In May 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition government came to power. The Conservatives were the more dominant party and their views were correspondingly more strongly represented in education policy.
An ideological commitment to cutting public spending framed Coalition policy more broadly, and spending on education fell in real terms during this period, reflecting the ongoing influence of New Right/ neoliberal ideas on education.
Most of the Coalition’s education policies were designed to introduce more choice, competition and efficiency into the education market (furthering marketisation) such policies included:
- Forced academisation
- Free Schools
- Increasing university tuition fees
Some policies were nominally aimed at promoting equality of educational opportunity, namely:
- The pupil premium
- Introducing bursary schemes for some further and higher education students.
It is debatable how committed the coalition was to improving equality of educational opportunity because their marketisation policies increased inequality and they scrapped some of New Labour’s previous policies such as the Education Maintenance Allowance.
In reality their policies designed to ‘improve’ equality in education were weak and probably put in place to make it look like they were doing something rather than actually effectively promoting equality of opportunity.
The rest of this post looks at some of Coalitions education policies in more detail…
Whereas New Labour had focused on opening up academies in the most deprived areas of the country in order to improve equality of educational opportunity, the Coalition made it possible for any school to convert to an academy (converter academies), aiming to make academy status the norm for all schools.
Under the Academies Act of 2010, schools graded as outstanding were automatically eligible to convert to academy status (if they wished to do so) and in 2011 this was extended to all schools which were performing well.
As the academisation process evolved, schools which received an OFSTED grading of satisfactory or below were forced to convert to academies even when the majority of parents (90% in some cases) did not want the school to convert to an academy.
Failing schools which were under the control of Local Education Authorities could either be shut down or taken under the sponsorship of already existing academies or Multi Academy Trusts, hence they were (and still are) referred to as sponsored academies.
The growth of academies under the coalition was extremely rapid…
By 2013, there were 3,304 academies in England – almost 15 times as many as in May 2010, when there were 203 academies. By the time of the general election in 2015 (the end of the Coalition) over half of all secondary schools were academies.
The Coalition also oversaw the growth of academy chains: around 2000 schools are now in academy ‘chains’ with around 400 schools leading these chains, working with others to raise standards.
The Coalition introduced a new type of school: Free Schools, which took their inspiration from Sweden.
A Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by a non-profit charitable trust.
Unlike Academies, Free Schools are new schools, many of which are run by parents. They are not required to follow the national curriculum, as long as they teach English Maths and Science, and they do not have to employ qualified teachers.
Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.
Evaluations of Free Schools
The main criticism of Free Schools are that they are a drain on other schools in the local area: if parents withdraw students from other local schools, those schools will suffer reduced funding (following formula funding), which is a problem given the fact that there will be a duplication of resources.
Evidence also suggests that Free Schools benefit children from high income households, but do nothing for children from low income households, thus they use tax payer money to increase social class inequalities: Research by Shepherd (2012) found that free schools took in a lower proportion of FSM pupils compared to other local schools, while Rebecca Allen (2010) summarises the Swedish experience of Free Schools as one which benefits children in affluent, middle class urban areas.
You can browse Free Schools (and other school types) on Snobe.co.uk, you just have to set the Filter to ‘Free Schools’…
The Fairness Premium
The fairness premium was the coalition’s main policy suite to reduce inequality of educational achievement and close the attainment gap.
The fairness premium would be used to fund disadvantaged children aged 2 to 20 and two of the main specific policies to be funded were additional pre-school education and the pupil premium
The Coalition expanded early years education so that disadvantaged two to four year olds were entitled to 15 hours per week of pre-school education, which was in addition to the 15 hours already available to three to four year olds which has been introduced under New Labour.
The aim of this early intervention was to try to address the poor language skills which disadvantaged children generally had before entering school, which represented a significant gap in cognitive development between disadvantaged children and those from wealthier backgrounds. (Research by Fenstein (2003) for example had show a pre-school gap of up to 3 months in reading ability.)
However, the additional 15 hours of schooling a week introduced by the Coalition was really a myth because they cut funding for Sure Start which was effectively doing the same thing as this initiative and so this wasn’t really anything additional at all.
The Pupil Premium
Introduced in 2011, the Pupil Premium involved giving schools extra funding based on the number of Free School Meals (FSM) pupils they took in. Schools would received an additional £600 for every child (year 1 to year 11) who was eligible for Free School Meals or who had been looked after for six months or longer.
In 2015 the Pupil Premium was extended to include early education years.
Schools were supposed to spend their pupil premium funding specifically on helping disadvantaged pupils – for example on extra lessons for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or more one to one support, which was monitored primarily through OFSTED.
One problem with the Pupil Premium was that by 2015 the government itself admitted that children from disadvantaged backgrounds continued to get worse GCSE results, and so the policy had had limited impact on reducing the attainment gap.
In some parts of the UK more than 40% of pupils receive Pupil Premium funding (2021 figures).
The Education secretary Michael Gove believed that New Labour’s curriculum was sub standard and so initiated a whole curriculum review, and a new curriculum framework was published in 2014
The rhetoric behind this review was that of raising standards (as it always is) but with a renewed focus on traditional subjects and forms of assessment.
Gove’s curriculum review introduced the following changes in 2014:
- The content of the national curriculum was made more challenging but also narrower, with more of a focus on core knowledge and key skills.
- The old levels of attainment were scrapped.
- The Ebacc became a more important measure in league tables, which made arts and technical subjects less important as these were not in the Ebacc.
- Coursework elements of GSCE and A-levels were scrapped and replaced with exams.
- A technical baccalaureate was introduced for 16-18 year olds.
Higher Education Policies
The Coalition scrapped all direct funding to universities from the government with the exception of some STEM subjects and from 2012 universities were to obtain their teaching income directly from student fees. The coalition raised the limit on tuition fees for Higher Education to £9000 per student.
Tuition fees were largely funded by students loans, which were also available to students to fund their costs of living while studying and these loans were not to be paid back until graduates were earning £21 000 a year.
Most universities ended up charging the full £9000 tuition fees and these changes saw the introduction of a fully fledged market in higher education, with students now being regarded as consumers and more emphasis being put on quality of student experience.
The government also required all universities to promote fair access to HE and introduced a fees bursary scheme for students from the very lowest income households.
There was also concern at the time that a divide would open up between the traditional Russel Group universities which received additional funding from research as well as teaching and the post-1992 old Polytechnic universities which relied much more heavily on tuition fees.
Scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance
The Coalition scrapped the EMA scheme, and replaced it with a £180 million bursary scheme, targeted at those in the very lowest income households, and given directly to schools and colleges, rather than paid to individual students.
Evaluation of Coalition Education Policies
- Standards have continued to increase
- The attainment gap (between FSM and non FSM pupils has decreased)
- All this by spending less.
- Free schools reduce funding for other local education authority schools, advantaging middle class parents
- The scrapping of the EMA lowered the stay on rate in Further Education.
- Considerable regional inequalities remain—for example up north and coastal areas.
Signposting and Related Posts
Coalition policies are studied as part of the AQA A-level sociology’s Education module.
Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com
Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives
Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition
2010-2015 Government Education Policy, Department for Education.
Other useful Sources
Earlham’s Sociology Site has lots of information on Coalition Policies