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Conservatism, Thatcherism, The New Right and Education Policy

 Last edited: 12/12/2016

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Click here and here for new documents on Coalition Education Policies 2010-2015 several of which , according to several analysts, have also been influenced by New Right ideology. New links added January 2016

Click here for information from  Paul Trowler on Education policy which updates the material in Ch. 1 of P. Trowler [1998] : Education Policy: A Policy Sociology Approach. [Gildredge Press]. A new edition of this very useful book was published in 2003.

Click here for information about Education in a Post-Welfare Society [Sally Tomlinson 2nd Edition 2005] An exceptional book for students requiring a detailed assessment of Conservative and Labour [1997-2005] education policies  . New link added March 2013. I wonder if a 3rd edition is due?

Click here for an article on the History of Education in England [Gillard D (2007) Education in England: a brief history www.dg.dial.pipex.com/history/ ]

Click here for a useful PowerPoint Presentation provided by Alex Thirkill [Head of Sociology at Rydens School]

A particularly elegant, concise analysis of the nature of Thatcherism , neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism can be found in Sociology [James Fulcher and John Scott: 3rd Edition pp 601-603.]

Click here for a Guardian Article on Lord Baker {Secretary of State for Education who introduced the National Curriculum and much else] outlining his role as Secretary of State and his current [2013] proposals for educational reform NEW link added January 2013

This document has turned out to be longer and more detailed than was envisaged originally and I have divided it into three sections dealing with the nature of New Right Ideology and its increasing influence in the British Conservative Party and  the description and evaluation of some major Conservative education policies 1979-1997.

 It is possible that AS Sociology students especially may prefer to concentrate mainly on sections two and three on actual Conservative education policies rather than the fairly detailed description of New Right ideology or that they may wish to dip into the document to find information on particular aspects of Conservative education policy in which case  I hope that the following links will help students to find the specific information which they require.

The Conservative legislative programme relating to education policy was both voluminous and in parts very complex and in this document I shall focus almost entirely on those aspects of the legislation relating to school-based education in England and Wales [which differs significantly from the Scottish and N.Irish education systems]. This means, for example that I shall have nothing to say about the Conservative approach to the provision for Special Educational  Needs despite the crucial importance of this issue  or about teacher training, appraisal and in -service training or about the organisation and financing of Further and Higher Education.

 

 

 

 In this document  I shall provide some background information on issues relating to New Right ideology in general followed by a description and evaluation of Conservative education policies between 1979 and 1997. As with my document on "The New Right and the Family] my aim is to introduce some important historical and theoretical ideas which should then help to provide an overall framework for the subsequent discussion of education policy between 1979 and 1997. However AS Sociology students may choose to skip the first section of the document and proceed directly to the sections on the description and evaluation of actual Conservative education policies 1979-1997 and  return later to the more theoretical first section if they and their teachers consider it necessary.

    For much of the post 2nd World War period the Conservative Party was led and dominated by so-called Right Progressives or One Nation Conservatives such as R. Butler, I. Macleod, H. Macmillan and Q. Hogg who harked back to the Disraeli tradition of One Nation Conservatism and were prepared to accept pragmatically  the expansion of state activity ushered in via by the 1945-51 Labour government programmes involving selective nationalisation, expansion of the welfare state, Keynesian economic policies and tripartite decision making. Once in Government the One Nation Conservatives broadly retained these Labour programmes initiatives while emphasising that the most profitable sectors of the economy would remain in private control and  supporting the continuation of economic inequality because of their belief that private property was a pre-requisite for liberty and that capitalist economic inequality could best promote economic growth and rising living standards. However they also recognised that full employment and the expansion of the welfare state were necessary to improve health, housing, education and to reduce poverty if the UK was to be a cohesive One Nation community.

 Consequently  it has been suggested that from the late 1940s  to the end of the   1960s a bipartisan political consensus existed between Labour and Conservative parties in relation to the most important areas of government policy although the extent of political consensus should not be overstated because the Labour and Conservative parties did of course disagree over important details of policy.

[In any case leftwing  critics have argued both in relation to Benjamin Disraeli and the more recent One Nation Conservatives that their strategies were devoted more to the maintenance of individualistic capitalism than to the creation of a One Nation Community and that while this apparent commitment to the community was necessary to secure electoral success its practical effects on social class inequality were limited: even though the strategy  did involve some reduction in economic inequality, social class differences in income , wealth, power and opportunity remained substantial.  More radical socialist critics would indeed argue that true commitment to the community cannot possibly exist within a capitalist system which in their view is inevitably based upon competition, exploitation and class conflict.]

Increasingly , however, and especially from the 1970s onwards the views of the Right Progressives were challenged  by the  New Right Thinking  associated especially with the theoretical ideas of academics such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman  and with their development in the UK in pro-Conservative think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs , the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies. Among the first modern UK Conservative politicians to espouse elements of New Right thinking were Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph although it was only when Mrs Thatcher,[ having become leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 ]consolidated her hold on power in the early 1980s that New Right ideas became more influential in government.

Mrs Thatcher and her supporters were very critical of the Right Progressive tendency which dominated the Conservative Party during the period of the so-called post war consensus prior to Mrs. Thatcher's ascendancy. The Thatcherites claim that successive Conservative governments of 1951-1964 more or less accepted the policies and institutional frameworks developed by the Labour governments of 1945-1951 which had resulted in the so-called post-war "Butskellite consensus between Labour and Conservative governments from 1945 until perhaps 1970. 

