1988 Education Reform Act Essay

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 

League Tables

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

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.

Formula Funding

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

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 Edudcation Act

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

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  1. The Middle Classes have more effective choice because of their higher incomes – this works as follows…
  • 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. Inequality of Education Opportunity increases – the best schools get better and the worst get worse. Polarisation of schools occurs because…
  • 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.

Like this:



This entry was posted in education, Education Policy and tagged 1988, education, marketisation, New Right, parenting, policy. Bookmark the permalink.

Political impact: from the least state-controlled to the most in 24 years

An essay by Michael Bassey 

Since 1988, all governments - conservative, labour and now the lib-dem conservative coalition - with the best of intentions, but in ignorance and deafness, have trammelled schools with excessive testing, obsessive inspection and a restrictive curriculum which has taken from schools their professional autonomy, damaged the status of teachers in the public eye, and in consequence endangered the all-round education of the nation’s young. Each of twelve secretaries of state, with a coterie of junior ministers, has tried to micromanage the affairs of schools, sending out from London instructions that someone in their department thought was a good idea, but with little understanding of the consequences in some of the 21,000 schools affected.

Prior to 1988 - Least-Controlled Education System …

We need to remember that political intervention into the actual work of schools only began in 1988, with the passing of the Education Reform Act - when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Since then the English education system has moved from being probably the least state-controlled system in the world, to the most.

The story is told that R A Butler, president of the Board of Education in the early 1940s during World War II, was asked by Winston Churchill, prime minister, to ensure that the schools behaved with more patriotism. Butler replied, I have no say in what is done in schools. A few years later, the Labour minister for Education in 1947, George Tomlinson, said Minister knows nowt about curriculum

Anthony Crosland, who was secretary of state for education in 1965-67 said:

    the nearer one comes to the professional content of education, the more indirect the minister’s influence is. And I’m sure this is right ... generally I didn’t regard either myself or my officials as in the slightest degree competent to interfere with the curriculum. We are educational politicians and administrators, not professional educators.

… but with Serious Problems

But in the 1970s and 1980s schools began to get a bad press. Sir Keith Joseph, who later became secretary of state for education, made a political speech on a perceived decline in national life, attributable to the education system. The academic writer Brian Simon described Joseph’s call for a ‘remoralisation’ of national life in these terms:

    Values were being systematically undermined. Parents were being diverted from their duty as regards education, health, morality, advice and guidance. Delinquency, truancy, vandalism, hooliganism, illiteracy - all these accompanied the decline in educational standards.

Others saw economic worries as due to faulty schooling. A senior industrialist said:

    I blame the teachers for the shortcomings of manufacturing industry

and the prime minister, James Callaghan, in a speech at Ruskin College in 1976, expressed concern from industry that new recruits:

    Sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job that is required … there appears to be a lack of relation between schools and industry.

At that time parents in general knew little about the educational progress of their children. Teachers tended to work in isolation of each other: some were excellent, some mediocre, and some were poor. Children, and parents if they realised, had no option but to suffer the latter because incompetence as a teacher did not lead to dismissal and only rarely to help from more able colleagues. Headteachers tended to act as laid back administrators rather than educational leaders of their schools.

Local education authorities varied considerably in the extent of support for teaching and innovation in schools. There was a tendency for fashion to influence practice, spread by the newly trained teachers from the colleges and by local authority advisers, and based on the limited evidence of classroom success by a few outstanding teachers rather than by careful research and professional judgement.

Education Reform Act 1988

In a rapidly changing world the school system was not responding fast enough to the economic challenge of the time - the competitive need to replace the UK’s declining manufacturing base with new industries manned by a technically skilled work-force. The teaching profession should have recognised this and taken appropriate action. It didn’t and so it was government that intervened - in a clumsy and bureaucratic manner which eventually achieved a raising of standards in the basic skills, but made many mistakes in the process.

