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Not confident but not too shy; Not White but definitely not quite Oriental; Not religious but also not an athetist; Not sure whether 'athetist' is spelt correctly, but not that bothered about it; Not a naysayer, but not averse to saying no.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

UEP Exam: Contrasts and Continuity in English Education Policy

“What contrasts and continuities do you observe between the education policies of New Labour governments in the UK and those of the preceding Conservative administrations?”

In 1997, New Labour, with ‘Education, education, education’ as its top priorities, won an unexpected landslide victory, which brought an end to 18 years of Tory government. Since then, Labour has been in power for 8 years and from recent opinion polls, looks set for another four years. In this essay, the New Labour ideology of the post-Thatcherite ‘Third Way’ will firstly be explained, and compared with the New Right under the Thatcher and Major administrations, as well as with the Old Left ideals. Then, continuities, as highlighted by Chitty (2004) between New Labour education policies and those under the preceding Tory government will be detailed. It will be considered whether the Third Way in education is largely mere rhetoric and little different from Thatcherism in substance. As such, if it is unclear whom New Labour actually represents, and what New Labour really believes in, then as Driver and Martell (1998) question, ‘why should voters choose it rather than the Tories except on the grounds of leadership and good management?[1]

On coming to power, New Labour promised neither the ‘ruthless free-for-all’ approach of the neo-liberals, nor the ‘stifling statism’ of Old Labour, but a pragmatic ‘third way’, whereby policies are put forward on a ‘what works’ basis rather than being driven by any one ideological approach. The ‘third way’ is the middle way between alternatives: capitalism and socialism, market and state, old left and new right (Gamble and Kelly, 1998). According to Giddens, key characteristics of the Old Left philosophy include collectivism, strong egalitarianism, pervasive state involvement in social and economic life, comprehensive welfare, confined role for markets, etc, while that of the New Right include market fundamentalism, traditional nationalism and acceptance of inequality. The ‘third way’ is not to be solely part of either one philosophy, and one would expect that a ‘third way’ package of reforms would encompass previously competing strategies from opposite ends of the political spectrum. If indeed New Labour has taken up the ‘third way’, then it would well be expected that it would continue with and further those Tory policies that it considers to be pragmatic and desirable, while initiating Old Left reforms that work.

Indeed, in many ways, New Labour has chosen to continue with Conservative policy, with much talk of choice and diversity, ladders and escalators (Chitty, 2004) and commitment to many Tory education policies, including those pushing forth for marketisation, and greater accountability.

A strand common to both Tory and New Labour educational policy is that of marketisation. Through the 1988 Education Reform Act, the Tories sought to erect or reinforce a hierarchical system subject both to market forces and control from the Centre. Choice and diversity was to be enhanced by the creation of new types of schools: city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools. The 1988 legislation introduced Local Management of Schools, whereby schools were empowered to manage their own finances and their day-to-day administration. Schools were also to be funded on a formula basis: largely according to the pupil number and then particular pupil characteristics / needs. All these reforms meant that a quasi market and quasi vouchers were being introduced into the state education sector. New Labour did not reverse the marketisation process. The quasi-market set up by the Tories has survived 8 years of Labour government. Schools are still funded today according to a formula based primarily on pupil numbers. Budgets are delegated directly to the schools. Schools have autonomy in their management of staff. Indeed, it may be argued to have carried marketisation further, for example via increasing the types of schools, and pupil numbers who go to such new schools (Chitty, 2004). When the second Secretary of State for education resigned in 2002, she left behind an incredibly diverse landscape of schools: independent schools, city academies, specialist schools in art, music, sports, enterprise and technology, beacon schools, etc.

Pushing for greater accountability is another feature of both the Conservative administration of 1979-1997 and the New Labour government. Under the Tory ERA, accountability was to be ensured with the introduction of the national curriculum, implementation of national testing and publication of league tables. New Labour has actually increased the emphasis on accountability. According to the Secondary Heads Association (2003) headteachers are presently accountable to as many as 21 different bodies, which include parents, governing bodies, Ofsted, Children Protection Officers, etc. Also, greater accountability may be argued to have taken the form of an obsession with targets and performance indicators (Bell, 2003).

Blunkett as shadow education secretary at the 1995 Labour Party conference promised ‘no selection’, which would be a sharp break with Tory policy. However, this promise was to be watered down to be ‘no further selection’ in 1997, which had radically different meanings and implications. For example, where the former would signify an end to grammar schools, the latter guaranteed their continued existence. Even the promise of ‘no further selection’ itself does not appear to be kept. In the first education White Paper produced by the New Labour government just 67 days after being voted in, the Tory policy of ‘selection by specialisation’ (Chitty, 2004), was given support and extended. Legislation was laid in place to allow schools to select pupils by aptitude in the subjects that particular schools specialise in. This was despite vast evidence showing that with the exception of music and art, testing in most subjects can only reveal a general ability to learn, which has a strong relationship with class characteristics. ‘Selection by specialisation’ therefore suggested that working class children were in danger of being ‘selected-out’ of specialist schools, and that educational disparities would widen.

Admittedly, there have been outright reversals of Tory policy, such as the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme and nursery vouchers, and the phasing out of grant-maintained schools operating outside LEA control. However, these were few, and proved to be early exceptions to the rule. In terms of the balance between the Old Left and the New Right, there can be little doubt that the ‘middle way’ is heavily skewed to the right. As Docking (2000) argues, both Tory philosophy and Tory measures survived virtually intact, and for all the rhetoric, the Blair administration’s policies for education have fundamentally been those of the Conservatives under Thatcher and Major.

However, such an imbalance between the Old Left and the New Right in the ‘third way’ does not necessarily mean that New Labour is simply Thatcherism II, nor as depicted in a cartoon on the cover of Chitty and Dunford (1999), that Blair is Thatcher’s best student. Instead, it could arguably mean that New Labour deems that the New Right policies largely are what works, and that the Old Left policies are outdated and not pragmatic. On the other hand, Power in 1999 pointed out that it is difficult to identify the evidence on which New Labour’s pragmatism is based, and it might be tempting to agree with her suggestion that New Labour’s programme is based on a combination of ‘what is popular’ and ‘what is easy’ rather than ‘what works’, if one forgets that since then New Labour has taken the decidedly difficult and unpopular decisions to go into Iraq, go ahead with top up fees as well as the foundation hospital reforms.

To sum up, it appears that the education policies of New Labour have been largely similar to and an extension of those of the preceding Major and Thatcher administrations. As such, it is not quite clear whether a new ‘third way’ has been manifested in education. If New Labour is indeed Thatcherism in disguise and Tory at heart, then perhaps voters might have to look to other political parties such as the Lib Democrats for an alternative to the New Right.

[1] Given that recent opinion polls have also shown that Blair has lost the confidence and respect of the electorate, if New Labour loses the up-coming election, it would be on Blair’s account.


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