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

A new golden age?
The Adonis Problem

1997-2001 Destroying the comprehensive ideal
1997 White Paper Excellence in Schools
1998 School Standards and Framework Act
Specialist schools
   Education Action Zones
   Contracting out
   City academies
Curriculum and testing
   National Curriculum
   National Literacy Strategy
   Special needs
Other developments
   1998 Education (Student Loans) Act
   1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act
   Chris Woodhead
   2001 Green Paper Schools - building on success

2001-05 Diversity and faith
2001 White Paper Schools - achieving success
2002 Education Act
Faith schools
End of the comprehensive?
Five Year Strategy
The academies programme
Curriculum and testing
   National Literacy Strategy
   Foreign languages
   Tests, targets and league tables
   14-19 curriculum
2004 Children Act
Other developments
   Teachers' pay and conditions
   2004 Higher Education Act
   Building Schools for the Future
   2005 Education Act

2005-07 Third term extremism
2006 Education and Inspections Act
The academies programme
Faith schools
Curriculum and testing
   Tests and exams
   Cambridge Primary Review
   2005 Steer Report
Other developments
   Building Schools for the Future
   Middle schools
   Higher education
   Head teachers
   School leaving age
   Tim Brighouse

The Blair legacy


Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Chapter 10 : 1997-2007

The Blair decade: selection, privatisation and faith


A new golden age?

Many teachers hoped - some even dared to believe - that the election of the first Labour government for eighteen years, led by Tony Blair (pictured), would usher in a new 'golden age' in education. Tests and league tables would disappear, chief inspector Chris Woodhead (who had become something of a hate figure for teachers) would be sacked, Ofsted scrapped, and grant maintained (GM) schools would be brought under local authority control.

Perhaps most importantly, selection for secondary education would finally be abolished. There were good grounds for believing this. After all, David Blunkett, then shadow education secretary, had promised the Labour Party conference on 4 October 1995: 'Read my lips. No selection by examination or interview'. And the move would have had widespread public support. An ICM poll in 1996 had shown that 65 per cent of the population supported comprehensive education, while only 27 per cent favoured a selective system (The Guardian 7 February 1996, quoted in Chitty and Dunford 1999:31).

But it was all to prove a delusion. The first 'New Labour' government, swept to power in May 1997 with a Commons majority of 179, was to prove very different from any previous Labour government. Indeed, in many ways - its belief in market forces and its commitment to globalisation, for example - it would be virtually indistinguishable from its Tory predecessor.

  • For more on this topic see my article New Labour - New Values?.

    The Adonis Problem

    Throughout Tony Blair's ten years in office, his principal education adviser was to be Andrew Adonis (pictured).

    A former journalist and Liberal Democrat, Adonis joined Labour in December 1995 after Blair forced the party to end its commitment to public ownership (The Guardian 27 January 2005). He became a member of the Number 10 Policy Unit from 1998 (its head from 2001 to 2003) and in 2005 Blair gave him a life peerage and the post of junior education minister.

    He exerted a powerful influence on New Labour education policies, coming up with a constant stream of ideas - including the academies programme - and, according to some, repeatedly interfering, for example over the vexed issue of university top-up fees (The Guardian 1 November 2002).

    Several education secretaries suffered as a result of what insiders dubbed 'The Adonis Problem'. They felt that their role was not to make education policy but to promote the policies devised by Adonis and Blair. The most notable casualty was Estelle Morris, who, it was widely believed, resigned because she felt undermined by Adonis (The Observer 27 October 2002). There were suspicions that Charles Clarke was told to keep quiet when he raised questions about the effectiveness of grammar schools. And Ruth Kelly found herself overruled when it came to some of the proposals in the 2005 White Paper (Daily Mail 17 October 2005; The Observer 23 October 2005).

    1997-2001 Destroying the comprehensive ideal

    The Tories' Assisted Places scheme had provided public money to pay for 30,000 children to go to private schools. Within two months of coming to power the new administration scrapped the scheme in the 1997 Education (Schools) Act (31 July 1997). It also made a commitment to reduce some class sizes.

  • Download the Education (Schools) Act 1997 (pdf text 92kb).

    But it quickly became clear that in other respects New Labour's education policies would be little different from those of Thatcher and Major. 'This meant an endorsement of much of the 1988 Education Reform Act and its successors, in relation both to "parental choice" and to competition between schools in a diverse and unequal secondary school system' (Jones 2003:145).

    Few were surprised, therefore, when David Blunkett (pictured), now secretary of state for education, announced that Chris Woodhead would be keeping his job as chief inspector of schools and head of Ofsted.

    In relation to selection, despite Blunkett's pre-election promise, the warning signs had been clear. The 1995 Labour policy document Diversity and excellence: a new partnership for schools, for example, had set out the party's new thinking on grammar schools:

    Our opposition to academic selection at 11 has always been clear. But while we have never supported grammar schools in their exclusion of children by examination, change can come only through local agreement. Such change in the character of a school could only follow a clear demonstration of support from the parents affected by such decisions. (Labour Party 1995)

    1997 White Paper Excellence in Schools

    The new government's education policies were set out in the white paper Excellence in schools, published in July 1997.

