Please note: that I have currently written 7 essays on the Sociology of Education and intent to write a few more in the near future. Note that in each case these essays are far longer than could be written under examination conditions and that although they include points of knowledge , application and evaluation I tend to use separate paragraphs for each of these categories rather than to combine several categories in each paragraph  as in  the strongly recommended PEEEL approach whereby each paragraph should include Point; Explanation, Example: Evaluation and Link to following Paragraph.

I hope that you find the information in these essays useful but would strongly recommend that you write your own essays using the PEEEL approach or something very similar to it. Obviously your teachers will advise you as to appropriate essay writing technique.

Essay: Education Policy and Pupil Achievement

Date Page last edited: 02/03/2020

For further information on several of the issues covered in this document click on the above Education link. Click here for detailed notes, a PowerPoint and an assignment on Coalition Education Policies. Also you may read a  summary of Coalition Education Policies here

Students may find the following first 10 links especially helpful...I hope!

Click here for BBC Radio 4 Analysis: A Subversive History of School Reform. Also BBC Radio 4: The Briefing Room : Grammar Schools [28 minutes]

Click here for a 1977 edition of Panorama which presented a not entirely reassuring view of one comprehensive school. This original previous link is broken but you can now  click here to access the progamme. There is also a very useful commentary. Let's hope this link will last !

Click here for a podcast by The Sociology Guy on Education and Social Policy   June 2nd 2018

Click here for a  podcast  on the New Right and Education and here  for a podcast on Marketisation and Education and here for a podcast on Privatisation and Education and here for podcast on Education Policies and Social Class Inequality [ Mr Craig Gelling for Tutor2U]   March 2020

Click here for a podcast by Ms Alexandra Sugden on Education Policy and Inequality and here for her podcast on The New Right and Education Policy  June 2nd 2018

 Click here for short video lecture by Professor Diane Reay who addresses the issues covered in this document December 2017

Click here for recent article from Professor Diane Reay  December 2017

Click here  for BBC Radio 4 Analysis: The Pupil Premium presented by Dr Becky Allen.  October 2018

Click here for Panorama  Profit before Pupils?: The Academies Scandal [Website states that this programme is available for only 28 days but as of March 2020 it is still available. Thanks BBC!]  These  two Panorama items are separate programmes

Click here for The Academies Scandal [Panorama Via You Tube] March 2019.

Click here for Guardian coverage of Sutton Trust Report on Academy Chains and the progress of disadvantaged pupils. The Guardian article contains a link to the full report which has an excellent summary history of academisation as well as detailed research findings. December 2018

Click here for guardian coverage and here for BBC coverage of report stating that school admission procedures discriminate against poorer families

For detailed  data on numbers of academies, free schools and studio schools and UTCs as of August 2020  Click here and then on the first link you see and then on summary, you can also  Click here for more detailed data as of April 2019

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

Click here for a detailed academic paper on Labour and Education Policy 1997-2010  [Heath. A and Sullivan. A and Boliver. V and Zimdar A [2013} Education under New Labour 1997-2010 Oxford review of economic policy29[1]pp227-247   October 2018

Click here for an article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies on Education Spending Trends  April 2019

Click here for Guardian article "Off Rolling"  April 2019

Click here for Guardian article on use of Pupil Premium revenues to close budget gaps   April 2019

Click here for Panorama [September 10th 2018]  Profit before Pupils?: The Academies Scandal [Website states that this programme is available for only 28 days but as of March 2020 it is still available. Thanks BBC!]

Click here   for significant Guardian article based on the work of Professor Stephen Gorard  September 2018

Click here for Observer view of education policy  July 2018

Click here for Guardian coverage of recent report on education policy  July 2018

Click here for a Guardian  article on Academies by Michael Rosen   July 2018 [but article written May 2018]

Click here for "Last Chance Academy " [Panorama 2014]

Click here for recent article from Professor Diane Reay   December 2017

This document has been revised in October-November 2016 and additional links have been added between 2016 and 2018. In the first part of the document I have attempted to summarise some of the main developments in education policy between 1979 and 2016 but, very unfortunately,  even my summary will have to be drastically shortened for use under examination conditions.

In the second part of the document I have written an essay on education policy and pupil achievement which includes  a "summary of a summary" of the main education policies since 1945 followed by a description of different sociological perspectives on relationships between education policies and pupil achievements.

The third part of the document is a concluding assignment.

It may be that students will wish to read the document from beginning to end but alternatively it may be useful to read the essay first , then to look at the assignment and to return to the original policy summary if you wish to clarify any points of detail.

My essay runs to approximately 9 pages of typing but I hope that with some further discussion and after completing the assignment you will be able to generate your own summary which will be more concise and more useful for examination purpose. Well: good luck with that.



