The Neoliberal Perspective on Education

Neoliberalism holds that education systems should be run according to free market principles. Neoliberals believe that education should be privatised both endogenously and exogenously, parents and students given more choice and voice and they also advocate for more top down surveillance and performance management.

Neoliberalism has been the dominant economic ideology shaping social policy in Britain and many other countries since the early 1980s.

This post outlines four key ideas associated with a neoliberal view of education including:

  1. Competition between schools (‘endogenous’ privatisation)
  2. External (exogenous) privatisation of education
  3. Choice and voice for parents and pupils
  4. Surveillance of teachers and top down performance management.

Neoliberalism has influenced education in Britain since the New Right were in power from 1979 to 1997, during New Labour (1997 to 2010) and since the Coalition and Conservative reign which started in 2010 and continues to this day with the recent coronation of the unelected multimillionaire and darling of the neoliberal global economic elite Rishi Sunak.

While neoliberal ideas have transformed education in Britain over the last 40 years, although we are nowhere near having a pure free-market system in education system, and many neoliberal ideas have been ‘restrained’ by more social democratic (left wing) thinking.

Endogenous Privatisation

Endogenous privatisation is where public sector organisations are made to work in a more business like way by creating ‘quasi-market systems’.

The main policy which introduced endogenous privatisation in England and Wales was the 1988 Education Reform Act, enacted by the New Right government under Thatcher who was strongly influenced by Neoliberal ideas.

The Reform Act introduced League Tables and gave parents choice over what school to send their children to. Schools then had to compete for pupils as funding was linked to how many pupils they attracted (known as formula funding).

The problem with this type of endogenous privatisation was that it led to cream skimming and polarisation:

The best performing school in league tables were oversubscribed and skimmed off the higher ability students, the worst schools had to just take the lower ability students that were not chosen by the best schools. This resulted in the better performing schools getting better and the lower performing schools getting worse (polarisation).

Another problem was that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the better schools would exclude any students who were naughty to keep their results high.

Successive education policies up until the present day have had to ‘tweak’ the above competitive education system to try and stop schools from excluding weaker students and to encourage a wider range of schools to take on lower ability students.

Two ways they have done this is to modify League Tables so they now show ‘value added’ – what a school adds to a student’s ability based on where they started, rather than ‘pure grades’, and they’ve linked funding to how long a student stays in school to try and cut down on exclusions.

The Pupil Premium also encouraged schools to take on higher numbers of disadvantaged students who typically have lower academic performance by linking more funding to those students.

Exogenous Privatisation

Exogenous privatisation is privatisation from the outside through new providers – it where private companies take over services which had previously been run by the public sector.

Exogenous privatisation was advanced mainly under the New Labour government (1997 to 2010) and the Coalition and Tory government and has been a gradual process which continues to this day.

An example of exogenous privatisation in education is Connexions career services taking over career advice from schools. Careers advice had previously been done in-schools through in-house careers advisors who were on the payroll of the schools and thus the state. Today more and more schools ‘outsource’ their careers services to connexions which is a privately run company which operates for a profit.

Another example is companies such as Pearsons playing a more central role in producing text books and running GCSE and A-level exams.

Exogenous Privatisation isn’t purely a free-market activity as it doesn’t involve parents and pupils paying money directly to companies like Connexions and Pearsons. Rather, it is where the government takes tax payers money and gives it to these companies rather than the government employing people directly and paying them to run these services.

The theory is that companies can run aspects of educational services more efficiently than the government.

Increased choice for Parents

Given parents choice is necessary for there to be an education market. Parents need to be able to choose which schools to send their children too in order for schools to compete for pupils.

The general idea is that increased competition will incentivise schools to raise standards.

But New Labour and the New Conservatives (from 2010) have also been pushing an increase in both diversity of school provision and personalisation of learning, which both reflect a move towards a late-modern consumer culture within education.

Increasing school diversity

Two main policies have increased school diversity – the introduction of academies in the late 1990s under New Labour and then the introduction of Free Schools under the Coalition Government.

Academies increased diversity by getting a much wider range of companies involved with running schools. England and Wales now have dozens of academies and academy chains, and well over 50% of secondary schools are now academies.

Free Schools took diversity and choice to a new level – any group of parents, charity, organisation can apply to run a free school and as long as they come up with a viable model and there is demand they will be approved.

There are currently over 500 Free Schools in the United Kingdom, offering able parents the most choice they’ve ever had in running their own school.

Increased personalisation of learning

Teachers are now expected to tailor their teaching to individual students. You see this most obviously in independent learning plans and learning agreements and periodic reviews of progress with individual students.

Top Down Performance Management

A final aspect of neoliberal education policy is top down management which involves more surveillance of teachers and pupils.

Many academies are huge chains with one ‘super head’ at the top, some on salaries of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The super head is effectively the CEO of the academy chain and he or she monitors the performance of all the schools in that chain.

And the heads of individual schools monitor the performance of their staff within their own schools.

If one school within the chain is underperforming, the management may well be sacked and a new manager/ headmaster shipped in, possibly from another school in the chain.

All of this has meant increased surveillance of schools, teachers, pupils, so that regular assessments of progress can be made by those at the top and suitable interventions made to tackle underperforming schools and individuals.

Taking over of failing schools

One aspect of increased surveillance is that schools deemed to be failing or even ‘acceptable’ in OFSTED reports are subject to forced acadamisation. This was a big thing under the Coalition government from 2010.

This meant that failing or acceptable LEA schools (funded through local government) were handed over to existing academy chains to be run by them, and to have their budgets managed by the academy chain rather than the local authority.

Signposting and Related Posts

The requirement to learn the neoliberal perspective on education was introduced to the education topic within the AQA A-level sociology specification in 2015.