    It proposed that:

    • secondary schools would be encouraged to become 'specialist schools' which would be allowed to select a small proportion of their pupils on the basis of 'perceived aptitudes';
    • class sizes for five, six and seven year olds were to be reduced to 30 or under. Funding would be provided to enable LEAs to meet this target;
    • at least an hour a day in primary schools would be spent on English and an hour on maths. (The National Literacy Strategy was introduced in September 1998, the National Numeracy Strategy in September 1999);
    • schools were to have targets for raising standards. School performance tables would show the rate of progress pupils had made as well as their absolute levels of achievement;
    • achievements of ethnic minority pupils were to be raised and racial harmony promoted;
    • special educational needs were to be an integral part of the wider programme for raising standards;
    • there would be better support in schools for pupils with behaviour problems;
    • secondary schools were to use innovative approaches and mixed ability teaching where effective, but setting was recommended, particularly for science, maths and languages. Schools were to tell parents about their pupil grouping policies;
    • there would be more family learning schemes where parents and their children could learn together. (Family Literacy courses started in more than 60 LEAs in September 1997);
    • there would be national guidelines for homework and after-school homework centres;
    • Education Action Zones would be set up to provide targeted support in deprived areas;
    • there would be better support for newly qualified teachers and better training for existing teachers focusing on literacy, numeracy and IT; and
    • there would be a national training scheme for existing and new head teachers.
    The white paper made it clear that the Conservative policy of 'selection by specialisation' would be pursued. It said 'We will ensure that schools with a specialism will continue to be able to give priority to those children who demonstrate the relevant aptitude, as long as that is not misused to select on the basis of general academic ability' (DfEE 1997:71). The government's aim was to have 500 specialist schools open by September 2000 and 650 a year later.

    Of comprehensive schools, the white paper said:

    The demands for equality and increased opportunity in the 1950s and 1960s led to the introduction of comprehensive schools. All-in secondary schooling rightly became the normal pattern, but the search for equality of opportunity in some cases became a tendency to uniformity. The idea that all children had the same rights to develop their abilities led too easily to the doctrine that all had the same ability. The pursuit of excellence was too often equated with elitism. (DfEE 1997:11)
    With regard to grammar schools, the white paper argued that 'local parents have an interest in decisions on whether their selective admissions arrangements should continue. Changes in the admissions policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents, and not by LEAs' (DfEE 1997:72).

    1998 School Standards and Framework Act

    The white paper's proposals were implemented in the School Standards and Framework Act (24 July 1998) which:

    • allowed maintained secondary schools to 'make provision for the selection of pupils for admission to the school by reference to their aptitude for one of more prescribed subjects' (Section 102);
    • defined the responsibilities of LEAs and gave the secretary of state powers to ensure that they fulfilled them;
    • empowered LEAs and the secretary of state to intervene in schools judged to be 'failing' by Ofsted - such schools would be given two years to improve or they would be closed or have radical management changes imposed on them;
    • set out a new framework for schools (to be implemented from 2000) with community schools replacing county schools and foundation schools replacing GM schools. Voluntary schools (mostly the church schools) would stay the same.
  • Download the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (pdf text 940kb).

    Many teachers and educationists objected to the decision to allow selection by aptitude. Chitty (2004:69), for example, argued that 'in a class-divided and highly competitive society ... specialisms could never be equal: they would rapidly become ranked in a hierarchy of status'. Critics also pointed out that the government's assumption that children could be tested for particular aptitudes rather than for general ability flew in the face of all the research evidence. In The Guardian (24 March 1998) Professor Peter Mortimore, then director of the London Institute of Education wrote:

    Except in music and perhaps art, it does not seem possible to diagnose specific aptitudes for most school curriculum subjects. Instead, what seems to emerge from such testing is a general ability to learn, which is often, but not always, associated with the various advantages of coming from a middle-class home. How can head teachers know if the 'aptitude' of a ten year old in German shows anything more than the parents' ability to pay for language lessons? (quoted in Chitty 2004:69-70)
    Blunkett's pre-election promise 'Read my lips. No selection' now became 'Read my lips, no more selection', which meant precisely the opposite: selection would remain in those areas which practised it unless parents voted against it locally. Indeed, the mantra of the Blair government's first term was 'standards not structures', by which it meant that it would be concerned with raising pupils' achievement rather than worrying about the types of school which they attended.

    It was pointed out by a number of educationists that this was a false dichotomy, since the type of school attended - grammar, secondary modern, comprehensive - did indeed have a significant effect on pupils' achievement.

    Writing in Forum, Peter Newsam demolished the argument - increasingly being implied if not stated outright by government ministers - that comprehensive schools had been a failure:

    Where schools that are comprehensive, in the full sense of admitting the full range of ability, have been developed, the pressure of places on them tends to be severe and the notion of middle class or any other form of flight from them is false. Such schools perform consistently well and, if properly supported, will do better still. (Newsam 1998)

    And writing in The Guardian, Clyde Chitty commented:

    Guided by the oft-repeated 'standards not structures' mantra, education ministers show a marked reluctance to tackle the anomalies and inequities inherited from the Conservatives. After nearly eighteen months of a Labour government, we have an education system in England and Wales ... that is as unfair and divided as it was during the eighteen years of Conservative rule. It might have been unrealistic to expect Education and Employment Minister David Blunkett to change everything overnight. What is really dispiriting is that New Labour policies are exacerbating rather than removing existing divisions. (Chitty 1998)
    He concluded that New Labour was 'clearly basing its education policy on the principles of competition, choice and diversity', which had been the popular themes of all Conservative White Papers. Under the guise of 'modernising' the comprehensive principle, the government was 'effectively destroying it'.

    Specialist schools

    But Blair and Blunkett weren't listening and the assault on the comprehensive school continued.

    1999 saw the inception of the Fresh Start scheme, which aimed to revitalise 'failing' inner-city comprehensive schools by appointing so-called 'superheads'. Within a year several of them had resigned and the scheme fizzled out.

    In January 2000 Tony Blair announced that hundreds of comprehensive schools would be turned into 'specialist colleges' over the following three years. The scheme, developed by Downing Street (Adonis?) and a new Policy and Innovation Division within the education department, would effectively consign the comprehensive system - the great egalitarian dream of the sixties - to history. Schools would achieve specialist status by raising 50,000 in business sponsorship, setting improvement targets and involving the local community. In return they would get a 100,000 capital grant and 120 extra per pupil per year for at least four years and would be allowed to select up to ten per cent of their intake on the basis of aptitude.

    Clearly Blair's New Labour government was not abolishing selection - it was actually extending it.

    A few weeks later, David Blunkett told The Sunday Telegraph (12 March 2000) that it was time to abandon 'Labour's historic campaign against grammar schools':

    I'm not interested in hunting the remaining grammar schools ... I'm desperately trying to avoid the whole debate in education once again, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, concentrating on the issue of selection, when it should be concentrating on the raising of standards ... There are only 164 grammar schools - let's get on with the job of giving a decent education to all the kids. (quoted in Chitty 2004:72)
    In the same month, the first parental ballot on selection - at Ripon in Yorkshire - resulted in the town keeping its grammar school. 1,493 of the 3,000 parents who were entitled to vote supported the selective system; 748 voted to abolish it. It was pointed out that a quarter of those voting lived outside the school's area and another quarter had children in independent preparatory schools. Nevertheless, the result was disastrous for supporters of comprehensive education and rendered it 'highly unlikely that groups of parents in other parts of the country would risk wasting time and money on a similar enterprise' (Chitty 2004:73).

    Meanwhile, junior education minister Stephen Byers was busy 'naming and shaming' eighteen 'failing schools', a policy which - combined with the effects of league tables and parental choice - inevitably caused poorer schools (usually those in less affluent areas) to become even worse. As these schools become less popular, they found it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain good staff. It was a vicious circle. Rather than improve the situation for pupils in the poorer areas, therefore, government policies actually exacerbated the problem and widened the divide between successful and unsuccessful schools.

    Blair's determination to destroy comprehensive education in England was all the more extraordinary given the direction in which other parts of the UK were travelling.

    Research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office, published in 2000, 'identified a number of the undesirable effects of selection, including the existence of a long tail of underachieving schools and a "polarity of achievement", as well as the under-representation of children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in grammar schools' (Jones 2003:152).

    Scotland, which was fully comprehensive, had better GCSE results and less social class inequality than England.

    And the Welsh Assembly's first major statement on education, The Learning Country (2001), envisaged 'a fully comprehensive system of learning' (NAW 2001:8) so that 'inequalities in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged areas, groups, and individuals' could be 'narrowed in the interests of all' (NAW 2001:10).

  • Download the The Learning Country (pdf text 508kb).

    Thus, as Jones argues:

    New Labour has constructed a version of post-war history whose first purpose is to draw a line between itself and the Labour governments which preceded it. In education at least, the evidence that is offered in support of this interpretation is drawn almost exclusively from an English experience and there appears to be little interest in learning from the policy histories of other countries in Britain, even where these contain much that is relevant to thinking about the relationship between educational organisation, opportunity, achievement and social class. (Jones 2003:157)


    Education Action Zones

    One of the earliest indications of the enthusiasm of New Labour for privatisation of the education service was the setting up of Education Action Zones (EAZs). These consisted of clusters of schools in deprived areas working together, with government grants and sponsorship from local businesses, and assuming some of the functions of the LEA. Schools in EAZs were allowed to dispense with the National Curriculum and were encouraged to innovate.

    Blunkett announced the first 25 EAZs in June 1998 and the first twelve of these started work in September 1998 with sponsorship from Blackburn Rovers, Cadbury Schweppes, Nissan, Rolls Royce, Kelloggs, British Aerospace, Tate and Lyle, American Express and Brittany Ferries.

    But the government's enthusiasm for EAZs was short-lived. In March 1999 it began the much larger Excellence in Cities (EiC) initiative, a three year programme to improve the education of inner city children. The aim was to drive up standards to match those found in the best schools - now to be designated 'beacon schools'. Unlike the EAZs, EiC operated through the traditional channels of Whitehall, LEA and school.

    73 large EAZs were eventually set up, but in 2001 two reports - by the National Audit Office and the Institute of Public Policy Research - suggested that EAZs had largely failed to generate adequate private sponsorship or deliver on the promises made when they were set up.

    And in June 2003 Ofsted reported that in the 73 EAZs, the number of pupils gaining five A*-C grades at GCSE had gone down in two zones, risen in one, and remained static in the others. Truancy by secondary pupils was 'still disturbingly high'.

    Businesses were less than enthusiastic about putting money into the EAZs. In Newham, for example, construction giants Mowlem and Laing offered to show pupils round their training centre. That went down as a 40,000 contribution to the zone (The Guardian 9 July 2004).

    Contracting out

    The government began introducing private contractors into other bits of the education service. Various 'failing' local authority services were put out to tender (as in Hackney and Islington) and even schools were handed over to private companies. King's Manor School in Guildford was the first.

    In May 2000 school standards minister Estelle Morris (pictured) announced that consultants would be sent into the LEAs in Bradford, Rochdale and Waltham Forest to advise on how improvements could be made after Ofsted uncovered 'serious weaknesses' in their work.

    And the following month she announced the privatisation of Leeds LEA which lost control of its school services following a damning inspection report.

  • For more on the events surrounding King's Manor School see my article King's Manor School - an experiment in privatisation? (1999).

    City academies

    The creeping privatisation of education took a major step forward in March 2000 when David Blunkett announced that the government intended to create a network of 'city academies' - effectively private schools paid for by the state - closely modelled on the 'charter schools' in the US and the Conservatives' city technology colleges.

    City academies were to be public/private partnerships. Businesses, churches and voluntary groups would build and manage them, and they would be outside the control of local authorities. In return for a 2m donation towards the capital costs, sponsors would be allowed to rename the school, control the board of governors and influence the curriculum.

    Blunkett described the city academies programme as 'a radical approach to promote greater diversity and break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities'. (The 'city' was soon dropped to allow for the creation of rural academies).

    But, as Francis Beckett pointed out in The Guardian (9 July 2004):

    the government's big idea for education turns out to be the one the Conservatives invented 19 years ago, and abandoned as a failure shortly afterwards. It is even run by the same man: Cyril Taylor, the businessman appointed by the Conservatives in 1986 to create 30 city technology colleges.

    Curriculum and testing

    National Curriculum

    The New Labour government seemed to have mixed views on the value of the National Curriculum. It announced that only English, maths, science, IT and swimming were now to be statutory requirements for primary schools, though the schools were still required to provide a 'broad curriculum'.

    National Literacy Strategy

    In May 1996 David Blunkett, then shadow education secretary, had appointed a Literacy Task Force, chaired by Professor Michael Barber, to develop, in time for an incoming Labour government, a strategy for substantially raising standards of literacy in primary schools over a five to ten year period. Its report, The Implementation of the National Literacy Strategy, was published in August 1997.

    In January 1998 schools standards minister Stephen Byers announced ambitious literacy targets for every LEA in England and said he would 'expose' complacent primary schools which coasted along with above average test results. The targets were designed to raise the proportion reaching the required standard in English tests from 57 per cent in 1996 to 80 per cent by 2002.

    In 1999 the Moser Report Improving literacy and numeracy: A fresh start set out the National Literacy Strategy and introduced National Learning Targets. This represented a considerable increase in government interference in the curriculum. Whereas the Tories had told teachers what to teach, New Labour now told them how to teach it: the 'Literacy Hour' (and later, the 'Numeracy Hour') spelt out content and teaching methods in enormous detail.

  • Download the Moser Report's Summary and recommendations (pdf text 131kb).

    Special needs

    The 1997 Green Paper Excellence for all children: Meeting Special Educational Needs set out how the government proposed to improve the achievements of children with special educational needs in England over the following five years.

  • Download the Green Paper Excellence for all children: Meeting Special Educational Needs (pdf text 4.3mb).

    Other developments 1997-2001

    1998 Education (Student Loans) Act

    The Education (Student Loans) Act (27 January 1988) transferred student loans to the private sector.

  • Download the Education (Student Loans) Act 1998 (pdf text 88kb).

    1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act

    The Teaching and Higher Education Act (16 July 1988) established the General Teaching Council (GTC) ( Section 1) and a similar body for Wales (8), allowed the secretary of state to make regulations concerning the induction period for teachers (19), extended the duties of HM Chief Inspector to include teacher training and in-service courses (20), and provided for new rules relating to student maintenance grants and loans (22).