The Education Reform Act, designed by Kenneth Baker, secretary of state for Education, was passed in 1988. It was the most massive intervention in the education system of the twentieth century and, in terms of curriculum, assessment and school management, reversed earlier political notions about the autonomy of teacher and schools.

Changes at the Helm Since 1988
thirteen Secretaries of State

Since the Education Reform Act there have been eleven cabinet ministers responsible for Education, with an average tenure of less than two years. Each has added to and tinkered with the political control that Baker introduced.

• Kenneth Baker (1986-89) conservative Margaret Thatcher PM

• John MacGregor (1989-90) conservative Margaret Thatcher PM

• Kenneth Clarke (1990-92) conservative John Major PM

• John Patten (1992-94) conservative John Major PM

• Gillian Shephard (1994-97) conservative John Major PM

• David Blunkett (1997-2001) labour Tony Blair PM

• Estelle Morris (2001-02) labour Tony Blair PM

• Charles Clarke (2002-04) labour Tony Blair PM

• Ruth Kelly (2004-06) labour Tony Blair PM

• Alan Johnson (2006-07) labour Tony Blair PM

• Ed Balls(2007-10) labour Gordon Brown PM

• Michael Gove (2010- 14) coalition David Cameron PM

x Nicki Morgan (2014- coalition and conservative David Cameron PM

As Barry Shearman MP, a long-serving chair of the House of Commons select committee on education, once said:

A school that was changing its leadership as regularly … would be put in special measures immediately.

It is time, not to change the leadership again, but to change the system and to free schools from government control.

If you've not read these already click on these links to see the reasons why.

Seismic Change Needed

The evidence of this web-site, drawn from a wide variety of sources, makes abundantly clear that external testing, Ofsted inspections and the all-pervading nature of the national curriculum, are restricting the chances of the nation’s children getting a well-rounded, balanced primary education.

But it is clear that external testing, Ofsted inspections and an obligatory national curriculum in some form are here to stay – unless there is a seismic change. In politics the actual policies decided on maybe a reflection of what a party thinks the electorate will vote for, a reflection of the underlying dogma of the party, a reflection of the particular views of senior members of the party, or a reflection of what the chancellor of the exchequer will be prepared to fund!

In terms of the dogmatism which abounds it is clear that any seismic change will need to come from the electorate.

How much money could be saved?

A question that is difficult to answer is, how much do these cost year-by-year? Reasonable guesses are that primary school SATs cost around £30 million and primary school Ofsted inspections cost around £70 million. It would be a useful parliamentary question to try to discover just how much would be saved annually if external tests and inspections in primary schools were stopped and the national curriculum made non-obligatory.

It looks as though a saving of £100 million is a good estimate. What is certain is that the reduction in stress on teachers by such a seismic change would be phenomenal – and would be a jump-start for taking full responsibility for their teaching.

Whereas £100 million could pay for about 4,000 new teachers who could make a significant contribution to raising the standard of attainment in schools with children with learning difficulties, in the present climate – I am writing this in the economic gloom of early 2010 – it may be the kind of cutback in government expenditure by the Department for Children, Schools and Families that is going to be necessary as a result of bailing out our imperilled financial institutions.

Deregulate and depoliticise schooling

It is a curious feature of contemporary politics that governments that have spectacularly failed to regulate the nation’s financial institutions have sought to obsessively control the nation’s schools.

The moment of truth for both has arrived – the time when one should be regulated and the other deregulated.

But beyond deregulation, schools need to be depoliticised. Aspiring ministers, and shadow ministers, should no longer be able to exhibit their political worthiness (or lack of it) by forays into the work of schools. This must be taken out of state control.

It is time to restore responsibility for education to schools and to let teachers rebuild the public trust that they need in order to be effective guardians of the development of the young.

As Professor Robin Alexander, Director of the Cambridge Primary Review, said in 2008:

    Teachers do, and must, exercise professional judgement on the basis of what only they know about their pupils: a national education system belongs not to ministers and officials, but to all of us.

This page was slightly amended on 20 February 2013, on 15 March 2015 and 11 November 2015


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *