalent of making bespoke products according to what the individual consumer wants, in contrast to ‘standard education’ which is like mass production – taking a one sized fits all approach by teaching all students the same thing in the same way (like Chalk and Talk).

Personalised Learning in education policy

Personalised Education became a formal part of education policy in 2004 under the the New Labour Government.

At that time the DfES defined personalisation of learning as “a highly structured and responsive approach to each child’s and young person’s learning, in order that all are able to progress, achieve and participate. It means strengthening the link between learning and teaching by engaging pupils – and their parents – as partners in learning (1)

While the above definition is a fairly typical example of government speak – in that it doesn’t really say anything the DfES did at least further identify five key components of personalised learning which give some more specific details of what the policy might look like in practice:

  1. Assessment for Learning – teachers knowing the strengths and limitations of individual students.
  2. Teaching and learning strategies that build on the individual needs of students – for example learning being appropriately paced and stretching those students who need it.
  3. Curriculum choice – flexible learning pathways which encourage students to take responsibility of their own learning.
  4. The whole school taking a student centred approach, taking student voices seriously.
  5. Strong partnership beyond the school – involving local communities and institutions.

Personalised learning is a reaction against the kind of standardised education that many associated with the ‘bog standard’ comprehensives of the 1960s – in which students were required to largely sit there and listen to the teacher, taking notes, with very little in the way of creativity or interactivity occurring.

NB this kind of ‘bog standard education’ didn’t necessarily happen in every Comprehensive school, and it may be something of a stereotype, but at least this image serves the function of showing what personalised learning isn’t!

What does personalised learning look like…?

Ideally it will start with teachers finding out as much as they can about the individual and working alongside them to find a suitable learning pathway.

Another aspect is helping students figure out what their end-goals are (usually cast in terms of career aspirations) and helping them study the right subjects to set them up for their future goals.

It also involves finding out how students learn the most effectively and designing tasks for them to work on that are gong to suit their learning style, part of this will involve encouraging them to work in groups or individually, and most likely a mixture of both depending on the subjects.

In reality the capacity for schools to personalise learning is limited (see below) by available staff and the curriculum demands (schools are still required to be exam factories) so the personalisation of learning may well be reduced to:

  • occasional guided independent study lessons, days or maybe weeks during the year.
  • students working with teachers to draw up personalised learning plans for independent study which are reviewed only once or twice a term.
  • Some lessons maybe more ‘personalised’ with the the teacher acting as a ‘facilitator’ most of the time and students largely getting on with their own project work. You are most likely to see this in post-16 education and in creative subjects such as art and music technology.

Limitations to personalised learning

Firstly there is the fact of the national curriculum and the demand on schools to get students GCSE grades – obviously personalisation isn’t to go as far as to allowing students to simply learn guitar or pain for 6 hours a day 5 days a week, so ‘personalisation’ is limited by the requirement that students have to study English, Maths and the other core subjects.

Secondly there is the limitation of teachers’ time – the higher the ratio of students to teachers the less personalised learning is going to be. Teachers have to get through a certain amount of content and most of the time PowerPoints and group work where all students are focused on the same topic are quicker than allowing students to spend time exploring their own ‘learning pathways’.

Thirdly, schools are required to encourage students to work together, and so while a students might personally prefer to just work entirely on their own, if they are in school, this probably won’t be allowed to happen most of the time – they are going to be in a classroom working with other students.

A 2016 article from Education Week points out that the available research on personalised learning initiatives isn’t robust enough to prove that personalised learning is effective.

The Digital Counter-Revolution blog criticises the concept of personalised learning as being focused on individual academic achievement. In practice a lot of personalised learning has turned into a helping students how to maximise their grades.

in this sense all personalised learning is doing is making individual students compete more with each other, it isn’t about helping them think more critically or about being more creative or just about being better people – it is just a response to the pressures of marketisation and a competitive Higher Education and labour market.

Has Learning in the U.K. become more personalised?

Mainstream education as a whole has become more ‘postmodern’, but the tend has been very slight and mainly on the fringes of the mainstream education.

For the most part our education system remains very ‘modern’ with it being 95% focused on teaching the national curriculum and getting students through standardised exams.

I think the same thing is true for personalisation which is part of the very gradual and slight/ fringe move towards postmodernity, given that individualism, diversity and relativism are a key ideas within postmodernism.

So YES mainstream education in the U.K. has become more personalised, but personally I’d say most schools pay lip-service to this personalisation, with students having little real choice over what they study until post-GCSEs (they are not allowed to ditch English and Maths for example and have to resit it post-16 if they fail it at GCSE level).


This material is mainly relevant to the education topic within A-level Sociology.

To return to the homepage –


(1) Complex Needs – Personalised Learning Policy

Policies to Combat Racism in Schools

Education policy to combat racism has gone from ignorance, through assimilation, integration, multiculturalism to aggressive majoritarianism in 2022.

Gilborn (2008) divided policy approaches to combatting racism into eight phases:

  1. Ignorance and neglect (1945 to late 1950s)
  2. Assimilation (late 1950s to mid 1960s)
  3. Integration (mid 1960s to late 1970s)
  4. Cultural pluralism and multiculturalism (late 1970s to late 1980s)
  5. Thatcherism: the new racism and colour-blind policy (mid 1980s to 1997)
  6. New Labour: Naive multiculturalism (1997 to 2001)
  7. Cynical multiculturalism: from 9/11 to 7/7 (2001 to 2005)
  8. Aggressive majoritarianism (2005 to present day).

Ignorance, assimilation and integration

The government’s response to immigration from 1945 to the late 1950s was that of ignorance and neglect. The government largely ignored the issue of immigration from mainly the Caribbean, India and Pakistan and put no educational policies in place to do anything about the children of immigrants.

This was in line with the racist colonial mentality that people from Africa and the Indian subcontinent would do primarily menial, unskilled manual jobs which required little in the way of educational input to prepare them for.


From the late 1950s to the mid 1960s the government’s official response to immigration was to expect immigrants to assimilate to the British way of life, meaning that they were expected to adapt and become just like the majority white British population.

This was very much a one-way expectation, with ‘them’ being expected to become ‘like us’. Any racial tensions in schools during this period were interpreted as a migrant problem – some immigrants were just not trying hard enough to assimilate.

Integration and education policy

By the late 1960s policy makers had begun to realise that the assimilationist approach was impractical – Indian and Black-Caribbean cultures were not simply going to disappear after a period of time and there was a move towards policies being more accepting of cultural diversity.

This period saw the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1976 which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of ‘race’.

Multicultural education

Education became more multicultural from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

The late 1970s were a period of large spread social unrest due to the failures of Capitalism leading to mass unemployment and poverty, which were disproportionately felt by black and asian minorities.

This was a period in which ethnic minorities were protesting more about the high levels of marginalisation, poverty, unemployment and racial discrimination they were experiencing which resulted in a number of widely publicised riots such as the Brixton Riots of 1981.

Part of this resistance by young ethnic minorities manifested itself in more disruption in school and higher truancy rates.

The Swann Report was published in 1985 as a response to such unrest and this represented something of a landmark change in thinking about how policy should combat racism:

  • It recognised that cultural diversity was a positive force for social change and that a society with a plurality of cultures was richer than a more homogenous white culture.
  • It recognised that ethnic minorities in the U.K. faced higher levels of unemployment, poverty and racial discrimination.
  • It explicitly identified institutional racism as a problem which it defined as ‘where the official institutions in society, such as the education system… operate in a way that automatically discriminates against and disadvantages certain groups.
  • It also recognised that racism was not just a problem that ethnic minorities had to deal with but that it was also a white problem, and that white people needed to be educated about racism, especially in white-majority areas.

The Swann report caused division in central government and was largely ignored there, but many Local Education Authorities acted on its findings and introduced changes to make education more multicultural.

Multicultural education involved understanding and celebrating difference in education

Two examples of multicultural education included:

  • having classes which specifically educated students about the languages, religions and diets of different minority ethnic groups.
  • Changing text books so that they had broader representation of ethnic minorities.

However early multicultural education has been criticised for being condescending and ignoring institutional racism, seen by many as tokenistic and doing little to really foster a mutual understanding and respect between cultures.

Anti-Racist Education

Anti-Racist education believed that racist attitudes needed to be explicitly opposed within schools and that active measures needed to be taken to ensure equality of opportunity for all ethnic groups. Anti racist policies were primarily adopted by some of the more left-wing Local Education Authorities, to whom the New Right Tory government was opposed in the early 1980s.

Colour Blind Education Policy

The New Right Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major adopted what David Gilborn (2001) has described as a ‘colour blind’ education policy because it ignored ethnic diversity altogether.

This was convenient for the Tories in the early 1980s against the backdrop of the Falklands’ war and increasing popular concern about the amount of immigration to the U.K. and a rising fervour over (white) national identity.

Two ways in which the New Right’s education policies were colour blind include:

  • Leaving everything to market forces and individual choice which took no account of ethnic diversity.
  • The National Curriculum which was introduced in 1988 was also highly ethnocentric if we examine some of the core subjects such as languages, literature and history. The only languages which were options for students were white European languages and there was almost no recognition of black and Asian minority cultures in history or english during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Naive multiculturalism

Gliborn (2001) characterises New Labour’s education policies as being a form of naive multiculturalism. He suggests that while New Labour acknowledged that significant ethnic inequalities existed and that something had to be done about this, they in fact introduced no significant policies to actually to do so.

Rather, in education, they assumed that issues such as racial discrimination would be tackled adequately through the introduction of Citizenship into the curriculum.

Cynical multiculturalism

The September 11 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York ushered in what Gilborn (2008) refers to as an era of cynical multiculturalism in social policy. This means that while New Labour maintained a rhetoric of commitment to promoting ethnic diversity and equality of opportunity the policies they introduced were more similar to the assimilation/ integration phases of the 1950s and 1960s.

For example New Labour made it harder for the spouses of recently arrived immigrants to join them in the U.K., they sped up the deportation of illegal immigrants and they put more emphasis on the importance for migrants to learn English.

Aggressive majoritarianism

Gilborn (2008) suggests that since the London Bombings of 2005 the New Labour government adopted a stance of aggressive majoritarianism.

The media discourse at this time was one of Islamophobia and of how integration policies have failed, and there was something of a return to assimilationism.

There was also more open criticism of veiling as a problem rather than an aspect of diversity and acceptance of diversity was more likely to be seen as destabilising rather than something to be celebrated.

The Coalition government carried on the majoritarian agenda, with the then Prime Minister David Cameron saying in 2011 that multiculturalism had failed and that we needed a stronger identity in the UK to prevent extremism.

The Coalition government’s introduction of British Values into the curriculum is another example of a more assimilationist majoritarianism.

British Values are today taught as something passive and peaceful and the policy discourse suggests that greater social harmony can be achieved if everyone accepts ‘Britishness’ as a core identity rather than us celebrating multiculturalism in schools.

British Values – A form of cynical multiculturalism?

We might also interpret the ‘PREVENT’ agenda, introduced in 2011 as an example of this – which highlights the fact that some elements of Islamic culture have failed to integrate and it is the job of schools to identify these failures and intervene to prevent these aspects of Islamic culture from harming the majority.

It also seems to be the case that the government thinks that we are now in a post-racial Britain – that there is no real problem with racial discrimination anymore so education policy need not address this.


Education policy and its relationship to ethnicity and racism is a topic within the AQA’s A-level sociology specification.

To return to the homepage –


Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Gilborn (2008) Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy?

Online Education Trends

Increasing numbers of people are making use of online learning platforms to educate themselves, but getting representative data on online learning is a challenge!

Online education has expanded rapidly with the rise of the internet and in 2022 there are a huge variety of websites and learning platforms that people are making use of to learn about a huge range of topics.

Online learning ranges from the very formal to the very informal, and it is much easier to collect valid statistics on the extent of formal online learning compared to informal online learning, because the former have hard data on the number of student enrolments and degree of engagement for example, data which might not exist for the more informal learning that takes place online.

Examples of formal online learning include universities putting their courses online, workplaces running online training courses and courses run through online learning platforms such as Coursera.

Informal learning is much more difficult to measure at it involves people hacking together an education using whatever free sources they can fund – by using YouTube videos to learn new skills for example.

Gathering data on the extent of online learning is complicated by the fact that there isn’t a clear boundary between using the internet for education and using it for entertainment, not to say, of course, that education can’t in itself be entertaining.

In this post I gather together some data which gives us an insight into the nature and extent of both formal and informal online learning in the world today, taking a global focus.

My reason for doing this is to demonstrate how significant online learning is in relation to formal education in schools, colleges and universities. I don’t believe a sociology of education should ignore these trends in online learning simply because online learning plays an increasingly significant role in many people’s lives, especially in people’s adult lives.

I also focus on the problems of collecting valid data on the extent of online learning in 2022.

Formal and informal online learning

Ranging from the formal to the informal, four basic types of online learning include….

  • The rise of virtual schools offering formally recognised national curriculums.
  • The rise of online digital learning platforms such as Udemy
  • The increase in independent people offering education and training on YouTube and other channels
  • The increase in ordinary people sharing their stories, experiences and life-experiments, and the increased interest in people consuming these.

An Overview of Global Online Learning

According to Global Market Insights (1) the value of the global e-learning market was over $315 billion in 2021.

70% of demand for online learning comes from the U.S.A and Europe (3)

Coursera’s statistics (6) show us that America has the most online learners, followed by India, and we can see that online learning is truly a global phenomenon!

80% of employers use online learning platforms…

Virtual Schools

America leads the way in virtual schools and in 2019-20, 40 there were 477 full-time virtual schools that enrolled 332,379 students, and 306 blended schools that enrolled 152,530 students (2).

NB as I understand it these are schools offering an officially recognised curriculum leading to formal exams, so this is a very formal type of online education.

Online learning platforms

Elearning Industry (8) lists 893 online learning platforms as of December 2022, unfortunately there is no data on how many courses are offered across these platforms or how many people are making use of them.

If you do a Google Search for ‘how many learning platforms are there’ Google returns search results for blogs outlining the ‘best’ platforms, not necessarily those with the most users, for example Thinkific (9) provides 10 of the best which include LinkdIn learning, Coursera and Udemy.

So if you want to find out how many people are making use of online learning platforms, you need to look at the stats from the individual platforms (and there may be overlap, some people enrolled on a Coursera course are also going to be doing a Udemy Courses!).

I don’t have time to trawl through almost 900 online learning platforms to collect the data but to look two of the biggest:

In 2021 Coursera had 92 million registered learners and 189 million enrolments (4)

In 2022 Udemy had 52 million learners and 213 000 courses (5)

So two of the largest platforms have 150 million people currently enrolled on their courses, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that across all learning platforms it’s likely that there are several hundred million people globally doing some kind of formally structured course on such platforms.

Learning Management Systems

Learner Management Systems are back end solutions for managing learners’ data while Online Learning Platforms are front-end packages.

I’m not analysing use of online Learner Management Systems (LMSs) here because pretty much every school, college and university will make use of an LMS to manage their learners’ data.

Educational blogs and vlogs

Many blogs and vlogs are educational, it is very difficult to get statistics on how many exist because many accounts include content which is both educational and purely for entertainment.

