Coalition Education Policies: Part One: Introduction: Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments 1979-2015

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Coalition Education Policies 2010- 2015: A Summary

March 2016: For a PowerPoint presentation in which I try to summarise the key points made in the following document Click here to Download

For an assignment on Coalition Education Policies - Click here 

Part One: Introduction: Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments 1979-2015 - Click Here

Introductory Readings
Conservative Governments 1979-1997 and Labour Governments 1997-2010
Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Ideology: General

Part Two: Coalition Education Policies : General Analysis- Click Here
Main Coalition Education Policies
Coalition Education Policies and Ideology
General Criticisms of Coalition Education Policies

Part Three: Specific Coalition Education Policies: Analysis - Click Here

Reform of the National Curriculum
Free Schools
The EBacc, the EBacc Certificate and the Reorganisation of GCSE Courses [including Comparable Outcomes]
League Tables and New Measure of Accountability at GCSE Level
The Reorganisation of GCE Advanced Level Courses
Vocational Education
The Discontinuation of the EMA and Aim Higher Schemes
The Sure Start Programme under Labour, Coalition and Conservative Governments
The Pupil Premium
Increased Higher Education Tuition Fees


Part One: Introduction: Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments 1979-2015

Introduction: Some Advice to Students

This document  has proven to be rather longer than I had originally anticipated and I think, therefore, that I should warn students against spending too much time on what is a relatively small, albeit important, element in the new Advanced Level Sociology specifications. Your  teachers will no doubt provide excellent information and guidance as to appropriate time allocation but I hope that once you have covered the requisite textbook materials you may be able to use some of the links in my document to extend your knowledge a little and then summarise the information more concisely for examination purposes.

The Coalition Government was very active in the area of education policy  but because  Coalition education policies  have been in operation only for a short time  and others may well be modified  by the new Conservative Government elected on May 7th 2015  there have been few detailed assessments of them which of course means that they cannot be evaluated with certainty.

I begin this document with 5 preliminary readings designed to introduce students to some of the main issues which are to be covered here. After a brief discussion of previous Conservative and Labour Government's education policies  I then consider the overall political orientation of the Coalition Government,  list its most, significant education policies, list some general criticisms of these policies  and then  provide some further slightly more detailed information on specific policies.

In particular Advanced Level Sociology students are also required to evaluate education policies from different sociological perspectives and I have also provided an assignment which I hope will help you to assess the extent to which some Coalition education policies may well be influenced by New Right Ideology.

As I was finishing this document The Coalition's Record on Schools: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015 by Ruth Lupton and  Stephanie Thomson was published. It is a first class paper providing more detailed, insightful information on Coalition schools policies.

In December 2017 the Education Policy Institute published a report entitled Access to High Performing Schools which has important implications for the analysis of Coalition Education Policies. This Report has been summarised by the BBC and  by Schoolsweek .

In July 2018 UCL /Institute of Education published a highly significant report on Coalition Education Policies. Click here for a UCL/Institute of Education item with links to the full report and click here for Observer coverage of the report


     Introductory Readings


  1. Click here for Coalition Education Minister Nick Gibb's perspective on the new National curriculum and related matters
  2. Click here for article by Polly Toynbee on David Cameron and the Conservatives: scroll to the Education section of the article
  3. Click here  for a useful short Radio 4 discussion from 2013 on the proposed changes to GCSE courses
  4. Click here for BBC item on international tests