According to the Thatcherites the Right Progressive Conservatives had encouraged the growth of an excessively bureaucratic state; they supported economically inefficient nationalised industries at the expense of the private sector and they relied on flawed Keynesian techniques of macroeconomic management. Their  reliance on tripartite or corporatist bargaining processes undermined the ability of government itself to manage the political process; they had helped to destroy individual initiative because of their acceptance of high rates of income taxation which reduce incentives to work, save and invest; and they had permitted the growth of an  expensive, inefficient Welfare States which create exactly the kind of dependency culture which prevents individuals from helping themselves possibly leading to the development of a so-called Underclass.  In effect, because Conservative governments between 1951-64 and 1970-74 had made no serious attempts to reverse the Labour policies of 1945-51, subsequent Labour administrations of 1964-1970 and 1974-1979 were able to push the UK even further along the road toward what the New Right regarded as the eventual socialist nightmare. Therefore if and when a new Conservative government were returned to power it would be necessary to reverse these trends.

It is ,however, important to note that processes of government are so complex that it is impossible for any government to be ruled  entirely by ideology and strong supporters of the New Right have frequently criticised Mrs Thatcher for her failure to adhere to New Right principles more vigorously than she did. Nevertheless successive Thatcher governments were certainly influenced by New Right ideology to some extent although it is likely that Conservative education policies during the premiership of John Major may have been driven rather more by pragmatism and practicality than was the case in the Thatcher years.

 Mrs Thatcher’s version of New Right ideology has involved a combination of elements of neo-Liberal and neo-Conservative ideologies which can sometimes be contradictory. These two aspects of New Right ideology can be summarised as follows.

  1. The core elements of neo-liberalism are support for individualism, laissez faire and limited government intervention in economy and society. Neo-liberals believe that individuals are rational and therefore the best judges of their own best interests and that they should be allowed the maximum possible individual freedom to determine their own behaviour subject  only to the restriction that their behaviour should not harm others. They believe also that economic efficiency and rising living standards [including rising living standards for the poorest ] can best be achieved in capitalist economies based upon high levels of laissez faire and that the economic inequalities generated in these capitalist societies are both inevitable because they derive primarily from genetically determined differences in talents and abilities and desirable because they generate the financial incentives to work save and invest leading to faster economic growth, some of the benefits of which will "trickle down" to the poor. Meanwhile although governments should act  to facilitate the organisation of capitalism, the maintenance of social order and effective defence against any foreign aggressors, further government intervention is potentially counterproductive  because it may undermine individual freedom, stifle initiative and divert scarce resources from the dynamic private sector of the economy into the overly bureaucratic and wasteful public sector.  Neo-Liberals believed therefore  that  nationalised industries should be privatised as a means of securing greater reliance on the market mechanism; rates of income taxation [especially the higher marginal rates of income tax paid by higher income earners] should  be reduced in order to increase incentives; rates of unemployment benefit should be reduced in order to increase self –reliance and restrict the growth of the so-called welfare-dependent underclass; trade union power should be reduced and Keynesian policies should  be discarded and the goal of full employment abandoned as Mrs Thatcher concentrated on the reduction of the rate of inflation for which Keynesian policies were held partly responsible. It should be noted also that this Market Liberal element within New Right thinking is linked very closely with the ideas of so-called Public Choice Theorists to be discussed below.
  2. The core elements of neo-conservatism differ in several respects from those of neo-liberalism. Whereas classic liberals are all in favour of free individualistic decision making, conservatives suggest that this kind of individualism is a recipe for near anarchy and that individual freedom, albeit limited, can best be guaranteed via respect for traditional norms, values and institutions. They claim that traditional  institutions and patterns of social behaviour which have stood the test of time must have done so because they have been socially beneficial  which leads neo-Conservatives to support the maintenance or at most only gradual change in the existing social order which implies support for traditional sources of authority, traditional patterns of social and economic inequality, traditional institutions and traditional values. They are therefore  supporters of strong but limited government, the Monarchy and the Aristocracy and the Church and  call for a reassertion of traditional values in relation to issues surrounding the nature of the family, the output of the mass media, the education system, religion, law and order, controls over the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, defence of national sovereignty [for example in relation to the EU], the protection of the environment and immigration controls. It has been claimed that these neo-Conservative views did to some extent reflect the opinions of some sections of the British electorate and that they could be used to re-establish the authority of the British State all of which led the Marxist theorist Stuart Hall to describe these views as  "authoritarian populist."

In seeking to combine these two aspects of New Right ideology Mrs. Thatcher and her supporters have believed that a strong state would be necessary to re-establish law and order, to maintain law and order in the face of significant industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike of 1984 -85, to increase expenditure on defence in order to counter the perceived USSR threat and strengthen the role of central government in the provision of state education which was believed to be failing to meet the needs of the capitalist economy. Consequently Andrew Gamble has argued, very importantly, that Mrs Thatcher’s beliefs may be summarised as involving a belief in "the free economy and the strong state. "

 Dimensions of Market Liberalism : A Summary

Dimensions of Neo - Conservatism : A Summary

  1. Support for the State
  2. Support for strong, punitive approaches to law and order
  3. Support for "traditional approaches to morality
  4. Support for the "traditional family"
  5. Support for "traditional" approaches to education
  6. Support for "national culture" rather than multi-culturalism
  7. A tendency to Euroscepticism

  From the above list of issues it is clear that within the New Right considerable tensions are likely to exist as between neo-liberals and neo-Conservatives such that whereas neo-liberals are strong supporters of individual freedom subject to the condition that it must not result in behaviour that harms others neo-conservatives believe that  traditional values and institutions have an important role to play in channelling individual behaviour in socially beneficial directions. Nevertheless neo-liberals and neo-conservatives were clearly united in defence of existing unequal patterns of property ownership and income distribution and against any trends toward egalitarianism supported by socialist and social democrats.  

