The North South Divide in Education

There is a clear north-south divide in education: children who live in the north of England are more likely to live in poverty and be absent from school, both of which are correlated with lower educational achievement.

This is according to a recent report published in 2021 called ‘Child of the North‘.

Child of the North: Key Findings

  • 27% of children who live in the North of England live in poverty compared to only 20% in the rest of England.
  • Only 14% received four or more pieces of offline schoolwork during lockdown compared to 20% in the rest of England.
  • Sure Start funding was cut harder in the North. Funding was cut by £412 per eligible child in the north, compared to £283 per child in the rest of England.
  • The report estimates that the cost of lost learning to children of the North will be equivalent to £24.6 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes.

Child of the North: Recommendations

The report makes 18 distinct policy recommendations. Taken together they represent a multi-agency approach which doesn’t just focus on schools.

The report recommends the government needs to invest in child health care and welfare services as well as education, focussing on early years care. This is the most effective way to make sure children are well fed and get a decent foundation before starting school.

The report is also a big supporter of schemes such as Sure Start.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

This report reminds us that social class inequalities remain today, and that there is a regional dimension to them.

The report supports the kind of education policies that New Labour introduced, such as Sure Start.

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

Assess the view that education policies since 1988 have improved equality of educational opportunity (30)

If you get a question on education policies, the chances are you will be asked about ‘education policies since 1988’. This post is designed to get you thinking about how you could use the info on the New Right’s 1988 Education Act and New Labour’s policies from 1997 onwards to answer an exam question in this area.

The New Right’s 1988 Education Act

Not interested in equal opps, mainly interested in raising standards… 

• Parentocracy – parents get to choose schools
• Marketisation – schools have to compete like businesses for students
• League tables to be published
• The above should raise standards as no parent would send child to failing school
• National Curriculum – ensures all schools teach core subjects
• OFSTED inspections

How 1988 worsened equality of opportunity… 

• Middle classes had more choice – cultural capital/ skilled choosers
• School/ parent alliance (Stephen Ball)
• Also selection by mortgage
• Polarisation of schools – sink schools

New Labour’s Policies

More interested in equal opps  

• Academies (Mossbourne) – set up in poorer areas
• Sure start
• Expanded Vocationalism

Other aims of New Labour/ criticisms of the idea that New Labour’s policies raised standards

• Sure start didn’t work
• EMA did work but the Tories have now scrapped it
• Academies did work but new Tory academies are more selective
• Vocationalism offers more opportunities to the lower classes, but it is regarded as inferior.

The coalition government

  • Introduced the pupil premium which was extra funding for schools to take on disadvantaged pupils, with the funding being spent specifically on disadvantaged pupils.
  • HOWEVER in the long run there is mixed evidence the pupil premium works as the funding sometimes gets spent generally, rather than on disadvantaged pupils.
  • The coalition scrapped the EMA, one of the few policies which seemed to have worked to promote equality of opportunity.

The Tory government since 2015

  • T-levels may promote equal opportunity by offering more choice for non academic students, this may also help raise the status of academic subjects, breaking the traditional view that they are inferior to academic A-levels.
  • Lockdown policies harmed equal opportunities as poor students lost out on more learning than rich students and then covid-catch up policies were insufficient to actually help students catch up.
  • Funding cuts to education over several years harm equal opportunities as state schools fall further behind private schools.
  • The tories expanded grammar schools by stealth – this harms equal opportunities as grammar schools are over-attended by the the middle classes.

Other Information you could include…

• Compensatory Education – lots to say here….

• You could talk about Gender and Ethnicity too….

Conclusions: have education policies promoted equality of opportunity?

  • The main policy of the last 40 years has been marketisation which allows middle-class parents more freedom to exercise their cultural, material and social capital to get their children into the best schools, which works against equality as it favours the rich.
  • There have been policies such as the EMA/ Sure Start and Pupil Premium designed explicitly to tackle inequality but these have mostly been short lived or underfunded and failed to make any significant difference.
  • However the attainment gap overall has decreased slightly which suggests that these policies haven’t harmed equal opportunities too much.
  • The continued existence of private schools is the policy which harms equality the most as these institutions are vehicles of privilege for the wealthiest to hot house their average kids into the best grades and the top jobs they don’t deserve.