This 2019 Panorama documentary is a case study in the effects of education funding cuts on one primary school in a deprived area of the U.K. in 2019.
This 30 minute documentary follows one primary school in a deprived area exploring the impact of cuts to education funding since 2010, and investigating the strategies adopted by the school management to deal with these funding cuts.
This particular school seems to have been hit especially hard because of its location in an area with high levels of material and cultural deprivation, meaning it educates a high proportion of disadvantaged children.
The main strategy adopted by the school is to reduce the number of support staff – a number of special education needs (SEN) pupils require additional support in class and we see how the school is facing the possibility of cutting up to seven support staff.
As a result, the parents of one pupil with autism have made the decision to pull him out of mainstream education and get him a place in a specialist school, because of the threat of his support worker disappearing, evidence of schools becoming less inclusive.
One of the staff being sacked is the librarian, and so some of the older pupils are being trained up to manage the library.
One of the initiatives the management insist on keeping alive is the school food bank: pupils who have limited food at home (maybe because their parent’s pay check has been delayed) can take home food parcels.
Relevance to A-level sociology
There are several examples of what material deprivation looks like in real life (lack of food etc.) and how this has a negative impact on students’ education.
Useful for adding to analysis of the effects of New Right/ Neoliberal education policy (cuts to education funding)
This is a good example of how education funding cuts have a negative impact on education, having a disproportionately negative impact on SEN pupils and pupils from deprived backgrounds.
However, at the same time this particular case study is an example of how such funding cuts can be managed effectively in order to minimize negative impact. This might suggest support for the New Right – IF we get competent management in schools, we can still provide a decent standard of education with fewer resources.
Having said that, Marxists might argue the selection of this school for this documentary is ideological – it gives the impression that ‘good management’ can still, on the whole, provide an effective education for most students, without the whole system falling apart.
The broader truth could be that the cuts are having more negative effects, but we don’t see this because of selection bias in sampling (we see a school with good management doing OK rather than average management struggling to cope).
Methodological strengths and limitations
Good validity (to an extent) as we get to see the negative consequences of educating funding cuts in one school, however one has to question the selection of content for the documentary – this is entirely focused on the negatives – for every pupil impacted negatively, there might be 10 who have hardly been impacted at all – the later kind of students don’t make for an interesting documentary.
Limited representativeness – this is only one school among thousands, and it’s unlikely the experience of this school will mirror the experience of other schools. The management and staff at this school are probably more competent than in the average school – the less competent you are, the less likely you are to let a film crew in to film you for a few months!
Ironically this documentary aired around the same time as Boris Johnson announced an increase in education funding, so it’s potentially already out of date. However, IF we come out of the EU without a deal this might send the economy into a downward spiral and the squeeze on education funding may continue.
Finally, while useful to ‘bring to life’ complex sociological issues, always keep in mind that documentaries are themselves social constructions, which reflect the biases of the producers.
Most of these schools are part of a ‘multi academy trust’, and once a school joins one of these trusts, then it no longer exists as a legal and financial entity in its own right – it is wholly ‘incorporated’ by the Trust.
In terms of standards and results, this is generally advantageous when a Trust is performing well, but when a chain performs badly, individual schools are now just stuck with that trust, with no way out, no means of lifting themselves out of the situation. There’s an interesting Observer article about this here.
There is some case study evidence that suggests some academy trusts are fraudulently claiming money from the government for school improvement works, and then spending considerably less. One example of this is the Bright Side Academy Trust which runs 10 schools in England: it claimed £556 000 to demolish and rebuild some unstable sports hall walls in one school, but then simply installed some steel supports to the existing walls at a cost of £60, 000.
And what can the individual school in these trusts do about their dire situation? Absolutely nothing. They are basically ‘stuck suffering in the chain’.
This is a feature of the new education landscape I hadn’t really considered before: the possibility of there being ‘batches’ of schools in one trust that end up sinking to the bottom together in certain areas of the country.