In relation to the formal education system New Right theorists agree with Functionalists that formal education systems can in principle fulfil functions which enhance economic efficiency and social stability. Such Functions include:

  1. the transmission of knowledge and skills;
  2. the provision of a mechanism for easing the transition from family life to the wider society;
  3. the transmission of attitudes and values via processes of socialisation and social control operating through the hidden curriculum;
  4. the allocation of individuals to appropriate roles within society;
  5. the contribution to processes of social reform , for example via processes of compensatory education   which are designed to help disadvantaged students.

However, many New Right Theorists have accepted the conclusions of Public Choice Theorists that the UK public sector as a whole and the UK state education system within it had been organised ineffectively prior to 1979 and have hoped that Mrs Thatcher's Conservative governments would introduce important policy changes based upon  Public Choice Theory which became a central influence on New Right ideology. Public Choice Theorists would describe the main features of the UK Education system as it operated prior to 1979  as follows.

  1. The provision of education services in England and Wales was dominated by the Government' s DfES [now the DCFS] which operated as a virtual monopoly supplier of education since the Private sector of education was  relatively small and educated only approximately 7% of the school population.
  2. Thus, the provision of educational funding and resources, the training of teachers, the staffing of schools, the content of the curriculum,  and the assessment of pupils was controlled almost entirely by this centralised DfES [now the DCFS].
  3. All government education services were financed out of general taxation.
  4. Education was compulsory until the age of 16.
  5. Parents  had very limited choices over the state schools to be attended by their children and very little direct influence over the organisation of the education system in general. 

According to Public Choice Theorists the following adverse consequences flowed from the ways in which the system of state education was  organised.

  1. Senior officials in the DfES [DCFS] had a vested interest in the expansion of the state education system because their own statuses and employment prospects would improve as a result of this expansion.
  2. Teachers' Trade Unions support the expansion of state education because their members' career prospects are likely to improve if the state education system does expand.
  3. Senior officials ,Trade Union leaders and influential "left leaning" academics may combine in support of expensive and/or misguided policies such as   comprehensivisation, mixed ability teaching and the expansion "soft" social sciences  which fit with their mistaken ideologies but are not in the public interest, according to Public Choice and New Right Theorists.
  4. Also in the era of "generous" grants for  Higher Education students, many students may have opted for subjects which could be regarded as  "fun" but which they would have been unlikely to take if they had had to pay fully for their tuition because of the limited career prospects provided . Which subjects might the public choice theorists have in mind?
  5. Excessive central controls reduce the efficiency of individual schools by undermining their autonomy.
  6. Because state education is funded from public taxation DfES officials have only limited incentives to ensure that public money is spent efficiently.
  7. Because education is compulsory until the age of 16 and because parents have only limited choice within the state system and because there is little competition for pupils within the state system and because there is only limited competition from the private education sector, many inefficient schools are likely to survive .
  8. By contrast if none of the above four conditions were operative, many inefficient  schools would close and many efficient schools could expand thereby increasing the likelihood that the formal education system could fulfil its functions effectively.

It follows that Public Choice/New Right Theorists believe that the overall efficiency of the formal education system would be increased via the following policies.

  1. The introduction of so-called "voucher systems" in which education vouchers are allocated to parents to spend on their children's education as they see fit would automatically increase parental influence over the education system and thereby increase its efficiency.
  2. Parents could use their vouchers at the schools of their own choosing , whether in the private sector or the state sector and this, according to Public Choice/New Right Theorists would result in the expansion of the private sector at the expense of the state sector, to the expansion of efficient state schools at the expense of inefficient state schools and to a need for all schools to tailor their educational provision to parental wishes if they wished to remain in operation.
  3. In this situation the controls imposed by  the central DfES over individual schools would be much reduced because the size of the private education sector would increase and the DfES would be unable to prescribe state education policies which were unpopular with parents for fear that even more parents would opt for the private sector.

[In practice, Sir Keith Joseph , who became Secretary of State in Mrs Thatcher's 1979-83 government  was a keen supporter of New Right theories in general and of education vouchers in particular  but by 1982 he had decided that such vouchers were not actually a practical proposition and so Thatcherite education policies were not based upon a full blown Public Choice/Market Liberal/New Right  Approach although  these policies were certainly influenced by Public Choice/Market Liberal/New Right ideas as we shall see in Part Two of this document].

Especially from the late 1960s onwards criticism of the content and delivery of the school curriculum intensified especially in the so-called Black Papers [1969-1977] , in the more right wing sections of the press. and among high profile business leaders of the time such as John Methven [the then Director General of the Confederation of British Industry]. Thus it was argued that children's education was being blighted as  a result of the relative neglect of the teaching of numeracy and literacy skills necessary for secure future employment and for the efficiency of the economy as a whole while ineffective progressive teaching methods, emphases on pupil autonomy and freedom of expression at the expense of traditional respect for teachers' authority, excessive concerns with issues of class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality all linked with dangers of political indoctrination by left-wing teachers were combining to create a crisis in our schools which in the future could potentially undermine the entire social order.

All of these concerns were shared by the Thatcherites but not only by them. Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan also argued in a 1976 speech at Ruskin College Oxford that all was not well with the education system: he too believed that by neglecting the teaching of literacy and numeracy the education system was failing to prepare pupils adequately for future employment and failing also to meet the needs of the economy for a more skilled work force increasingly necessary in the more technological age. Furthermore progressive teaching methods especially in the hands of inexperienced teachers could also be part of the overall problem.

