Coalition Education Policies: A Short Summary

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Coalition Education Policies: A Short Summary

As Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove often stated that his overall approach to education policy was based upon a practical search for "what work"  rather than upon ideological considerations. He also expressed support for several of the education policies developed by Labour's Schools Minister Lord Andrew Adonis and backed strongly by Prime Minister Tony Blair. However it has been argued that Labour's approach itself reflected some sympathy  with New Right thinking and with the New Right-influenced education policies which had been pioneered in the era of Thatcherism. It has of course been argued that the influence of New Right thinking on Labour governments was moderated to some extent by their commitment to a rather mild version of social democracy and it might similarly be argued that Coalition education policies have also been influenced heavily by the Conservatives' ongoing commitment to New Right Ideology modified to some , perhaps limited, extent  by the mild social liberal ideas of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

  • Main Coalition Education Policies.
  1. Head teachers and individual teachers would be given greater powers to maintain school discipline including powers to search pupils, to restrain them physically using reasonable force and  to make use of "same day detentions." Also the process of school exclusion would be streamlined to facilitate exclusion of "difficult" pupils.
  2. Schools would be encouraged to introduce  blazers, school uniforms , house systems and Prefect systems as additional means of maintaining good order
  3. A clear indication that the Government remained supportive of setting and /or streaming  as efficient methods of grouping.
  4. Measures would be taken to improve the effectiveness of teacher training with a greater proportion of such training to be spend inside actual classrooms.
  5. Career changes into teaching from other professions including the military would be facilitated in the hope that this too would improve the overall quality of the teaching profession.
  6. There would be an acceleration of the development of the quasi-market in education via the reorientation and rapid expansion of Labour's Academies Programme and the introduction of the Free Schools Programme. Most  importantly whereas Labour's so-called Sponsored Academies were designed to replace schools  which deemed to be underperforming  the Coalition, while continuing with Sponsored Academies also legislated to enable schools that were already performing well to opt for so-called Converter Academy status .
  7. There would be a review of the National Curriculum with the aim of increasing its complexity and rigour. Greater weight would be given to correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in the assessment of examination grades.
  8. The teaching of reading via synthetic phonics would be encouraged.
  9. Secondary schools were to be encouraged to enter larger proportion of their students for more traditional subjects. This was to be achieved by designating English , Mathematics, Sciences, Modern Languages, History and Geography as so-called EBacc subjects and announcing that School league table positions would now be assesses in terms of the proportions of pupils attaining 5 or more GCSE A*-C grades in EBacc subjects as well as in terms of the proportions of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C grades in any subjects but including English and Mathematics.
  10.  The system of vocational education would also be reformed to deal with its perceived inadequacies. The provision or more facilities for technical education for example  via the setting up of University Technical Colleges and the greater emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy as a means of promoting future employability. The Wolf Report would subsequently lead to the downgrading and/or scrapping of many vocational courses which had previously been ranked equivalent with GCSE courses.
  11. The White Paper referred to what the Government perceived as the defects of modularisation at both GCSE and Advanced level  which signalled that reforms to both GCSE and GCE Advanced level courses might in future be considered necessary.
  12. Subsequently proposals were announced for the introduction of a new EBACC certificate  which appeared to signal the eventual demise of the GCSE but  in response to criticism this proposal was shelved fairly rapidly and the Government announced instead that new and apparently more rigorous GCSE syllabi would be introduced beginning in September 2015.
  13. A Pupil Premium would be introduced to help to channel additional resources towards pupils who were at an economic disadvantage as indicated by their eligibility for free school meals.
  14. The Government signalled its intention to increase the age at which young people would be able to leave education and training to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2014.