Was it ever realistic to expect the academy model to improve failing schools anyway?
The flagship early academies, most notably Mossbourne Academy, was a huge success, getting excellent results with some of the most disadvantaged children in London: but that was 2010, that was the flagship that had £23 million spent on it, and there have been additional motivation from it being a role-model.
Now that academies are generalised, now that they’ve become the norm – it appears that there are good academy chains, and there are bad academy chains, surprise surprise!
in fact this shouldn’t be any surprise. Given that most of the main barriers to educational achievement are all external to the school (such as material deprivation), it was always unlikely that simply changing the structure of how schools are organised )from an LEA to an academies model) was going to make a difference in the long run.
I mean, new academies don’t get any more money than LEA schools, and while they might gain from economies of scale, this can’t make that much difference. It’s not as if they can afford to pay a 50% premium to address the shortage in science teachers for example, and it’s not enough to combat the radical hardships that the bottom 10% or so face at home.
Supporting evidence for the view that grammar schools are good for equality of educational opportunity and social mobility, but the methods are a bit suspect!
A recent paper by the Higher Eduction Policy Institute found that 45% of pupils at selective schools come from households with below median income, which suggests a very ‘fair intake’ across the social class spectrum.
45% of pupils selected to grammar schools come from the poorest 50% of households, which suggests that children from the poorest 50% of households have a near equal chance of being selected to a grammar school compared to the wealthiest 50%.
The chances of being selected aren’t quite equal, but once you factor in all of the ‘objective’ material deprivation related barriers to education which children from low income households face, then this seems to suggest that grammar schools are doing a pretty good job of providing equality of educational opportunity where household income is concerned.
It’s more common to look at selection in relation to Free School Meal (FSM) households, which represent the bottom 15% of households by income. By this measure, only 3% of pupils on Free School Meals get into grammar schools.
Grammar schools are also good for social mobility
The report also looked at the chances of grammar school educated children getting into highly selective universities (defined as the top 1/3rd by academic performance, not the ‘Russel Group’) compared to children in non-selective (or just regular comprehensive) schools.
It found that:
39% of pupils in selective school areas progress to highly-selective universities, compared to only 23% in comprehensive areas (so nearly twice as likely)
3% of selectively educated pupils get into Oxford or Cambridge compared to only 1% from regular state schools.
a state school pupil with a BME background is more than five times as likely to progress to Oxbridge if they live in a selective area rather than a non-selective area.
The report also looked at other things and made some policy recommendations. Check it out at the link above!
limitations of the study
NB – the stats immediately above are NOT looking at how well the bottom 50% of students by household income do, they are looking at all students from state and grammar schools. The study makes something of a leap of faith and assumes that ‘because 45% of students at grammar schools are from the poorest 50% of households then these have exactly the same chance of getting into a good university as students from the top 50% of households’.
This may not be the case if we isolate out the bottom two quintiles. Interestingly the report says the DFE were not prepared to release this data!
Also, if it is only grammar schools (rather than comprehensive schools) that are doing this, then it is a good argument for expanding selective education as the Tories want to do.
It’s also an important illustration of how measuring a concept differently gives you different results – if looked at by Free School Meals, it looks like grammar schools are not providing equality of educational opportunity, but if you use wider income categories and compare the bottom 50% with the top 50% then they appear to be doing so. And if you look at how well the poorest 40% do (rather than the poorest 15% on FSM), they also allow for social mobility. NB – this would be a great analysis point in any sociology essay on this topic.
Compensatory Education aims to tackle cultural deprivation by providing extra funds and resources – examples include Operation Head Start, Education Action Zones and Sure Start
Compensatory Education aims to tackle cultural deprivation by providing extra funds and resources to schools and communities in deprived areas.
Three examples of Compensatory Education are:
Operation Head Start
Education Action Zones
Operation Head Start
Operation Head Start was a multi-billion-dollar scheme of pre-school education which took place in America in the 1960s.
