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