Some Further Government Initiatives

  • In November 2010 the Coalition Government announced that the attainment floor below which Secondary Schools would be defined as "failing" would be raised from 30% of pupils attaining 5 or more GCSE A*-C including English and Mathematics to 35% and  a floor of 50% is to take effect from 2015. Click here for new targets announced November 2010  and here for 2011 announcement of higher targets from 2015. The attainment floor was raised to 40% in 2012/13
  • Also and very importantly the Coalition had announced in early November 2010 its intention to raise University tuition fees  to a maximum of £ 9000 pa and following further discussion in the Houses of Commons and Lords legislation was passed in December  2010 to raise to tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year from 2012/13. According to the Coalition, increased tuition fees are necessary to finance the expansion of higher education and also fair since it will be students themselves that benefit from Higher Education in terms of higher future earnings.
  • The Coalition has emphasised its continued support for Private Education . The Coalition has emphasised that many private schools generate very good examination results which is assumed to confirm the high standards of teaching in these schools. The Coalition recognise also that private school pupils are especially likely to gain entry to elite occupations and emphasise that state schools must aspire to provide similar opportunities for their pupils. State school standards can be improved to some extent by closer collaboration with private schools.
  • Conservative Governments 1979-97 had sympathised with the expansion in the number of Grammar Schools and David Cameron faced some opposition within the Conservative Party when he sought to distance himself from this policy. In the event no new Grammar schools have been opened between 2010 and 2015 but there remains evidence of substantial support within the Conservative party for the expansion of Grammar Schools. Click here for possible opening of a new grammar school.
  • There have been controversies surrounding the development of the Sure Start Programme under the Coalition government. Critics have claimed that several hundred Sure Start centres have been closed while the Government has argued that the decline in the number of Sure Start centres has arisen primarily [but not entirely] as a result of amalgamations of smaller centres. Be that as it may it has also been argued that the number of Sure Start centres will decline very significantly in the future if the Conservatives are returned to power in 2015. Click here for a useful article by Cathy Newman.
  • The discontinuation of the EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance] scheme  which channelled financial support to relatively underprivileged  students on the grounds that the scheme targeted resources inefficiently and its replacement by what the Government claimed would be a more effective system

As already mentioned Mr Gove  and his supporters have argued that Coalition education policies were practical. non-ideological measures designed to improve the overall effectiveness of the education system. Thus this argument has been applied to the changing of teaching training schemes, the  teaching of reading through phonics, the changes to the content of the National Curriculum, the development of more rigorous GCSE and GCE Advanced Level courses to be assessed via examination rather than coursework, the introduction of more challenging school inspections, higher examination pass rates as measurement criteria of school efficiency, measures to foster better discipline and a calmer learning environment, greater emphasis on streaming , banding and setting rather than mixed ability teaching and the development of more effective vocational education policies .

However it has also been claimed that some of these policies were in fact ideologically driven at least to some extent and that the influence of New Right neo-liberalism can be seen especially in the expansion of the Academies Programme, the introduction of  the Free Schools programme, the continued support for Private Education and for Grammar Schools [although no new Grammar Schools have been built] and the substantial increase in Higher Education tuition fees. All of these policies are designed to promote the increased quasi -marketisation  of education which, according to its supporters will drive up overall educational standards. Thus it is claimed that quasi-marketisation will restrict the powers of public sector bureaucrats who strive to promote the growth of state-controlled education partly in order to further their own careers and partly because they are subject to excessive influence from powerful teachers unions and leftist intellectuals. Instead under quasi-marketisation more schools are created which are free form public sector bureaucratic control and which can offer a wider educational choice to parents and their children. In turn parents will use their greater freedoms  to shun ineffective schools [ which may therefore be subject to closure , or, indeed , academisation] in favour of the more effective schools which will therefore expand  thereby improving the overall quality of education to all pupils, including the poorest who., it is claimed are particularly disadvantaged by the currently ineffective education system. Higher tuition fees for Higher Education are similarly designed to lead to the expansion of effective universities at the expense of ineffective ones.

In the era of Thatcherism [1979-90] Conservatives often argued 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.

It may well be the case that in contemporary times these neo-Conservative arguments are advanced rather less forcefully but Mr Gove's critics have argued that he and his supporters have intervened excessively in some aspects of curriculum content to promote neo-Conservative values and that the Govian emphasis on the importance of stricter discipline, school uniforms, prefect and house systems  and streaming/ banding and setting at the expense of mixed ability teaching [as well as the already mentioned continued support for Private Schools and Grammar Schools ] would all combine to give a rather more neo-Conservative tone to the school environment.

Critics of Coalition education policies have argued that insofar as they have been influenced by New Right Ideology they have been misguided. With regard to the possible influence of neo-liberalism the critics have denied that  that the accelerated expansion of the quasi market in education[ which began with the Conservative  1988 Education, continued under subsequent Labour Governments and has accelerated as a result of the Coalition's Academies and Free Schools programmes]  will drive up educational standards including the educational standards of the poorest. Thus although in theory these 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 quasi-marketisation of education has 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. It is particularly significant also that a recent report by the House of Common Select Committee on Education has concluded that there is currently no conclusive evidence that the Academies and Free Schools programmes have resulted in any improvement in overall educational standards. Also, as has been outlined elsewhere on this site, the continued existence of private schools and grammar schools has been criticised as undermining equality of opportunity.

