Education would never be the same again...

Thirty years ago, a single piece of legislation transformed the schools landscape, launching a national curriculum and key-stage testing, and devolving power from local authorities to heads. Many of the features of today’s education system – from academies to league tables – have their origins in the 1988 Education Reform Act. Over the following pages, three people who were directly involved in – or impacted by – the legislation have their say on its legacy

The 1988 Education Reform Act – which was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s education secretary, Kenneth Baker – was perhaps the defining piece of post-war legislation for English schools. This week marks its 30th birthday.

Younger readers will find it almost impossible to imagine the education landscape before it passed into law. The Act brought in…

A national curriculum for the first time – previously, schools had full autonomy of what they taught and when (exam specifications notwithstanding).

  • Key stages – and national testing at the end of each stage. Before these national tests, league tables and floor targets were not possible.
  • Local management of schools. This devolved management of funding – and other powers – down to school leaders. Previously these responsibilities had largely been undertaken by the local authority. (In technical terms, this ended the formulation of local education authorities).
  • City technology colleges and grant-maintained schools. These were new categories of school and the forebears of today’s academies. They were the first to enjoy this level of independence.

In short, the large chunks of the framework of the today’s education system were born in the 1988 Act.

In the pages that follow, three education veterans consider the Act and its legacy: Lord Baker himself; Fred Jarvis, who was general secretary of the NUT teaching union at the time and who opposed the Act; and Dame Joan McVittie, who was a senior leader at the time, and who witnessed the changes from the frontline.

‘I don’t regret anything: it was about standards, freedom and parental choice’

In 1988, the raft of reforms brought in by Rab Butler four decades previously were faltering – and parents were frustrated. Lord Baker outlines how he feels his four-step plan improved the education system, as well as the two things he’d change if writing an Act today

When I was appointed education secretary in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher, I thought she would give me a to-do list. Instead, she told me to go away for four weeks and come back with some clear ideas.

The one thing Margaret Thatcher did want me to do was to settle the 18-month teachers’ strike – which I did with a significant increase in teachers’ pay.

There were four other tasks I set myself. Firstly, as the schools in my constituency of St Marylebone were run by the Inner London Education Authority, I knew how poor they were – dominated by extreme left-wing teachers. My aim was to create some schools that were free of local authority control, so we allowed parents to vote on the establishment of grant-maintained schools.

Secondly, having introduced one computer in every school in 1981 when I was an industry minister, I wanted to extend good computing and digital training in education. Therefore, we developed city technology colleges (CTCs) focusing on computing – the first independent state schools. We got 16 off the ground which were – and still are – very successful schools. CTCs were the predecessors of academies.

Thirdly, I wanted to create a national curriculum, since good schools had a good curriculum, and poor schools had a commensurate curriculum – some were even teaching peace studies instead of history.

It was sensible that children in Plymouth, Newcastle and Birmingham would all be studying broadly the same subjects. So we set up teams of experts covering the whole range of subjects.

There were going to be four key stages – ages 7, 11, 14 and 16 – which would require national tests. The publication of results would then lead to league tables. My goal was for parents to know more about the performance of their children’s schools – that was revolutionary in 1988.

If I was fashioning a national curriculum today, I would stop it at age 14 and then provide a series of specialist colleges for ages 14-18 covering academic studies, science, engineering, digital, creative industries, health, business studies, logistics, agriculture and hospitality. This is what happens in Austria, which has the lowest number of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) in Europe.

Fourthly, I also wanted schools to run their own budgets. This was not an original idea of mine, as I knew trials had taken place in Cambridgeshire. When I saw that those trials had worked, I wanted to extend their success across the country.

Many believed that teachers could not run their own budgets, appoint a team of teachers or plan the delivery of the curriculum. However, schools soon adapted, trained their teams and secured better value for money.

Although Labour opposed virtually all of these proposals at the time, when they came to power in 1997, guided by Andrew Adonis, David Blunkett and Tony Blair, they accepted almost the entire package. Only grant-maintained schools were closed down, but these were later reinvented as trust schools.

I don’t regret anything I did, but I wish I had done two other things.

First, I could have improved technical education further, which has always been the Cinderella of our system. I am trying to make up for that with university technical colleges. We now have 50 UTCs attended by over 13,000 students. I am proud to say that UTCs have the lowest unemployment rate of any state school – just 1 per cent. They also produce employable engineers and technicians at the age of 16 and 18.

