Education's earthquake

25th December 1998 at 00:00
The Education Reform Act was controversial in its day. Ten years on many of its ideas have become political orthodoxies that few would dare challenge. Jon Slater reports on how Kenneth Baker's legislation changed the school landscape.

THE faces at the top may have changed but, 10 years on, education policy is yet to emerge from the shadow of Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act. It was one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the Thatcher era.

Though enthusiasm for the idea of a competitive market in education may have cooled, much of the current standards drive has its roots in the 1988 Act with its five key areas: the national curriculum, parental choice, local management of schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges.

* National Curriculum

It should have been so simple. A national curriculum to ensure every child learns the basics and regular national testing to show their parents they know it. But as always, the devil was in the detail. In this case too much detail.

Where Margaret Thatcher wanted paper-and-pencil tests, educationists lobbied for, and got, a complex system designed to diagnose and sum up pupils' performance. Failure to heed warnings about bureaucracy and curriculum overload, combined with a demoralised teaching profession suspicious of tests, led to industrial action and classroom chaos. Eventually, Sir Ron Dearing was given the job of tidying things up.

A decade on, the national curriculum is part of the landscape. And despite complaints of unfairness from teachers and criticism from the chief inspector, test results are used as the basis for policy-making. Concerns over bureaucracy persist but the curriculum and testing that Labour criticised so heavily in opposition have become the blueprint for many of its own ideas to raise standards.

While the idea of a curriculum is now widely accepted, its content is still the subject of heated debate. Increasingly, the timetable will be governed by broad objectives rather than specific subject detail, giving teachers greater freedom. But this does not sit easily with schemes such as the National Literacy Strategy.

* Parental choice

Parental choice was the great myth of the 1988 Education Reform Act, but a very popular myth. Open enrolment was billed as giving parents the right to choose their child's school. Ten years on, good schools are more over-subscribed than ever and thousands of parents still have to settle for second or third choice.

Two years ago, Trading Places, an Audit Commission report on school admissions, found that almost one in five parents failed to get a place for their child in their first-choice school. Surplus places in unpopular schools were costing the taxpayer Pounds 100 million a year.

The Act gave parents the right to send their child to the school of their choice unless it was full. It removed local authorities' right to plan admissions by setting a ceiling.

Critics complained that this would lead to some schools being overcrowded while less popular schools suffered from falling rolls. In fact this was probably intended. Ministers hoped that parental choice would bring market forces into education so that good schools expanded while poor ones closed.

Widespread closures failed to materialise. Some schools threatened with closure chose to opt out of local authority control.

The Education Reform Act put parent power on the agenda. Parental choice, however illusory, is now politically sacrosanct.

Politicians, having raised expectations, cannot meet them. No one has found a way to reconcile choice with efficiency and market forces with fairness. The threefold rise in parental appeals during the mid 1990s tells its own story. Since the election, the Labour Government has found extra cash for its class-size pledge to forestall accusations of curbing parental choice.

* Local management of schools

Like a lorry going downhill, local management of schools continues to pick up pace, knocking all obstacles aside. Whichever party has been in the driving seat, they have kept their foot on the gas as the speedometer has risen towards a hundred. It seems only a matter of time before schools get 100 per cent delegation, leaving local education authorities in a purely supporting role.

Since LMS was introduced, cash for staff, books and equipment and minor repairs have all been delegated. Labour's Fair Funding proposals mean that the budget for special needs and school meals will soon follow.

Financial delegation was probably the biggest change schools have faced in the past decade. Suddenly, heads became managers responsible for their own budget and more able to pursue their own priorities. If a school needs new computers and has the cash it can now buy them rather than having to negotiate with the LEA.

However, LMS has brought problems as well as opportunities. Instead of being assets, experienced (and therefore higher paid) staff, were suddenly a drain on school resources. This encouraged many schools to employ younger, cheaper teachers. And many heads struggled to cope with new responsibilities for which they received little training.

But few heads be happy to hand their school's budget back to the LEA. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, says. "Some heads have reservations about the way LMS operates in practice but the debate is now about how schools can have budgets which enable them to rise to the challenge of the standards agenda."

* Opting out

Grant-maintained schools were launched amid great fanfare by a Conservative government keen to break the local government stranglehold on education. Now they are about to be scrapped by a Labour party which has always been uncomfortable with them.

Supporters saw opting-out as a chance for schools to shape their own destinies. Opponents complained bitterly of unfair funding and the impact on local planning.

Parents and teachers were equally split. Audenshaw, the first school to declare it would opt out, set the tone. About half its staff, including a deputy head, left as a result of the decision.

In this climate, Tony Blair was bound to invite criticism by sending his son Euan to the opted-out London Oratory school.

After such a controversial life it seems odd that GM status is now set to end with a whimper. But the debate has moved on. Local management of schools means all heads now control their virtually all of their own budget, the extra cash has dried up and foundation status should ease fears about returning to the local authority fold.

* City technology colleges

If ministers were nervous about the merits of mixing education with business before launching education action zones, then a look at the fate of city technology colleges would have done nothing to calm their nerves.

When CTCs were first announced at the 1986 Conservative party conference, the idea was to get business to back a network of 20 inner-city colleges providing specialist technical education. By 1990, John MacGregor, Kenneth Baker's successor as education secretary, had been forced to concede that his predecessor's plans were "over ambitious".

In the end only 15 were opened. Industry only provided a fifth of the Pounds 10 million capital costs of starting up each college, leaving the government to foot most of the bill. In desperation, ministers allowed brand names including that of a tobacco company to be displayed in schools.

Could the same thing happen to the education action zones? So far the Government has already increased its contribution to the zones from Pounds 250,000 each to Pounds 750,000. They have also accepted that the private sector is reluctant to donate cash - payment in kind will do.

But there is also a positive message from CTCs - most colleges have prospered. Exam results generally compare favourably with other local schools. This year, Thomas Telford CTC was the top comprehensive in GCSE league tables, one of three CTCs in the top 10. And that success has encouraged Labour to expand its specialist school initiative.

By 2002, ministers hope that another 170 schools will specialise in technology, languages, sport or arts, taking the total to 500. Unlike CTCs, however, these schools will be allowed to select up to 10 per cent of their intake by aptitude.

Leader, page 12

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