Conservative Governments 1979-1997 and Labour Governments 1997-2010

Conservative governments of 1979-1997 were heavily influenced by the ideology of the New Right which contains both neo-liberal and neo-conservative elements. With regard to education policy neo-liberalism led the Conservatives in the direction of continued support for Private Education and Grammar schools , the Assisted Places Scheme and the development of the quasi -market in education which was designed to give parents much greater choice of schools for their children which was to lead to improved overall education standards as successful schools attracted increasing numbers of pupils while unsuccessful schools  would lose pupil numbers and eventually be faced with closure. Successive Conservative governments claimed also that inefficiency within the education system could to a considerable extent be blamed also on inefficient Leas  and that the educational prospects of disadvantaged students could be improved also as the operation of the quasi-market in education would improve the educational prospects of all pupils. Meanwhile the Neo-Conservative elements of New Right ideology led the Conservatives  to support an increased emphasis on school discipline traditional teaching methods and streaming  and to reject  the more progressive teaching methods and mixed ability teaching which had been allegedly been more popular in the 1960s and, according to the neo-Conservatives were to blame for much of Britain's relative educational decline.

New Labour Governments accepted much of the Conservatives choice and diversity agenda and as a result increased the number of Specialist Schools and introduced  the Academies Programme  but they also introduced  a range of educational measures [ Education Action Zones, Sure Start Centres, the Excellence in Cities Programme and the Education Maintenance Allowance which  could be seen as a examples of social democratic "compensatory education.

During the years of Conservative Government 1979-1997 and Labour Governments 1997- 2010 overall educational achievements as measured by examination results did improve: the percentage of pupils gaining 5 or more GCE ordinary levels and subsequently 5 or more A*-C GCSE grades increased; more pupils passed GCE Advanced Level Examinations; more pupils enrolled on Higher Education courses and more young people embarked upon various schemes of vocational education and training. However it has been argued also that very substantial social class inequalities in educational achievement , gender differences in educational achievement and ethnic differences in educational achievement remain despite the range of policies introduced by Conservative and Labour Governments. Indeed critics have argued that the development of quasi markets in education and the growth of income inequality under both Conservative and Labour Governments have been  key factors causing the continuation of inequality of educational opportunity although both Conservative and Labour supporters of the education quasi-market have rejected these criticisms .

In opposition both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats often supported Blairite education reforms, sometimes voting in favour of policies which several Labour MPs were unwilling to support. As Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove emphasised the need to drive up overall education standards and to promote increased social mobility through education, a theme which has been strongly supported also by Liberal Democrat Education Ministers.  Subsequently Coalition education policies have exhibited both similarities with and differences from the policies of previous Labour Governments.


Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and  Ideology  : General 

One would expect the direction of education policies under the Coalition Government to be dependent, at least to some extent upon the overall ideological positions of the Conservatives and liberal democrats respectively. Unfortunately, however, it is not easy to determine the parties’ ideological positions with any certainty. Here is a little introductory information on this complex topic!!

There are certainly significant disputes surrounding the ideological beliefs of the current Conservative Party leader David Cameron. As Leader of the Opposition David Cameron appeared keen to distance himself from the legacy of Thatcherism and in several respects to shift the Conservative Party towards the “centre ground” in a manner which he hoped nevertheless would not overly antagonise Thatcherites within the Party . Thus  while claiming that he is “not a particularly ideological politician” he has also identified himself as both an economic liberal and a social liberal supporting what he believes to be the economic benefits of Thatcherite neo-liberal economic policies while also distancing himself from Thatcherite neo-conservatism on issues such as family policy and law and order although Cameron has still articulated neo-Conservative attitudes to law and order on occasion, for example in relation to the urban disturbances of 2011..

