In 2015 the Tory Party were returned to power with a single party majority having won an unexpected but significant victory in the May general election, and for education policy this meant a continuation of the conservative policies pursued under the previous Coalition government.
The Tory government continued the austerity policies which had been started under the coalition and while education budgets weren’t as badly cut as other areas of public spending, education policy from 2015 onwards can only be understood in the context of their being less money available than previously.
The National Curriculum was changed – the content of GSCEs was made more academically demanding and coursework and modular assessments replaced with end of year exams.
The grading system for GCSEs was also modified with the 1-9 grading system replacing the traditional A* to G grades from 2017 onwards.
Progress 8 was introduced as a measure of schools performance in 2016 which measured the average progress a school’s students make compared to the national average of students with the same prior achievement across eight approved subjects.
Leckie and Goldstein (2019) caution that school performance measures derived from pupil scores that do not allow for variation in pupil background favour schools with more educationally advantaged pupils in their intakes. Thus schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students are more likely to have lower Progress 8 scores.
The rest of this post considers some of the major policy changes introduced under the Conservatives…
NB for ‘Education Policy and the Pandemic’ will be dealt with separately via a different post.
Conservative Education Policy from 2015: A Summary
The main education policies enacted by the conservative government from 2105 were:
- Austerity and funding cuts of an average of 8% for schools
- Continuing the rapid conversion of LEA schools to academies and introducing more free schools
- Increasing the number of grammar schools and thus selective state education (subtly and largely by stealth)
- Continuation of the Pupil Premium
- Encouraging schools to shift to the EBacc.
- Introducing T Level Qualifications (16–19s)
Austerity and Education
The Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 Annual State of the Nation Review noted that since 2010 school funding has been cut back by 8%, by 12% for 16-19 year olds (per pupil), and hundreds of children’s centres have been closed.
While funding cuts don’t technically involve doing anything, this is still a policy choice and the fact that schools had 8% less funding in 2019 compared to 2010 has meant it has been more challenging than ever for schools to maintain standards.
Ebacc and technical education
The Tory government has majorly promoted the EBacc and intends for 95% of pupils to be following it by 2025.
The Ebacc has had a significant impact on other subjects in curriculum, with there being a reduction in the uptake on non Ebacc subjects such as P.E.
T Level Qualifications were introduced in 2020 for 16-19 year olds who wished to pursue a technical education rather than A-levels.
Pupil Premium funding continued under the Tory government from 2015.
Pupil Premium funding is additional funding to schools awarded for every pupil on Free School Meals.
Schools are monitored by OFSTED to make sure they are spending the money specifically on helping disadvantaged students who are underperforming compared to their peers.
Academies and Free Schools
The Tories continued to encourage the conversion of LEA schools to academies and conversion continued apace from 2015 until the Pandemic in 2020 when it slowed due to schools having to focus more on managing a ‘safe return’ to school after lockdowns and now helping pupils catch up.
The government initially wanted ALL schools to become academies by 2022 but gave up on this goal following strong resistance from mainly well performing primary schools who saw no advantage to leaving LEA control for relatively new Academy chains.
Free schools also expanded under the tories, adding on around another 200 Free Schools between 2015 to 2022, of which there are now just over 500 in England and Wales.
After 22 years of academisation 80% of secondary schools are now academies, accounting for 79% of all pupils, which means we effectively have an education market outside of the control of LEAs.
Primary schools are lagging behind – only 39% of primary schools are academies, accounting for 40% of all pupils.
The Tory party has been in favour of opening more selective state grammar schools.
Since 2010 successful Grammar Schools have been allowed to expand by establishing ‘annexes’ in other close-by towns and cities.
An example of this is Tonbridge Grammar school in Kent establishing an ‘annexe’ in Sevenoaks, 10 miles away, which is effectively a new school serving students in that area.
Grammar schools have also been able to expand by becoming sponsors of failing schools which reopen as academies under a multi-academy-trust headed by the grammar school.
Gorard and Siddiqui (2018) suggest that there are three main claims which are made in support of the policy of increasing the number of grammar schools.
- Pupils at selective grammar schools get better results than those at non selective schools.
- The poorest students at grammar schools do exceptionally well compared to their peers in non selective schools.
- Grammar schools have no harmful effects on other schools in the local area.
HOWEVER, Gorard and Siddiqui (2018) also say there is NO EVIDENCE to support any of these claims….
- Grammar schools perform better than non selective schools on the Progress 8 measure of achievement but this measure does not take account of other ‘environmental factors’ such as material deprivation – once you factor in these, grammar school performance is no better than non selective schools.
- FSM pupils may well do better at grammar schools but there are relatively few of them. It is likely that these are the exceptional few who are exceptionally motivated. FSM students at grammar schools are not representative of FSM students as a whole.
- This is just nonsense – the other schools around grammar schools become secondary moderns – grammar schools increase social and economic segregation in local areas.
Despite the flaws of grammar schools by allowing them to set up satellite schools the Conservatives have laid the grounds for the expansion of selective state education
30 hours free childcare for 3-4 year olds
In 2017 the Conservative government introduced a new policy allowing working parents to claim an additional 15 hours of free childcare per week for children aged 3-4 years for 38 weeks a year (the same as school). This means that eligible parents would have access to 30 hours of free childcare a year for their 3-4 year olds rather than the 15 hours free care which everyone gets.
To receive the additional 15 hours both parents (if there are two parents in the household) have to be working for at least 16 hours per week and earning between the minimum wage and £100 000 a year. Those earning more than £100K (net) a year aren’t eligible to apply.
Those NOT eligible for the additional 15 hours include…
- Any household where one or more parent isn’t working more than 16 hours a week.
- Any household where one or more parent is on benefits (those on disability benefits are eligible)
The idea behind this is clearly the classic line of ‘make work pay’ – where both partners are working they get more childcare, where both or one parent isn’t working the assumption seems to be that the other partner will be around to do the childcare.
Criticisms of this policy
The Sutton Trust point out that the above policy gives more support the relatively advantaged.
Under this policy households with working parents earning anything from (approximately) £6000 per year (£12000 if there are two parents in the household) up £200K per household per year would get the additional 15 hours of state funded childcare.
However The Sutton Trust also estimates that 80% of households in the bottom 30% by income would NOT be eligible because these are the households where one more partner is either working for less than 16 hours a week or on benefits.
It follows that the majority of children from the poorest third of society are getting LESS childcare than those in top two thirds of households, and missing out on the educational input which would come with that care.
Thus, this policy will probably increase the pre-school educational achievement gap.
Evaluations of Tory Education Polices since 2015
Tory policies since 2015 have primarily been about encouraging further marketisation which has been achieved primarily through the establishment of more academies and free schools.
We now have an education market in England and Wales with so few secondary schools left under LEA control that it’s difficult to see how we can ever go back to local democratic oversight of schools at a county or regional level.
The Tories have largely seemed concerned to please the middle classes by encouraging more grammar schools, despite evidence that they do no better on average than non-selective schooling.
In terms of raising standards the government is focussing on encouraging more students to take up the EBacc, but this potentially will result in a narrowing of the curriculum.
The establishment of T Levels seems to be about the only thing which is positively about improving diversity and choice for students, but it remains to be seen how successful these will be!
Education Policies are an integral part of the Education option for A-level sociology students studying the AQA’s specification.
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Sources/ Find out More
Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition