Education in England:
a brief history

Introduction, Contents

Chapter 1 600-1800
Chapter 2 1800-1860
Towards a state system
Chapter 3 1860-1900
Class divisions
Chapter 4 1900-1944
Taking shape
Chapter 5 1944-1951
Post-war reconstruction
Chapter 6 1951-1970
The wind of change
Chapter 7 1970-1979
Recession and disenchantment
Chapter 8 1979-1990
Thatcherism: marketisation
Chapter 9 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 10 1997-2007
The Blair decade
Chapter 11 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 12 2010
What future for education in England?

Chapter 13 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
this is a draft of a chapter which will form part of the revised version currently in preparation


Organisation of this chapter

Public services

Preparing the ground
The curriculum
The teachers
The local authorities
   Vocational education

1979 Education Act
1980 Education Act
1981 Education Act
1983 Education (Fees and Awards) Act
1984 Education (Grants and Awards) Act
1986 Education (Amendment) Act
1986 Education Act
1986 Education (No. 2) Act
1988 Local Government Act
1988 Education Reform Act
   Summary of the Act
   Commentary on the Act
1990 Education (Student Loans) Act

1977-82 Matters for Discussion
1978-85 HMI surveys
1981 Rampton - West Indians
1982 Cockcroft - maths
1985 Swann - ethnic minorities
1988 Kingman - English
1988 Higginson - A Levels
1989 Cox - English
1989 Elton - descipline
1990 Rumbold - early years



Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Gillard D (2011) Education in England: a brief history

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Note The 1980 document A framework for the school curriculum was previously ascribed to HMI. In fact, it was a DES/Welsh Office document. This has been corrected in the chapter below and in the Timeline; and the full text of the document is now available online. My apologies for the error.

Chapter 8 : 1979-1990

Thatcherism: the marketisation of education


Neo-liberalism became the dominant force in British politics with the election in 1979 of the Conservative administration led by Margaret Thatcher (pictured). Her government's policies 'accelerated the closing down of unprofitable industries and promoted a profound social and economic restructuring' (Jones 2003:107).

By 1982 the Thatcher government was highly unpopular. Soaring inflation and a massive increase in unemployment made it seem unlikely that she would win a second term. She needed a miracle. Fortunately for her, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and she was able to play the part of heroic war leader in the Falklands War between March and June 1982. The result was a landslide in the 1983 general election. With a vastly increased Commons majority (up from 44 to 144), she felt emboldened to take her reforms further.

She won a third term in office at the general election in 1987. Her majority of 101, though reduced, was nevertheless substantial, and the 'iron lady' felt powerful enough to push ahead with some unpopular polices, most notably the introduction of a form of poll tax. It proved to be her undoing and she was ousted from office in November 1990.

Public services

Thatcher's neo-liberal policies affected not only industry and commerce but also public services.

Conservative legislation sought to drive neo-liberal principles into the heart of public policy. An emphasis on cost reduction, privatisation and deregulation was accompanied by vigorous measures against the institutional bases of Conservatism's opponents, and the promotion of new forms of public management. The outcome of these processes was a form of governance in which market principles were advanced at the same time as central authority was strengthened. (Jones 2003:107)
Thus the twin aims of Margaret Thatcher's education policies in the 1980s were to convert the nation's schools system from a public service into a market, and to transfer power from local authorities to central government.

The origins of this policy can be traced back to the establishment in 1955 of the Institute of Economic Affairs (lEA), a right-wing think-tank which, during the 1970s, had 'worked tirelessly to persuade the Conservative Party to abandon the post-war welfare consensus and embrace social and educational policies based on nineteenth-century free-market anti-statism' (Chitty 2004:47).

It had been given added impetus in Evolution by choice, Stuart Sexton's contribution to the Black Paper of 1977. (For more on the Black Papers see the previous chapter). He set out to 'sketch a new system for secondary education' based on 'absolute freedom of choice by application'. Local authorities would no longer allocate children to schools. Where a school was oversubscribed it would select its students on the basis of 'ability and aptitude'. If it was undersubscribed it would face the possibility of closure. The educational market would not be entirely unregulated. There would be an 'effective and independent inspectorate', a government-defined 'minimum curriculum' and specified 'minimum standards' (Sexton 1977, quoted in Jones 2003:106).

Sexton's theme was taken up by an 'ever-growing number of right-wing think-tanks with small but interlocking memberships' which 'bombarded' ministers with policy ideas 'ideologically driven by commitment to the market and to privatisation' (Benn and Chitty 1996:12).


Despite their claims to be radical and modernising, Thatcher's Tories - and the 'New Right' which supported them - couldn't bring themselves to ditch the elitist policies of the past. The most obvious of these was selection for secondary education.

Thus the 1979 Education Act - Thatcher's first - gave back to LEAs the right to select pupils for secondary education at 11. The move backfired, however. The Tories had underestimated the popularity of comprehensive schools, and attempts to reintroduce or extend selection in Berkshire, Wiltshire, Redbridge and Solihull all failed as a result of strong local opposition.

But the Tories weren't going to give up. 'Such defeats served to encourage Conservative Ministers to opt for rather more subtle policy initiatives aimed at establishing a wider variety of secondary schools and providing for greater parental choice' (Chitty and Dunford 1999:25).

They began work on a series of radical changes characterised by

the absence of any popular demand for them from any section of the education community nationally or locally, nor even from the populist media. One by one all had to be imposed by means of a parliamentary majority against continuing opposition from all other political parties and from much of the educational establishment. (Benn and Chitty 1996:13)

Preparing the ground

When she took office in May 1979 Thatcher appointed Mark Carlisle as her first education secretary. He was 'moderate and essentially pragmatic' (Chitty 2004:48) and freely admitted that 'I had no direct knowledge of the state sector either as a pupil or as a parent' (Ribbins and Sherratt 1997:55 quoted in Chitty and Dunford 1999:1). This suited Thatcher because at first reform of education was not her priority: she was more concerned with bringing down the rate of inflation (causing very high levels of unemployment in the process) and with curbing the power and influence of the trade unions.

But Carlisle was replaced in September 1981 by the very different Keith Joseph (pictured), a long-time advocate of free market ideas (especially parental choice and education vouchers). In 1974 he had been a co-founder of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank which wanted schools to be autonomous with a minimum of state interference.

His appointment was a signal that school reform was moving up the government's agenda. Ironically, as secretary of state for education Joseph found himself

commanding an apparatus that was now increasingly involved in specifying the everyday practice of schools. ... Joseph, like the ministers who succeeded him, organised in the name of 'effective education' a vast new complex of regulations and regulators that would measure and direct the processes and outcomes of schooling. (Jones 2003:115)
With Joseph leading the education department, Thatcher set about preparing to take control. This meant confronting the 'education establishment' - the teachers and their unions, the training institutions and national and local inspectors and advisors. There would be action on three fronts:
  • the curriculum - traditionally seen as the 'secret garden' which government ministers were not supposed to enter;
  • the teachers - controlling their training and development and restricting their role in curriculum development; and
  • the local education authorities (LEAs) - many of which (especially the Labour-controlled ones) Thatcher saw as her enemy.

The curriculum

In 1976 Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan had begun the 'Great Debate' on the nature and purposes of education. Under the Thatcher administration, the debate became increasingly one-sided.

The opening shot was the publication in 1979 of LEA Arrangements for the School Curriculum which required local authorities to publish their curriculum policies.

This was followed, two years later, by The School Curriculum (25 March 1981), in which the secretaries of state (for Education and Wales) said they had decided to 'set out in some detail the approach to the school curriculum which they consider should now be followed in the years ahead'. Every local education authority was expected to frame policies for the school curriculum consistent with the government's 'recommended approach' (DES 1981a:5).

On 1 October 1981 the DES issued Circular 6/81 which requested that, in the light of the advice contained in The School Curriculum, each local education authority should

(a) review its policy for the school curriculum in its area, and its arrangements for making that policy known to all concerned;
(b) review the extent to which current provision in the schools is consistent with that policy; and
(c) plan future developments accordingly, within the resources available.

In taking these actions, local education authorities should consult governors of schools, teachers and others concerned (DES 1981b para.5).

Two years later, on 8 December 1983, Circular 8/83 requested each LEA to provide:
(a) a report on the progress which has been made in drawing up a policy for the curriculum in its primary and secondary schools ...
(b) a description of the roles played in the processes of drawing up the policy by heads and other teachers, governors, parents and other interested parties in the local community;
(c) a brief statement of the ways in which the policy is being given or will be given practical effect in the schools ...
(d) a summary, giving examples where appropriate, of the steps being taken and planned by the authority to seek to ensure that the curriculum is planned as a whole ...
(e) a summary of the steps being taken and planned by the authority to ensure that the curriculum is appropriately related to what happens outside school, and includes sufficient applied and practical work, particularly in mathematics ... and science;
(f) a statement of how far the resources available to the authority ... are enabling it to give effect to its policy for the curriculum. (DES 1983 para.5)
To support schools and LEAs in formulating curriculum policies, the DES issued A framework for the school curriculum in 1980; and HMI produced a number of publications, including: The HMI documents were progressive in outlook. The Curriculum from 5 to 16, for example, argued that the school curriculum should be thought of in terms of 'areas of learning and experience' and that it included
not only the formal programme of lessons, but also the 'informal' programme of so-called extracurricular activities as well as all those features which produce the school's 'ethos', such as the quality of relationships, the concern for equality of opportunity, the values exemplified in the way the school sets about its task and the way in which it is organised and managed. (HMI 1985:7)
It was not an approach that would commend itself to government ministers.

In July 1987 the government published The National Curriculum 5-16. This consultation document set out plans for the introduction of a national curriculum and associated assessment procedures. Its 40 A4-size pages appear to have been produced in haste: the cover was printed but the contents were typed - presumably on an electric typewriter or perhaps on an early Amstrad word processor (which had been launched the previous year).

The teachers

Central government also sought greater control over teachers.

In 1984 the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (CATE) was established to set standards for initial teacher training courses.

In a move designed to reduce the influence of teachers in curriculum development, the Schools Council, in which teachers had played a significant role, was abolished in 1984. Its work was shared between the School Examinations Council (SEC), whose members were nominated by the secretary of state, and the School Curriculum Development Council (SCDC), which was specifically instructed not to 'concern itself with policy'.