There must be well over a million ‘high quality’ educational videos on YouTube alone, produced by institutions such as the BBC and TED, the latest data i could find from 2015 put the figure at 700 000 videos on YouTubeEdu (10), so today there must be many more.

Educational content can range from the academic to videos designed to help people figure out ‘how to present themselves online’ as in the picture below…

TBH I’m not sure how I’d even go about designing a methodology to quantify the number of educational blogs and vlogs online, let alone the number of people consuming them.

Suffice to say, there are A LOT!

One thing I have learned from researching this is that online learning via blogs and vlogs is something of a fragmented and overwhelming experience!

Ted talks

TED (Technology Education and Design) is worth a special mention as many of the talks are relevant to sociology. The TED channel hosts thousands of videos, its YouTube channel has over 22 million subscribers and the most popular talk by Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity has 22 million views.

The problem with global statistics on elearning!

Even formal online learning is difficult to measure as there is no body monitoring the total number of online learners (as far as I am aware), and manually trawling through almost 1000 online learning platforms would take a long time.

Most of the available global statistics come from private companies who themselves offer online learning services. The first problem with this is that there can be a barrier in the form of a significant pay wall (7), another possible problem is with the validity of the data because these companies may use methods of data collection which deliberately exaggerate the extent of online learning: doing so makes it seem like institutions should invest more in online learning to keep up with an inevitable trend.

As to informal learning it is very difficult to measure how many educational blogs and vlogs there are simply because there is so much educational content out there!

Hence what we know about the nature and extent of online learning in 2023 is based on samples of those companies that do publish data, and there is no way this is representative of all online learning!


(1) Global Market Insights – E-learning market trends.

(2) National Education Policy Centre – Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2021.

(3) Upskillwise – Online Learning Statistics

(4) Coursera 2021 report.

(5) Udemy – About Udemy.

To do

(6) World Economic Forum – charts on global e-learning

(7) For example the Gartner Report apparently contains some data on online learning but I can’t access it because it is so expensive!

(8) Elearning Industry

(9) Thinkific – Top 10 online learning platforms.

(10) Wikipedia entry on YouTube and education.


This material is meant as an update to the sociology of education.

To return to the homepage –

Should we end tax breaks for private schools?

private schools are possibly the only charitable institutions that do actual social harm.

The Labour Party leader Keir Starmer recently attacked the Tories for their policy of allowing Private Schools to pay no V.A.T. on their fees.

Using Winchester College as an example, where the Prime Minister himself was privately educated, Starmer pointed out that with fees per pupil of £45 000 a year, allowing them to no pay 15% VAT amounted to £6 million in lost tax revenue, which could be used to better fund state schools.

Starmer directly asked whether that £6 million would be better spent on the rifle ranges of Winchester rather than providing additional support for the 40% of students in Southampton, Rishi Sunak’s home town, who failed either their English or Maths GCES last year.

This post is specifically about the issue of whether independent schools should have charitable status, but you might also like this more general post on the arguments for and mainly against private schools.

Should Westminster School have Charitable Status when it costs more than £30K a year per pupil…?

Arguments for making independent schools pay tax

The charitable status of Independent Schools allows them to pay no V.A.T on school fees. The Labour Party argue that ending this charitable status of independent schools and thus making them pay VAT on school fees, would lead result in these schools paying an additional £1.7 billion a year in taxes, money which could then be spent to better fund the state education sector.

NB the reason why independent schools have charitable status is because they supposedly partner with state schools, and thus confer some of their educational excellence on to them, but there is little evidence that the state sector gets back £1.7 billion worth of input.

Independent schools are basically businesses, not charities, and every other business providing a service in the UK pays VAT on the services it provides, so ending charitable status for independent schools would be fair and equal compared to all other businesses out there.

The existence of independent schools also reduces the life chances of those from the state sector – only 7% of students attend independent schools but privately educated students take up 30-40% of oxbridge university places, and higher percentages of the most elite jobs such as Doctors and Barristers, and they get these jobs not only because of their exam results but also because of the social and cultural capital that comes with being privately educated.

It would thus make sense to make parents who pay to have their children privately educated pay MORE because of the damage this does to bright children from poor backgrounds and to society as a whole because there is no way the best candidates are being selected for the best jobs because of this distortion.

Arguments against making Independent schools pay tax

The biased Independent Schools Council (ISC) – represents over 1300 private schools and argues that if we forced schools (and thus parents) to pay VAT on fees, there would be an immediate effect of overpricing as parents who are currently struggling to pay the fees would send their children to state schools.

They argue that 90 000 students would switch back to the state sector and that this would mean an additional cost to the treasury of £400 million a year, so assuming Starmer hadn’t factored this in, the net tax gain to the state from charging VAT would only be £1.4 billion per annum. However this 90 000 figure has been questioned and even if it did occur it wouldn’t happen overnight.

The ISC also argues that this would end partnership working, as independent schools axe this aspect of their agendas as it can’t afford it any more, but then again there’s little evidence of state schools benefitting from current partnerships already anyway.

They also argue ending the charitable tax status of private schools would increase polarisation because it would be the higher middle income parents who are only just earning six figure salaries between them and struggling to pay their fees who stop sending their kids to such schools, the super rich wouldn’t be harmed at all.

The Charitable Status of Private Schools: Conclusions

It’s obvious that the existence of private schools benefits the very wealthy at the expense of everyone else, and that there is zero net gain to be had by allowing them to carry on existing.

The fact that the state helps keep this system in place by effectively subsidising this sector of business is more a reflection of bias and power in politics than any sense of what’s best for individuals and society.

After all, the independently schooled are massively over-represented in government and so most of the Tory party (and many in the Labour party) benefitted themselves from independent schooling, and so they’ll probably carry on scratching the backs of the same schools they themselves attended a few decades earlier.

There is a very strong case for abolishing not only their charitable status but also independent schools themselves, in the interests of levelling the playing field and giving bright state school students the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with their currently hot-housed independently schools peers.


This material is mainly relevant to the education topic, usually taught as part of A-level sociology, AQA specification.

Why do Poor students underachieve at A-level?

16-19 year old students who are eligible for free school meals underachieve by 3 A-level grades compared to their wealthier peers.

This is primarily because of lower prior attainment at GCSE, but also because poorer students take fewer and different qualifications (BTECs more likely than A-levels).

This is according to some recent quantitative research published in 2021 by Tuckett al: Measuring the Attainment Gap in 16-19 Education (1).

The rest of this post summarises and evaluates this research.



The sample of students was about as close to a ‘total sample’ as you can get. It included all students at the end of their 16-19 study at a state-maintained school or college other than those on apprenticeship programmes.

Measuring Disadvantage

To measure (or ‘operationalise’) disadvantage the researchers used students’ free school meal status during their last six years of school (prior to key stage 4) as the indicator.

They also conducted some analysis using a measure of persistent disadvantage which was defined as any students who had been eligible for Free School Meals for 80% of the previous 6 years.

Measuring Educational Attainment

To measure educational attainment the researchers used the best three qualifications achieved by the end of 16-19 education.

Interestingly, they used two different weighting systems to take account of the different types of qualification students achieved results in: the main difference being between A-levels and BTEC subjects.  

  • For on measure of attainment they treated all level 3 qualifications as being equal, giving the same weight to all level three courses with the same guided teaching hours – so all A-level subjects had the same ‘achievement’ rating as all level 3 BTEC courses. (This is the standard way of measuring Attainment used by UCAS).
  • They also used a second measure of attainment by adjusting the above for the economic value associated with the different qualifications. Thus science based A-levels would receive a higher score than BTEC business studies, because the kind of jobs students who achieve A-levels in physics, chemistry and biology go on to do are higher paid.

Analysis of results

This is a bit technical for A-level students, but they use Regression analysis. More specifically they used ordinary least regression squares holding attainment as the dependent variable with students clustered into institutions. 

They also used Oaxaca Blinder decomposition to find out how much of the difference in achievement between disadvantaged students and non-disadvantaged students were down to a specific variable. 

The rest of this post outlines the findings of this study.

How many 16-19 year old students are disadvantaged

in 2019 there were 119, 497 16-19 year old students who were classified as disadvantaged, meaning they had been eligible for free school meals for at least one of the previous six years.

119, 497 students is equivalent to almost 25% of of the total number of 16-19 students in 2019 which was 497, 541.

YearDisadvantagedNon-disadvantagedTotal students
2017119. 980385. 178505, 158
2018120, 049378, 839498, 888
2019119, 497378, 044497, 541

How big is the attainment gap between ‘poor’ students and the rest?

By age 19 poor (disadvantaged) students are almost 3 A-level grades behind non disadvantaged students, if we give all A-levels and BTECs equal waiting.

It we weight different qualifications according to their economic value then poor (disadvantaged) students are more than 4 grades behind non disadvantaged students.

The disadvantage gap narrowed slightly between 2017 and 2019, but not significantly and more recent evidence suggests that the Pandemic increased this gap again.

interestingly in terms of ‘average’s it makes quite a difference whether you use the Mean score which they use here or the Median – there are significant numbers of 16-19s who don’t achieve, so by including those you drag the results of the ‘disadvantaged’ down because the extreme majority of those who get no results are disadvantaged!  

Why do poor students get worse results?

 Regression analysis shows that:

  • Prior attainment explains 39 per cent of the total gap,
  • the type of qualifications entered explains 33 per cent.
  • the average prior attainment of students’ peers explains 12 per cent

The researchers also noted that fourteen per cent of the disadvantage attainment gap cannot be explained by student or institution characteristics, equivalent to almost half an A level grade. This could be the continued effect of disadvantage itself, and/or it could be due to differences in unobserved characteristics such as health or motivation

Disadvantaged students take different qualifications

Disadvantaged students are more likely to take vocational and technical qualifications. They also tend to enter fewer, and lower level, qualifications.

Taken altogether these differences explain 33% of the attainment gap, mainly because fewer and lower level qualifications mean lower point scores at age 19!

The disadvantage gap and ethnicity

There are significant variations in the disadvantage gap by ethnicity.

Poor white students underachieve by around 4.5 A level grades compared to their richer peers, equivalent to almost an entire A level.

The disadvantage gap is smaller for all other ethnicity groups.

Policy suggestions

One specific policy suggestion is to extend the pupil premium to 16-19 year old students. This means that colleges should receive extra funding for each student they enrol who is eligible for free school meals and have to spend that money supporting disadvantaged students with extra lessons for example,

Strengths and Limitations of this study

This study is very useful because it fills a research gap focussing specifically on the post-16 education sector.

It shows that the disadvantage gap at GCSE level continues into post-16 education and that poor prior attainment explains most of the achievement gap in post-16 education. It also shows that qualification type explains a significant amount of the gap with poor students having to ddo fewer and lower level qualifications.

Sampling is very strong with a near total sample used.

This is also an example of a study which uses some innovate research methods – through the use of multiple measures. I especially like the measure which weights qualifications for future economic value because anyone who has worked in a sixth form environment knows that not all A-levels and BTECs are worth the same, even though UCAS insists on giving them equal weight.

In terms of weakness I don’t like the fact they do most of their analysis using the mean, I’d rather the median – I think it’s fairer to compare students who actually do qualifications!

One final limitation is the time-scale – published in 2021 but it’s only showing data up to 2019, and with the Pandemic, we are now in a different era so this is already in need of an update!

Signposting and relevance to A-level Sociology

This material should be of interest to anyone studying the sociology of education.

To return to the homepage –


(1) Tuckett et al (2021) Measuring the Attainment Gap in 16-19 Education

Education Policy since 2020

education policy since 2020 has been dominated by school closures and catch-up initiatives.

Education policy since 2020 has been dominated by the government’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic – which consisted of shutting schools for several months which had significant negative impacts on students’ mental health and educational attainment (far worse for poorer students).

Following the easing of lockdowns the government then put in place various catch-up policies but these simply aren’t enough to make up for the harm done by the choice to shut schools in the first place.

In fairness to the government they have recently announced an increase in funding for education to 2025 which takes cash-terms spending on education back up to the previous peak of funding in 2010 (although not necessarily in real-terms once inflation is taken into account).

This post summarises the following aspects of education policy since 2020:

  • the lockdown measures
  • the impact of shutting down schools on students’ mental health and educational attainment
  • Cancelling GCSEs and A-levels for two years.
  • The government’s catch-up education policies
  • The planned increase in funding for schools to 2025.

Schools and Lockdown

On 20th of March 2020 the then Secretary of Education, Sir Gavin Williamson timeline of school lockdowns produced by the Institute for Government.

Cancellation of GCSE and A-Level Exams

The government cancelled all GCSE and A-level exams for two years in the spring-summer of 2020 and 2021, with teachers given their own assessed grades rather than students having to sit exams.

Maybe unsurprisingly the GCSE results were significantly higher in the two years when teachers awarded grades rather than students sitting exams, and in 2022 the results dipped slightly but were still better than in 2019, the last time GCSE exams were held.

This suggests that students who didn’t sit their exams during the lockdown years had something of an unfair advantage compared to students who had sat exams in 2019 and previous years, and those sitting exams in 2022 with the pre-release of papers which gave them some additional assistance.

The teacher-predicted grade increase for A-levels was VERY significant during the two non-exam years. In 2019 25% of A-levels sat were awarded an A grade and above, but by 2021 teachers awarded 45% of A-levels an A grade or above, with this sinking back to 35% in 2022.

The Impact of Lockdown on pupils

A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that there is a covid-gap at all key stages following the two lockdowns.

More students performed below expectations following Lockdowns one and two compared to previous key stage test data in September 2019 prior to the lockdowns.

The Covid-gap in reading

The Covid-gap in maths

The report also notes that there is evidence showing that disadvantaged students have fallen behind relative to wealthier students, meaning there is now also a covid-disadvantage gap in educational attainment.

The Covid-Disadvantage Gap

There were significant differences in the experiences of learning during lockdown by social class. For example:

  • Students from the least deprived schools were doing 2.9 hours more schoolwork per week than students from the most deprived schools.
  • 71% of students from the least deprived schools reported having 3 or more online lessons per week compared to only 53% of students from the most deprived schools.
  • Only 6% of pupils from higher managerial backgrounds reported only having a mobile device (rather than a computer) to access learning compared to 14% of pupils from routine/ manual/ non-working backgrounds.  

Unsurprisingly there is also further evidence that this correlates with a covid-disadvantage gap – students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have fallen further behind relative to those from more affluent backgrounds.

This is certainly born out by what students tells us. According to The Sutton Trust’s October 2022 briefing on Education Recovery and Catch Up students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are much less confident than students from higher socio-economic backgrounds that they have caught up with lost learning caused by the Tory government’s chosen policy of locking down schools during the pandemic.

The fact that the government is giving extra funding to schools to help disadvantaged students catch up also demonstrates that the government itself recognises the existence of such a covid-disadvantaged attainment gap (see below!)

The Impact of Lockdowns on pupil mental health

Some secondary analysis of 72 high quality studies from 20 countries on the impact of lockdowns on pupil mental health found, unsurprisingly, that 53.3% of girls and 44% of boys reported above pre-covid baseline levels of anxiety during the lockdown period.