It was a programme of ‘planned enrichment’ for children from deprived areas and consisted of the following:
Improving parenting skills
Setting up nursery classes
Home visits by educational psychologists.
Using mainstream media to promote the importance of values such as punctuality, numeracy and literacy.
Education Action Zones
Education action Zones set up in in 1997. These programmes directed resources to low-income, inner city areas in an attempt to raise educational attainment.
Sure Start was one of the main policies New Labour introduced to tackle poverty and social exclusion.
The aim of Sure Start was to work with parents to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of babies and young children.
The aim of Sure Start was to create high quality learning environments to improve children’s ability to learn and help parents with supporting their children in this process. The idea was to intervene early and break the cycle of disadvantage
The main specific outcome of Sure Start was the establishment of 3500 Sure Start Centres, initially established in low-income areas. These centres provided ‘integrated’ family, parenting, education, and health care support. Parents could attend Sure Start centres with their pre-school children for up to 12 hours a week.
Criticisms of Compensatory education
Critics have argued that by placing the blame on the child and his/her background, it diverts attention from the deficiencies of the educational system.
Compensatory education policies are likely to only have limited success in raising achievement because they involve quite a modest redistribution of resources to poor areas. They are unlikely to do much for the inequalities in the wider society which lead to poor achievement
Early intervention may be intrusive – it involves monitoring the poor more than the rich.
Compensatory Education is the solution to cultural deprivation, so any of the criticisms of cultural deprivation theory can also be applied to Compensatory Education.
Neoliberal ideas were much stronger in the Coalition government’s education policies—in a context of public sector cuts, they focused mainly on the further marketization of education, scrapping many of New Labour’s policies to tackle inequality of opportunity
Funding cuts to education
Spending on education in the UK fell by almost 15% between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The government argues it needs to do this pay of the country’s debt.
However, critics say this is an ideological commitment to keeping taxes low. The Coalition could easily find the money to fund education if it taxed the rich more.
The Coalition greatly increased the number academies, by allowing any school to convert to an academy if the school and parents wanted it and by forcing ‘satisfactory’ or below schools to become academies.
Free Schools—free schools are new schools set up by parents or charitable organisations. They are free from the National Curriculum and give parents even more choice over schooling.
Policies to improve equality of opportunity
Scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowance AND Reduced funding to Sure Start Centres
Introduced the Pupil Premium—schools to get extra funding for each student they take from a low income household (approximately £600 per poor kid)
Introduced maintenance HE grants for children from low income backgrounds.
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.
Exam practice question –
Outline three reasons why government education policies aimed at raising educational achievement among disadvantaged groups may not always succeed. [6 marks]
Answer using the (1+1) format – give a reason and explain how… do this three times for a total of 6 MARKS!
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.
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.
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)
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).
By 2013, there were 3,304 academies in England – almost 15 times as many as in May 2010, when there were 203 academies, and today more than two-thirds of all secondary schools are now either open as academies or in the pipeline to become 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.
Evaluation of Academies
There is little evidence to suggest that academies today do better than LEA schools when you compare like with like.
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 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.
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.
Further and Higher Education
The Coalition also raised the limit on tuition fees for Higher Education to £9000.
Policies Designed to Tackle Inequality of Educational Opportunity
The Pupil Premium
Introduced in 2011, the Pupil Premium involved giving schools extra funding based on the number of FSM pupils they took in – worth approximately £600 per FSM pupil.
One criticism of the Pupil Premium Policy was that it did not necessarily get spent on FSM pupils.
Further and Higher Education
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.
In Higher Education, the government required all universities to promote fair access to HE and introduced a fees bursary scheme for students from the very lowest income households.
Overall Evaluations 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.
Harlambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives
New Labour were in power from 1997-2010, and during those years they certainly introduced an impressive range of new education policies – some of which were inspired by New Right principles and focused on enhancing marketization: increasing competition between schools and choice for parents, and others which were inspired by old social democratic principles, focusing more on improving equality of educational opportunity and helping the disadvantaged.