He has also identified himself with a modern  version of the One Nation Conservatism associated with earlier Conservative leaders such as Disraeli and Macmillan and  although he continued to praise Thatcherite economic reforms he noted also that by 2010 there would be many new voters who knew little of Thatcherism; he stated that the Conservatives must challenge Labour in the key areas of health and education policy; he praised the work of public sector professionals ; he has emphasised the increased importance of environmental protection  and the continuing importance of foreign aid; and he signalled a significant shift in Conservative social policy by recognising the significance of both absolute and relative social policy. At the same time the Conservatives have emphasised that overall income inequality increased under Labour Governments 1997-2010 [ while it has been reduced between 2010 and 2012/13 although it has also been pointed out that income inequality is expected to increase again from 2013/14 onwards. Nevertheless the Conservatives claimed that it is they rather than Labour who can be best relied upon to defend the interests of the poor and to promote greater equality of educational opportunity., a claim which is, of course,  disputed by the Labour Party. Also in a telling phrase that “There is such a thing as society but it is not the same thing as the state” he sought to distance himself both from Thatcherite individualism and from the excessively bureaucratised statism which he claimed was typical of New Labour policies. Instead he promised the development of “The Big Society” in which Third Sector charitable institutions and greater societal participation would help to alleviate the social problems which in his view had not been amenable to solution by the over-centralised Blair- Brown State.

While some political analysts have tended to accept David Cameron’s self-definitions as a “ modern”, ”compassionate, “One Nation” Conservative  others have denied that he has repositioned the Conservatives on the "centre ground." They claim that  in all essentials Cameron has accepted Thatcherite neo-liberal economic policies; that one should also not overstate his divergence from Thatcherism on law and order questions; that his commitments to environmentally friendly policies have not been sustained in government; and that his plans for increased civic engagement have been met with generalised cynicism and have achieved little. Meanwhile, however on the Right of the Conservative Party Cameron’s apparent One Nation Conservatism, his links with the Liberal Democrats and his [and, according to the Right] insufficient Euroscepticism have been seen as all too real and a cause for alarm rather than celebration. Finally because he is perceived by some as Thatcherite and by others as One Nation Conservative this has led some to argue that in reality he is the ultimate ideologically rootless, pragmatic politician .

Disputes as to the real nature of David Cameron's beliefs is ongoing. In an article published by the Institute for Public Policy research Sunder Katwala has argued that David Cameron provides a master class in political ambiguity ;  the eminent political theorist Vernon Bogdanor [see here] accepts that Cameron should be seen as a one nation Conservative [ a view endorsed among other by Professor Philip Norton and journalist Matthew D'Ancona];  the eminent political journalist Steve Richards [see here and heredisputes these views and is supported in academic studies by Matt Beech and Simon Lee and by Richard Hayton. Short comments either endorsing or rejecting the perception of Cameron as One Nation Conservative may be found in this recent Observer article.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, especially those influenced by so-called Orange Book Liberalism, have similarly accepted much of the neo-liberal policy programme but at the same time have emphasised strongly the importance of the relief of poverty and the encouragement of social mobility. Bearing in mind these general elements of Cameronian Conservative and Liberal Democrat ideologies one would have expected that Coalition education policies  would incorporate attempts to advance the significance of a quasi-markets within the education system  and policies designed  to advance equality of opportunity and as, is indicated below this overall strategy is illustrated most clearly in the expansion of Academies, the introduction of free schools and the Pupil Premium.

It was also to be expected that in the early stages of Coalition both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would attempt to focus more on policy agreement than policy disagreement but policy disagreements there have certainly been and at the 2013 Liberal Democrat Conference Nick Clegg used his leadership speech to spell out what he considered to be 16 important ways in which the Liberal Democrats had succeeded in modifying Conservative policies . With regard to education policy, according to Nick Clegg , the Liberal Democrats had prevented the bringing back of "O Levels" and the re- introduction of a two-tier examination system for 15-16 year olds, the introduction of profit-making in State Schools and the introduction of new larger child care ratios which although they would have reduced the costs of childcare would also, according to Nick Clegg, have reduced the overall quality of childcare.

Click here for Guardian coverage of Nick Clegg's 2013 Liberal Democrat Conference Speech. [Some of these issues will be discussed in more detail later in the document.] It has been noted also that relationships between former Secretary of State Michael Gove and the teaching profession were  often been less than harmonious and some have claimed to detect a rather more conciliatory approach to the teaching profession by new Secretary of State Nicola Morgan.

For Part 2 - Click Here