And in 1985 Keith Joseph proposed linking teacher appraisal and performance-related pay. The result was a year of industrial action by teachers.

The local authorities

For Thatcher, the local authorities - many of them run by Labour - were an irritant, blocking central government's ability to affect what was going on in the schools. Her government therefore set about weakening the role of the LEAs by dismantling the triangular framework of responsibility - central government, local authorities and the schools - which had been established by the 1944 Education Act, and by offering parents a greater role in the running of schools.

The LEAs were already in a difficult position. Local government had been reorganised in 1974, when the number of LEAs was reduced from 146 to 104. Many of the reorganised authorities had embraced corporate management policies which led to some widely publicised resignations of Chief Education Officers (CEOs) who felt they no longer had control over the service. Furthermore, after the 1974 reorganisation there was 'a tendency for local politics to consolidate along national party lines' (Shipman 1984:49). Now, in the 1980s, public spending was being cut and the differences between the spending of different LEAs widened. As contraction replaced expansion, power tended to ebb back to central government.

Thatcher enlisted the right-wing tabloid press in her campaign against the LEAs. Papers like The Sun and the Daily Mail ran endless stories about the absurdities perpetrated - often in the name of equal opportunities - by 'the loony left'. Ealing, for example, was supposed to have banned any mention of the nursery rhyme 'Baa baa black sheep' in its schools. It wasn't true, of course (I know - I was there!), but the endless repetition of such stories damaged the image of local authorities in the eyes of the public - which is precisely what it was intended to do.

Vocational education

The government took another swipe at the local authorities in 1982, when it launched the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI), aimed at 14-18 year olds. LEAs were not allowed to participate. Instead, it was administered by the Department of Employment's Manpower Services Commission (MSC). It was not exactly a success. 'From 1977 to 1989 change was breathtaking in this area and so was expenditure: 89 billion spent on introducing 25 training schemes, of which 22 were subsequently cancelled, some after only a year or two in existence' (Benn and Chitty 1996:16).

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) was set up in 1986 to promote National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).

In 1989 the government announced that schools would in future be allowed to offer vocational courses like those from the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC). It also made an effort to rationalise 'Britain's renowned jungle of vocational qualifications' (Benn and Chitty 1996:17) in an attempt to create a single new system of vocational qualifications: GNVQ for educational qualifications and NVQ for qualifications gained through work.

For a brief moment it looked as if at last a British government was going to catapult the country into a position where it could compete with other industrialised countries which had already made all these changes through comprehensive education reform and an integration of vocational and academic education. (Benn and Chitty 1996:17)
But it was not to be. The Major administration (see the next chapter) chose not to pursue the integration of academic and vocational education.


1979 Education Act

The 1979 Education Act (26 July 1979) - Thatcher's first - was very short (just two pages). It repealed Labour's 1976 Act and gave back to LEAs the right to select pupils for secondary education at 11.

  • Download the Education Act 1979 (pdf text 40kb).

    1980 Education Act

    This Act (3 April 1980) began the process of giving more power to parents. Its main provisions were:

    • school governing bodies were to include at least two parents (Section 2(5));
    • parents were to have the right to choose schools (6) and the right to appeal if they didn't get the schools they had chosen (7);
    • there were new rules regarding school attendance orders (10 and 11), the creation of new schools and the closing of existing ones (12), and the number of school places (15);
    • the Assisted Places Scheme would provide public money to pay for 30,000 children to go to private schools (17);
    • the obligation on local authorities to provide free milk and meals was removed, except in the case of children from families receiving Supplementary Benefit or Family Income Supplement (22); and
    • local authorities could establish nursery schools (24).
  • Download the Education Act 1980 (pdf text 1mb).

    1981 Education Act

    The 1981 Education Act (30 October 1981) followed the publication of the 1978 Warnock Report Special Educational Needs. It gave parents new rights: LEAs were required to

    • identify the needs of children with learning difficulties (Section 4);
    • have assessment procedures for ascertaining those needs (5-6); and
    • produce 'statements' specifying how the needs would be met (7).
  • Download the Education Act 1981 (pdf text 496kb).

    Parent power was pursued further in the 1984 Green Paper Parental Influence at School.

    1983 Education (Fees and Awards) Act

    This Act (13 May 1983) allowed the secretary of state to require higher education institutions to charge higher fees to students 'not having the requisite connection with the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man' and to exclude such students from being eligible for certain discretionary awards.

  • Download the Education (Fees and Awards) Act 1983 (pdf text 36kb).

    1984 Education (Grants and Awards) Act

    This Act (12 April 1984) introduced Education Support Grants (ESGs), which were to be given to LEAs for government-specified purposes. It was thus another step in taking control of education policy away from the LEAs and giving it to central government - a move which was taken still further in 1987 when Specific Grants for INSET (In-Service Training) were introduced.

  • Download the Education (Grants and Awards) Act 1984 (pdf text 88kb).

    1986 Education (Amendment) Act

    This short Act (17 February 1986) increased the limit set in section 2(1) of the Education (Grants and Awards) Act 1984 on expenditure approved for education support grant purposes, and excluded remuneration for lunchtime supervision from the Remuneration of Teachers Act 1965.

  • Download the Education (Amendment) Act 1986 (pdf text 36kb).

    1986 Education Act

    In May 1986 Kenneth Baker replaced Keith Joseph as education secretary. He was kept busy: there were two education acts in his first year in the job. The first (and much the shorter - 5 pages) was the 1986 Education Act (18 July 1986), which concerned certain further education grants and the pooling of expenditure by local authorities.

  • Download the Education Act 1986 (pdf text 92kb).

    1986 Education (No. 2) Act

    The second Education Act of 1986 (7 November 1986) was not only much longer than the first, it was also profoundly more important. It implemented the proposals set out in the 1985 White Paper Better Schools which were summarised in the DES booklet Better Schools: A Summary.

    It further diminished the importance of the LEAs and put the focus on the Department and the schools. Governors were to be given much greater responsibility for the curriculum, discipline and staffing. The head was to have a pivotal role - s/he was singled out for specific responsibilities including the 'determination and organisation of the secular curriculum' (though the Act said nothing about what what would happen if governors disagreed). The head (and only the head) had the power to exclude pupils.

    Equally significantly, the Act introduced the concept of educational law, so that lawyers became involved in education for the first time. It was very detailed but often ambiguous - it gave parents pegs on which to hang their disenchantments.

    The Act's main provisions were:

    • every maintained school was required to have a governing body (Sections 1-2);
    • the composition of governing bodies was changed - the number of parent governors was to be equal to the number of LEA governors and there were to be staff governors and others co-opted from business and industry (3-8). (Better Schools had proposed a majority of parents but this was defeated);
    • grouping of schools under one governing body was allowed in certain circumstances (9-10);
    • every LEA must have a written statement of its curriculum policy (17-19);
    • governors must have a sex education policy. If taught (it didn't have to be), sex education had to encourage pupils 'to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life' (46);
    • governors must give parents information about the school's curriculum (20);
    • discipline was the responsibility of the head, though the principles underlying it were to be supplied by governors (22);
    • there were new rules on pupil exclusions (23), reinstatement (24) and appeals (26);
    • LEAs were to give governors financial information relating to the school (29);
    • governors were to produce an annual report (30) and hold an annual parents' meeting (31);
    • LEAs retained responsibility for the appointment and dismissal of staff but were to consult with governors (34-41);
    • there was to be freedom of speech in universities and colleges (43);
    • there was to be no political indoctrination in schools - this was an attack on subjects like 'peace studies' which had been introduced in a number of schools (44);
    • corporal punishment was abolished in maintained schools (from August 1987). Independent schools were still permitted to beat their pupils, but not those whose fees were paid by the state (47);
    • provision was made for the appraisal of teachers (49);
    • governors were required to supply information to the secretary of state (56);
    • LEAs were required to provide training for governors (57); and
    • the secretary of state was no longer required to produce annual report (60).
  • Download the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 (pdf text 1.6mb).

    1988 Local Government Act

    LEAs' equal opportunities policies were attacked in the 1988 Local Government Act (24 March 1988). The infamous Section 28 of this act forbade local authorities from 'promoting teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'. (Section 28 was eventually repealed by New Labour in November 2003).

  • Download the Local Government Act 1988 (pdf text 856kb).

    1988 Education Reform Act

    The Education Reform Act (29 July 1988) was the most important education act since 1944. It is sometimes referred to as 'The Baker Act' after secretary of state Kenneth Baker (pictured).

    The Act was presented as giving power to the schools. In fact, it took power away from the LEAs and the schools and gave them all to the secretary of state - it gave him hundreds of new powers.

    Even more importantly, it took a public service and turned it into a market - something the Tories had been working towards for a decade.

    Chitty and Dunford (1999:25) argue that the 'meretricious agenda' of the 1988 Act was in many ways 'a tribute to the remarkable resilience of the comprehensive ideal'. Having failed to get selection reinstated in 1979, the Tories now used 'devices like opting out, open admission, city technology colleges and the introduction of "local markets" ... as attempts to introduce selection by the back door.'

    The Act's major provisions concerned:

    • the curriculum:
          - the National Curriculum
          - new rules on religious education and collective worship
          - the establishment of curriculum and assessment councils;
    • admission of pupils to county and voluntary schools;
    • local management of schools (LMS);
    • grant maintained (GM) schools;
    • city technology colleges (CTCs);
    • changes in further and higher education; and
    • the abolition of ILEA.
  • Download the Education Reform Act 1988 (pdf text 4.1mb).

    Summary of the Act

    Part I Chapter I: The Curriculum

    The 1988 Act provided for a 'basic curriculum' to be taught in all maintained schools, consisting of religious education and the National Curriculum (Section 2(1)). The National Curriculum would set out 'attainment targets' - the knowledge, skills and understanding which children would be expected to have by the end of each key stage; the 'programmes of study' to be taught at each key stage; and the arrangements for assessing pupils at the end of each key stage (2(2)).

    The National Curriculum would consist of three 'core subjects' (mathematics, English and science); six foundation subjects (history, geography, technology, music, art and physical education); plus a modern foreign language at key stages 3 and 4 (3(1-2)). Schools in Welsh-speaking areas of Wales would also teach Welsh.

    The Act defined Key Stage 1 as ages 5-7, Key Stage 2: ages 8-11, Key Stage 3: 12-14, and Key Stage 4: 15-16 (3(3)).