Sociologists would analyse the education policies of Conservative and Labour governments from different sociological perspectives. From Functionalist and New Right and  perspectives Conservative education policies and some Labour education policies would be seen as beneficial to pupils while Labour's policies  would be supported especially by moderate  social democratic theorists although they might also fear that New Labour's education policies have been influenced by New Right ideas in ways which inhibit the likelihood of increased meritocracy and Interactionist theories could be used to suggest that any education policies which promoted negative labelling would also undermine meritocracy. Marxists would be critical of both Conservative and Labour policies as inevitably supportive on an unequal, unjust capitalist system and while Liberal Feminists would recognise the usefulness of some Conservative and Labour policies, Marxist/Socialist and Radical Feminists would be more likely to emphasise the limitations of these policies.

Conservative Education Policies 1979-1997.

Conservative Governments of 1979-1997 strengthened the private Education sector via the Assisted Places scheme [which provided grants for talented students of limited means to take up places at private schools] , supported the continued existence of  selective state grammar schools and also introduced several new education policies many of which were contained in the 1988 Education Reform Act. They included : the introduction of a National Curriculum; tests for 7, 11 and 14yearolds as well as 16 year olds; increased freedom  of choice for parents/pupils to choose their secondary school rather than being allocated almost automatically to their nearest local secondary school; Local Management of Schools whereby head teachers were given greater control over their school budgets; the increased dependence of school funding on school numbers so that more popular schools would attract larger funds and vice versa..

In addition  so-called league tables were  created on the basis of schools' published examination and truancy rates; there were more frequent school inspections carried out by OFSTED whose reports were  published which  provided some useful comparative information for parents; the GCSE replaced the GCE and CSE examination in 1988.The Conservatives also introduced a limited number of City Technology Colleges and Specialist schools and  a range of policies under the general heading of the New Vocationalism in an attempt to deal with what they saw as the failure of the education system to adequately meet the needs of industry .

 The Conservatives argued on the basis of neo-liberal ideology that their education policies would create a so-called quasi market in education which would  would enhance school diversity and parental choice, facilitate the expansion of effective schools and the closure of ineffective ones and lead to improved standards for all pupils including those from the poorest backgrounds. Furthermore it was argued that the process of quasi -marketisation would generate a "parentocracy" whereby individual parents would have far greater individual choice in determining  the schools which their children  would attend.

However several education policy analysts were critical of the neo-liberal approach  was indicated especially in the work of Ball , Bowe and Gerwitz . In their study "Markets, Choice and Equity in Education " [1995]  Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz criticised Conservative education policies designed to provide parents with a wider choice of schools for their children because in their view middle class parents and their children would be especially likely to benefit from this choosing process because they possess the cultural and economic capital to choose more effectively. With regard to parental choice, Gerwirtz, Ball and Bowe distinguish between mainly middle class "privileged choosers" and mainly working class "semi-skilled and disconnected choosers" admitting however that these categories are , to some extent ideal types and that many parents may be difficult to classify exactly. Nevertheless according to Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz it would be the middle class "privileged choosers which would gain most from the Conservative reforms. designed to increase parental choice which would obviously undermine claims that "parentocracy rules" in the education system.

Labour Government Education Policies 1997-2010

In general terms  Tony Blair's  New Labour government accepted much of the Thatcherite neo-liberal agenda while at the same time claiming to support  a modernised version of social democracy which would be more in tune with the demands of an increasingly globalised world economy [all of which has been described , accurately or otherwise, by left wing critics as amounting to little more than "warmed over neo-liberalism" or "Thatcherism with a smiling face"] and he also showed himself to be ready to accept much of Conservative Education policy although New Labour would also introduce a range of compensatory measures which many argued were informed by a recognisably social democratic political philosophy .

 [Click here for the New Labour approach to Compensatory Education]

By 1997 there were increasing concerns within the Labour government and elsewhere that educational standards in some comprehensive schools were in serious need of improvement. Inspectors reported that lessons were often badly taught , that pupil discipline was poor and that although GCSE results were gradually improving more than 50% of students nationally were failing to achieve 5 or more A*-C grades and in many comprehensive schools with primarily working class intakes only 15% - 30% of students were gaining the 5 A*-C grades.

Schools Effectiveness  Research indicated too that there were wide variations in examination results in schools with similar socio-economic intakes thus demonstrating that variation in examination results was caused at least partly by variation in the quality of the schools themselves and not only by socio-economic conditions external to the schools.

It is likely that in the mid 1990s Tony Blair, David Blunkett and their policy advisers believed that the Labour Party was identified too closely in the electorate's mind with uncritical support for progressive education and the comprehensive principle and with dogmatic opposition to grammar schools , private education and to recent Conservative reforms such the National Curriculum,  more rigorous school inspection regimes and increased secondary school diversity. Consequently successive Labour Governments accepted much of the  neo-liberal rationale for the development of a quasi market in education and  Labour's 1997 General Election manifesto  emphasised that Labour would abolish grammar schools only if a majority of eligible parents voted for their abolition and that reform of the Comprehensive system must involve a shift from mixed ability teaching to setting. Thus Labour's  1997  Manifesto stated "We must modernise comprehensive schools. Children are not all of the same ability, neither do they learn at the same speed. That means "setting" children in classes to maximise progress for the benefit of high fliers and slow learners alike. The focus must be on levelling up, not levelling down." Furthermore  private schools would be retained and Labour Governments hoped that if private schools strengthened their links with state schools this would promote improvement of the state sector.

Labour governments   introduced a massive range of education policies designed both to raise average education standards and to improve the educational standards of more disadvantaged students and have  also introduced various initiatives to improve vocational education and training .These policies  have included  increased government spending on education ,increased use of private finance initiatives, the ending of the Assisted Places Scheme, the Sure Start programme, the expansion of nursery education, reduced class sizes for 5,6and 7 year olds, home-school agreements, literacy and numeracy hours, increased use of target setting, modification of Advanced level courses incorporating separate examinations taken in the first year {AS level] and the second year [A2 level] of A Level courses, the expansion of vocational education, the retention of City Technology Colleges, the expansion of Specialist schools, Faith schools and City Academies designed to increase  diversity and choice within the secondary sector and the Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities programmes,  the Extended Schools Programme, the introduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance and  the Aim Higher Programme  designed to target resources on relatively disadvantaged pupils, the London Challenge Programme designed to address the problem of London's underperforming schools [ a very successful initiative]  and the Every Child Matters initiative designed to protect children who might be at risk. However Labour have also continued the process begun by the Conservatives whereby loans and fees have increasingly replaced grants  in the financing of Higher Education.

Some critics of Labour's education policies have argued that  the criticisms of Conservative education policies which had been outlined by Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz and others[see above] might be seen to apply equally to Labour's Choice and Diversity agenda. They claimed also that Labour adopted an overall rhetoric which continued what Paul Trowler has called the "discourse of derision" applied to teachers and schools during the Conservative era and could be interpreted as suggesting a criticism of the fundamental principle of comprehensivisation and as undermining the best efforts  of teachers working  in the more "challenging" comprehensive schools. Thus Tony Blair's first Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett  "named and shamed" 18 comprehensive schools deemed to be "failing"; Alistair Campbell [ himself a staunch supporter of comprehensivisation] publicised Tony Blair's choice and diversity agenda  as signalling "the end of the bog standard comprehensive" while a subsequent Education Secretary Estelle Morris  stated that although some  comprehensives were very good there were others that she "would not touch with  a barge pole".

Perhaps the most forceful supporter of the choice and diversity agenda was the Prime Minister's education adviser and subsequent Minister for Education Lord Andrew Adonis. In his recent book "Education: Education: Education" Lord Adonis has criticised the roles of some Local Education Authorities and the Teachers Unions  in the development and implementation of education policy and claimed that in many cases little had been done to modernise many [but certainly not all] comprehensive schools which consequently , even at the beginning of the 21st Century, could be described as essentially "Secondary Modern Comprehensives." Thus , for Lord Adonis  the choice and diversity agenda in general and the Academies Programme in particular represented an attempt not to undermine the comprehensive principle but to improve the effectiveness of the comprehensive schools through reform of their management structures and teaching methods. However many continue to argue that despite the arguments of Lord Adonis , the choice and diversity agenda does indeed undermine the comprehensive principle in a manner which is highly likely to result in increasing inequality of educational opportunity.  Thus the criticisms of Conservative education policies which had been outlined by Ball, Bowe and Gerwirtz might be seen to apply equally to Labour's Choice and Diversity agenda.


One of the most significant aspects of quasi -marketisation of  process has been the Academies Programme  which was introduced by the Labour Government in 2002 and accelerated significantly under the Coalition Government. A large number of studies of Labour's Academies programme have been undertaken although it is generally agreed that it is too soon to evaluate the effectiveness of new academies opened by the Coalition. Many of the Coalition's academies  are converter academies which differ in important respects from the sponsored academies  opened by Labour although a fairly large number of Coalition academies are also sponsored academies.

In Feb 2015 The House Of Commons Education Select Committee published its  Report on Academies and Free Schools. Click here for the full report on Academies and Free Schools   and scroll to Section 2  pp 10-24 for the section on Academisation and Pupil Progress] The members of this committee have been advised by Professor Stephen Machin who has himself conducted important and highly respected research on the possible effects of academisation on pupil attainment some of which is summarised in my own summary document on Academies. The Committee concentrate their research primarily on the effects of sponsored academisation on pupil progress arguing that it is to soon too assess the effects of the Converter Academies. Their key conclusion is that "Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change. According to research we have seen, it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. This is partly a matter of timing. We should be cautious about reading across from evidence about pre-2010 academies to other academies established since then."

Click here for What does it mean to be an academy?

Click here for Guardian coverage of research suggesting that academisation has had no long term impact on GCSE results in the schools academised by Labour Governments


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.

It has also been pointed out that under successive governments  some schools have resorted to the tactic of removing mainly disadvantaged students from their school registers[ so-called off -rolling]  in order to massage their examination pass rates upwards so as to improve their league table positions by bogus means. These actions also mean that official DfE statistics may understate the real degree of class inequality in educational attainment.

Click here for a detailed report and for a summary of the report on Labour's Record on Education:  Policy, Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010.

Coalition Education Policies 2010- 2015

Click here for a detailed Report and here for a summary of the report on The Coalition's Record on Education: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015

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.  Coalition education policies have exhibited both similarities with and differences from the policies of previous Labour Governments.