New Labour also introduced a range of new vocational education policies, but that will be dealt with in a future post.
New Labour polices inspired by the New Right
The New Right emphasized 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 marketization (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 PFI initiatives; and they 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.
Specific details of how neoliberal ideas influenced New Labour education policy
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 seletive education topic, this is a form of selection by aptitude).
Specialist schools demonstrate New Labour’s rejection of the Old Labour idea of of the ‘one size fits all comprehensive school’. Specialist schools provided diversity and offered more parental choice, fitting in with the New Right’s marketization 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 schols from the Conservatives. Then years later, there were over 2500 specialist schools, over 75% of all specialist schools.
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.
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.
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 policies inspired by the Social Democratic View of education
The Social Democratic view of education emphasized improving equality of opportunity and tackling social disadvantage through state education. 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.
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.
Aan 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 Citiies programme gradually replaced EAZs, targetting local education authorities in deprived areas. The main initiatves 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.
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.
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 school have been overseen by local councils who have managed 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. In return, schools have given councils 10% of their funding. This ensured uniformity across a council area and meant the provision of education could be managed effectively.
Academies are schools which are no longer controlled by local councils and they get to keep 10% extra funding for their schools. More importantly, academies 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 behavioral problems.
The 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.
Evaluation of New Labour’s Education Policies
In short, 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.
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.
Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives
*The 1997-201 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.
The New Right’s 1988 Education Act introduced marketisation to British schools, through league tables and open enrollment. This post explores some of the strengths and limitations of this set of policies.
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.
Core Aims of The New Right in Education
The New Right’s core aim for education was to improve standards through marketization, which in turn required giving parents more choice over where their children went to school.
Marketisation – Refers to aim of making schools compete with one another for government funding i.e. the better a school does the previous year the more money a school receives the following year. This essentially makes schools into “businesses” competing with one another i.e. making an education “market”. Schools that provide parents and pupils with what they want – such as good exam results – will thrive, and those that don’t will go out of business and either close down or be taken over by new management who will run things more efficiently.
Parentocracy – The New Right’s views education and parents as the customers. 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.
A second core aim of education was to improve efficiency in schools, which should automatically be achieved by making schools more competitive 0 therefore reducing the education budget.
(A third aim of the New Right in education was to ensure that education equipped children with the skills for work, thus contributing to economic growth, but for more on this see the post on Vocational education.)
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
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.
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.
Established in 1988, 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.
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.
Open Enrolment and selection
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.
Arguments and Evidence for the 1988 Education Act
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.
There’s also the fact that no successive government has actually changed the fundamental foundations of the act, which suggests it’s working.
Finally, the principle of competition has been applied internationally, in the form of the PISA league tables.
Having said all of the above, just because powerful governments have expanded marketization, 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
Focusing on exam results and league table position causes stress….
Concern has been expressed over the harmful effects of over-testing on pupils, especially younger pupils.
League Tables distort teaching and learning
schools increasingly ‘teach to the test’ – In order to look good in league tables which may stifle children’s creativity and broader learning and expand again
Schools put more emphasis on core subjects than on creative subjects
The League Tables give no indication of the wider social good a school is doing beyond getting students results.
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.
The Middle classes have more effective choice because of their greatercultural 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.
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.
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.
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.
Sources used to write this post
Information in this post was derived from a selection of the main A-level sociology text books.
Neoliberalism is the idea that less government interference in the free market is the central goal of politics.
Neoliberals believe in a ‘small government’ which limits itself to enhancing the economic freedoms of businesses and entrepreneurs. The state should limit itself to the protection of private property and basic law enforcement.
Neoliberalism is most closely associated with Thomas Hayek and Milton Friedman, and the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Neoliberals advocate three main policies to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society: privatization, deregulation and low taxation.