    It set out new rules on religious education: every day was to begin with an 'act of collective worship' (6(1)), a majority of which were to be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character' (7(1)). Every LEA was required to set up a standing advisory council on religious education (SACRE) (11(1)) consisting of representatives of religious groups, the Church of England, teachers and the local authority (11(4)). Agreed Syllabuses for Religious Education should 'reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain' (8(3)).

    Two new councils were to be established: the National Curriculum Council (NCC) and the School Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC). (Wales was to have its own Curriculum Council for Wales). The members of the councils would be appointed by the secretary of state (14(1)).

    The NCC would be required to review all aspects of the curriculum and advise the secretary of state, carry out programmes of research and development, publish and disseminate information relating to the curriculum and perform 'such ancillary activities as the Secretary of State may direct' (14(3)).

    SEAC's functions were similar in respect of examinations and assessment; it was also to make arrangements with appropriate bodies for the moderation of assessments made in pursuance of assessment arrangements (14(4)).

    Part I Chapter II: Admission of Pupils to County and Voluntary Schools

    The Act introduced new rules governing the admission of pupils to maintained schools, in particular the conditions which were to be met if the authority responsible for admissions to a school wished to reduce the 'standard number' of places in a year group (28).

    Part I Chapter III: Finance and Staff

    Before 1988, schools had only had control over 'capitation' - that part of their budget relating to books and materials. The staff were employed and the buildings maintained by the local authority. Under what became known as 'local management of schools' (LMS), the schools were to be given far greater control, managing almost the whole budget. 'It shall be the duty of the authority to put at the disposal of the governing body of the school in respect of that year a sum equal to the school's budget share for that year to be spent for the purposes of the school' (36(2)).

    School budgets would be determined on the basis of an 'allocation formula' based on the number and ages of the pupils in the school and the number of pupils with special needs (38(3)). Each local authority was required to submit a scheme for this financial delegation (39).

    Responsibility for the appointment and dismissal of staff would be transferred from the local authority to schools' governing bodies (44-46).

    Part I Chapter IV Grant-Maintained Schools

    The Act made provision for the establishment of grant-maintained schools which would be independent of local authorities and funded directly by central government. It set out rules governing the membership of the schools' governing bodies (4-5); the articles of government (58); the conduct of parents' ballots to decide whether schools should seek grant-maintained status (61); the transfer of property and staff to the governing bodies (74-5) and the grants (maintenance, special purpose and capital) payable to the schools (79). It made clear that funds directed to grant-maintained schools would be deducted from the relevant local authority budget (81).

    Part I Chapter V Miscellaneous

    The Act provided for the establishment of City Technology Colleges (CTCs) and City Colleges for the Technology of the Arts (CCTAs) (105) and laid down new rules governing what could, and what could not, be charged for in maintained schools (106-111).

    Part II Higher and Further Education

    Part II of the Act made changes to the provision and funding of higher and further education and provided for the establishment of two new funding bodies: the Universities Funding Council (UFC) and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (PCFC), whose members would be appointed by the secretary of state. Local authorities which funded institutions would be required to produce a scheme for financial delegation similar to that required for the funding of schools.

    Part III Education in Inner London

    Part III of the Act provided for the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and the transfer of its responsibilities, properties, rights and liabilities to the inner London boroughs.

    Part IV Miscellaneous and General

    Part IV of the Act covered a number of other matters: the establishment and functions of Education Assets Board; academic tenure; grants; unrecognised degrees etc.

    Commentary on the Act

    National Curriculum

    The National Curriculum which resulted from the Act was written by a government quango: teachers had virtually no say in its design or construction. It was almost entirely content-based. Dennis Lawton, of the University of London Institute of Education, described it as the reincarnation of the 1904 Secondary Regulations.

    It was huge and therefore unmanageable, especially at the primary level, and its introduction resulted in a significant drop in reading standards. It divided the curriculum up into discrete subjects, making integrated 'topic' and 'project' work difficult if not impossible. But perhaps the most damaging outcome of it was that it prevented teachers and schools from being curriculum innovators and demoted them to curriculum 'deliverers'.

    It was also constantly revised. Right-wing think-tanks and pressure groups were unhappy with aspects of the first version and campaigned for 'the simplification and "Anglicisation" of the national testing system, so as to emphasise basic skills and the English cultural heritage' (Jones 2003:141). The New Right gained control of the curriculum and assessment councils, where they provoked strong opposition from teachers, especially from teachers of English, leading to a widespread boycott of Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) in 1993-4.

    As a result, the government was forced to redesign the national curriculum, reducing the amount of detail and removing 'the stronger signs of the traditionalist and ethnocentric enthusiasms of the New Right'. The 1995 revision of the national curriculum thus 'marked the end of the New Right's curricular influence, at the same time as it helped embed the curriculum, and its associated testing system, at the consensual centre of English schooling' (Jones 2003:141).


    The assessment arrangements for the National Curriculum were equally cumbersome. They were based on the 1988 report of the National Curriculum Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT) led by Professor PJ Black (and therefore sometimes known as the Black Report).

    The report was sound on the purposes of assessment. It began by listing four criteria for a national assessment scheme:

    • the assessment results should give direct information about pupils' achievement in relation to objectives: they should be criterion-referenced;
    • the results should provide a basis for decisions about pupils' further learning needs: they should be formative;
    • the scales or grades should be capable of comparison across classes and schools, if teachers, pupils and parents are to share a common language and common standards: so the assessments should be calibrated or moderated;
    • the ways in which criteria and scales are set up and used should relate to expected routes of educational development, giving some continuity to a pupil's assessment at different ages: the assessments should relate to progression. (para.5)
    It also made clear that there were concerns to be addressed:
    • the undesirable effects of testing on children (stress etc);
    • the possible damage to relationships between parents and schools;
    • the fear that external tests would 'impose arbitrary restrictions on teachers' own work, and so limit and devalue their professional role' (para.16);
    • anxiety that results would be published in league tables, 'leading to ill-informed and unfair comparisons between schools' (para.18); and
    • the danger that teachers would 'teach to the test' (para.58).
    Unfortunately, the Report went on to propose a system of testing at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16 (at the end of the Key Stages) in which each pupil was to be assessed on ten 'Levels' across hundreds of 'Attainment Targets' in the ten National Curriculum subjects. This was hugely complicated and never had a chance of working.

    Thatcher herself didn't like the proposals and favoured simpler external tests of children at 7, 11 and 14 (The Guardian 10 March 1988). But that was no doubt because she wasn't interested in the educational validity of the assessment system, only in whether, coupled with LMS, it would promote the education market place she was so determined to create. So league tables of school results were published (despite Black's warning) and parents were given (theoretically at least) free choice as to where to send their children.

    Three inevitable - and undesirable - effects quickly became apparent:

    • schools became unwilling to take on pupils with learning difficulties, since they tended to depress overall test results;
    • teachers were encouraged to concentrate their efforts on children who were on the borderline between one level and the next rather than on those who needed attention most; and
    • the curriculum became skewed by the need to practise for the tests.

  • Download the TGAT Report (pdf text 889kb).

    Religious education

    On religious education and collective worship, it is interesting to compare the Act's stipulations that the majority of a school's 'acts of collective worship' must be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character' and that Christianity should be the predominant religion in religious education lessons with Sections 25-29 of the 1944 Education Act, where Christianity is never mentioned - because it was taken for granted.

  • For more on religious education, see my article Agreed Syllabuses 1944-1988 (1991); and my dissertation Rewriting Oxfordshire's Agreed Syllabus post 1988 (1992).

    Local Management of Schools

    Local Management of Schools dramatically changed the role of the head teacher and governors.

    The head was no longer an educationalist but an institutional manager. S/he now had to learn about recruitment and selection procedures, employment law, health and safety legislation, buildings maintenance etc.

    The governors now had legal responsibilities in relation to the control of a school's budget and to the appointment and dismissal of staff. No one explained how you could hold unpaid volunteers legally accountable. Inevitably, fewer people were prepared to take on the role.

    Because school budgets were to be based largely on pupil numbers, schools had to attract as many pupils as possible in order to survive. This led to some bizarre cases of schools offering gifts to parents who enrolled their children.

    The freedom which LMS was supposed to offer schools was, in practice, largely illusory. Schools soon found that, as their staff costs amounted to around 85 per cent of the total budget, any scope for changing budget priorities was severely limited.

    For the government, LMS served three purposes:

    • it was an important element in the creation of an 'education market';
    • it took financial control away from the local authorities; and
    • it enabled the government to 'pass the buck' to the schools when budgets were cut - as they were from the second year of LMS onwards. Indeed, school budgets were cut in six of the eight years following 1988.

    Grant-Maintained Schools

    The grant-maintained schools policy was another clear attack on the LEAs. It was also iniquitous because, to bribe schools into opting out, they were offered substantial additional funding - at the expense of the remaining local authority schools.

    Grant-maintained schools were allowed to select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of ability or aptitude.

    Some secondary schools applied to become grant-maintained in the first year or two, but when the extra cash dried up, so did the applications. Ironically - but unsurprisingly - most of the schools that did opt out were in Conservative-controlled LEAs where spending on education tended to be lower. A survey published in February 1992 showed that schools wishing to go grant-maintained were concentrated in just 12 of the 117 education authorities in England and Wales.

    Grant-maintained status was eventually abolished by New Labour.

    City Technology Colleges

    Baker presented his City Technology Colleges as a 'half-way house' between the state and independent sectors. He told the TES:

    What we have at present is seven per cent or so in the independent sector, probably going to rise to ten per cent; and on the other side, a huge continent: 93 per cent in the state-maintained sector. ... What I think is striking in the British education system is that there is nothing in between ... Now the City Technology Colleges I've already announced are a sort of half-way house. I would like to see many more half-way houses, a greater choice, a greater variety. I think many parents would as well. (TES 3 April 1987)
    In fact, the City Technology Colleges (CTCs) were just another attempt to destroy the power of the LEAs (and to reintroduce selection) by involving private enterprise in education. A hundred of the colleges were to be set up across the country, each one funded - 'sponsored' - by a business, with spending per pupil far higher than in the neighbouring local authority schools.

    In the event, only a handful of CTCs were ever established because few businesses were prepared to take part and, as usual, the taxpayer was left to pick up the bill.

