It has conventionally been said that Coalition governments are unable to undertake radical change. The assumption is that the need for trade-offs between governing parties, to prioritise compromise and consensus over clarity and conviction, lead to a tendency to preserve the status quo.
But this appears not to have been the case in the United Kingdom after 2010. In its policies on early years, schools, training, and higher education, the Coalition Government was nothing if not radical. The Academies Act, passed in the first weeks of the government’s tenure, using parliamentary procedures designed for emergency legislation, represented a decisive, irrevocable break with governance arrangements in English education which had lasted, with modifications, since the 1944 Education Act.
Towards the end of 2010, the Coalition made similarly stark changes in the funding of higher education, tripling the cap on undergraduate fees from £3,000 to £9,000 – with Liberal Democrats voting in favour of a policy they had publicly pledged to oppose just weeks before that year’s election. This was a radical government, introducing far-reaching change
The new issue of the London Review of Education, published by IOE Press, draws together a range of papers to ask hard questions about the Coalition’s policies – about where they came from, how they operated, and what their immediate effects and longer-term implications seem to have been.
For schools, the reform programme bore the personal stamp of Michael Gove, the Coalition’s first Education Secretary. Gove’s influence in driving policy towards a free market is examined by Mike Finn, who compares his commitment with that of 1960s Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland, who drove the introduction of comprehensive education.
Several papers share a focus on one of the Coalition’s expressed concerns: education, poverty, and socio-economic inequalities, examining the relationship between the rhetoric of ‘closing the gap’ with the impact of actual policies. For example, Ruth Lupton and Stephanie Thomson argue that whilst the pupil premium had a modest overall effect of distributing more money to schools with disadvantaged intakes (so education ministers meant what they said), it was nested within a set of other polices that served to widen socio-economic gaps.
Other papers address changes in the relationship between central government, local government and schools. Anne West argues that local markets have emerged in both early years and school education while Paul Temple outlines the policy steps taken in the marketization of higher education. Toby Greany’s lucid and bold analysis of what the Coalition called a ‘self-improving school system’ delves into the complex realities of local relationships. Greany’s conclusion – that the Coalition’s focus on structural reforms has placed additional demands on leadership within local school systems – has implications not just for school leaders, who are increasingly the locus of government expectations, but also on local authorities who retain critical statutory responsibilities. (See his blogs on the subject here and here)
Reform of the curriculum was another important theme of the early years of the Coalition Government. As Mark Brundrett points out, government initially established, and then largely ignored, the advice of experts on curriculum structure and benchmarking. No-one who has studied policy should be surprised that expert advice is ignored, but as another paper points out, there are difficult issues involved in curriculum reform. Robin Richardson asks questions about the values base of the curriculum and the deployment of OFSTED inspection as a tool for monitoring what are now often called ‘fundamental British values’.
Among papers examining FE, Patrick Ainley shows how a new framework of post-14 provision is emerging to replace industrial apprenticeships, and raises questions about how the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto commitment to establish three million new apprenticeships can be accommodated.
At the root of all these contributions lurks a challenging question: what has been the effect of the Coalition on the operation of the system? Eva Lloyd shows how far, in early childhood education and care, the Coalition adopted much of the ‘Every Child Matters’ rhetoric of the previous government whilst separating early childhood planning from other social welfare policy approaches. Jennie Golding provides a thoughtful account of the complex changes to initial teacher education (ITE) where de-regulation and devolution of funding and planning was accompanied, perhaps strangely, by a centralizing review of the ITE curriculum. And, drawing on richly textured evidence from the national pupil database, Meenakshi Parameshwaran and Dave Thomson show just how starkly and rapidly the school system responded to perceived shifts in the accountability system. Their striking conclusion is that reforms have not been socially progressive: disadvantaged and lower attaining pupils were entered for fewer eligible qualifications.
Now, of course, the Coalition is over and the devastating consequences for the junior partner in the 2015 election mean that it is unlikely to be repeated. In its place, there is a majority Conservative government, committed to embedding the structural reforms of 2010 and taking England’s education system further towards a marketised future. Irrespective of the challenges and questions which that will pose, analyses like the ones published in this journal are critical to our understanding.
‘Education policy under the 2010–15 UK Coalition Government: Critical perspectives’, issue 13.2 of the London Review of Education, published 18 September 2015.