However Callaghan also distanced himself from what he described as "Black Paper prejudices" and did not suggest that the consideration in schools of important contemporary social issues was out of place and likely to undermine the entire social order [as suggested by neo-conservatives] but his concerns as to the importance of the relationships between the education system and the future employability of its pupils were probably shared by an increasing number of parents at this time [and of course parents were also voters].  Callaghan's conclusion that the State might need to involve itself more directly in school curriculum issues was predictably unpopular with teachers and their trade unions but his ideas did point toward the eventual introduction by the Conservatives of a National Curriculum in 1988.

This concludes the discussion of the theoretical and historical background to Conservative Education Policy 1979-1997. In the next section I shall try to summarise these points more succinctly and to relate them  to the actual education policies introduced between 1979-1997.

  •    Section Two: Conservatism, Thatcherism, the New Right and UK Education Policy: Description

As mentioned in the Introduction to this document it may be that many students do require a summary analysis of New Right ideology but nevertheless wish to focus primarily on the description and evaluation of actual Conservative education policies between 1979-1997. Accordingly I shall now repeat verbatim two summary paragraphs on the nature of New Right ideology and then describe in more detail how these political beliefs influenced actual Conservative education policies between 1979 and 1997. So firstly here is the repeated summary of New Right ideology.

 It is widely accepted that the political ideology of the New Right contains two interconnected but also sometimes contradictory strands of political thought: neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism.

The core elements of neo-liberalism are support for individualism, laissez faire and limited government intervention in economy and society. Neo-liberals believe that individuals are rational and therefore the best judges of their own best interests and that they should be allowed the maximum possible individual freedom to determine their own behaviour subject  only to the restriction that their behaviour should not harm others. They believe also that economic efficiency and rising living standards [including rising living standards for the poorest ] can best be achieved in capitalist economies based upon high levels of laissez faire and that the economic inequalities generated in these capitalist societies are both inevitable because they derive primarily from genetically determined differences in talents and abilities and desirable because they generate the financial incentives to work save and invest leading to faster economic growth, some of the benefits of which will "trickle down" to the poor. Meanwhile although governments should act  to facilitate the organisation of capitalism, the maintenance of social order and effective defence against any foreign aggressors, further government intervention is potentially counterproductive  because it may undermine individual freedom, stifle initiative and divert scarce resources from the dynamic private sector of the economy into the overly bureaucratic and wasteful public sector.

The core elements of neo-conservatism differ in several respects from those of neo-liberalism. Whereas classic liberals are all in favour of free individualistic decision making, conservatives suggest that this kind of individualism is a recipe for near anarchy and that individual freedom, albeit limited, can best be guaranteed via respect for traditional norms, values and institutions. They claim that traditional  institutions and patterns of social behaviour which have stood the test of time must have done so because they have been socially beneficial  which leads neo-Conservatives to support the maintenance or at most only gradual change in the existing social order which implies support for traditional sources of authority, traditional patterns of social and economic inequality, traditional institutions and traditional values. They are therefore likely to be supporters of strong but limited government, the Monarchy and the Aristocracy, the Church, the traditional family and traditional education.

  • Conservative Education Policies 1979-1997

Conservative governments argued that prior to 1979  many state schools were inefficient and provided poor quality education such that the British education system as a whole could be said to be failing the nation.

  • Neo-liberals within the Conservative Party were much influenced by the conclusions of public choice theory in which it was claimed that state provision of education would inevitably be inefficient because too heavily influenced by public sector bureaucrats [who sought the expansion of the public sector of education as a means of increasing their own power, prestige and salaries] and by teachers' unions and left leaning education theorists who espoused political agendas which Conservatives rejected. Neo-liberals would ideally have favoured the introduction of an education voucher system which would enable parents to choose the type of education preferred for their children which in turn was expected to result in the expansion of the private provision of education in line with parental preferences. However because of perceived practical difficulties the Conservative Government accepted in the early 1980s that  the introduction of a voucher system  would not at present be possible and that parental choice would have to be increased in other ways which are outlined below.

    Meanwhile Neo-Conservatives feared that school curricula failed to emphasise the ongoing importance of British cultural traditions and instead focussed increasingly on issues of class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality in ways that could be expected to undermine support for the traditional "British way of life" . Neo-Conservatives were therefore keen to see the introduction of a National Curriculum which would support their own traditional cultural values and the return of more traditional teaching methods at the expense of the more progressive methods favoured by many but certainly not all teachers.

    It may be seen from the above two paragraphs that there were some tensions between these two strands of New Right ideology. Thus whereas the Neo-liberals hoped for much reduced state control over education and for the expansion of private schools offering a range of curricular designed to meet different parental tastes the Neo-Conservative support for a centralised National Curriculum could be seen as strengthening overall state control and reducing the scope of parental preference.