Secondly, I would have liked to have lengthened the teaching day by just one period. However, this would have involved further negotiations with the trade unions, and having just settled the teachers’ strike at the time, I felt that this was a battle not worth fighting. I am glad that some schools now are beginning to add that extra period.

The driving force behind these reforms were the words I used when I launched the Education Reform Bill on 1 December 1987: “Standards, freedom and choice.”

The great reforms that Rab Butler had launched in 1944 were faltering; parents were frustrated at not getting their children into their chosen school; employers complained about the numeracy and literacy of students; and comprehensive schools had little impact on social mobility.

By giving headteachers and teachers greater control of their schools, by giving parents choice, and by establishing a broad-based national curriculum, I wanted to unleash the skills, passions and talents of all our students.

Lord Baker of Dorking, the architect of the 1988 Education Reform Act, was education secretary from 1986-1989

‘Baker trampled all over teachers’ secret garden’

The ‘Baker Act’ resulted in the government seizing more control over education than any dictator – it sowed the seeds of a lack of trust in teachers that still blights our school system today, writes Fred Jarvis, who was general secretary of the NUT at the time

When a piece of legislation is described as a “Reform Act”, one expects that it will deal either with a long-awaited change of practice, repair a major deficiency in provision or create new practice generally recognised as beneficial. The “Baker Act” satisfied none of those criteria.

Regrettably, the Act failed to deal with some serious deficiencies in the education system. Such as the need to ensure “parity of esteem”; the very low participation of working-class children in higher education; the utterly inadequate provision of nursery education and the recognition of the vital importance of early years development; the failure to recognise that technical and vocational education were as important as the “academic”; and the continued under-investment in the whole education system.

Even more regrettably, another (and major) failure in the Act was that it did nothing to put an end to the lack of trust in teachers that characterised most governments, and it did not rectify the failure to provide them with the qualifications, status and remuneration they deserved as the country’s key profession.

It’s worth noting that there would have been no Baker Act if it weren’t for Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan, who, in his “Ruskin speech” of 1976, spoke of the relationship between education and employment. That speech was described in the media as a major and unprecedented entry by a politician into the “secret garden of the curriculum”.

When asked by journalists after the speech, I said I saw no reason why a prime minister should not take an interest in what schools and teachers were doing, given the fundamental importance of education to the life of every citizen, to our country and its economy. It all depended on what the PM would try to do after his “intervention” – and that did not amount to very much.

However, Callaghan’s intervention was like a tiptoe through the tulips compared to Kenneth Baker’s, which essentially trampled all over the secret garden.

Attempts were made to suggest that the schools had been doing whatever they liked in respect of the curriculum, but any serious study would have shown that the secondary schools had to have regard to the aspirations of their pupils, the requirements of higher and further education institutions and the requirements of various examination boards. And the primary schools were expected to lay the foundations of basic skills – in many cases subject to pressure from parents expecting them to do everything possible to ensure their offspring passed the 11-plus.

Baker’s answer was to impose a national curriculum, with no serious attempt to engage the teaching profession and other educational and specialist bodies and employers.

But what was far more significant, and sinister, than the national curriculum, was the massive change that was being made to the whole nature of the education system, transforming it from being a national system locally administered with considerable responsibility given to the local authorities and substantial scope for teachers to exercise their professional judgement and instead transferring far-reaching powers to the central government and the education secretary.

The other development, from which Baker did not dissent, was the call by Margaret Thatcher, guided by her “guru” Keith Joseph, that “market forces” should operate in education, with schools competing with each other to “raise standards”. Hence league tables.

There was strong criticism from educationalists and unions, and a number of his Conservative colleagues, not least Ted Heath, the former prime minister. During one Commons debate, Heath said: “The secretary of state has taken more powers under the Bill than any other member of the Cabinet, more than my right honourable friends the chancellor of the exchequer, the secretary of state for defence and the secretary of state for social services.”

He added, correctly: “The divisive philosophy and ideology, such as it is, underpinning the Bill will foment competition at the expense of collaboration, success for the few but failure and ignominy for the many, and represents a backward-looking reactionary rather than a progressive view of education.”

After all these developments, one is entitled to ask why, if the national curriculum is so important, are free schools (and, for that matter, private fee-paying schools) not expected to follow it? And how can “market forces” prevail if all schools are expected to offer the same curriculum “product”?