The long term effects of this harm to mental health remain to be researched!

Source: Impacts of school closures on physical and mental health of children and young people: a systematic review.

The Catch up Premium

In 2021 the government announced an additional £1 billion in funding for schools to help support students catch up with lessons they had missed due to the government’s imposed lockdowns of schools during the previous year.

The catch up premium primarily consisted of:

  • £650 million being payed directly to schools – equivalent to £80 per pupil.
  • A £350 million National Tutoring Programme to target those most in need of help and consisted of (1) a schools programme for 5-16 year olds, (2) additional funding for 16-19s and (3) language support for reception aged children.

A typical primary school of 200 pupils would receive £16000 in additional catch-up funding while a typical secondary school of 1000 pupils would receive £80 000 in additional funding in two payments during 2021.

Schools were required to publish details of how they were using their funding to help students catch up and OFSTED were also supposed to be monitoring this, but given that the support was only in place for a year only a tiny proportion of schools would have been inspected on this criteria.

The main funding for the Catch Up Premium has now ended, but the government is continuing the National Tutoring Programme into the 2022 to 2023 year.

The National Tutoring Programme

For the 2022 to 2023 year the National Tutoring Programme (NEP) awards schools an additional £163 per student eligible for the pupil premium. The money is paid directly to schools and they are required to spend the money on ‘targeted academic support’ for pupils delivered by trained and experienced teachers.

The government’s aim is to embed tutoring as a regular feature within schools going forwards and the guidance states that:

Specially there are three ways schools can provide this support:

  • academic mentors – people employed specifically to give students extra tuition.
  • tuition partners – private tutors who work with students from the school
  • regular school personnel – teachers or support staff already employed who give extra tuition on top of their regular teaching commitments.
  • The extra tutoring should focus on pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium, so those on Free School Meals or the poorest 15% of pupils.
  • Maximum class sizes of six, recommended 1-3.
  • Tuition course length of 12-15 hours
  • Core subjects only – english, maths and science in primary school, plus humanities and modern foreign languages in secondary schools.

The total budget for the 2022 to 2023 year is £350 million, it is for year 1 to 11 only and schools can only claim up to 60% of the tutoring costs, they have to find the other 40% of funding themselves.

Funding Increases for Education to 2025

The 2021 spending review suggested that funding for schools should increase by £4. an increase in cash-terms spending for schools of £4.4 billion per annum between 2021-2 and 2024-25.

The 2021 spending review suggested that school funding should increase by just over 7% per pupil between 2021–22 and 2024–25.

This means that by 2024-25 the government should be spending an extra £4.4 billion on schools in real-cash terms compared to what it spent in 2021-22. 

So in cash-terms, the government is committed to increasing spending on education by approximately an additional £1 billion a year over the next four years until 2024-25. 

These increases in funding will reverse the real-terms funding cuts to education which took place under the Tories between 2009-10 and 2010-29 and education is projected to be 1% higher by 2024-25 compared to what it was at its peak in 2009-10 at the end of New Labour’s last term in office. 

However because of government commitments to increase teacher wages by 3% a year over the next five years combined with the current rate of inflation which is causing a cost of living crisis, this cash-terms funding increase may not be sufficient for schools to be able to meet the increasing costs of running the schools.

Schools are going to be paying more on wages, energy, food, stationary, maintenance over the next few years than ever before! 

So in real terms prices (which take into account the rising cost of living) this ‘significant’ increase in funding may not actually be an increase at all, it may end up being just about enough for schools to tread water!

(Source: The Institute for Fiscal Studies, accessed November 2022.)

Education policy since 2020: Conclusions

Education policy has been dominated by the response to Pandemic. The decision to shut down schools is maybe understandable given the considerable uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 throughout 2020 and 2021 but the drastic measures to shut schools did enormous harm to pupils.

Teacher awarded grades seem to have ‘saved’ the two years of students who missed exams in the lockdown years, and the 2022 results seem to be OK as well, with students being assisted by pre-release papers.

But there are still several years of students lower down the school years who have missed out on learning and it seems that the funds the government has earmarked for especially the more deprived students to catch up are no sufficient to close to lock down induced attainment gap!

Having said that at least the government has found money for education going forwards to 2025, but in the context of rapid inflation that is merely going to mean maintaining funding in real terms!

Finally, it is also worth keeping in mind the effects on other policies that lockdown had – before Covid the government had wanted all schools to become academies by 2022, but that got axed so schools could focus on reopening safely and to allow them to focus more on the catch-up agenda.

Signposting and Related Posts

This material will hopefully be a useful update for anyone studying the education module as part of A-level sociology.

How did Coronavirus affect education?

Covid Catch Up Policies: Are they Sufficient?

Education Policy in England and Wales: 1979 to 2022

Education policy to 2022 has been influenced by neoliberalism: we now have a well established market in education with monitoring done centrally by government authorities while little has been done to address equality of educational opportunity.

The last 40 years has seen a shift in the nature of education in England and Wales. Since the early 1980s we have seen a shift from a state education system to the establishment of a quasi-market in education.