There are certainly significant disputes surrounding the ideological beliefs of the current Conservative Party leader David Cameron. 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, however, identified himself with a MacMillanite version of One Nation Conservatism, emphasised the increased importance of environmental protection and the need to promote greater civic engagement via the implementation of the so-called Big Society Programme. At the same time the Conservatives have emphasised that overall income inequality and  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.

While some political analysts have tended to accept David Cameron’s self-definitions as a “ modern”, ”compassionate, “One Nation” Conservative  others have argued 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 .

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.

Coalition Education Policies: Some Summary Information

The Coalition Government introduced a wide range of education policies and I can only provide a broad summary of them here . Students may discuss with their teachers the extent to which such information might be incorporated into short examination -length essays.

In broad terms Coalition education policies have incorporated the following main elements.

  1. 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 .
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. A redesign of the GCSE Examination system  and of individual subject curricula  which aimed to prioritise entry for EBACC subjects [English Mathematics, Science, Modern Languages ,and History and Geography] which were deemed especially valuable on educational grounds and in terms of enhancing future employment opportunities and also ,according to some educationalists suggested a more traditionalist approach to curriculum content in some subject areas.
  5. A clear indication that the Government remained supportive of setting and /or streaming  as efficient methods of grouping.
  6. 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 .
  7. The discontinuation of the Aim Higher Programme which had been designed to encourage disadvantaged students to apply to University.desig
  8. Changes to the nature of GCE Advanced Level courses whereby although AS course  and examinations would continue to exist they would be "stand alone examinations" and GCE Advanced Levels  would be examined only at the end of the 2 year course.
  9. A clear statement of intent 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.
  10. The introduction and gradual increase in value of the Pupil Premium as a means of improving the educational prospects  of more disadvantaged pupils.
  11. 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.
  12. The introduction of significant increases in Higher Education tuition fees which, according to the Coalition, 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.

[While the Government has generally defended these policies staunchly especially  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.

These Coalition policies  have met with substantial criticism and the resultant policy debates have necessitated very careful assessment of detailed evidence especially perhaps in relation to arguments  surrounding the effectiveness or otherwise of the Academies programme. The broad criticisms which have been made of Coalition Education Policies are summarised below and you can click here to find more details on the strengths and weaknesses of specific policies in documents.

Broad Criticisms Of Coalition Education Policies

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. It has been argued that the priority attached to EBACC subject entry has led to an undesirable marginalisation of EBACC subjects.
  6. It has been argued that problems of grade inflation have been much overstated in a manner  which has undermined the achievement sof individual students and that the marginalisation of coursework as a method of assessment has been misguided.
  7. It has been argued that the introduction of the Pupil Premium , although praiseworthy, is unlikely to increase equality of educational opportunity significantly.
  8. 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.
  9. It is argued that , as with previous government policies, Coalition initiatives to improve the quality of technical education are unlikely to be successful.
  10. 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.



It has also been pointed out that under successive governments  some schools have resorted to the tactic of removing mainly disadvantaged students from their school registers[ so-called off -rolling]  in order to massage their examination pass rates upwards so as to improve their league table positions by bogus means. These actions also mean that official DfE statistics may understate the real degree of class inequality in educational attainment.  For some recent articles on Off Rolling click here and here. These articles refer to the GCSE examinations of 2017 but it is likely that similar tactics were being used before this.

After the 2015 General Election: Towards Increased Selection?

The 2015 General Election saw the demise of the Coalition  and the return ofa single party majority Conservative Government under PM David Cameron. It seemed likely that a process of compulsory academisation would be introduced but following opposition from local authorities, teachers' unions and MPs [including some Conservative MPs this proposal was abandoned. [Click here  for details from Schools Week] .

Following The UK EU Referendum and the resignation of David Cameron the Conservatives elected Theresa May as new Conservative Prime Minister and  Mrs May , supported by new Secretary of State Justine Greening  indicated that she favoured  an increase in the number of grammar schools, a policy which previous Prime Minister David Cameron had not supported. A Government consultation paper was quickly published in which the Government outlined its broad education plans and aimed to canvass opinion as to how these plans might  best be implemented.

The publication of the Government consultation paper has understandably sparked intense interest ; many articles , some of which are statistically complex have already been published and  the House Of Commons Select Committee on Education  convened a meeting of expert education policy analysts to discuss these issues in detail on November 8th 2016. Click here to access full video coverage of this meeting Also in any case the Government's precise plans will not be known for some time and so we can expect much more information on this topic in the near future.

In the meantime  I shall end this section of document for the time being with a summary checklist of arguments which are currently being made for and against increasing  the number of grammar schools. I shall update it gradually as more information becomes available .

Current Arguments For And Against Introduction Of More Grammar Schools: A Summary

These issues will no doubt receive further consideration in the coming weeks and months but I hope that students will find this interim summary useful.

Please note that in the second session of the above mentioned Select Committee on Education video the Minister of State for Education Nick Gibb makes  a strong concise statement in support of the new Government proposals. Scroll ahead in the video to about 10.55.