Neoliberalism is closely related to the New Right, and I think it’s accurate to say that the former informed the later, but Neoliberalism is broader than the New Right, so it is NOT CORRECT to say they are the same thing, as you will find to be the case in the 2016 edition of Haralambos.

However, for the sake of the mid-level sociology student aiming for a C or B grade, you can probably mix the two up and treat them as the same in any essay question on the New Right and/ or Neoliberalism and still get a B grade (you could probably even get an A grade) for the essay as there is considerable overlap between the two!

If you’re interested in reading my take on the difference read this post: The New Right and Neoliberalism: An Introduction.

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Sources

This post is a further summary of The Neoliberal Approach to Education Reform which is itself a summary of Stephen Ball’s (2013) The Education Debate.

Evaluating the New Right’s Perspective on Education

results have improved since marketisation, but at the expense of teaching the test and widening class inequalities.

In this post I provide four pieces of evidence students can use to evaluate the New Right’s perspective on education, particularly their claim that Marketisation policies since 1988 have raised standards for all pupils.

Item A: GCSE Pass Rates

Probably the strongest piece of supporting evidence for the New Right’s policies on education is that they have worked to improve GCSE results nearly every year for the last 30 years:

The latest reports focusing on the long term trend are a bit dated, such as this one from The Guardian, but it clearly shows a long term improvement in grades at GCSE:

Despite recent dips in top grades, this 2013 report from Full Fact, which also focuses on the long term trend in results since 1988 points out that:

  • The pass rate for grades A*-C has increased by almost two-thirds from 42.5% in 1988 to 68.1% in 2013.
  • A*/A grades have almost trebled from 8.6% in 1988 to 21.3% in 2013.

However, the report also recognizes that some of this is due to grade inflation as this increase in performance is not mirrored by English and Welsh students in international tests, such as PISA BELOW.

Item B: PISA international league tables

(http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/)

The PISA league tables demonstrate how the neoliberal/ New Right idea of ranking educational achievement has gone global – Since the year 2000 we now have International Education League Tables.

Since the year 2000, every three years, fifteen-year-old students from randomly selected schools worldwide take tests in the key subjects: reading, mathematics and science, with a focus on one subject in each year of assessment. In 2012, some economies also participated in the optional assessments of Problem Solving and Financial Literacy.

Students take a test that lasts 2 hours. The tests are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that are organised in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered.  Students take different combinations of different tests.

PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.

The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader school system and learning environment.

The UK currently ranks 23rd for English and Maths.

Item C: Stephen Ball (2003)

argues that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. They have the knowledge and skills to make the most of the opportunities on offer. Compared to the working class they have more material capital, more social capital – access to social networks and contacts which can provide information and support.

Ball refers Middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. For example, they use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer. They collect and analyse information about GCSE results, and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

Ball also talked of the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general, the schools with more middle class students have better results. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market.

Item D: Sue Palmer – The Problems of Tests, Targets And Education

Sue Palmer Is usually introduced in Families and Households module. She argues that technological and social changes have made modern childhood ‘toxic’, and testing in education (because of league tables and The New Right) is part of this problem. Sue Palmer writes…..

‘As long as league tables exist, in a risk averse society most people daren’t ignore them. Primary schools at the top of the league (which, by a strange coincidence, tend to be in the wealthiest areas) have a reputation to maintain; those at the bottom have to try to claw a little higher. The status of all interested adults (teachers, governors, parents) depends on how their Year Sixes perform in national tests.

So from four years of age, our children now live in the shadow of SATs. ‘No time for play in the reception class now,’ one teacher told me ruefully. ‘As soon as they arrive, it’s fast forward to the Key Stage One test.’ The curriculum is dominated by the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, broken down into a series of discrete‘learning objectives’ – closely matched to ‘assessment criteria’ – to be ticked off as children progress through the school.

There are ‘voluntary’ SATs for each year group, so children’s progress (and teachers’ competence in coaching their pupils) can be checked every summer. Then, in Year Six, come several months of concentrated exam practice, ‘booster classes’ during the Easter holidays for those who might not scrape the required mark, and sleepless nights for 11-year-olds terrified of ‘letting themselves down’ on the day.

Not surprisingly, this regime leaves far less time for creative but unquantifiable experiences, like art, drama and music, which through the millennia have nurtured children’s imaginations and contributed incalculably to their emotional and social development. Less time also for the active, hands-on learning children need if they’re genuinely to understand the concepts underpinning the tests.

Last year researchers found that the conceptual understanding of today’s 11-year-olds lags two to three years behind their counterparts in 1990. While performance on pencil-and-paper tests of has soared over this period, children are apparently less likely to understand the principles they’ve been trained to tick boxes about.

Research published recently by the independent Alexander Review of primary education shows that – on tests other than those for which children are coached – there have been only modest improvements in mathematics, and little change in literacy standards. And in last month’s PIRLS survey of international achievement in literacy, England had actually gone backwards, slumping from 3rd to 19th place.

Related Posts

This topic is part of the ‘perspectives on education’ topic and ‘education policies’, links to both can be found on the education home page.

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Hungary’s tax break for breeders

Hungary’s Right Wing government recently announced a new social policy exempting women who have more than four children from income tax for life.

There are also other financial incentives designed to encourage families to have more children – such as loans of up to £27,000 which will be partially or fully written off if the couple go on to have two or three children.

The stated aim of the policy is to reverse the country’s population decline so that Hungary does not have to rely on migrant workers in the future.