    Let us now consider Conservative Education Policies in more detail

    1. The Conservatives' 1979  Education Act removed the requirements introduced by previous Labour Governments that Local Authorities whose secondary schools   were not currently organised on comprehensive lines must prepare plans for the transition to comprehensive education. This policy demonstrated that even though comprehensivisation had proceeded rapidly under the Conservatives in 1970-74 there was great support among Thatcherite Conservatives for the continuation of  selective secondary education and even by the mid 1990s the then Conservative Prime Minister John Major stated that ideally he would like to see a grammar school in every town.
    2. Also under the 1979 Act Local Authorities were requested to place greater emphasis on parental choice in the allocation of school places although it has been suggested that in practice this requirement had only limited practical effects.
    3. The 1980 Education Act introduced an  Assisted Places Scheme  which subsidised students who passed an entrance examination but whose parents had limited funds to be educated at private schools in the hope that this would enable these more able students to develop their talents more fully than would be possible in the state sector of education.  This policy reflected a Conservative belief that state schools were often incapable of developing the talents of the most gifted pupils and in effect provided a state subsidy to the private education sector which the Conservatives wished to support. [Click here for further information on Private Education] and click here for a recent assessment of the Assisted Places Scheme. [The Conversation: Sally Power] 
    4. Importantly, the 1986 Education Act abolished corporal punishment in state schools.
    5. The proposed introduction of City Technology Colleges [CTCs] was announced in 1986. These CTCs were to be set up mainly in disadvantaged urban areas and to provide a much more technologically based curriculum than was currently provided in mainstream secondary schools. They were to cater for pupils of 11-18 and could also select pupils not on the basis of ability but on the basis of general aptitude for and interest in technology and of parental commitment to full-time education up to the age of 18.[ Of course critics argue that the distinctions between "ability" and "aptitude" have never been entirely clear] The CTCs were to operate independently of LEA control and instead to be controlled by private educational trusts with links to industry and commerce which were expected to provide the additional funding for the more technological aspects of the curricula although much of the funding was still to come from Central Government. It was hoped that up to 100 CTCs would be set up but the additional costs of setting up the CTCs proved higher than expected and since few private industrial sponsors actually came forward these costs had in several cases to be met entirely by Central Government and in the event only15 CTCs were set up. The areas where CTCs were set up were often controlled by Labour Councils who tended to oppose the CTCs on the grounds that they were indirectly starving other local secondary schools of resources and leading to the development of a two tier system which was undermining the comprehensive principle although Conservative politicians argued that they were simply trying to introduce some necessary diversity into the organisation of secondary education.
    6. The GCSE had been  introduced in 1986 to replace the dual system of GCE and CSE examinations for 16 year olds and the first GCSE examinations took place in 1988. Here the aim was to reduce the stigma associated with the CSE which was considered to be a second class qualification and to introduce coursework as an important aspect of assessment. Several criticisms of the GCSE have been made: 2 tier examinations do not remove the problem of stigma; traditionalist thinkers argue that examinations are a better means of assessment than course work ; and increasing pass rates may mean that the GCSE examinations are easier than the former GCE examinations, a criticism that seems very unfair on young students who have worked hard to secure their grades.
    7. Under the terms of the 1988 Education Reform Act the following education policies were introduced.

    Although voucher systems were not introduced the attempts by the Conservatives to expand the private sector of education, to increase diversity within the state system and to enhance overall parental choice of schooling for their children do reflect the principles of Public Choice Theory  and the influence of Neo-Liberalism/Market Liberalism on the provisions of the !988 Education Reform Act is especially clear. Parents would now be able to choose  among different primary schools and different types of secondary school[ Private, Grammar, City Technology Colleges, Opted Out Grant Maintained Schools and Comprehensive Schools remaining under LEA control, some [not all] of which would in 1992 be designated "Specialist Schools" thereby introducing further diversity into the secondary sector] and according to Neo -Liberals/Market liberals these parental choices combined with the new funding system based upon pupil numbers would result in the relative expansion of effective schools at the expense of ineffective schools leading to the improvement of overall educational standards.

    Just as in the capitalist economic system supported by neo-liberals consumer choices between alternative goods and services result in the relative expansion of efficient companies at the expense of inefficient companies now increased parental choice of schools was to have similar beneficial effects in the education system. Based on their belief in the efficiency of the capitalist market mechanism the Conservatives created what came to be described as a quasi -market in education: that is : the education system was supposed to operate according to principles similar to those which governed the operation of the capitalist economy.

    However although Neo-Liberals supported the aspects of the ERA which facilitated the development of the quasi-market within the education system they in many cases opposed strongly the introduction of the National Curriculum on the grounds that it increased the control of the central state over the curriculum which was very much at odds with the principles of public choice theory which suggested that it was actually vital that the role of the central state in the organisation of education should be much reduced. According to strict Neo-Liberals schools' curricula should be determined by the schools themselves which, however , would have to reflect the wishes of the parents if they were to retain pupil numbers and this approach would lead to  considerable variability of schools' curricular in accordance with parental wishes not the standardisation of a national school curriculum as laid down by the 1988 Act. However  the idea of a National Curriculum was strongly supported by the Neo-Conservative tendency within the New Right.

    Thus Neo-Conservatives are strong believers in traditional institutions , attitudes and values as guarantors of the kind of social stability which maintains the patterns of inequality which Neo-Conservatives support. In relation to the education system, therefore, Neo-Conservatives supported an emphasis on traditional academic subjects, traditional teaching methods and examination -based systems of assessment and they hoped that curricula especially in subjects such as English Literature and History  would be designed to inculcate in students a sense of pride in British cultural traditions.

    The introduction of a suitable National Curriculum could according to Neo Conservatives prevent the allegedly  increasing proportion of politically motivated teachers from  using their positions to advance views which were variously anti-capitalist, feminist, excessively "permissive" and/or supportive of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Furthermore progressive teaching methods should be abandoned and the traditional authority of the teacher restored and schools should  emphasise their opposition to pre-marital sex, cohabitation, single parenthood and gay relationships and their support for traditional heterosexual relationships based upon marriage and the nuclear family. It was because of such beliefs that Neo-Conservatives strongly supported the abolition of the ILEA [ Inner London Education Authority] which was strongly committed to exactly the educational philosophy and methodology which the Neo-Conservatives opposed.