Arguments in Favour of More Grammar Schools

  • The overall quality of the state secondary education system has improved but further improvement is necessary and increasing the number of grammar schools will promote such improvement.
  • It is pointed out that the most successful comprehensive schools are highly socially selective as, for example,  more affluent parents can afford the higher house prices which exist in the catchment areas of successful comprehensive schools and that academic selection would in fact be much fairer than this form of social selection.
  • Grammar School pupils achieve significantly better examination results than do comprehensive school pupils as a result of the particularly academic ethos of grammar schools, their more effective, rigorous teaching and greater competition among the brightest pupils. Click here for an item from the Daily Telegraph referring to official data suggesting that high ability pupils do better in Grammar schools than in Comprehensives. However  I do not have a link to this official report and will try to find it as soon as I can.
  • It is also the case that pupils eligible for free school meals achieve far better examination results in grammar schools than in comprehensive schools and that the attainment gap between pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals is smaller in grammar schools than in comprehensive schools.
  • It is admitted that pupils eligible for free school meals are statistically underrepresented in grammar schools but claimed that this arises because grammar schools are located primarily in affluent areas where overall eligibility for free school meals in below the national average. This could be reversed if more grammar schools were opened in less affluent areas.
  • It is admitted that affluent pupils may well be at an advantage in selection tests because their parents are more likely to be able to afford private coaching but claimed that in principle it might be possible to devise entrance tests which accurately measure underlying ability and minimise the effects of private coaching on selection test results.

Arguments Against More Grammar Schools 

  • It is agreed that further improvement in the state secondary system is necessary but denied that increasing the number of grammar schools is the best way of effecting such improvement. Instead it is noted that there has been significant improvement in the examination results of, for example, London comprehensive schools  claimed that ongoing improvement in the comprehensive system is preferable to increasing the number of grammar schools.
  • It is argued that although some top performing comprehensive schools are very socially selective this is not true of the top performing 25% of comprehensive schools.
  • It is true that Grammar school pupils achieve better results than comprehensive school pupils but this is inevitable given that Grammar schools have higher measured ability. The difference in examination performance of pupils of higher measured ability in grammar schools and comprehensive schools is close to zero although grammar school pupils may perform slightly better.
  • Many comprehensive have a strong academic ethos and rigorous effective teaching.
  • It is argued that increasing the number of grammar schools would lead to an even larger increase in the number of schools which are effectively [if not formally secondary modern schools with a range of increased disadvantages for pupils at these schools. For example these schools might be less able to unable to retain staff and financially unable to provide smaller classes for the increasing numbers of more lower measured ability pupils at such schools.
  • It is true that pupils eligible for free school meals attain better examination results in Grammar schools than in comprehensive schools but the grammar school pupils eligible for free school meals all have high measured ability and so the comparison of grammar school/fsm pupils and comprehensive school/fsm pupils is invalid. When the DfE recently publicised this line of argument in a tweet they were criticised by the UK Statstics Authority and felt obliged to withdraw the tweet.
  • Approximately 13% of state secondary pupils nationally are eligible for free school meals ; 9% of secondary school pupils in selective local education authorities are eligible for free school meals and 2% of grammar school pupils are eligible  for free school meals and so there is still considerable under-representation of free school meal pupils in selective local education authorities.
  • It is also the case  that a significant proportion of grammar school pupils are recruited from independent primary schools which again points to the relative advantages of affluent pupils in securing grammar school places.
  • Consequently it is very doubtful that increasing the number of grammar schools within the system as currently organised will contribute to increasing social mobility. In a longer term perspective detailed statistical research by Anthony Heath and Peter Clifford {Class Inequalities and Educational Reform in 20th Century Britain 1996} relating to students born between 1910 and 1969  suggests that neither the Tripartite System nor the Comprehensive system succeeded in reducing relative social class inequalities in educational achievement thereby perhaps giving some support to Bernstein's view expressed in the 1970s that "Education cannot compensate for society". Many would argue that increased economic and social equality is a prerequisite for increased social mobility
  • Selection tests are measures of particular types of ability at a particular time .They  cannot in any way be said to measure long term potential and as has long been recognised do not take account of the fact that some pupils' abilities may develop a little later. The possibility of moving between sets/bands/streams within a comprehensive school system  provides a more flexible response to the issue of later development than does the actual transfer between schools in a selective system.
  • It will be extremely difficult in practice to devise entrance tests which exclude the potential impact of private coaching .
  • Click here for Guardian article covering this point.

You may click here for a selection of recent articles and I shall  update this section of the document  gradually as more information becomes available .


As we shall now see the educational policies of Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments may be analvsed using different sociological perspectives. The following links provide some additional information'

Click here to access What is preventing  Social Mobility?  By Professor Becky Francis and Dr Billy Wong. See  Pages 5-8 on unequal starting points, pages 9-16 on limited access of poorer pupils to high performing schools and pages 16-19 on the effects of setting and streaming .  April 2017. VERY USEFUL

Click here for article on limited access of poor pupils to good primary schools [April 2017]  April 2017

Click here for a detailed article entitled "Mind the gap: tackling social and educational inequality" by Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen and here for a summary of the article   May 2017


In the following essay I shall refer to the above policies in fairly broad terms since there will be insufficient time to discuss the  details of each specific policy especially under examination conditions.



