Coalition Education Policies-Part Two: General Analysis

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

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
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 Two: Coalition Education Policies General Analysis

Main Coalition Education Policies. 

The Conservative- Liberal Democrat  Coalition outlined its analysis of the current state of English education  together with its proposals for educational reform in its  Whitepaper The Importance of Teaching which was published in November 2010. Key points made in the Whitepaper included the following.

  1. Although there was much to commend in the English Education system there were also important defects which need to be rectified.
  2. Comparative international tests revealed that in several respects English educational standards were falling behind those achieved in a wide range of foreign countries.
  3. It would be necessary  to correct what the Government perceived to be the problem of grade inflation which allegedly was reducing the credibility of both GCSE and GCE Advanced level examination. This was to be achieved  via a greater emphasis on examinations relative to course work and the introduction of more difficult syllabi and stricter marking criteria.
  4. Also inequalities of educational opportunity were greater in England than in many other countries and might well be increasing. Thus, for example, it was pointed out  in the White Paper that each year of approximately 600,000 new pupils about 80,000 were eligible for free school meals  but that of these 80,000 typically only about 40 students per year would gain places at Oxbridge colleges , less than the number of places gained by pupils from several individual public schools.
  5.  It was argued that significant reforms of vocational education were necessary because too many school and college students were currently enrolling  on vocational courses which both employers and universities considered to be of limited usefulness.
  6. Although most school students were well behaved more should be done to address the bad behaviour of a limited number of pupils which was undermining the overall effectiveness of the education system.

The Coalition announced that a range of new policies would be introduced to deal with these perceived problems.

  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.
  1. 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.
  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 grammar schools and here  and 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. 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. Click here and here for recent information on Sure Start closures. [Thanks to Fran Nantongwe  for drawing my attention to these articles.]
  • 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


 Coalition Education Policies and Ideology


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 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.

The Coalition Government has continually emphasised the necessity of raising average educational standards but has noted also 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 the introduction of the Pupil Premium is intended to improve the prospects of more disadvantaged pupils although it is at least possible that the abolition of the EMA , the increase in Higher Education Tuition fees and the alleged scaling down of the Sure Start programme may be counterproductive in this respect. Further information on these policies is provided later in the document

The arguments of Mr Gove  and his supporters that  Coalition education policies were practical. non-ideological measures designed to improve the overall effectiveness of the education system have 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.

General Criticisms of  Coalition Education Policies

The Coalition Government have obviously defended these policies very energetically but the policies have also met with substantial criticism.

It is difficult to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses  of individual policies  because they have been operative at most for a limited amount of time and in some cases have not yet been implemented. Nevertheless I shall first list some of the broad criticisms of Coalition policies and then provide some sources of more detailed information which may help you to make your own assessments. This last  section of the document should, however,  be regarded as “work in progress “ and  I am hoping to supplement it as more information becomes available.

  1. It has been argued that although the UK has fallen down the international education league table as measured by the PISA rankings it is ranked much more highly when different educational criteria are used as for example in a recent Economist Survey. It is possible therefore that Coalition has overstated the defects of the current education system. Click here for BBC coverage of the Economist survey.
  2. It has been argued that problems of grade inflation have been much overstated in a manner  which has undermined the achievements of individual students.
  3. It is argued that the reorientation of teacher training away from university Education departments and toward classroom practice reduces access to important theoretical ideas which would prove very useful throughout teachers’ entire careers. Click here for further discussion of this point from the Guardian.
  4. The general criticisms of the quasi-marketisation of education apply in particular to the rapid expansion of quasi-marketisation under the Coalition and important specific criticisms have been made of the Coalition's Academies and Free Schools Programmes most recently by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education which has stated that there is no conclusive evidence that the expansion of Academies and free Schools has resulted in improved  educational attainment.
  5. Critics argue that closer links between private and state schools are unlikely to lead to significant improvements in educational opportunities for disadvantaged  pupils and the continued existence of the private sector as currently organised is itself seen as one of the main sources of inequality of educational opportunity
  6. Continued support for setting and/or streaming is criticised by those educationalists committed to the extension of mixed ability teaching which they see as a means of preventing the negative labelling which they associate with setting and/or streaming.
  7. It is argued that the Coalition’s emphasis  on the strengthening of teachers’ disciplinary powers and the symbolic value of uniforms , blazers and house and prefect systems reflects an essentially neo-Conservative approach to education which is out of step with the ideology of progressive education which of course is itself at odds with neo-Conservative thinking.
  8. It has been argued that the Coalition have prioritised the teaching of reading through synthetic phonics and that other methods of teaching reading may be more effective
  9. It has been claimed that the as Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and his close advisors have intervened  counterproductively in the development of the curricula of particular subjects and of teaching methodologies and that in so doing they have imparted and excessively traditionalist bias to both.
  10. It has been argued that the priority attached to EBACC subject entry has led to an undesirable marginalisation of EBACC subjects.
  11. It has been claimed  that the marginalisation of coursework as a method of assessment has been misguided.
  12. It has been claimed that the reorganisation of the GCE Advanced Level courses and in particular the decoupling of AS and A2 examinations is misguided because the transition from GCSE Level to Advanced Level is thereby made more difficult in ways which may affect disadvantaged students especially adversely.
  13. It has been argued that the introduction of the Pupil Premium , although praiseworthy, is unlikely to increase equality of educational opportunity significantly.
  14. It is argued that the phasing out of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and its replacement by what critics consider to be a less effective support system combined with the significant increase in Higher Education tuition fees are both likely to increase inequality of educational opportunity.
  15. Click here for BBC item on Higher Education applications.
  16. It is argued that , as with previous government policies, Coalition initiatives to improve the quality of technical education are unlikely to be successful.
  17. Professor Basil Bernstein argued many years ago that "Education cannot compensate for society." Thus he claimed deep seated social inequalities were key causes of inequalities of educational achievement  with the implication that the reduction of poverty and inequality  was crucial to the achievement of a more meritocratic society.  Critics argue that the broader social and economic policies of the Coalition Government have done little or nothing to reduce social inequalities with the result that the prospects for reducing inequalities of educational attainment remain bleak indeed.
  18. It has been argued that although the Coalition stated that despite the difficulties associated with "economic austerity" the Schools budget would be protected this did no apply to spending on post 16 education  with the result that by 2014 many schools were facing serious financial difficulties.
  19. Click here for recent  Independent coverage of Schools' budget difficulties.
  20. The House of Common Public Accounts Committee has recently voiced its concerns as to the overall effectiveness of the DFE. Click here for recent Guardian coverage of a Public Accounts Committee investigation.


Several of these criticisms may well turn out to have considerable force but it must also be noted that at the same time Government spokespersons have defended their policies strenuously against such criticisms and also that the policies in question have in some cases been in operation for only a limited amount of time and in other cases are yet to be implemented. In the next section of the document I provide some further information on specific Coalition education policies but it must be recognised that it is clearly impossible to make a full evaluation of these policies at this moment in time.

For Part 3 - Click Here