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 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 improving the experience of education for all.
New Labour and the Third Way
The 1997-2010 New Labour party/ government wanted to change the image and perspective of their party so they could appeal to more 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.
Hence they renamed themselves ‘New’ Labour‘ to reflect the fact that some of their beliefs were in line with “New Right” views which are more commonly associated with the Conservative Party, and some continued 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 increased expenditure on vocational, work-related training, which was also 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.
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 school’s 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.
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 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:
- Being healthy
- Staying safe
- Enjoying and achieving
- Making a positive contribution
- 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 they attended all their 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.
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