    7. Further  important education policy changes  were also introduced.

    8. Some Further Information on the New Vocationalism [including some broad historical background information.]

    UK governments had recognised from the mid 19th Century onwards that although domestic industry still relied to a considerable extent on unskilled manual labour the acceleration of the industrialisation process and increased competition from W. Europe and the USA would eventually result in increasing demands for professional non-manual and skilled manual workers and that the educational system should therefore be organised as far as possible to prepare pupils for their roles as differing types of employees. By the mid 20th Century the influence of economic considerations on the development of education policy could be seen in the assumptions implicit in organisation of the Tripartite Secondary Education system which suggested that there were essentially three broad types of secondary types of pupil who should receive three types of secondary education designed to prepare them for three types of employment roles.

    Furthermore as Comprehensivisation replaced the Tripartite system through most of Britain from the 1960s onwards substantial differences remained in the curricula followed by different pupils  [especially those aged 14-16] within the Comprehensive system with some pupils following a relatively traditional academic curriculum based around GCE "O" level syllabi and others following less rigorous CSE examination courses and other courses designed to prepare them for entry into manual rather than non-manual occupations.

    It is clear, therefore, that for more than 100 years the formal UK education system has been geared in important respects to meet the demands of the economy but by the late 1960s and 1970s it was argued increasingly that the education system was failing the nation in this respect and that much more needed to be done to prepare pupils for their roles as future employees. This had been one of the main emphases of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan's Ruskin College Oxford speech in 1976 and  Conservative governments after 1979 also responded to these concerns via the development of more industrially relevant school and college courses and the expansion of youth training programmes which were collectively encapsulated in what came to be called the New Vocationalism.

    The main policies of the New Vocationalism are listed below.

    9. The 1993 Education Act

    The 1993 Education Act was even longer and more detailed than the 1988 Education Reform Act. Its main provisions are listed in summary form below.

           10. The 1997 Education Act.

    Following the election of a Labour Government in 1997 the Assisted Places Scheme would be abolished  as would Grant Maintained Schools but other provisions of the Conservatives' 1997Act were retained. Labour education policies will be described in a future document.

    This concludes my description of Conservative Education Policies 1979-1997 and some evaluation of them is provided in the following section.

     

    It has been shown above that Conservative education policies were  influenced heavily by both neo-liberal and neo-conservative aspects of New Right thought. In theory New Right policies could in principle result in rising educational standards  but several criticisms have been made both of New Right ideology in general and of specific Conservative education policies.

    1. Firstly in relation to overall New Right ideology critics have argued that it is based upon a pessimistic view of human nature in which individuals are assumed to be motivated primarily by self-interest; that the New Right endorsement of the capitalist market mechanism and its resultant economic inequalities downplays the disadvantages of economic inequality and poverty; and that its proposals for increased reliance on the market mechanism and increased economic inequality further restrict opportunities for self-advancement among the poor. The claims of New Right theorists that substantial economic inequality is consistent with individual liberty and increased social mobility are seen as misguided by critics who argue also that the significant increases in economic inequality and in poverty between 1979 and 1997 must have  affected adversely the educational prospects of many working class pupils growing up in the 1980s and 1990s .
    2. The core elements of neo-liberalism differ in several respects from those of neo-conservatism. Whereas neo- liberals are all in favour of free individualistic decision making and believe that resources can allocated most efficiently via the capitalist market mechanism, neo-conservatives suggest that this kind of individualism is a recipe for near anarchy and that individual freedom, albeit limited, can best be guaranteed via respect for traditional norms, values and institutions . They claim that traditional  institutions and patterns of social behaviour which have stood the test of time must have done so because they have been socially beneficial  which leads neo-Conservatives to support the maintenance or at most only gradual change in the existing social order which implies support for traditional sources of authority, traditional patterns of social and economic inequality, traditional institutions and traditional values. Critics have rejected the neo-liberal analysis of individual freedom on the grounds that it neglects the negative impact of economic inequality on the freedoms of the poor and rejected also the neo-liberal defence of the capitalist market mechanism on the grounds that they have neglected the extent to which unregulated capitalism promotes excessive economic inequality. The neo-Conservative defence of traditional institutions and traditional values is also rejected on the grounds that it implies also a defence of traditional structures of wealth, power and privilege which restrict the prospects for self-advancement of disadvantaged social groups.
    3. Critics reject the public choice theories on which much of the neo-liberal critique of state education policies is based. According to critics there is no necessary justification for the assumption of public choice theory that state bureaucrats are more concerned with their own career advancement than with the organisation of an effective state organisation which will benefit all pupils: the critics argue instead that public sector bureaucrats are very concerned to promote the public good rather than their own self-interest.
    4. Turning to specific education policies critics have argued that it is possible that the Assisted Places scheme did increase the chances of upward social mobility of those children who participated in it although it has been suggested that few truly disadvantaged pupils participated in the scheme and that opportunities for social mobility might have been improved further by targeted spending in the state sector.
    5. Critics also reject Conservative arguments against the Comprehensive principle, against progressive teaching methods, against mixed ability teaching and in favour of increased educational selection, traditional teaching methods and streaming setting and banding. Conservatives [and especially perhaps neo-Conservatives] argued that children's education was being blighted as  a result of the relative neglect of the teaching of numeracy and literacy skills necessary for secure future employment and for the efficiency of the economy as a whole while ineffective progressive teaching methods, emphases on pupil autonomy and freedom of expression at the expense of traditional respect for teachers' authority, excessive concerns with issues of class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality all linked with dangers of political indoctrination by left-wing teachers were combining to create a crisis in our schools which in the future could potentially undermine the entire social order. Critics rejected these criticisms arguing that overall standards of literacy and numeracy were improving, that most teachers used a sensible mixture of traditional and progressive methods, that it was important for pupils to discuss important contemporary issues and that the overwhelming majority of teachers wished to encourage  their students to think for themselves  and not to indoctrinate them in any way. This is an issue which you might like to discuss further with your teachers!
    6. Critics deny also that the creation of a quasi market in education mainly via the provisions of the 1988 Education Reform Act will drive up educational standards including the educational standards of the poorest. Thus although in theory Conservative education policies were designed to increase parental choice there could be no overall increase in parental choice in small towns with only one secondary school or in larger towns and cities where the more popular secondary schools were already full and over-subscribed. In these latter cases critics claim the State education policies introduced by Conservative governments have actually benefited middle parents and their children disproportionately since it is these middle class parents who are much more likely to be able to use their cultural, economic and social capital to ensure that the oversubscribed effective state schools themselves would actually choose their children thereby indirectly reducing the educational opportunities of more disadvantaged pupils.  Click here for information from  a recent [2013] Sutton Trust Report suggesting that "almost a third of professional parents have  moved home for a good school."
    7. These issues are described in great detail in a study by S. Gerwitz, S. Ball and R. Bowe entitled Markets, Choice and Equity in Education [1995] and you should consult your textbooks to familiarise yourselves with the details of this  very useful study which is relevant to several aspects of the Sociology of Education. [The Haralambos and Holborn textbook Sociology: Themes and Perspectives provides a fairly full summary and you may also click here for further information provided elsewhere on this site].
    8. The Conservatives justified the  introduction in the 1988 ERA of a National Curriculum  in the following terms.