The Prime Minister, Victor Orban stated that women having fewer and fewer children was a problem all over Western Europe, and that the solution tended to be to increasingly rely on immigrants in the future, to replace the ‘missing’ native children. Orban believes that Hungarians would rather have Hungarians working in the future rather than immigrants.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is an unusual example of a right wing (New Right) policy explicitly designed to encourage marriage and the more babies being born (it seems within nuclear families).

At the same time it is pro-nationalist and and anti-immigration, hence anti-globalisation.

I guess from a narrow minded ‘Hungary first’ Nationalist perspective if makes sense in a ‘defend our boarders’ sort of way.

Unfortunately in itself it’s going to do nothing to actually stem the flow of migrants to Europe from poorer non-European countries, and neither is it going to do anything to curb global population growth – surely from a globalist/ environmentalist perspective what we need is wealthier countries having fewer babies, and more migrants from areas where the birth rate is still high to fill jobs in developing countries in the future?

This is a great example of an unusual family policy, quite extreme in nature, and also a good example of how short-sited Nationalism is.

Evaluate the view that the growth of family diversity has led to a decline in the nuclear family (20)

An example of a top band answer (17/20) to a possible question on the AQA’s 7192/2 topics in sociology paper (families option, section A)

This is an example of a 17/20 top band answer to the above question, as marked by the AQA.

In the pictures below, I’ve highlighted all of the candidate’s evaluations in red to show you the balance of knowledge and evaluation required to get into the top mark band!

This is also a good example of a borderline Band 4-Band 5 answer… it just wants a little more evaluation to go up even higher.

The mark scheme (top two bands)

Sociology essay mark scheme

Student’s Response (concepts highlighted in blue, evaluation in burnt orange)

NB It’s the same response all the way through, I’ve just repeated the title on the two pages!

 

Family diversity essay 2018

A-level sociology essay full marks

 

KT’s commentary

This is a bit of a bizarre essay, but this is a good example of how to answer it.

Without the final paragraph it would be floundering down in the middle mark band!

 

Source 

AQA specimen material 2016

Coalition Education Policy (2010-2015)

The coalition government continued the marketisation of education. They introduced Free schools, forced acadamisation, increased university tuition fees, but also the Pupil Premium.

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 educational policy.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove – The Education Secretary under the Coalition Government – Tended to Listen to Himself rather than Education Professionals.

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 strong influence of New Right/ neoliberal ideas on education during this period.

Most of the Coalitions education policies were designed to introduce more choice, competition and efficiency into the education market (furthering marketisation) such policies include:

  • 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

Although 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 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…

Forced Academisation 

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 academization process evolved, schools which received a satisfactory or below OFSTED grading 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 (sponsored academies).

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.

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.

Free Schools 

The Coalition also introduced a new type of school: Free Schools, which took their inspiration from Sweden.

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 anon-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.

Free schools are covered in much more detail in this post

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 are a matter of using 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 coalitions 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).

Curriculum Reform

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.

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Sources 

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

 

Education Policy Under New Labour

New Labour increased funding for education and expanded the number of standard assessments for pupils and targets for schools. They introduced academies, specialist schools, sure start, education action zones and the education maintenance allowance.

When they first came to power in 1997, Tony Blair, the leader of Labour Party (dubbed ‘New Labour’*) announced that his priorities were ‘education, education and education‘.

The main objectives of New Labour’s education policy were to simultaneously raise standards in order to create a skilled labour force to compete in the global knowledge economy and to achieve greater equality of opportunity by making education more inclusive and through improving the experience of education for all.

New Labour education policy

New Labour and the Third Way

The 1997-2010 New Labour party/ government wanted to change the image and perspective of their party so that they could appeal to a wider type of voters.  They wanted to appeal to the middle classes, who traditionally voted Conservative, as well as working classes, who had traditionally tended to vote Labour.   So they renamed themselves ‘New’ Labour.  This meant that some of their beliefs were in line with “New Right” views which are more commonly associated with the Conservative Party, and some continue with traditionally ‘Old’ Labour or Social Democratic views.

Antony Giddens has characterised New Labour as being ‘the third way’ between traditionally left and right wing ideas, and when we look at their education policies we can see that some were influenced by Neoliberalism and the New Right and others by more social democratic ideals.

New Labour education polices inspired by the New Right

The New Right emphasised the importance of introducing free-market principles into education in order to make schools more competitive and give parents more choice.

New Labour carried this on by keeping all of the main policies associated with marketisation (league tables, OFSTED etc.) and by increasing the number of specialist schools; they also increased the role of the private sector in education through academies and Private Finance Initiatives.

They also increased expenditure on vocational, work-related training, which was in line with New Right ideas that education should prepare children for the world of work. 

New Labour also introduced a range of new vocational education policies, but that will be dealt with in a future post.

New Labour education policies inspired by the Social Democratic perspective

The Social Democratic view of education emphasised improving equality of opportunity and tackling social disadvantage through state education.

New Labour introduced many policies to promote equality of educational opportunity, or in New Labour’s new terminology to promote ‘inclusion’ one of the Key Buzz Words of the period.

The main policies introduced to achieve these goals included Academies, Sure Start, Education Maintenance Allowance and also a general increase in state-expenditure on education

Curriculum Reforms under New Labour

There were a number of basic curriculum reforms introduced under New Labour

  • There was a renewed emphasis on the teaching of essential skills – such as literacy, numeracy and I.T.
  • There was an increased focus on personalised learning to address individual learning needs of students
  • Citizenship classes were introduced to help address increasing social fragmentation.
  • The nationals curriculum was made more flexible with more vocational elements being added in as options.
  • A Levels were modernised and made modular with the introduction of AS Levels
  • Vocational diplomas were introduced for 14-19 years olds and many more vocational courses made available to 16-19 year olds.