    The last CTC to be authorised, in April 1991, was Kingswood in Bristol. The chair of Cable and Wireless and former Tory Party chair Lord Young stumped up the required 2m; the government handed over the remaining 8m. Avon county council's deputy director of education, Edward Watson, bitterly contrasted that 8m for capital spending on the 900 children at Kingswood CTC with the 4.5m he had for capital spending on the county's other 150,000 children. With the extra money, he said, all secondary schools could have been fully repaired, all the improvements they wanted could have been done, every school could have had a new science laboratory, and there would still have been enough left over to give all primary schools an extra nursery class for a year (The Guardian 3 October 2006).


    Thatcher had disliked the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) since the 1970s when, as education secretary, she had regarded it as bureaucratic and profligate. She also resented the fact that it was dominated by Labour politicians who were not afraid to comment on central government policies.

    Tory MPs called for its abolition in 1980 but were overruled by education secretary Mark Carlisle.

    In 1986 Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council (GLC) - she had never forgiven Londoners for electing her bête noire Ken Livingstone as leader - and she would have liked to get rid of ILEA at the same time, but she was advised that the London boroughs were not yet ready to take on responsibility for education.

    But ILEA's days were numbered. An amendment calling for its abolition, tabled by Tory MPs Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit, was incorporated into the 1988 Act. It was finally abolished on 1 April 1990 and its responsibilities delegated to the London boroughs.

    The destruction of ILEA was a particularly noxious example of political spite and state vandalism: it had had a proud record of supporting schools in deprived areas and promoting curriculum development. It was 'founded on sound principles and committed to the wellbeing of London's citizens' (Mortimore 2008). Its Multi-ethnic education policy statement, published in 1977, had sought to combat racism, sexism and class prejudice in schools and society. And in 1980 HMI had described ILEA as 'a caring and generous authority with considerable analytical powers to identify problems, the scale of which is, in some cases, unique in this country.'

    (A form of overall local government for London was reintroduced by New Labour in May 2000, when the first elections to the Greater London Assembly (GLA) were held. Ken Livingstone became the first elected Mayor of London).

    1990 Education (Student Loans) Act

    Thatcher's last education act was the Education (Student Loans) Act (26 April 1990) which introduced 'top-up' loans for HE students and so began the diminution of student grants.

  • Download the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990 (pdf text 116kb).


    1977-82 HMI: Matters for Discussion

    As part of the 'Great Debate' called for in 1976 by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, HMI produced a series of 15 discussion documents under the series title Matters for Discussion:

      1 Ten Good Schools (1977)
      2 Classics in Comprehensive Schools (1977)
      3 Modern Languages in Comprehensive Schools (1977)
      4 Gifted Children in Middle and Comprehensive Secondary Schools (1977)
      5 The Teaching of Ideas in Geography (1978)
      6 Mixed Ability Work in Comprehensive Schools (1978)
      7 The Education of Children in Hospitals for the Mentally Handicapped (1978)
      8 Developments in the BEd Degree Course (1979)
      9 Mathematics 5 to 11 (1979)
    10 Community Homes with Education (1980)
    11 A View of the Curriculum (1980)
    12 Modern Languages in Further Education (1980)
    13 Girls and Science (1980)
    14 Mathematics in the Sixth Form (1982)
    15 The New Teacher in School (1982)

    1978-85 HMI surveys

    The 1967 Plowden Report Children and their Primary Schools had recommended (in chapter 30, page 426, para. 1164) that surveys of the quality of primary schools should be conducted at least once every ten years.

    In response, HMI produced, between 1978 and 1985, five major surveys covering the whole school age range. They were:

    1978 Primary education in England
    1979 Aspects of secondary education in England
    1982 Education 5 to 9
    1983 9-13 Middle Schools
    1985 Education 8 to 12 in Combined and Middle Schools

    1981 Rampton Report

    In March 1979 Jim Callaghan's Labour government had set up the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups, with priority being given to children of West Indian origin.

    The Committee continued its work under the Thatcher government and published its interim report, West Indian Children in our Schools, in 1981. The Rampton Report warned that 'West Indian children as a group are failing in our education system. Urgent action is needed to remedy this' (Rampton 1981:70). It noted that in both primary and secondary schools the curriculum, books and teaching materials were often inappropriate to meet the needs and backgrounds of West Indian pupils and that this was 'a cause of their lack of motivation and commitment to the work and their consequent underachievement' (Rampton 1981:71).

    However, the Committee said that there was 'no single cause for the underachievement of West Indian children but rather a network of widely differing attitudes and expectations on the part of teachers and the education system as a whole, and on the part of West Indian parents' (Rampton 1981:72). They therefore recommended

    a range of specific, practical measures for the short-term together with some broader more general recommendations designed to bring about fundamental changes in attitude and practice in the longer term. Taken together, these constitute a programme for action which will go a long way towards enabling West Indian pupils to fulfil their true potential in our schools, as well as providing a more balanced education for all our children. (Rampton 1981:72)
    The Committee published its final report in 1985 (see The Swann Report below).

    1982 Cockcroft Report

    Callaghan's Labour administration had also commissioned a report on the teaching of maths, in the light of concerns expressed by the Education, Arts and Home Office Sub-Committee of the Parliamentary Expenditure Committee in July 1977. These concerns related to the apparent lack of basic computation skills in many children, the increasing mathematical demands made on adults, the lack of qualified maths teachers, and the confusing multiplicity of maths syllabuses.

    The Cockcroft Committee began work in September 1978. Its terms of reference were:

    To consider the teaching of mathematics in primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, with particular regard to the mathematics required in further and higher education, employment and adult life generally, and to make recommendations.
    The Committee submitted its report Mathematics counts in November 1981 and it was published in January 1982.

    1985 Swann Report

    The Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups produced its final report Education for All in 1985.

    Its principle conclusions and recommendations were:

    • there is no single cause of underachievement and therefore no single solution;
    • education has a major role in changing the attitudes of the white majority population;
    • there is a need for greater sensitivity in the education of 'ethnic minorities' with more in-service training to raise teachers' awareness;
    • in initial training courses attention should be paid to the needs of an ethnically diverse society;
    • statistics should be collected on the ethnicity of both teachers and pupils;
    • the first priority should be the learning of English;
    • school subjects should not be taught using mother tongue languages as a medium of instruction; and
    • schools should not take on responsibility for the teaching and maintenance of 'ethnic minority' languages.
    The report said:
    We believe that unless major efforts are made to reconcile the concerns and aspirations of both the majority and minority communities along more genuinely pluralistic lines, there is a real risk of the fragmentation of our society along ethnic lines which would seriously threaten the stability and cohesion of society as a whole. (Swann 1985:7)

    The fundamental change that is necessary is the recognition that the problem facing the education system is not how to educate children of ethnic minorities, but how to educate all children. (Swann 1985:363)

    1988 Kingman Report

    The Teaching of English Language was produced by a Committee of Inquiry chaired by Sir John Kingman, Vice-Chancellor of University of Bristol.

    1988 Higginson Report

    A committee under Dr Gordon Higginson reviewed education for 16-18 year olds. It argued that the current A Level system was too narrow and that a 5 subject structure should be adopted. The government rejected the recommendations.

    1989 Cox Report

    Chaired by Professor Brian Cox, Pro-Vice Chancellor and John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at Manchester University, the National Curriculum English Working Group was commissioned by Secretary of State Kenneth Baker to make recommendations on attainment targets and programmes of study for the English component of the new National Curriculum. The result was the Cox Report English for ages 5 to 16.

    1989 Elton Report

    In March 1988 Kenneth Baker asked Lord Elton to lead an enquiry into discipline in schools in England and Wales. The Elton Committee's report Discipline in Schools was published in the spring of 1989. Its 138 recommendations made it clear that good discipline was the shared responsibility of pupils, teachers, heads, other staff, governors, parents, local authorities, teacher trainers, curriculum councils, central government, and the School Examinations and Assessment Council.

    1990 Rumbold Report

    Baker also commissioned a report on early years education. Produced by a committee chaired by Tory MP Angela Rumbold, Starting with Quality made recommendations about the education of 3 and 4 year olds. It was published in November 1990 when John MacGregor had just taken over as education secretary.


    Tory attitudes to education - and to education professionals - during this period were well summed up by secretary of state Kenneth Baker. Speaking about the bill which was shortly to become the 1986 (No. 2) Education Act, he told the Tory Party Conference in October 1986:

    It is crucial for parents to understand where power in the education system lies. Our Education Bill radically changes the composition of school governing bodies. It gives these bodies new powers and responsibilities. We will end the dominance of the local authority and its political appointees. There will be more parent governors elected by all the parents. Control over sex education will be removed from the teachers and local authorities and given to the new-style governing bodies which will have more parents on them and be answerable to an annual parents' meeting.
    But Thatcher had become increasingly unpopular and the last straw for many was her determination to introduce a form of poll tax. This led, in March 1990, to the worst riots London had seen for a century. She lost the confidence of her colleagues and in November 1990 she was replaced as Tory leader and prime minister by John Major.


    Benn C and Chitty C (1996) Thirty years on: is comprehensive education alive and well or struggling to survive? London: David Fulton Publishers

    Chitty C (2004) Education policy in Britain Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

    Chitty C and Dunford J (eds) (1999) State schools: New Labour and the Conservative legacy London: Woburn Press

    DES (1981a) The School Curriculum London: HMSO

    DES (1981b) Circular 6/81 The School Curriculum

    DES (1983) Circular 8/83 The School Curriculum

    HMI (1985) The Curriculum from 5 to 16 (Curriculum Matters 2) London: HMSO

    Jones K (2003) Education in Britain: 1944 to the present Cambridge: Polity Press

    Mortimore P (2008) 'In memoriam' The Guardian 3 June

    Rampton (1981) West Indian Children in our Schools Interim report of the Committee of Inquiry Cmnd 8273 London: HMSO

    Ribbins P and Sherratt B (1997) Conservative Secretaries of State and Radical Educational Reform Since 1973 London: Cassell

    Sexton S (1977) 'Evolution by choice' in CB Cox and R Boyson Black Paper 1977 London: Temple Smith

    Shipman M (1984) Education as a public service London: Harper and Row

    Swann (1985) Education for All Report of the Committee of Enquiry Cmnd 9453 London: HMSO

    Chapter 7 | Chapter 9