  • Download the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 (pdf text 836kb).

    2000 Learning and Skills Act

    The Learning and Skills Act (28 July 2000) established the Learning and Skills Council for England (Section 1) and the National Council for Education and Training for Wales (30). It set up the Adult Learning Inspectorate (52) and extended the powers of HM Chief Inspector to include further education for 16-19 year olds (60). It allowed city technology colleges to be renamed city academies (130) and made other provisions about education and training.

  • Download the Learning and Skills Act 2000 (pdf text 484kb).

    Chris Woodhead

    Chief inspector and head of Ofsted Chris Woodhead resigned in November 2000 and went off to write tirades against New Labour education policies for the Daily Telegraph. Some saw his departure as 'the final lifting of a deadweight on morale and hope' (Riddell 2000). He was replaced in December 2000 by Mike Tomlinson.

    Green Paper: Schools - building on success

    One of David Blunkett's last acts as Secretary of State for Education was the publication of the green paper Schools - building on success, in which he attempted to rewrite the history of the comprehensive school.

  • Download the green paper Schools - building on success (pdf text 1.4mb).

    2001-2005 Diversity and faith

    With the Tories still in meltdown mode, New Labour won another landslide victory in the general election in June 2001. A Commons majority of 166 - only slightly less than in 1997 - meant that Tony Blair could push further his right-wing educational agenda without worrying too much about the views of his left-wing backbenchers.

    The two main themes of his first term - an increase in selection under the guise of specialisation, and the promotion of privatisation - would be taken further in his second term and would be joined by a third theme - a determination to increase the involvement of the churches and other religious groups in educational provision.

    Following the election, Estelle Morris took over from David Blunkett as Secretary of State and the DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) was renamed the DfES (Department for Education and Skills).

    2001 White Paper Schools - achieving success

    In September 2001 the white paper Schools - achieving success proposed:

  • Download the white paper Schools - achieving success (pdf text 1.5mb).

    2002 Education Act

    These proposals formed the basis of the Education Act 2002 (24 July 2002).

  • Download the Education Act 2002 (pdf text 6.4mb).

    Faith schools

    7,000 of England's 25,000 state schools were already faith schools - 589 secondary and 6,384 primary. But the government was determined to press ahead and create even more such schools. Among forty projects already being planned were a 12 million Islamic secondary school for girls in Birmingham, an evangelical Christian school in Leeds and a new Jewish school in London. The Salvation Army and the Seventh Day Adventists said they were evaluating 'opportunities created by the white paper'.

    There was widespread public concern about the government's plans for more faith schools. A YouGov/Observer poll of nearly 6,000 people found that 80 per cent were against the proposal and only 11 per cent in favour (The Observer 11 November 2001).

    The issue became even more controversial in the spring of 2002 when it was revealed that at least two state funded religious schools in England were teaching their students 'creationism' as science. Questioned in the House of Commons about the use of taxpayers' money to fund such teaching, Tony Blair avoided answering the question and claimed that 'a more diverse school system ... will deliver better results for our children'.

    Concerns about the place of faith in education continued throughout Blair's second term. In January 2005 chief inspector David Bell told a meeting of the Hansard Society that the growth of Islamic schools posed a challenge to the coherence of British society. Senior Muslims called his remarks 'irresponsible' and 'derogatory' (The Guardian 18 January 2005).

    But Bell was supported by Commission for Racial Equality chair Trevor Phillips. 'We can choose ... whether we want to bring our diversity together in a single rainbow or whether we allow our differences to fester into separate cultures and separate communities', he said (The Guardian 19 January 2005).

    Schools minister Stephen Twigg urged faith schools to 'promote understanding' between different religions (The Guardian 18 February 2005).

  • For more on faith schools and the row over creationism see my articles: Glass in their Snowballs: the faith schools debate (2001); Creationism: bad science, bad religion, bad education (2002); Never Mind the Evidence: Blair's obsession with faith schools (2007).

    Selection - the end of the comprehensive?

    Meanwhile, New Labour's assault on comprehensive education continued.

    In December 2001 school standards minister Stephen Timms announced a 500,000 scheme for partnerships between 28 grammar schools and nearby secondary moderns and comprehensives. It was the first time a Labour government had given extra money to grammar schools as a group.

    The scheme met with widespread criticism. Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis responded 'The last nail has been driven into the coffin of the comprehensive system. A Labour government that promised to end selection has now indicated a return to wholesale selection by ability. This is a sad day for those who believe in the principle of comprehensive education'. And Secondary Heads Association general secretary John Dunford said 'It is a bizarre use of public money to create a more diverse system and then have to provide additional funding for the diverse parts of the system to collaborate' (The Guardian 8 December 2001).

    But the government's campaign against the comprehensive school was relentless. Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell denigrated them as 'bog standard comprehensives' and in June 2002 Estelle Morris announced that the days of the 'one size fits all' comprehensive were over. The number of specialist schools would increase to 1,000 in 2003 and to at least 1,500 by 2005, she said. They would be allowed to select up to ten per cent of their pupils by aptitude.