  • Essay Title: Examine differing sociological approaches to the analysis of the ways in which educational policies may affect the achievements of pupils
  •  Essay Plan
  1. Introduction
  2. Functionalist Analysis
  3. New Right Analysis
  4. Social Democratic Analysis
  5. Interactionist Analysis
  6. Marxist Analysis
  7. Feminist Analysis
  8. Conclusion.

 Essay Title: Examine differing sociological approaches to the analysis of the ways in which  educational policies may affect the achievements of pupils.

  • Introduction

Among the most significant education policies introduced since 1944 have been the introduction of Tripartite Secondary Education in 1944 and its gradual almost total replacement by Comprehensive Secondary Education, the attempts to create a so-called quasi-market in education by the Conservatives 1979-1997 and the continued acceptance of this approach to education policy  by subsequent Labour Governments from 1997onwards , the development of policies by successive Conservative and Labour Governments designed to increase the vocational relevance of education, and various programmes such as Sure Start, Education Action Zones, and Excellence in Cities and the Educational Maintenance Allowance  designed to increase educational opportunities for disadvantaged pupils.

Under the Coalition Government  key new education policies included the reform of the National Curriculum, the modification of GCSE  and GCE Advanced Level syllabi, the introduction of the EBacc, , initiatives to reform vocational education, the introduction of the Pupil Premium and  the discontinuation of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the Aim Higher Programme. Perhaps most significant have been  the expansion of the Academies Programme  and the introduction of Free Schools both of which could be seen as accelerating the process of quasi- marketisation in education  which had begun under the Conservative Governments of 1979-99 and continued under Labour Governments of 1997-2010. No post -war Government has attempted to abolish Private Schools and any such attempt may in any case now be illegal under the terms of the 1998 Human Rights Act.  I shall concentrate below on differing sociological analyses of these broad policy initiatives.

  • Functionalism

It is difficult to find information on Functionalist analyses of specific education policies and so I have attempted here to estimate what Functionalist attitudes to education policies might be  given their overall analyses of formal education systems as a whole and so, students ,there are certainly issues in this section which you might like to discuss further with your teachers

Functionalism is based upon a consensus model of society. In summary Functionalists argue  that industrial capitalist societies are  basically economically efficient, democratic, and meritocratic and  operate in the interests of all of their citizens. Functionalists believe that formal education systems too are meritocratic and that they contribute to social stability and economic efficiency via the transmission of appropriate norms and values and useful knowledge and skills and via the effective performance of a role allocation function  whereby individuals are eventually allocated to differing employment roles in accordance with their differing talents and skills. However it is important also to remember that although Functionalists claim to support equality of opportunity and meritocracy they also believe that social and economic inequality are desirable and inevitable.

Functionalists claimed that the USA education system was essentially meritocratic despite the possible adverse effects of economic inequality on meritocracy, despite the fact that a sizeable minority of USA schools [currently around 10%] are private schools, despite the fact that there are massive differences in educational expenditure per pupil as between wealthy and poor states and districts and despite the fact that although the USA state school system is formally comprehensive children in wealthy districts have access to better resourced state schools.

 Although Functionalists believed even in the 1950s that formal education systems were relatively meritocratic and organised in the interests of individual students and in the interests  of society as a whole we may assume that they would welcome any government education policies which improve the transmission of knowledge, skills and appropriate pro-capitalist norms and values and make the formal education systems  even more meritocratic.

On this basis they would support policies which improve overall school effectiveness and vocational education initiatives which support the basic ethos of capitalism , improve pupils' job prospects and increase the efficiency of the capitalist system as a whole. It seems likely that Functionalists  might support private education and selective secondary education because they believe that this makes for efficient role allocation and , in their view, is not inconsistent with meritocracy and they might support the recent marketisation of education on the grounds that this improves overall school effectiveness and gives disadvantaged pupils a better chance to attend  good schools .  Since Functionalists are supporters of the competitive capitalist system  we may perhaps be justified in assuming that they would support education policies which promote competition between pupils and schools as the best means of promoting efficiency and raising standards within the education system.

Given their positive evaluations of the USA  education system as it existed in the 1950s and 1960s it seems unlikely that Functionalists would accept that  the current existence of private schools and selective secondary education in the UK results in unfair competition which undermines meritocracy nor that  the recent marketisation of education confers unfair advantage on upper and middle class parents and their children  which again actually inhibits meritocracy and thereby undermines the educational prospects of disadvantaged children.

  • The New Right

The Ideology of the New Right contains to broad elements, Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Conservatism  which are to some extent complementary and to some extent contradictory. Essentially a commitment to traditional institutions and values while Neo-Liberalism involves a commitment to the market mechanism and the limited state while Neo-Conservatism involves a commitment to traditional institutions and values.