    Nevertheless there were also significant criticisms of the National Curriculum in the form introduced by the Conservative Party

    8. Testing , League Tables and OFSTED Inspections.

    The Conservatives argued that if an effective quasi- market in education was to be established parents would need reliable information as to the effectiveness of different schools. This could be provided if pupils were tested more regularly and test results [along with attendance and truancy data] were published eventually in so -called league tables and schools were regularly inspected by OFSTED which would publish al of its reports on individual schools. Again such policies had potential advantages and disadvantages.

    Possible Advantages.

    Possible Disadvantages.

    [As a result of the above criticisms performance statistics were modified by Labour governments in 2002 to include measurements of value added between Key Stages  and subsequently in 2006 to take account of the differing pupil intakes of different schools via the calculation of contextual value added for each school. These changes which will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent document on Labour's education policies.]

    9. Local Management of Schools. [LMS]

    10. City Technology Colleges and Grant Maintained Schools .[This information is repeated verbatim form Section Two of this document]

    The proposed introduction of City Technology Colleges [CTCs] was announced in 1986. These CTCs were to be set up mainly in disadvantaged urban areas and to provide a much more technologically based curriculum than was currently provided in mainstream secondary schools. They were to cater for pupils of 11-18 and could also select pupils not on the basis of ability but on the basis of general aptitude for and interest in technology and of parental commitment to full-time education up to the age of 18.[ Of course critics argue that the distinctions between "ability" and "aptitude" have never been entirely clear] The CTCs were to operate independently of LEA control and instead to be controlled by private educational trusts with links to industry and commerce which were expected to provide the additional funding for the more technological aspects of the curricula although much of the funding was still to come from Central Government. It was hoped that up to 100 CTCs would be set up but the additional costs of setting up the CTCs proved higher than expected and since few private industrial sponsors actually came forward these costs had in several cases to be met entirely by Central Government and in the event only15 CTCs were set up. The areas where CTCs were set up were often controlled by Labour Councils who tended to oppose the CTCs on the grounds that they were indirectly starving other local secondary schools of resources and leading to the development of a two tier system which was undermining the comprehensive principle although Conservative politicians argued that they were simply trying to introduce some necessary diversity into the organisation of secondary education. and City Technology Colleges.

    Under the terms of the 1988 Education Reform Act LEA Schools were to be o allowed to hold parental ballots which, if supportive, would enable the schools to opt out of LEA control and become Grant Maintained Schools which meant that they were funded directly from Central Government rather than the LEAs. While the Conservatives claimed that the introduction of GM schools would increase school diversity and parental choice and open up the possibility of increased selection critics argued that the preferential funding of GM schools  and their increased use of pupil selection would [in conjunction with the newly introduced CTCs and Specialised schools] lead to the creation of a two tier secondary education system which would undermine the comprehensive system.

    Under the terms of the 1997 Education Act GM schools, Specialised schools and mainstream LEA controlled schools were given powers to select up to 50% , 30% and 20% respectively while the then Conservative Prime Minister John Major stated that he hoped to see " a grammar school in every town" . Although several of the provisions of this Act were reversed by the incoming Labour Government [and GM Schools were actually to be abolished] there was also to be considerable continuity between Conservative and Labour education policies as will be described in a future document.

    7. The New Vocationalism

    The main elements of the New Vocationalism were described above. Within schools and colleges it included the introduction of the CPVE, the TVEI initiative and, after the slimming down of the National Curriculum at KS 4 in 1995  the expansion of new business -related GNVQ courses for example in Business Studies, Travel and Tourism and Health and Social Care . Work experience schemes have been introduced and it has also been argued that the setting up of a limited number of City Technology Colleges, the re-designation of Polytechnics  as "New Universities" and the granting of Specialist Technology School status to some schools all aimed to increase the recognition throughout the education system of the importance of technology for industrial expansion. Also as unemployment and especially youth unemployment increased in the 1980s and early 1990s a succession of different Youth Training schemes were introduced designed ostensibly to improve the employability of school leavers..

