Friday, 27 March 2015

The Thatcher government response to the comprehensive schools takeover

Following the large scale introduction of comprehensive education, discontent on the Right about the direction of education policy began to mount. In 1969, the first of the Black Papers on Education was published. These papers, there were five in total, were fiercely attacked as 'reactionary', a favourite term of abuse employed by liberals to denounce and marginalise heretical ideas. By the end of the 1970s comprehensive education was coming under increased attack by a more assertive Conservative party. The 1979 manifesto included a commitment to 'halt the Labour government's policies which have led to the destruction of good schools; keep those of proven worth; and repeal those sections of the Education Act which compel local authorities to reorganise along comprehensive lines and restrict their freedom to take up places at independent schools'.

On returning to government, the Tories introduced the Assisted Places Scheme, which allowed children, whose parents could not afford the fees, to obtain free places at schools in the independent sector, provided they could pass the entrance exam. However, although this was a welcome move, the numbers taking up such places were relatively small. At the same time the Tories also introduced the 'Parents Charter' which gave parents more rights on the choice of school, along with some other measures. Although a step in the right direction such limited action did little to address the mounting concern about the standard of education provided in the state sector. It was not until the late 1980s that the Tories started to address the problems of education more forcefully, but alas not necessarily more effectively.

Tory reforms introduced from the late 1980s included establishing a national core curriculum with assessments at the ages of 7, 11 and 14; replacing O levels and CSEs with a single GCSE examination; giving schools control over their own budgets based on the number of pupils attending; allowing schools to expand up to their physical capacity; establishing 'City Technology Colleges' supported by industrial sponsors and allowing state schools to opt out of LEA control, by applying for grant maintained status funded by the Education Department. Unfortunately, these proposals sent out a mixed message. Those that encouraged parental choice, and freed schools from the dead hand of LEA 'progressive' educational orthodoxy, were welcome.

However, the introduction of the national curriculum and assessments were highly prescriptive measures, which can now be seen as precursors of the managerial and interventionist approach that was later developed to a fine art by New Labour under Tony Blair. GCSE assessment included a large element of course work, unlike O-levels which were purely examination based and thus appreciably more rigorous academically. This confusion demonstrates the lack of will by the Tories to implement the radical policies that are essential if educational standards are to be raised. The Blair government introduced a new Education Act which gave a modicum of greater independence to schools. It appears to have been more popular with the Tory opposition than with Labour backbenchers. The Tories were probably correct when they said it was a step in the right direction, but it still left too much power in the hands of local education authority bureaucrats, as well as enshrining the ludicrous hostility of New Labour to any form of meaningful selection based on academic ability.

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