Conservative Governments of 1979-1997 strengthened the private Education sector via the Assisted Places scheme [which provided grants for talented students of limited means to take up places at private schools] , supported the continued existence of  selective state grammar schools and also introduced several new education policies many of which were contained in the 1988 Education Reform Act. They included : the introduction of a National Curriculum; tests for 7, 11 and 14yearolds as well as 16 year olds; increased freedom  of choice for parents/pupils to choose their secondary school rather than being allocated almost automatically to their nearest local secondary school; Local Management of Schools whereby head teachers were given greater control over their school budgets; the increased dependence of school funding on school numbers so that more popular schools would attract larger funds and vice versa..

In addition  so-called league tables were  created on the basis of schools' published examination and truancy rates; there were more frequent school inspections carried out by OFSTED whose reports were  published which  provided some useful comparative information for parents; the GCSE replaced the GCE and CSE examination in 1988.The Conservatives also introduced a limited number of City Technology Colleges and Specialist schools and  a range of policies under the general heading of the New Vocationalism in an attempt to deal with what they saw as the failure of the education system to adequately meet the needs of industry .

Several of  of these policies were  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 from 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. Thus it was argued that the process of quasi -marketisation would generate a "parentocracy" whereby individual parents would have far greater individual choice in determining  the schools which their children  would attend.

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!

Both Neo-Liberals and Neo-Conservatives have tended in practice to support the continued existence of Private Education as is indicated by Conservative Governments' introduction of the Assisted Places Scheme whereby the parents of some talented but socially disadvantaged pupils were to be given state subsidies to contribute to the costs of private education. Conservatives also hoped to increase the scope for selection within the state secondary sector and although it was not politically feasible immediately in the early 1980s  to reverse the trend toward comprehensive secondary education the Conservatives were able to safeguard existing grammar schools  and gradually to increase selectivity within the state sector via the introduction of new kinds of schools such as City Technology Colleges, Grant -Maintained Schools and Specialist Schools.

New Right theorists  also supported  the initiatives of the New Vocationalism introduced by the Conservatives and the subsequent similar Labour initiatives  in the hope that a more vocationally relevant education would improve pupils employment prospects and improve the prospects for the UK economy as a whole.

In an ideal world these vocationally based courses would enthuse students to adopt more positive attitudes to education in the recognition that what they are learning would help them to improve significantly their future employment prospects.

[It should be noted that Labour Government of 1997-2010 supported several of these Conservative initiatives although they did also introduce important policies such aas the Excellence in Cities Programme, the Education Action Zones , the Educational Maintenance and the Aim Higher Programme all of which were designed to increase equality of educational opportunity. These policies are discussed below in the section on  the Social Democratic Perspective ]

As Conservative Secretary of State for Education in the Coalition Government  Michael Gove often stated that his overall approach to education policy was based upon a practical search for "what works"  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 also 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 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.

With regard to these policies critics have argued that although useful the Pupil Premium will be insufficient on its own to significantly reduce inequality of educational opportunity and that the abolition of the EMa , the reduction in the umber of Sure Start Places and the increase in HE tuition fees will serve to reduce equality of opportunity. Against this the Coalition Government argued that their alternative to the EMA was more effective;  that in may cases although they did reduce the number of Sure Start centres the intention was to merge some smaller centres into larger ones; and that the total number of students entering HE has actually increased and that the rate of increase for disadvantaged students has been even faster. These issues are discussed further in my more detailed documents on Coalition Education Policy.

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 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.

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 of Conservative education policies 1979-97  and of Coalition education policies 2010 -2015  have argued that insofar as they have been influenced by New Right Ideology they have been misguided.It has been argued that private education benefits primarily the children of the rich and comfortably off and inhibits meritocracy; and that it is possible that even if the Assisted Places scheme did increase the chances of upward social mobility of those children who participated in it  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. 

It has been argued that it is middle class children who benefit from the existence of Grammar Schools and working class children who are most disadvantaged by the existence of Secondary Modern schools. Of course controversies surrounding the relative merits of comprehensive and selective secondary education have intensified due to the support of new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May for increasing the number of Grammar Schools.

The critics have also 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. Consequently the claims that as a result of the growth of quasi -marketisation in education the English education system had been transformed into a great parentocracy where individual parental choice was the main determinant of pupils' allocation to schools has been called into question.

These issues are described in great detail in a study by S. Gerwirtz, 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.

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.

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.

 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.

  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.

  • Social Democratic Perspective

 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."

Many Social Democrats would support Labour's vocational education initiatives on they grounds that these should increase pupil employability but they might also express critical concerns about these policies. Thus  there are concerns that schools will encourage only "unacademic" students [for whom traditional GCSEs and Advanced Levels are seen as inappropriate ] to take these courses; that the courses will be perceived similarly by the students themselves; and that Universities may not accept these qualifications as equivalent to traditional Advanced Levels. Thus the academic-vocational divide which has bedevilled the UK education system for years may remain for the foreseeable future  . However the increasing popularity of Two-Year Foundation degrees which combine vocational and academic elements does perhaps offer hope for the future.