Increased focus on Assessments and Targets

Labor Increased the Number of Assessments and Targets schools were subjected to.

New Labour largely welcomed the testing and assessment regime introduced by the Conservatives. They increased the number of targets schools had to reach, as well as the amount of information which schools had to publish in league tables.

League Tables were changed so that schools had to publish data on ‘value added’ – the difference between the level of achievement students came into a school with (measured through SATs) and what they left with (ultimately still measured by GCSEs.

New Labour continued to assess schools regularly using a range of ‘target indicators’ such as pupil achievement Key Stage Tests, GCSEs and A Levels, OFSTED inspections and also truancy and exclusion rates.

These measures were applied differently depending on how a school was performing. For those which received an outstanding grade there was a light touch inspection regime, meaning partial inspections, but those deemed to be unsatisfactory were forced into being taken over by better performing schools or Academy Trusts.

Specialist Schools

Labour greatly expanded the role of specialist schools 

State secondary schools can apply to become specialist schools in one or two of ten specialisms (e.g. maths, science, sports etc.). In order for their application to be successful, they need to raise £50 000 from private sector sponsors, which will be matched by the government. Specialist schools are allowed to select 10% of their students who show an aptitude in the schools specialist subjects (which relates to the selective education topic, this is a form of selection by aptitude). 

Specialist schools demonstrate New Labour’s rejection of the Old Labour idea of the ‘one size fits all comprehensive school’. Specialist schools provided diversity and offered more parental choice, fitting in with the New Right’s marketisation agenda. According to the then education secretary Estelle Morris ‘ Specialist schools and Colleges will have a key contribution to make in raising standards and delivering excellence in schools’. (Chitty 2002)

In 1997 New Labour inherited 196 specialist schools from the Conservatives. Then years later, there were over 2500 specialist schools, over 75% of all specialist schools.

Academies

The academies programme introduced by New Labour was primarily aimed at failing schools and by May 2010 there were 203 academies in England. New Labour thought that Academies could both raise standards and tackle inequality of educational opportunity simultaneously.

Traditionally schools have been overseen by local education authorities who have managed funding of local schools, admissions policies, term dates, pay for staff and other aspects of education in their areas, and they have provided a number of services to schools as well.

New Labour broke this control by Local Education Authorities by setting up the first Academies in 2000.

Academies are schools which receive their funding directly from central government and are completely independent from local councils and can set their own term dates, admissions policies; staff pay levels and much more. It is argued the extra freedom for schools gives allows them raise standards.

Academies are sponsored by an organisation which is responsible for overseeing the running of the schools. Sponsors could include businesses, charities and faith groups. For example, Lord Harris, the owner of “Carpet Right”, runs the Harris Academies which now operate 23 schools, including the Harris Academies in Purley, Crystal Palace and Merton. Commercial sponsors which take over schools must provide £2 million of additional finance.

A 2010 study by Stephen Machin (Machin and Vernoit 2010) found that academies that had been open for at least 2 years had 3% more students who achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A-C.

However, critics of academies say that the only reason they achieve better results is because they take fewer pupils with special needs or behavioural problems.

Sure Start

Sure Start Children’s Centres are responsible for delivering services for children under 5 and their families.

The core purpose of Sure Start Children’s Centres are to improve outcomes for young children (primarily aged 2-4) and their families, with a particular focus on the most disadvantaged families, in order to reduce inequalities in child development and school readiness.

Four core aims of Sure Start Centres included:

  • To provide high quality and affordable early years education and childcare.
  • To raise Parenting aspirations, self esteem and parenting skills.
  • To improve child and family health, primarily through providing education and information about local health services.
  • To acting as a hub for the local community, building social capital and cohesion.

In centres in the 30% most disadvantaged areas extra the centres provides childcare for a minimum of 10 hours a week, while in more affluent areas, support was limited to drop-in activity sessions for children, such as stay and play sessions.

By 2010, there were over 3300 Sure Start Centres.

A major evaluation of Sure Start programmes examined over 7,000 families in 150 Sure Start areas and found that while parents valued them, there was little measurable improvement in child development, with the exception of lower levels of childhood obesity.

Every Child Matters

There were a number of high profile child abuse cases in the 1990s and early 2000s, which had raised public concern about failing child welfare services which should have prevented such cases.

An example of these failures was the death of Victoria Climbie: a report into her death found that it was avoidable had different welfare services which had been in contact with her and her family communicated more effectively with each other.

This led to the Children Act of 2004 and the publication of Every Child Matters: Change for Children which stated that children should be put at the centre of public services and those services built around their needs, rather than the other way around.

Every Child Matters meant that teachers were expected to liase more with other child professionals as necessary and it also paved the way for a massive expansion of learning support departments which saw an increase of additional support staff in schools working with pupils.

The five common outcomes for children emphasised by ECM were:

  1. Being healthy
  2. Staying safe
  3. Enjoying and achieving
  4. Making a positive contribution
  5. Achieving economic well-being.

Education Maintenance Allowance 

Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was paid to students aged 16-19 who were from lower income families. Students received the funding if the attended all there lessons and achieved their performance targets. The funding was designed to help with the hidden costs of education and there was a progressive approach, with the least well of pupils receiving £30 a week and the better off pupils received £20 or £10.

The Expansion of Higher Education

Traditionally Higher Education was entirely funded by the state which paid not only the tuition fees but also maintenance grants for students to live off while studying.

This was fine while the numbers of students attending university were relatively small, but the steady increase in numbers during the 1980s meant that by the early 1990s the funding of universities had reached crisis point and it was no longer sustainable for the tax payer to carrying on funding Higher Education.

From 1990 the Maintenance grants were gradually reduced and replaced by student loans to cover living costs, and the 1998 Education Act abolished grants altogether and introduced student contributions to tuition fees, starting at just over £1000 per year.

Then the 2004 Education Act extended top up fees allowing universities to charge up to £3000, but students did not have to pay this money back until they were earning £15000 a year.

Student contributions for fees were not increased further than £3000 per student under New Labour but by the end of their term in office in 2010 Universities were making it clear that couldn’t carry on delivering a world class education service at the then current levels of funding.

Under New Labour the number of university students increased from 1.2 million to 1.8 million, an increase of 50% in 13 years and they doubled between 1992 and 2016….

Other Education Policies under New Labour

Two other historical policies which fed into the policies above which you should know about include:

Education Action Zones 

Education Action Zones were set up to raise the attainment levels of students in low income, inner city areas. By 2003 there were 73 EAZs in England, funded by central government with additional funding from business. An action forum, made up of parents and representatives from local schools and businesses and from local and national government ran each zone.

One OFSTED report on EAZs praised some initiatives, such as homework and breakfast clubs. The report found some improvements in standards at Key Stage 1, but no change at Key Stage 3 or GCSE.

Excellence in Cities

The Excellence in Cities programme gradually replaced EAZs, targeting local education authorities in deprived areas. The main initiatives of EiC were special programmes for gifted students, city learning centres with IT facilities, learning mentors and low-cost leasing for home computers.

Various reports evaluating the EiC programme produced mixed results: in general they indicated only limited success and the EiC programme was ended in 2006.

Evaluation of New Labour’s Education Policies

New Labour successfully raised standards in education, but they were much less successful in reducing inequality of educational opportunity – the ‘attainment gap’ between working class and middle class children remained stubbornly high under New Labour.

Focusing on the successes, it’s important not to understate the importance of this as an achievement – the number of students passing 5 good GCSEs (the early academies helped here), and progression onto Further (EMA helped here) and Higher Education increased steadily under New Labour.

Specialist schools were very successful in raising standards, however, this was largely because they selected a disproportionate amount of middle class pupils.

New Labour’s focus on targets and performance suggests that they believed the causes of educational underachievement lay with the schools themselves, rather than deep seated social issues such as poverty and inequality, and in this sense much of New Labour’s education policy just carried on neoliberal ideas from the previous Tory government.

In terms of tackling social class inequalities, most of their policies failed (except for the early academies and the EMA) – EAZs, EiCs and Sure Start were appear to have ultimately been a waste of money in this regard.

Paul Trowler (2003) argued that Labour were unrealistic in their expectations of what education could achieve in terms of tackling social class inequality. As Trowler sees it, education alone cannot tackle deep-rooted social inequalities.

Ball (2017) notes that the choice policies introduced by New Labour tended to benefit the middle classes more as they were able to use their cultural and material capital to choose the best schools while the working classes who lacked the means to exercise choice ended up having to send their children to the local schools which became sink schools.

Ultimately New Labour’s policies may have just ended up reinforcing social inequalities.

Signposting and Related Posts

This material is extremely important for any A-level sociology student studying the education module as part of the AQA specification.

If you’re simply here to game the A-level sociology education exam, then please click here for the abbreviated revision version of these class notes. 

Sources:

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

Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives

Office for National Statistics – Education: Historical Statistics

The 1988 Education Reform Act

The New Right’s 1988 Education Act introduced marketisation to British schools, through league tables and open enrolment. This post explores some of the strengths and limitations of these policies.

The 1988 Education Reform Act was based on the principles of making schools more competitive (marketisation) and giving parents choice (parentocracy). The act introduced GCSEs and league tables and laid the foundations for our contemporary competitive education system.

It is the most significant policy that students need to be able to understand and evaluate within the education module for A-level sociology.

The act was introduced by the New Right and this post starts off by exploring their ideas about education and then covers the specific details of the act itself, before evaluating the impact of 1988 Education Act.

Core Aims of The New Right in Education

The New Right refers to a set of ideas that emerged in the 1970’s. It has significantly influenced the policies of the UK Conservative Party and is a set of political beliefs about how the country should be run. New Right ideas have most been mostly strictly followed by the Conservative when they have been in power in the UK firstly, 1979-1997 and again since 2010.

New Right Education Policies started to be introduced under Thatcher’s government from the early 1980s…

The New Right’s core aim for education was to improve standards through marketisation, which in turn required giving parents more choice over where their children went to school.

Marketisation

Marketisation means creating an “education “market”. This is achieved through making schools compete with one another for pupils and government funding, in the same way in which businesses compete with each other for customers, sales and profits.

Schools that provide parents and pupils with what they want – such as good exam results – will thrive. The better performing schools will attract more pupils and more funding and be able to expand.

Those schools that don’t perform so well will go out of business and either close down or be taken over by new management who will run things more efficiently.

Parentocracy

Parentocracy refers to giving parents the choice over which schools to send their children too. (In literal terms, it means ‘the rule of the parents’.)

For marketization to work parents must have a choice of where to send their children. Parental choice directly affects the school budget – every extra pupil means extra money for the school. For example, if a school is guaranteed the 500 local children will attend their school their would be minimal competition between schools i.e. minimal competition for funding the policy won’t work unless parents a choice over which school to send their pupils to! To make this word schools have been required to publish a prospectus which includes their examination and test results since 1988.

Private schools have always operated on these principles – they charge fees and compete with each other for customers.  The New Right believed that state schools should also be run like this except that it is the government that funds the schools, not the fee-paying parents.

The New Right’s theory was that marketisation would improve efficiency in schools, which should automatically be achieved by making schools more competitive 0 therefore reducing the education budget.

(NB another aim of the New Right in education was to ensure that education equipped children with the skills for work, thus contributing to economic growth)

The New Right’s 1988 Education Reform Act put in place the policies which aimed to achieve the goal of raising standards. This is the act which more than any other has shaped the modern education system. The 1997 New Labour and the 2010 Coalition Government which followed kept to the basic system established in 1988.

The 1988 Education Act: Specific Details 

League Tables

The New Right introduced school league tables in which schools were ranked based on their exam performance in SATs, GCSES, and A levels. The tables are published in many newspapers and online.   The idea behind league tables was to allow parents to easily assess which schools in their local areas are the best. A bit like “What car?” magazine, but for schools.

Back in 1988 these League Tables were only available as government publications and in school’s prospectuses, but obviously today these have evolved so that they are now searchable for any school online!

League Tables today, accessible online!

The New Right theorised that League tables would force schools to raise standards because no parent would want to send their child to a school at the bottom.

The National Curriculum

The national curriculum required that all schools teach the same subject content from the age of 7-16. From 1988 all schools were required to teach the core subjects English, Maths, Science etc at GCSE level. GCSE’s and SAT’s were also introduced as part of the National Curriculum.

The logic behind league tables was that with all schools following the same curriculum it made it easier for parents to compare and choose between schools (parentocracy), and GCSE and SATs meant every student, and more importantly, every school was assessed using the same type of exam.

OFSTED

Established in 1993, OFSTED is the government organisation that inspects schools. OFSTED reports are published and underachieving school are shut if they consistently receive bad reports. The aim of OFSTED is to drive up standards. The aim of this policy is to raise standards

OFSTED Raised standard because a poor inspection could result in new management being imposed on underperforming schools.

Open Enrolment (parental choice)

Open Enrolment is where parents are allowed to select multiple schools to send their children too, but only specifying one as their ‘first choice’.

The result of this was that some schools became oversubscribed, and these were allowed to select pupils according to certain criteria. The government stipulated some criteria (children with siblings already at the school got preference for example, and those closest to the school also got preference) but eventually the government allowed some schools to become ‘specialist schools’ where they were allowed to select 10% of their intake due to aptitude in a particular subject – maths, music or sport for example. Also, faith schools were allowed to select on the basis of faith.

Formula Funding

From 1988 funding to individual schools was based on how many pupils enrolled in that school. Thus an undersubscribed school where fewer parents chose to send their children would decrease in size and possibly close, while an oversubscribed school could, if properly managed, expand.

The declining power of Local Education Authorities

The 1988 Education act gave more power to parents to choose which school to send their children too and more power to heads of school to manage their own budget, and these two changes together meant that Local Education Authorities lost a lot of their control over how education was managed at the county level.

Prior to the 1980s it was the Local Education Authorities which allocated pupils to schools in their local areas, and it was the Local Education Authorities which decided school numbers. Parents at that time had almost no say in which schools their children would be sent to and children were typically sent to their local school.

From 1980 parents were allowed to express a preference for the school they wanted to send their children too, the first time parents were realistically able to consider sending their children to schools miles away from where they lived. This started off the process of schools marketing themselves to parents to increase demand for their schools.

Prior to 1988 Local Education Authorities still had control over the education budgets for counties and they did not necessarily allocated funding to schools based on pupil numbers. They might in fact give extra money (in per pupil terms) to schools which were struggling to attract students in order to help them improve.

From a Neoliberal and New Right perspective the above is fundamentally flawed logic as it means that successful schools which are attracting more pupils are subsidising worse performing schools and so the 1988 Act required that LEASs hand over their money directly to schools based on pupil numbers (formula funding) which removed the power of LEAs to control local budgets.

It was this that then set the scene for successful schools to be able to expand and failing schools to collapse (and, following further policy changes later on under New Labour and other successive governments) to be taken over by successful schools.

The 1988 Education Act: Evidence that it Worked…

  1. Probably the strongest piece of supporting evidence for the New Right’s policies on education is that they have worked to improve GCSE results nearly every year for the last 30 years.
  2. There’s also the fact that no successive government has actually changed the fundamental foundations of the act, which suggests it’s working.
  3. Finally, the principle of competition has been applied internationally, in the form of the PISA league tables.
GCSE pass rates 1988 to 2016

However, an important point to keep in mind is that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation – GCSE results may have improved over the last 30 years WITHOUT marketisation policies.

Also, just because powerful governments have expanded marketisation on a global scale, this doesn’t necessarily mean it works for everyone, and there are plenty of criticisms of the negative consequences of the 1988 Education Act – as below…

Criticisms of the 1988 Education Act

Below I summarize EIGHT criticisms of the 1988 Education Act

League Tables distort teaching and learning

  • There has been criticism that the curriculum in schools has become more narrow over the years. as schools devoted more time to teaching core subjects which are assessed in SATs such as English and Maths and less time teaching creative subjects such as music and art.
  • schools increasingly ‘teach to the test’ – In order to look good in league tables which may stifle children’s ability to think critically and laterally.
  • The League Tables give no indication of the wider social good a school is doing beyond getting students results.

SATS harm children’s mental health

Concern has been expressed over the harmful effects of over-testing on pupils, especially younger pupils. Focusing on exam results and league table position causes stress for pupils as more pressure is put on them to perform well in SATS

One recent 2018 survey of primary school teachers found that more than 90% of primary school teachers think SATS impact negatively on their pupils’ well-being.

Rich Parents have more Choice of Schools

The Middle Classes have more effective choice because of their higher incomes

  • Selection by mortgage -houses in the catchment areas of the best schools are more expensive, meaning those with money are more likely to get into the best schools
  • Transport costs – middle class parents more able to get their children to a wider range of schools because they are more likely to own two cars.