Some examples of Neoliberal Policies include:
Lowering taxes on income, especially high income earners. When Thatcher came to power in 1997 she reduced income tax on the very highest earners from 83% to 60%.
Lowering Corporation tax – The government reduced the main corporation tax from 28% in 2010 to just 21% in 2014.
Privatising public services – Privatisation began under the Thatcher government of 1979 and continues today (2017). Britain’s rail, energy and water industries all used to be run by the state, but now they are run by private companies. Education and Health services are also being ‘privatised by stealth’, as more and more aspects of these services are contracted out to and run by private sector companies.
Reducing the number of rules and regulations which constrain businesses: This involves national and local governments monitoring private businesses less: by reducing the number of ‘health and safety standards’ businesses need to conform to and doing fewer health and safety and environmental health inspections for example.
Further Background on Neoliberal Thought
Neoliberalism emerged in the 1950s as a reaction against ‘Keynesianism’ – the idea that nation states should play a significant role in managing free market capitalism through high taxation in order to provide public services such as unemployment benefit, free health care and education (‘the welfare state’).
Keynsianism itself was a development of the earlier doctrine of ‘Liberalism’ which believed that individual freedom was the central goal of politics. Obviously the question of what kind of society allows for the most or best freedom is open to debate, but by the 1950s a consensus had emerged that ‘liberty’ was best guaranteed if the state provided a high degree of regulation of the economy and investment in social welfare.
Neoliberals such as Friedman believed that this ‘Keynesian’ model of organising the economy was inefficient, one of the reasons being that it restricts the freedoms of successful economic actors to reinvest their money as they see fit, because the state takes it away from them through taxes and gives it to the less successful, which in turn can create a perverse situation in which society punishes success and rewards laziness.
Evaluations of Neoliberalism
Arguments for neoliberalism
What right does the state have to tax money earnt through individual effort, innovation and risk?
Neoliberals argue that the private sector run services more efficiently than the state sector.
The argument for deregulation is that red-tape stifles business.
There are many critical voices of neoliberalism, mainly from the left and from within the green movement. Some of the main criticisms can be summarised as follows:
Cutting taxes on the rich has resulted in greater inequality and a lower standard of public services, especially for the poor.
Privatisation of public services has resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the majority to the rich –
Deregulation has made society less safe and stable – critics blame deregulation of the finance sector for the 2007 financial crash and the deregulation of health and safety legislation as being linked to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
It can be difficult to evaluate the impact of neoliberalism because the term is so broad, and there is actually quite a lot of disagreement over what it actually means.
Even if we just focus on the policy aspect of neoliberalism – and try to evaluate the impact of lowering taxation, privatisation and deregulation, you would almost certainly need to break these down and look evaluate the impact of each aspect separately, and maybe even subdivide each aspect further to evaluate properly.
White working class underachievement is persistent and real, but contemporary government reports are potentially biased in that they might fail to take seriously critical (left wing) analysis of issues such as this. Students might like to read the summary below, and check out the actual full report and consider whether or not this report provides a full picture of the causes of white working class underachievement, or whether its agenda is limited by ideological (neoliberal) bias…
A summary and sociological analysis of a recent government report on white working class underachievement….
Summary of the Government Report on White Working Class Underachievement
The summary below is taken from the House of Commons Education Committee on Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children, First Report of Session 2014-15
The possible causes and contributors to white working class underachievement are many and various, and include matters in home life, school practices, and wider social policies. We received evidence on a broad range of policy areas and relevant factors, many of which fell outside education policy. Our report holds a mirror up to the situation—it does not attempt to solve the problem on its own—but it is clear that schools can and do make a dramatic difference to the educational outcomes of poor children. Twice the proportion of poor children attending an outstanding school will leave with five good GCSEs when compared with the lowest rated schools, whereas the proportion of non-FSM children achieving this benchmark in outstanding schools is only 1.5 times greater than in those rated as inadequate. Ofsted’s inspection focus on performance gaps for deprived groups will encourage schools to concentrate on this issue, including those that aspire to an “outstanding” rating.