    Twisting the meaning of words to a degree that was extraordinary - even for a New Labour minister - Morris wrote:

    I believe in the comprehensive ideal. We have to encourage every single one of our secondary schools to develop their own sense of mission and play to their strengths. That's why we will invest in specialist schools and training schools, beacon schools and city academies, each school choosing its own identity within the comprehensive family. (Morris 2002)
    In September 2002 the first three city academies were opened. Head teachers criticised them as divisive.

    Estelle Morris resigned in October 2002. Charles Clarke (pictured) was appointed education secretary and immediately announced that he would speed up the creation of specialist schools.

    But Clarke appeared to be somewhat shaken at the results of research into the effects of selection undertaken by Professor David Jesson of York University.

    Jesson compared the results of two local education authorities with similar profiles, one with a comprehensive system and one with a selective system. His research showed that in the comprehensive authority 52 per cent of pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs. In the authority with grammar schools the figure was 48 per cent (The Guardian 15 October 2002).

    In December 2002 Clarke told MPs that he wanted local authorities to take a fresh look at the evidence that selective schools 'inhibited' educational opportunities for a wide range of young people (The Guardian 12 December 2002).

    And in January 2003 he criticised Kent for its poor results. (Kent was - and still is - selective).

    After that, however, he said nothing more on the issue, leading some to suspect that he had been told (by Blair and/or Adonis presumably) to keep quiet about it.

    But the arguments over selection wouldn't go away.

    In February 2003 a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research said parental choice was an 'illusion' in London and it urged that control over admissions - including those to grammar schools, church schools and foundation schools - should be handed back to local authorities.

    Writing in The Guardian, Fiona Millar, a former adviser to Tony Blair's wife, argued that the government's policy on admissions to secondary education was 'neither coherent nor fair'. She criticised the way ministers congratulated 'successful' schools on their results:

    These schools are often wholly or partially selective by ability, or in some cases city technology colleges, former grant maintained or church schools, which are also able to set their own admissions and use opaque "banding" tests or interviews to engineer more favourable intakes for themselves. (Millar 2003)
    In May 2003 the Labour-dominated House of Commons Education Select Committee criticised the government for spending 400m on specialist schools without any real evidence that the policy was working and said there was 'a serious mismatch' between government rhetoric and reality over its claim that specialist schools brought more choice and diversity for parents. The committee also disapproved of allowing specialist schools to select up to ten per cent of their students on the basis of aptitude, which ministers repeatedly insisted was different from ability. 'We are not satisfied that any meaningful distinction between aptitude and ability has been made and we found no justification for any reliance on the distinction between them', the committee said.

    But none of this prevented the government from pursuing its policy of promoting a diversity of different types of school.

    In September 2003 nine more academies opened, bringing the total to twelve. Tony Blair opened the first purpose-built new academy - the Business Academy Bexley - a 31m publicly-funded independent school which replaced a former 'failing' school in Thamesmead, south-east London.

    The following month a report by Ofsted and the Audit Commission School place planning: The influence of school place planning on school standards and social inclusion warned the government that its policy of allowing parents to choose their child's school was polarising the education system and trapping poor children in the worst schools. Chief inspector David Bell said 'Local education authorities must take action to prevent unpopular schools from sinking further, fully aligning their strategies for overall school place provision with their strategies for individual school improvement. The expansion of popular schools is no solution by itself'.

  • Download School place planning (pdf text 98kb).

    In November 2003 Blair gave a keynote speech on education to launch the next phase of the London Challenge which aimed to improve educational opportunities for inner-city pupils. He announced that five central London boroughs - Islington, Hackney, Haringey, Southwark and Lambeth - had all been identified as needing extra help and monitoring and had agreed improvement plans with the DfES. New academies were planned in Islington, Hackney and Lambeth.

    Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners

    The government's five year plan, published in July 2004, formed the basis for its next education white paper.

    The plan 'sounded the death knell of the comprehensive system' (The Guardian 9 July 2004). It proposed:

    • allowing all schools to become specialist schools;
    • new 'independent specialist' schools;
    • a massive expansion of the controversial academy programme;
    • schools would be funded directly from Whitehall, rather than through LEAs. (Though in evidence to the Commons education committee, Charles Clarke admitted it was difficult to see how a system of funding 26,000 schools directly from Whitehall could be made to work);
    • all schools except those deemed to be 'failing' would be encouraged to become 'foundation schools', owning their own land and buildings, managing their assets, employing their own staff and determining the membership of their governing bodies;
    • giving head teachers the power to set budget, pay and pupil selection under a national framework;
    • successful schools - including the remaining 164 grammar schools - would be able to apply to expand the number of places they offered;
    • central to all this would be new partnerships with parents, employers, volunteers and voluntary organisations.
  • Download the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners (pdf text 1.2mb).

