A leaden jubilee?

Denis Mongon

Twenty-five years ago, the winter of 1987/88, a cold wind bit into an educational establishment which had become too comfortable in its own clothing. Parliament was debating the Great Education Reform Bill, which by July became the Education Act 1988. The “Gerbil“, the most radical reform of education in a generation, was the culmination of a decade of Thatcherite tinkering. It abandoned the One Nation post-war consensus, such as it was, around the roles in schooling of central government, universities, local authorities, headteachers, teachers and parents. In passing, the Inner London Education Authority, University Grants Committee and tenure in Higher Education were to be shut down. The Act still reverberates through a system which seems to have been unable to find steady state in any two consecutive years since.

In 1988, the existing service was difficult to defend: attainment was low, inequality high and outcomes too variable. Explanations were at odds with one another. The Government’s targets included “loony left” teachers producing “politically correct” curricula, engaging in a series of recent teacher strikes and ineffectively managed by their local authority employers – all caricatured within the surviving rump of pan-London local government, the ILEA. A thread of dissatisfaction with schools would provide Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State, with political cover for central control focussed on enhancing consumerism.

The 1988 Act legislated for innovations which are now largely take for granted even if the detail isn’t:

  • a National Curriculum;
  • national assessment (at 7, 11 and 14 – an earlier Act required schools to publish GCSE results);
  • open enrolment – parental choice exposing unpopular schools by requiring popular schools to admit pupils to their accommodation capacity;
  • delegation of school budgets from LEAs direct to governing bodies and based mainly on pupil numbers;
  • opting out – allowing schools to become “grant maintained” outside the day to day control of the LEA;
  • City Technology Colleges – CTCs were to be privately sponsored, state funded secondary schools with a focus on high tech curricula.

The ideological interpretation and political wrestling which accompanied their implementation undermined the potential which every one of those provisions could have contributed to school improvement and higher attainment.

Curriculum and assessment

What might have been a simple guarantee of core entitlement and progression for every child bloated into a corpulent National Curriculum. Its unnecessarily micro-designed syllabuses structured around discrete, traditional subjects, were applied clumsily. They decimated project and topic work and inhibited curriculum innovation at just the point in the 20th century when, some would argue, those were most needed. League tables and the Ofsted framework overwhelmed the opportunity for improving formative assessment with a flood of summative requirements to be game played.


The responsibilities of governors, headteachers, local authorities, HMI and central government had become an opaque and sometimes dysfunctional mess badly in need of reinvention. The government’s response was to nationalise the service. The Act took power from LEAs triumphantly and from schools surreptitiously (claiming to “liberate” them). It then invested unprecedented power over school organisation, the content of teaching and the evaluation of performance in central government.

Parental choice

The benefits of parental involvement in children’s education are axiomatic but the mirage of parental choice is not the same thing though easier to legislate even if under a misleading banner. The best the system has been able to do is to accommodate parental preferences. The preference for most parents, to have an excellent local school, is a policy driver that has currently and contentiously arrived at the Free Schools experiment. Even in a data rich system, the extent to which parents form their preferences on the basis of sound information and whether that operates fairly across social groups remain moot points.

Elitist or utilitarian markets

Open enrolment, the delegation of budgets and “opting out” were expected to force the education service to embrace market disciplines. Contractual obligation between “stakeholders” was to become more significant than community cohesion. This shifted the headteacher’s role towards institutional management as well as paving the way for Academies. Many schools still seem to prefer some pupils rather than others simply because parental background remains the most significant correlate with student attainment and therefore institutional success. The result is a distorted market place which can be manipulated by some suppliers and some consumers to their advantage and, more damagingly, to the disadvantage of others.  Admissions might yet be the schools’ LIBOR scandal.

Looking forward

The education landscape is still dominated by the effects of the 1988 Act. It bulldozed the existing terrain. It transformed the surface features leaving the major contours still defined by the underlying geology, not least corrosive poverty and variation of performance between staff and departments within schools.