Our inquiry focused on pupils who are eligible for free school meals, but there are many pupils just outside this group whose performance is low, and it is known that economic deprivation has an impact on educational performance at all levels. Data from a range of Departments could be combined in future to develop a more rounded indicator of a child’s socio-economic status and used to allocate funding for disadvantaged groups. The improvement in outcomes for other ethnic groups over time gives us cause for optimism that improvements can be made, but not through a national strategy or a prescribed set of sub-regional challenges. Schools need to work together to tackle problems in their local context, and need to be encouraged to share good practice in relevant areas, such as providing space to complete homework and reducing absence from school.
Policies such as the pupil premium and the introduction of the Progress 8 metric are to be welcomed as measures that could improve the performance of white working class children and increase attention on this group. Alongside the EEF “toolkit”, our recommendation for an annual report from Ofsted on how the pupil premium is being used will ensure that suitable information on how this extra funding is being used.
An updated good practice report from Ofsted on tackling white working class underachievement would also help schools to focus their efforts. Meanwhile, further work is needed on the role of parental engagement, particularly in the context of early years.
The Government should also maintain its focus on getting the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and should give more thought to the incentives that drive where teachers choose to work. Within a school, the best teachers should be deployed where they can make most difference. Schools face a battle for resources and talent, and those serving poor white communities need a better chance of winning. White working class children can achieve in education, and the Government must take these steps to ensure that that they do.
While the summary recognises that a number of factors contribute to white working class underachievement, including policy and home based factors it basically (obviously?) ends up concluding that the problem can be fixed by individual teachers and schools within the existing system, without making any major changes to the current system.
The evidence cited to support this view is that ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds do not significantly underachieve compared to their richer peers (the message being ‘if they can do it, so can poor white kids); and the fact that ‘schools can and do make a difference’.
The suggested strategies to improve the standards of white working class kids include:
Schools dealing with the issues in their local contexts (fair enough I guess)
Schools ‘sharing best practice’
Getting the best teachers to where they are needed the most – which mainly means coastal areas (although there is no mention of how to do this)
Yet more monitoring by OFSTED (into how the Pupil Premium is being used)
Doing more research on how to engage parents, implying that they are somehow to blame.
What is NOT considered is the broader social and cultural inequalities in the UK and the possibility (some may say FACT) that the education system is actually run by and for the middle classes and white working class kids just see it as ‘not for them’, as this research by Garth Sthal suggests:
Garth Stahl worked as an educator in predominantly white working-class and boy heavy schools in London for nine years and recently spent one year researching the educational experiences and aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in order to better understand how they came to understand the educational provision provided to them.
He argues that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of a much larger social, cultural and economic inequality, which plagues the British education system, in which pupils’ performance has an extraordinarily strong positive association with social class.
A summary of his research is as follows:
Schools negatively label white working class boys as ‘lacking in aspiration’ and write many of them off before the enter the school building, putting them in lowest sets and paying less attention to them, as they believe they have no chance of achieving 5 A-Cs.
White working class boys are well aware of how they are negatively labelled in educational environments, and the poor quality of education they are receiving, and also the constraints of their social class position.
In response, they often excluded themselves from the school’s neoliberal “aspirations” agenda of university entrance and social mobility
They preferred employment that was ‘respectable working-class’ such as trade work which they considered for “the likes of them” and where they would feel comfortable.
The boys were also haunted by a fear of academic failure – they realised that they would be blamed for their failure and thus be made to feel a sense of shame because it (Even though deep down they knew they had less chance of succeeding than their middle class peers).
On the other hand, they also feared academic success. Good exam results would mean pressure to further their education, and to enter into areas that felt foreign, such as university, where they potentially would be made to feel uncomfortable.
Application and Relevance
Taken together these two items show how research which implies that we need system-level change will not be considered in government education policy – and serves to show up the bias and limitations of government reports which feed into social policy.
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