    Launching the plan, Clarke said choice was the key to reform. 'The idea that you go back to the state of affairs where you say "you go to that school, son" is for the birds', he said.

    In amongst all the talk of modernisation there were some extraordinarily traditional ideas, designed to stop middle-class parents taking their children out of the state sector: school uniforms, rigorous discipline, even the 'house system' popular in independent schools (The Guardian 9 July 2004).

    Teacher unions and grassroots Labour supporters were appalled at the proposals and demanded a manifesto pledge to scrap grammar schools and end selection by aptitude (The Observer 11 July 2004). They were, of course, ignored.

    NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott warned that 'parents will be faced with a confused and confusing array of schools rather than choice and diversity. Parents will not have the power to choose. Instead, that power will lie in the hands of the governing body and the head teacher - leading to selection by stealth and increased frustration and disappointment for parents' (The Guardian 8 July 2004).

    Scotland's version of the five year plan was published in October 2004. Scottish ministers said the 12 point programme would be 'the biggest reform in a generation' for Scottish schools, with a new curriculum for three to 18 year olds, an overhaul of the inspection regime and a new system of monitoring achievement across the country (The Guardian 1 November 2004).

    The academies programme

    Five more academies opened in September 2004, bringing the total to 17. The five year plan indicated that the government intended to have 200 academies open by 2010, despite the fact that no evaluation had been made of their cost-effectiveness. Charles Clarke himself admitted that academies were expensive and that there was no evidence that they were improving performance.

    Concerns about the programme centred around the following issues:

    • escalating costs;
    • poor performance;
    • replacement of schools that were not 'failing';
    • imposition of academies where parents didn't want them;
    • the involvement of faith groups;
    • selection by stealth;
    • pupil exclusions;
    • lack of LEA control and support;
    • dubious use of public funds;
    • a two-tier education system.
    Meanwhile, the 'charter schools' in the US, on which the academies had been modelled, were having their own problems. In August 2004 the American Federal Education Department reported that the performance of charter schools was worse than that of publicly funded schools, and that they usually achieved poorer results than other schools serving similarly disadvantaged communities. Teachers in the UK called on the British government to heed the warning (The Guardian 17 August 2004).

    With 17 academies open and 42 planned, the government was, by the end of 2004, nearly a third of the way to its target of 200.

    But the problems continued. In March 2005 league tables based on test results for 14 year olds in English, maths and science, showed that nine of the 11 academies came in the bottom 200 schools in England.

    The Commons education select committee complained that 'it is difficult to detect a coherent overarching strategy for the government's proposals for education' and urged that the projected 5bn budget for setting up 200 academies be withheld until they were proved to be cost-effective (The Guardian 17 March 2005).

    Curriculum and testing

    National Literacy Strategy

    Increasing concerns were expressed about the effectiveness of the National Literacy Strategy. Ministers announced that it would be reviewed, since it had failed to deliver any improvement in reading and writing scores in three consecutive years (The Guardian 9 January 2003).

    Many - including some eminent writers - criticised the sterile nature of much of the strategy. In The Guardian award-winning author Philip Pullman wrote of a task recently undertaken by 200,000 eleven year olds in their Key Stage 2 tests:

    They were confronted with four crudely drawn pictures of a boy standing in a queue to buy a toy, and they then had to write a story about them, taking exactly 45 minutes. It was a task of stupefying worthlessness and futility, something no one who was serious about the art of storytelling could regard with anything other than contempt. (Pullman 2003)
    Bowing to pressure from the teacher unions and others, Charles Clarke announced that primary school tests and targets would be streamlined. The tests for seven year olds would be less formal and would form part of a wider teacher-led assessment (The Guardian 20 May 2003).

    In November 2003 the QCA published materials designed to help teachers develop their pupils' speaking and listening skills.

    In December 2004 Ofsted published Reading for Purpose and Pleasure - an evaluation of reading in primary schools, which said that continued improvement in reading standards was being marred by an increasing gulf between schools which successfully tackled weaknesses in reading and those that did not (The Guardian 15 December 2004).

    Foreign languages

    In 2002 the government published its strategy for the teaching of foreign languages: Languages for All: languages for life.

    But in September 2004 new arrangements for the Key Stage 4 (post 14) curriculum - to allow schools to develop a more personalised and flexible programme for pupils - led to a dramatic reduction in the number of pupils learning a foreign language.

    Tests, targets and league tables

    In February 2004 chief inspector David Bell warned the government that its enforced focus on maths and English in primary schools was creating a 'two-tier curriculum', with other subjects - particularly geography, history and religious education - being neglected. NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy commented 'history, geography and the arts are suffering because of the government's obsession with tests, targets and tables' (The Guardian 5 February 2004).

    And a government-commissioned report by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson warned that exam overload was harming pupils (The Observer 15 February 2004).