 Critics have also rejected the neo-Conservative analysis of the defects of the education system. Thus they have argued  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. Furthermore it has been argued, most notably by Marxists, that a neo-Conservative approach to education is likely to inculcate into pupils exactly the kind of undesirable deference which prepares them to accept with out demur subsequent low paid employment in what Marxists perceive to be an exploitative, unjust, unequal capitalist system. Meanwhile interactionists argue that the streaming, banding and setting favoured by the Coalition compounds the educational difficulties of the more disadvantaged pupils by subjecting them to negative labelling processes which adversely affect their progress.

The Coalition Government has continually emphasised the necessity of raising average educational standards but has noted als o the particular difficulties faced by disadvantaged pupils whose levels of educational attainment are in many cases significantly blow the average as measured. for example, by their performance in GCSE and GCE Advanced level examinations and by statistics on access to Higher Education. The Coalition has argued that it prioritises increases in educational opportunity for disadvantaged students and in this respect it is important to consider the four following Coalition policy initiatives.

  • The Pupil Premium
  • The Abolition of the EMA
  • The Sure Start Programme
  • The Increase in Higher Education Tuition Fees.

 Social Democracy has provided the main theoretical basis for Labour Party policy. Social democrats have traditionally believed that unregulated capitalism would result in inequality of income, wealth and power and the absence of meritocracy but that higher living standards and greater economic equality  can best be achieved via state reform and regulation of the capitalist system leading to the creation of a mixed economy thus rendering the revolutionary abolition of capitalism unnecessary. However in recent years there has been considerable controversy surrounding the extent to which the ideology of New Labour represents a shift away from the principles of social democracy and toward the ideology of the New Right and this controversy has certainly been  apparent in analyses of New Labour education policies. 

Most  Social Democrats have traditionally argued against  the existence of Private education and State selective education on the grounds that both of these forms of education undermine equality of opportunity . They would admit that top private schools and state grammar schools  may well enable their pupils to reach higher educational standards but point out also that  private school education is available primarily  to the children of rich or comfortably off parents and also that it is middle class children who have benefited most from the existence of state grammar schools. For these reasons Social Democrats have been strong supporters of Comprehensive Secondary Education which in their view would be most likely to increase equality of educational opportunity and to raise average educational standards.

 However in practice Labour Governments have failed to abolish Private Education [and , in any case, attempts to abolish Private Education may now be illegal under the terms of the 1998 Human Rights Act; Labour have also allowed the continued existence of a limited number [currently 164] selective State Grammar Schools ; and  Labour have accepted  much of the Conservatives "choice and diversity agenda based around the introduction of a quasi market in education via increased support for Specialised Schools, Faith, Schools and City Academies. Whereas some Social Democrats have argued that these latter policies are consistent with Social Democracy and amount to a modernisation of the comprehensive system which can further promote meritocracy others argue that they indicate  clearly that Labour has adopted a New Right Education policy agenda which will undermine the prospects for educational meritocracy as upper and middle class parents are able to use their economic, social and cultural capital to secure places at the more successful state schools for their children at the expense of working class children. That is: in the view of critical Social Democrats the criticisms of Conservative New Right education policies apply also  to New Labour education policies  which are seen as equally influenced by the ideology of the New Right.

 Social Democrats have supported the initiatives introduced by Labour  such   increased nursery provision, reduced class sizes  and the Sure Start , Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities programmes which are clearly designed to target additional resources on poorer children. However many Social Democrats  claim also that these policies are insufficient to reduce the massive social class, ethnic and gender inequalities of educational achievement which continue to exist and that the relative educational opportunities of disadvantaged pupils can be increased only via the abolition of private and state selective grammar schools and additional financial resources for  the Sure Start Programme and for future programmes replacing the  EAZ and EiC programmes and by the rethinking of Labour policies on diversity and choice. Even then broader social and economic and social policies to reduce poverty and inequality will also be necessary because many Social Democrats believe that it may well still be true that as Basil Bernstein stated in the 1970s"Education cannot compensate for society."

Return to Coalition Education Policies Part One: Introduction: Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments 1979-2015- Click Here