Above all, one is bound to ask why ministers have not sought to learn from their Finnish colleagues what it is that has enabled them to achieve Finland’s unquestionable success at the head of the Programme for International Student Assessment league tables. When I asked Pasi Sahlberg, former chief inspector of Finland’s schools, if there was any one factor that accounted for that success, he replied, without hesitation: “We trusted the teachers.” What a contrast with the situation in this country.

What then, is the state of our schools 30 years on from the passing of the Baker Act? Sir Tim Brighouse, the former schools commissioner for London, who has done as much as any secretary of state to raise the level of educational achievement in this country, and more than most, said this in a recent lecture: “It extends to the secretary of state defining in detail what shall be taught, how it should be taught and when it should be taught – something never attempted by Napoleon, Hitler and other continental dictators, and, interestingly, by no other western developed country – at least to the same extent as that enacted in England. ”

I suggest that that is a more accurate assessment than any claim that Kenneth Baker might make about his own legacy.

Fred Jarvis was general secretary of the NUT teaching union from 1975 to 1989

‘The stakes were raised for schools and teachers’

In the wake of the 1988 Act, teachers suffered the sudden shock of league tables, writes one senior leader. Heads also found they had been turned into beancounters – but, says Dame Joan McVittie, the national curriculum was a very positive move

I went on an extended maternity leave in 1982 and returned to work, first in FE and then in schools, just as the impact of the 1988 Education Reform Act was kicking in.

In 1982, in secondary schools, we had year groups called upper third, lower fourth, upper fourth, etc. Suddenly we had Year 7 to Year 11 and two key stages, whatever that meant.

I soon found that it meant pupils had to take exams at the end of every key stage. In many respects, it felt fairer to me, as previously a pupil could go through five years of school and it was only at the end of upper fifth with GCE examinations that there was a measure of attainment and success.

Many pupils in weaker schools were allowed to drift until preparation for GCEs and CSEs began. Suddenly we had league tables, which were published publicly, showing pupils’ attainment at the end of Year 9 and Year 11, and the stakes were raised for all schools and teachers.

Our national curriculum documents arrived by the truckload. They were in huge white lever-arch files. It took forever to read through what we were to teach, and plan lessons accordingly. Added to which, I had suddenly changed from being a biology teacher and I had now become a science teacher. I had to swot up on physics and chemistry in order to teach subjects that I had not studied since my A levels, two decades earlier.

I had to spend many hours learning and understanding the work at the most basic level before I could teach. (In later years, however, those large lever-arch files made excellent door stops.)

There was greater mobility of families across the country and it made sense to me that all schools would teach the same content to each year group. So pupils arriving, for example, in Cumbria from Essex or other areas were able to quickly settle down with their studies as all schools were supposed to teach the same content.

When I arrived in St Bonaventure’s, an East London secondary school where I was the deputy of Michael Wilshaw, the future Ofsted chief inspector, local management of schools had been in place for a short time. I was put in charge of managing the budget.

Previously, schools were allocated money to buy books and pencils. Now we were in charge of choosing and paying for teachers, buying our own electricity and gas, and paying rates to the local authority…which it then promptly paid back to us. The most difficult part was trying to understand the management information system and all the codes for procurement.

Michael used to make me give him an update on the budget every Monday morning. I spent my Sunday evenings producing a document for him (which was rigorously checked by my husband, an accountant).

On one occasion, I left the head’s office only to realise that he had both copies of my weekly budget update. I returned to his room and asked for my copy for the file and he went into the waste paper bin and extracted both copies. I learned a lot about what was important with budgets and schools that day.

There were many other aspects to the 1988 Act, but for those teaching in most schools, the new accountability measures probably had the greatest impact. I believe that they helped to drive school improvement. Prior to the Act, I had worked in a school (not in London) where the technology department spent two years building a boat in the middle of the school quad. While I have no doubt that it was a marvellous experience for the teachers, I wonder how much technology the pupils learned. Lots of practical woodwork for some, but not much else. With the national curriculum and the accountability measures, teachers were held to account for what they taught their pupils.

As a parent, it was important to me that my daughters had access to all aspects of the curriculum to enable them to succeed in life.

I never did find out who paid for the boat project, but I can tell you that I would not have allowed that from my budget.

Dame Joan McVittie was headteacher of Woodside High School in North London, and is a past president of the Association of School and College Leaders

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