In summary while some Social Democrats have argued that on balance Labour's education policies should increase pupils' overall educational achievements by improving average standards, increasing, equality of opportunity and vocational relevance  others argue that more fundamental educational reform involving the abolition of Private Education and State Selective Education and increased targeting of resources on disadvantaged pupils at every level of the education system  combined with wider social and economic reforms are all necessary if equality of educational opportunity is to be achieved. It is noteworthy that after 13 successive years of Labour government that even though average educational achievements have improved there are still very significant class, gender and ethnic  inequalities in educational achievement and ongoing concerns that on average the UK labour force is less skilled than the labour forces of our major competitors.

  • Interactionist Perspective

Interactionist sociologists have focused especially on  the possible effects of both positive and negative labelling on subsequent pupil achievements. The conclusions of Interactionist studies may be used to suggest that  under the tripartite system of secondary education success or failure in the 11+ examination would be likely to have positive and negative labelling effects respectively but that the existence of streaming/banding/setting within Comprehensive schools or even of unofficial ability groupings within nominally mixed ability classes may well mean that the some forms of labelling continue despite the expansion of comprehensivisation .Some more recent studies do suggest that in general negative labelling is nowadays less likely to occur although this conclusion has itself been denied in other recent interactionist studies. Furthermore Labour education spokespersons currently argue that  streaming/banding/setting arrangements actually provide better learning environments than does  mixed ability teaching.... a view which may interactionists [and others] would not accept.

  • Marxist Perspective

Marxists are critical of Conservative and Labour approaches to education policy because both of these approaches are sympathetic to the continuation of the capitalist system which , according to Marxists, inhibits the  possibility that education policy can be used to the real advantage of all members of society. In the Marxist view the continuation of capitalism depends upon the availability of workers with different levels of skill ready to play significantly different roles and to accept significantly different levels of income in the capitalist economy. In addition  capitalism demands that the education system via the Hidden Curriculum[ and in conjunction with the other agencies of socialisation] ensures that there is broad based ideological support for capitalism. It follows that so long as the capitalist system remains even if the education system operates with a little relative autonomy, social class, ethnic and gender differences in educational achievement and attitudes sympathetic to the continuation of capitalism will remain because they themselves are essential to the continuation of capitalism. According to Marxists   even radical social Democrats are unlikely to challenge the capitalist system and therefore unlikely to introduce truly liberating education policies which means that education policies will continue to have an important role to play in the reproduction of capitalist class structures. In the Marxist View only the abolition of capitalist can lead to a truly liberating education for all. Of course the entire Marxist analysis of capitalist societies and their education systems can be criticised from all of the other perspectives mentioned in this essay. Perhaps this is a little exercise which you would like to undertake for yourselves.

  •  Feminist Perspective

It is clear that in the last twenty or so years the educational achievements of female students have improved rapidly relative to those of males. This is due partly [but not entirely] to education policies in that there is now greater emphasis in schools on equal opportunities which is reflected , for example, in new teaching materials, careers advice and the  introduction of the national curriculum which made sciences compulsory for all students up to the age of 16. All Feminists are no doubt pleased with these developments but while Liberal feminists are broadly supportive of gradualism Marxist/Socialist Feminists and Black Feminists would note the disappointing educational achievements of working class and some ethnic minority girls while Radical Feminists would criticise the continued existence of a Hidden Curriculum which ignores some of the concerns of radical feminism. Thus Marxist/Socialist Feminists would argue that only the abolition of capitalism, possibly via revolutionary means, will result in real equality of educational opportunity for males and females in all social classes and all ethnic groups while Radical Feminists argue that only the ending of Patriarchy in society will create the conditions for equality of educational opportunity.

  • Concluding Assignment.

In this essay I have  focussed upon 5 broad policy areas and 6 Sociological Perspectives. I hope that after some further reading and class discussion you will be able to complete the following table indicating the differing sociological views in each broad policy area.

  • Tripartite Secondary Education and Its Gradual Replacement by Comprehensive Secondary Education
  1. Functionalist Perspective
  2. New Right Perspective
  3. Social Democratic Perspective
  4. Interactionist Perspective
  5. Marxist Perspective
  6.  Feminist Perspective
  • Continued Existence of Private Education
  1. Functionalist Perspective
  2. New Right Perspective
  3. Social Democratic Perspective
  4. Interactionist {Perspective
  5. Marxist Perspective
  6. Feminist Perspective
  • Attempts to create a quasi-market in education
  1. Functionalist Perspective
  2. New Right Perspective
  3. Social Democratic Perspective
  4. Interactionist Perspective
  5. Marxist Perspective
  6. Feminist Perspective


  • Labour Policies such as Sure Start, Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities
  1. Functionalist Perspective
  2. New Right Perspective
  3. Social Democratic Perspective
  4. Interactionist {Perspective
  5. Marxist Perspective
  6. Feminist Perspective


  • Policies designed to increase the industrial relevance of education under successive Conservative and Labour Governments
  1. Functionalist Perspective
  2. New Right Perspective
  3. Social Democratic Perspective
  4. Interactionist {Perspective
  5. Marxist Perspective
  6. Feminist Perspective


  • Coalition Education Policies?
  • Conservative Policies 2015 Onwards




Click here for Stephen Machin article [LSE]

Click here for Stephen Machin article Guardian

Click here for Guardian letter

Click here and here and here for Sutton Trust items