In his last blog of 2013, Chris Husbands wrote about assessment that “At root, society needs to decide what it wants to hold schools to account for…”  He could have been writing about almost any aspect of schooling. If the past 25 years have taught us anything it is surely that, as a country, we have been incapable of conducting a debate about education outside the expediencies of the political agenda and its short term calendar.   Unless we can loudly, articulately and with some degree of agreement answer the question “as a profession, what is it you profess?”, politicians will continue to do it for us – and for the children we claim to care for. After 25 years we seem no nearer and might even be further from,

  • A core curriculum entitlement based on contemporary skills and social empathy
  • Assessment which informs next steps in learning and can report progress as well as attainment
  • Governance which nurtures community responsibility for the education of young people, families and neighbourhoods as co-producers as well as consumers of education.

Happy Anniversary GERBIL.

Denis Mongon is visiting professorial fellow at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, IOE

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2 comments on “A leaden jubilee?
  1. John Mountford says:

    Denis Mongon’s piece is like a walk down memory lane for yours truly. I took up my first headship in 1988 while preparations were being made to “accept” the National Curriculum into our schools. As a young green-horn, fresh out of the classroom, what was I supposed to make of it. Being a new appointee, the challenges were many. So much to learn, new faces to meet, a different LEA structure to navigate and with expectations for what education might achieve highter than in any earlier period. It seemed the list of tasks was endless. In time, I came to see what we all feared; it was simply too much, especially too much content and heavy prescription. Many colleagues who had done a good job for individual children throughout their professional lives left. They were not all running away. Looking back, who could blame them for so doing. This article captures some of the madness of the time. But, more importantly, where are we today? No sign of a ‘steady state’, as Denis aptly and accurately reminds us.

    I spend my time now in retirement, introducing young children to philosophy as a ‘helper’ at my local primary. On every visit I am impressed by the dedication of the staff and equally shocked that they cannot even dare to dream of a situation, any time soon, when they can celebrate being the accomplished professional they are, or are capable of becoming. They need stability with challenge. From my hill-top above the battle lines, I survey the field. As we hear each week, the casualties are still mounting. For their sakes and for the young people who look to their teachers for inspiration, mentor-ship and care, I offer the following challenge. Let families, the professionals and all those with a genuine interest in the future of our youth join with me in calling for the strategic direction of education to be de-coupled from the machinery of party politics.

  2. 3arn0wl says:

    Looking back at it now, putting educational decisions regarding maintained education into the hands of politicians seems like a foolish idea: what have successive Secretaries of State (bar one, if I recall correctly) known about education beyond ‘being a client’ (and not all of them clients of the maintained sector either)? The result being that it’s been used as a political football by successive governments and oppositions. I (and a growing number of others) would argue that education would be far better in the hands of an elected education expert (answerable to the cross-party Educational Sub-Committee).

    In the current turmoil, all aspects of education seem to be being reexamined:

    The National Curriculum (and the subsequent streamlined versions) seem to have had the effect of limiting the scope of education. Teachers teach what’s required to be taught…

    Teachers have been questioning the amount of testing on pupils for a long time, and wondering what the purpose is: assessing students is a fundamental part of what teaching is about, after all.

    I really can’t understand why parental choice has anything to do with education! It just skewed house prices and ghettoized any number of perfectly good schools based purely on parental prejudice: A fairer system would be to distribute an equal number of all abilities across the schools – then effective practice could be identified, and disseminated.

    Opting out just meant that service suffered – instrumental tuition, educational psychologists, support networks etc. were paired back or ended.

    And finally the irony of privatizing the sector: that having put a minimum staff qualification, the National Curriculum, Assessments, standards of accommodation, etc. in place, and realized that it’s not going to turn BogStandard High into Eton, they’re going to leave the mess for individual schools to sort out.

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