Cultural Capital gives the middle class more choice

The Middle classes have more effective choice because of their greater cultural and social capital

  • Stephen Ball (2003) refers to middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’ – they are more comfortable dealing with schools and use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending schools on offer. They are also more used to dealing with and negotiating with teachers. If entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.
  • Ball refers to working class parents as disconnected choosers – lacking cultural and social capital they tend to just settle for sending their children to the local school, meaning they have no real choice.

The best schools cream skim

Schools become more selective – they are more likely to want pupils who are likely to do well

Stephen Ball talks of the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general the schools with more middle class students have better results. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market.

Polarisation

Inequality of Education Opportunity increases – the best schools get better and the worst get worse.

  • The best schools become oversubscribed – often with four or more pupils competing for each place. This means that these schools can ‘cream skim’ the best pupils – which means they get better results and so are in even more demand the next year. Schools are under pressure to cream skim because this increases their chance of rising up in the league tables.
  • Building on the above example… The next best school then skims off the next best students and so on until the worst schools at the bottom just end up with the pupils who no one wants. The schools at the bottom turn into sink schools…they just get worse and worse as no one chooses to go to them.

The experience of schooling becomes very negative for failing students

  • More testing means more negative labelling for those who fail
  • Schools put more effort into teaching those in the top sets to improve their A-C rates
  • Students who go to sink schools stand little hope of doing well.

Signposting

This post has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology who are studying the education module in their first year.

This act is the major policy change of the last 50 years in British education, and associated with the ideas of the New Right.

Students will usually move on to study New Labor’s Education policies after this one.

Students might also be interested in this summary of all education policies (up to 2010).

 Sources used to write this post

Information in this post was derived from a selection of the main A-level sociology text books.

Are League Tables Good for Education?

The New Right introduced league tables into the UK education system in 1988, and today they are part of the ‘education furniture’, but what are the pros and cons?

Arguments and evidence that league tables have benefitted education

  • Politicians say that accountability keeps the teaching profession on its toes and drives up standards.
  • According to Prof Simon Burgess there is some evidence to support this – In 2001 the Welsh assembly stopped the publication of secondary school “league tables” and this resulted in a significant deterioration in GCSE performance. The effect amounted to around two GCSE grades per pupil per year – that is, achieving a grade D rather than a B in one subject.
  • League tables also give parents information on how the schools they are contemplating sending their children to are performing, and they do offer a very simple way of comparing schools (Easy for everyone to understand!).

Arguments and Evidence against League Tables

  • League tables do not give a rounded picture of everything going on in each school: they focus exclusively on academic achievement and don’t show whether the school ethos is right for their particular child, or how likely their child is to be safe and happy in that particular school.
  • Schools at the top of the league tables can create a “property price bubble” where parents will pay vastly inflated property prices to live near a top school, which prices out the majority of parents from the catchment area of the best schools.
  • School league tables put pressure on schools and students to achieve, this can distort the basic values and principles of education: there is a lot teaching to the test for example.
  • Schools lower down the league tables suffer a stigma of being branded ‘in need of improvement’ which may have all of the effects associated with negative labelling.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20628795

Is Google Sexist?

In a memo published in August 2017 a (male) Google engineer suggested that gender inequality in the technology industry in general and Google in particular is not due to sexism, but due largely to biological differences between men and women.

The memo was called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and the guy who wrote it was James Danmore. His short answer to the question ‘is Google sexist’ would be ‘no, in fact quite the opposite – Google subscribes to a leftist ideology and actually practices unfair authoritarian discrimination in favor of women over men’.

Google's Ideological Echo Chamber

This memo is a great example of a New Right view on gender inequality – basically that men are naturally (biologically and psychologically) better suited to the demanding, analytical type of jobs that exist necessarily?) in a highly competitive tech industry.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded by saying that the memo suggested harmful gender stereotypes and sacked Danmore. Needless to say this whole incident has provoked a strong response from both the left and the right.

All I’m doing for now in this post is to summarise the key points of the work, to make it more accessible to students, as it’s an excellent example of a New Right point of view on gender roles. At some point I’ll get round to adding in some of the responses and criticisms of Danmore’s work.

Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – A Summary of the Main Points

(Full Text – Googles-Ideological-Echo-Chamber)

Danmore starts off the article by outlining (crudely) the difference between left and right ideologies, before suggesting that his list of possible biological causes of the gender gap (below) are ‘’non-biased”

 It’s also worth mentioning that Danmore does qualify a lot of what he says, stating more than once that he doesn’t deny that sexism exists, he also states that there is considerable ‘biological overlap’ between men and women, so there are plenty of women who are biologically predisposed (as he would put it) towards techy jobs and leadership.

I’ve cut out quite a lot of the text, so as to just include the main arguments and evidence (there’s not much evidence cited) – anything in normal text is word for word from the original, anything italicised are my additions.

 Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech:

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

  • They’re universal across human cultures
  • They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
  • The underlying traits are highly heritable
  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.

Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Danmore includes the following diagrams to make his point:

Googles Ideological Echo Chamber

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more (this heading is linked to a Wikipedia article on sex differences in psychology)

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas.
  • Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing.
  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.
  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance) – This may contribute to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

In this section Danmore cites two journal articles (all other links are not academic so I haven’t included them) to back up his views:

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs.

These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail.

Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

  • Danmore doesn’t cite any authoritative evidence to back up the views in this section. 

The rest of the document

There are four further sections in the document in which Danmore covers:

  • Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap – actually he makes some pretty sensible suggestions here IMO, such as making work more collaborative.
  • A section on the harm of Google’s biases
  • A section on ‘why we’re blind’ – i.e. why we’re blind to the apparent ‘objective truth’ of the fact that men are leaders because they’re less neurotic etc.
  • A final section of suggestions – in which he basically suggests that we should be more tolerant of conservative views and not discriminate in ‘authoritarian ways’.