The New Right conservative government which came to power in 1979 was influenced by a mixture of neoliberal and traditional conservative ideologies.

The New Right introduced the 1988 Education Act which first created an education market through the establishment of league tables, formula funding, OFSTED and the National Curriculum.

This created a system in which parents had the choice over which school to send their children to and by making schools compete with each other for pupils.

New Labour (1997 to 2010) continued the marketisation of education by keeping the same basic framework introduced through the 1988 Education Act.

New Labour’s third way approach to government meant they had more of a focus on social justice than the conservatives, in that they were more concerned with improving equality of educational opportunity for students from deprived backgrounds and to this end established academies in deprived urban areas, introduced Sure Start and introduced the Education Maintenance Allowance.

However New Labour still advanced marketisation through their focus on academies and through introducing fees for higher education.

When the Coalition came to power in 2010 they mostly ditched the social justice agenda and renewed their focus on creating an education market through the rapid conversion of LEA schools to academies and the establishment of Free Schools.

Since 2015 the The Tory government has largely carried on the Coalition’s agenda of establishing a quasi-education market, although this process has been stalled somewhat by the Pandemic requiring the government and schools to focus on their ‘safety’ and ‘catch-up’ agendas.

The rest of this post summarises the key changes to education policy since 1979.

The Curriculum

Up until 1988 there was little if no centralised control over the school curriculum, but that changed with the introduction of the National Curriculum as part of the 1988 Education Act.

The National Curriculum stipulated that all schools must teach core content and this made it possible to monitor schools to make sure they were delivering this content, and monitoring evolved through from 1988 to involve increasing amounts of Key Stage Testing.

The amount of prescribed content and volume of testing have been reduced in recent years, and the introduction of Academies and Free Schools means there are now more schools than ever that don’t have to teach the National Curriculum at all, but there still remains a strong focus on a core knowledge base.

School Structure and Governance

This has been a major area of change of the last 40 years in England and Wales.

In the early 1980s the majority of State Schools were under the control of Local Education Authorities who managed such things as school funding, term dates and teacher pay.

However the expansion of academies since the year 2000, and their rapid expansion since 2010, now means that 80% of secondary schools and 40% of primary schools are now independent of LEAs and are self managed either as single schools or Multi-Academy Trusts.

Neoliberals are happy with this arrangement as they see local government bureaucracies as inefficient, but ironically there is now more centralised control over academies and funding comes direct from central government.

Critics of academies argue that we now have a fragmented education system.

A Mass Market in Higher Education

In the 1980s the university sector was relatively small with most young people leaving the education system at 16 and going to work.

Today, we have a fully developed market in Higher Education with universities funded by research output and tuition fees from students with most students taking out loans of tens of thousands of pounds to pay for their fees.

The number of university places has also expanded massively – 50% of 18-30 year olds now attend university.

The U.K. Education market is also global, many students come here to study from abroad, and they tend to to pay a higher level of fees than UK citizens.

Early Years Education

in the 1980s there was very little pre-school childcare or education provided by the state, and this has been a huge area of expansion over the last 40 years.

All three and four year olds are entitled to 570 hours of free early education or childcare a year, equivalent to 15 hours a week (Gov.UK).

Unlike with the expansion of academies in the secondary and primary years of schooling, early child care provision is now the responsibility of Local Education Authorities.

Monitoring and Accountability

Monitoring has become increasingly sophisticated with the development of an education market.

Monitoring is now more centralised as more and more schools have converted to academies, come out of Local Education Authority of control and are now accountable to the Secretary of State for Education.

League tables have become the main means by which schools are held to account on a yearly basis with schools being required to publish annual progression data for students, with Progress 8 being the new benchmark for GCSE progress.

Schools are also monitored on their SEN data, number of exclusions and Ebacc performance.

OFSTED has expanded to include teams of inspectors and outstanding schools are now given light touch inspections whereas schools deemed to be in need of improvement are taken over by more successful academies.

Inequality of educational opportunity

Improving equality of educational opportunity has been a stated aim of every government since 1988, with New Labour doing the most through Sure Start, early academies and the Education Maintenance Allowance.

However, the Social Mobility Commission recently reported that the attainment gap has hardly shifted since 2014, and social class inequalities in educational achievement remain as a persistent feature of the education landscape.

Education Since 1979: 40 years of Neoliberalism…?

Looking back at the last 40 years of education policy it seems hard to argue that for the most part we have seen the influence of neoliberal ideology on education policy gradually transforming our education system into a quasi-market.

This seems to be especially true in the creation of a mass market in higher education but also in the establishment of academies and especially free schools where middle class parents get free reign use their cultural capital to effectively polarise education in local areas.

The strongest evidence for the influence of neoliberal ideology lies in the lack of progress around educational opportunities – after 40 years of education policy education remains a vehicle which allows for the reproduction of class inequality.

Possibly the one area of education policy where neoliberalism is less obvious is in the expansion of early years provision however we can just interpret this as being done so that parents are free to work in low-paid jobs, which is essential to capitalism.

Signposting and relevance to A-level Sociology

The above material is most relevant to students studying the education module as part of the AQA’s A-level sociology specification.

To return to the homepage:


Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

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