    There have been several criticisms of the policies of the New Vocationalism introduced by Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997. Thus it was claimed at the time that a significant divide was created between academic and vocational courses as pupils following vocational courses such as the CPVE  would be made to feel like "second-class citizens" in the mainly academically oriented sixth form and that in any case schools in any case were  not suited or resourced at the time for the teaching of business and technology - related courses although it is clear that increasing numbers of well trained teachers of these subjects have subsequently been employed.

    Within schools, the relevance of education to the needs of the economy was to be emphasised via the TVEI (Training and Vocational Educational Initiative) which also was to be organised under the auspices of the MSC [Manpower Services Commission] rather than the then DES [Department of Education and Science.] TVEI was to apply to 14-18 year olds and to make additional funds available to schools which were to be spent on themes especially related to the needs of industry such as improving pupil awareness of the importance of industry, information technology and work experience. Once again the schemes were criticised. It was argued that while overall education budgets were being squeezed, the MSC was providing funds to be spent essentially on "training" pupils for industry without encouraging them to reflect critically on the role of industry within society. On the other hand, however, it was also argued that in practice once schools received their TVEI budgets they were often used for wider educational purposes and not solely for vocational purposes..

     It is  claimed in relation to training schemes that they aimed to shift the blame for youth unemployment from government economic policy which according to critics was mainly responsible for the growth of mass unemployment in the 1980s onto the teaching profession who were blamed for the failure to teach the skills necessary to secure industrial efficiency. Furthermore it was argued that  training schemes were a means of reducing the official unemployment figures in an attempt to sustain government popularity; that little real training was given; that trainees were often discarded rather than offered permanent jobs once their training period was finished as employers opted for the cheaper option of replacing them with another batch of low paid trainees; that the schemes often reinforced traditional gender roles; that the training was at the expense of a more valuable general education and that the purpose of the schemes was often to encourage passivity and acceptance of low wages among young people.

    However, supporters of the schemes have argued correctly that some useful training has been given which increased the employability of the trainees concerned. Nevertheless, more generally, it would perhaps be true to say that all post -war governments and not only the Conservative governments of 1979-1997 have given insufficient attention to the needs for industrial training and that this has been one factor which has restricted the long term rate of growth of the UK economy relative to its competitor economies.

     

    We have seen above that the Conservatives used several arguments in support of private education, increased educational selection, increased diversity within the state secondary sector, the development of the quasi-market in education , the National Curriculum, the Local Management of Schools, the inspection of schools via OFSTED and the New Vocationalism but that in each case powerful criticisms have been made of each of these policies. More generally the Conservatives point out that between 1979 and 19997 overall examination results did improve at GCE "O" level/GCSE level, and at  GCE Advanced Level and that increasing numbers of students enrolled on Higher Education courses all of which demonstrated that their policies had increased the efficiency of the British education system. Also, in particular, they claimed that the improved educational achievements of female students at this time could be explained partly because from 1988 they were obliged to enter for the now compulsory GCSE Science subjects and also because the publication of examination results and league tables now obliged schools to focus more on female as well as male educational achievement. However others argued that female educational improvements were being driven more by broader social processes and that in any case many working class girls' educational attainments remained relatively low .

    Furthermore it has been noted that the effectiveness of  otherwise the education system must have been influenced also by the overall economic and social policies which the Conservatives pursued between 1979 and 1997 and which resulted in very significant increases in economic inequality and relative poverty. Sociologists have demonstrated in detail how economic inequality and relative poverty can restrict the educational opportunities of disadvantaged working class students and some ethnic minority students. Consequently even though overall educational attainments did improve between 1979 and 1997 it can plausibly be argued that increases in economic inequality and relative poverty [combined with some of the adverse effects of the quasi market in education mentioned above] inhibited the growth of equality of educational opportunity in the era of Conservative government between 1979 and 1997.

    In Labour's overall education policies one can see important continuities with the education policies of Conservative governments 1979-1997. The framework of OFSTED inspections, league tables and greater parental choice of secondary schooling introduced by the Conservatives is still in place although there have been some important modifications  to some of the details within this overall framework. Also  a few Grammar schools continue to exist and Labour has stated that they will be abolished only if a majority  of eligible parents support abolition in a ballot and Labour also has absolutely no plans to abolish Private schools because ,indeed, Labour believes that state education can be improved via collaboration with private schools which presumably are assumed in some way to have greater expertise than state schools.

    However, importantly, it is also clear that Labour has attempted to reform the education system in accordance with the principles of the New Labour version of social democracy whatever this is exactly! Labour's education policy documents state that Labour aims  to use the education system to improve the competitiveness of the UK economy AND  to help to create a fairer, more inclusive society. The interrelationships between these two broad objectives are recognised in that it is believed that better education and training will increase economic competitiveness  which in turn will create more stable employment conditions and reduce the likelihood of poverty.   Fairness and inclusion are to be promoted also by Labour's commitments to improve poorly performing schools located mainly in working class areas and to increase access to Higher Education for working class students. However critics of New Labour governments argue that the combined effects of ongoing economic inequality and the quasi-market framework introduced by the Conservatives are likely to perpetuate social inequalities in educational achievement, a claim which Labour spokespersons deny. These issues shall be discussed in a later document.