 

 

Changing Education Paradigms

In this TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson argues that our current educational systems are still based on a industrial paradigm of education – education is increasingly standardised and about conformity, and kids, who are living in the most stimulating age in history, fail to see the point of going to school, which is about ‘finding the right answers to pass the tests’ rather than about stimulating divergent thinking.

One of our major solutions to the plague of distracted kids (alienated by a system the don’t identify with) is to medicate them to get them through school, whereas what really needs to change is the system itself – we need a paradigm shift, rather than mere reform.

Current Education systems are not fit for the future 

Every country on earth is in the process of reforming its education system. There are two reasons for this:

  • The first is economic – countries are trying to figure out how to prepare children for work when we simply don’t know what work will look like in the future.
  • The second is cultural – countries are trying to figure out how to pass on their ‘cultural genes’ while at the same time having to respond to globalisation.

The problem with current processes of educational reform is that we are trying to tackle the future by doing what we did in the past and we are alienating millions of kids in the process, who simply can’t see the point of going to school.

When generation X when to school, we were motivated by a particular story: that if we worked hard and got good grades, we could get to college, get a degree and get a good job. Today’s children do not believe this, and they are right not to: getting a degree means you will probably get a better job, but is no longer guaranteed to get you a decent job!

The education system is rooted in an industrial paradigm 

The problem with the current education system is that it was conceived in the cultural context of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution. It emerged in the nineteenth century, which was the first time which compulsory public education, freely available to all and paid for by taxes was established.

The Modern education system was originally founded on an ‘us and them’ mentality as many thinkers in the 19th century seriously believed that ordinary street kids could not cope with it, and it is also founded on an Enlightenment concept of the mind – which favours a knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning, what we might call ‘academic knowledge’.

The system thus divides people into ‘smart people’ (academics) and ‘non-smart people’ (non-academics) and while this has been great for some, most people have not benefited from this system, in fact Ken Robinson argues that the main effect is that it has caused chaos.

We medicate our kids to get them through education

Statistics on prescriptions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suggest that America is suffering from an ADHD epidemic – we are drugging our kids with Ritalin as a matter of routine. However, Robinson suggests that this cannot be an epidemic as the rates of prescription vary from West to East – they are much higher in the East of America, which suggests that this is a fictitious epidemic – it’s the system that’s choosing to medicate a ‘problem’ which is only a problem because the system has labelled it thus.

What’s really happening is that our kids are living through the most information rich age in history – they are bombarded with information from many sources through T.V. and the Internet – they are in a way, hyper-stimulated, and yet our response is to punish them for getting distracted from ‘boring stuff’ in school.

Robinson suggests that it is no coincidence that the incidents of prescriptions for ADHD corresponds closely to the rise in standardised testing.

The increasing use of drugs such as Ritalin to medicate kids means that we are effectively getting our kids through school by anaesthetising them.

The school system is run for the benefit of industry, and in many senses along industrial lines, mirroring a factory system of production in at least the following ways:

  1. Ringing bells
  2. Separate facilities
  3. Specialised subjects
  4. We still educate children by batches (‘as if the most important thing about them is the date of their manufacture’).

Increasingly education is about conformity, and you see is in the growth of standardised curricula and standardised testing. The current paradigm is mainly to do with standardisation, and we need to shift the paradigm and go in the other direction.

factory-model-education.jpg
The factory model of education

The education system kills creativity 

There was a great study done recently on divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creative thinking – it is the ability to see lots of possible ways of interpreting and answering a question; to think laterally and to see many possible answers, not just one.

An example of this simply to give someone a paper clip and to get them to think of as many different uses for the paper clip as possible – someone whose good at this will be able to think of hundreds of uses for the paper clip by imagining that it can be all sorts of sizes and made out of all sorts of different materials.

Cites a Longitudinal study (taken from a book called ‘Break Point and Beyond) in which Kindergarten children were tested on their ability to think divergently, and 98% of them scored at ‘genius level’; the same children were retested at ages 8-10, but only 50% of them scored at genius level, and again at 13-15, where hardly any of them scored at genius level.

This study shows two things: firstly, we all have the inherent capacity for divergent thinking and secondly it deteriorates as children get older.

Now lots of things happen to these kids as they grow up, but the most important thing is that they have become educated – they’ve spent 10 years being told ‘that there’s one answer and it’s at the back, and don’t look and don’t copy’.

The problem we have is that the industrial-capitalist mode of education is deep in the gene-pool of the education system, it is an educational paradigm which will be hard to shift.

Shifting the Education Paradigm

We need to do the following to shift the industrial-capitalist education paradigm:

Firstly, destroy the myth that there is a divide between academic and non academic subjects, and between the abstract and the theoretical.

Secondly, recognize that most great learning takes place in groups – collaboration is the stuff of growth, rather than individualising people which separates them from their natural learning environment.

Finally, we need to change the habitual ways of thinking of those within the education system and the habitats which they occupy.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology 

This can be used to criticise New Right approaches to education, as well as New Labour, The Coalition and the present Tory government – because all of them have kept in place the basic regime of testing introduced in 1988.

There’s also something of a link here to Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle – in which the Hidden Curriculum mirrors the work place, because the system is still based an industrial model.

Robinson seems to be suggesting we have a more post-modern approach to education – freeing schools and teachers up so they can encourage more creativity in the classroom rather than being constrained by the tyranny of standardised testing.

Limitations of Ken Robinson’s Perspective

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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