    The obsession with tests, targets and tables applied only to England: Scotland had already abandoned tests in favour of teacher assessment and Wales had abolished tests for seven year olds and school league tables in 2001. Now, Welsh education minister Jane Davidson announced that the tests for 11 and 14 year olds were to be scrapped and replaced with a skills test for 10 year olds, supported by teacher assessments (The Guardian 14 July 2004).

    Schools in England, however, would have to go on testing children regularly because the government believed such tests were necessary to drive up standards. Teachers had to share part of the blame. In December 2003 the NUT had balloted its members on a boycott of the tests for 7 and 11 year olds: the proposal was lost because only 34 per cent of the membership had bothered to vote.

    In February 2005 David Bell warned that more than ten per cent of state schools in England were failing to show 'sufficient progress' in raising standards and that only one in three secondary schools had acceptable standards of behaviour (The Guardian 3 February 2005).

    14-19 curriculum

    In 2002 Estelle Morris published the green paper 14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards (pdf text 1.8mb), which set out her proposals for the 14-19 curriculum.

    A year later her successor Charles Clarke published another consultation document. 14-19: opportunity and excellence (pdf text 4.6mb) set out his proposals, taking into account responses to the 2002 green paper.

    In May 2004 Clarke announced an overhaul of the modern apprenticeships programme. There would be apprenticeships for 14 to 16 year olds, with pupils spending up to two days a week in the workplace learning a trade. He rejected criticisms that this amounted to a reintroduction of selection and insisted that the new scheme would attract motivated and able pupils (The Guardian 11 May 2004).

    In October 2004 the working group chaired by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson published its report 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform (pdf text 920kb).

    Tomlinson identified the following problems:

    • the UK's poor record on keeping teenagers at school;
    • low skill levels in numeracy, literacy and ICT;
    • the poor status of vocational courses and qualifications;
    • the lack of challenges for bright students;
    • the difficulty of differentiating between thousands of pupils with A grade A Levels;
    • exam overload; and
    • the complexity and lack of transparency in the web of academic and vocational qualifications.
    The report recommended:
    • replacing GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications with a new single modular diploma at four levels: entry (equivalent to pre-GCSEs), foundation (GCSEs at grade D-G), intermediate (GCSE A*-C) and advanced (A Level);
    • introducing a compulsory 'core' consisting of 'functional' subjects (maths, ICT and communication skills) and 'wider activities' (work experience, paid jobs, voluntary work and family responsibilities);
    • cutting the number of exams;
    • replacing coursework with a single extended project;
    • enabling students to progress at their own rate, paving the way for mixed-aged classes;
    • stretching the most able students with tougher additional A Level papers; and
    • providing 'graduates' of the diploma with a transcript of their achievements which would be available to employers and universities online.
    The committee said its proposals would take at least a decade to implement fully, though some elements could be introduced much sooner.

    Tomlinson's recommendations were backed by heads, by the chief inspector of schools and by the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Barry Sheerman, chair of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, wrote (in The Guardian 21 February 2005) that the government's decision would be 'the most significant for education' during Tony Blair's premiership.

    In the event, the government rejected most of Tomlinson's recommendations and in its White Paper 14-19 Education and Skills (pdf text 524kb) (February 2005) opted to introduce a diploma for vocational courses but to keep the existing 'gold standard' GCSE and A Level exams.

    The newly-appointed education secretary, Ruth Kelly (pictured), told the Commons 'there are some who argue that to transform opportunities for our children, we should scrap the current GCSEs and A Levels. I do not agree. We won't transform opportunities by abolishing what is good.'

    The white paper proposed:

    • retaining GCSEs and A Levels;
    • a new general diploma for those gaining five GCSE grades A*-C including English and maths;
    • 14 vocational diplomas;
    • GCSE maths to be made harder;
    • the volume of coursework to be cut for GCSEs; and
    • A Levels to include options to stretch the brightest youngsters.
    There was widespread dismay at the proposals. Mike Tomlinson, supported by David Bell, warned that they would reinforce the traditional snobbery towards work-related education (The Guardian 24 February 2005). Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours, of the London Institute of Education, wrote that 'the white paper is ... fundamentally elitist. It emphasises "stretch" and "acceleration" while neglecting inclusion' (Hodgson and Spours 2005).

    Many thought they could detect the hand of Andrew Adonis and the Number 10 Policy Unit behind the white paper. When Kelly appeared before the Commons education select committee to defend the white paper, she was supported by Tory MPs and attacked by Labour members.

    2004 Children Act

    In 2003, the government published its green paper Every Child Matters, following the death of Victoria Climbié, the young girl who was horrifically abused, tortured and eventually killed by her great aunt and the man with whom they lived.

    In November 2004 The Children Act established a Children's Commissioner to champion the views and interests of children and young people, and required local authorities to make arrangements to promote co-operation between agencies and other appropriate bodies (such as voluntary and community organisations) in order to improve children's well-being.

    To go with the Act, the government published Every Child Matters: change for children (December 2004) which set out the radical changes needed across the whole system of children's services, including schools.

  • Download the Children Act 2004 (pdf text 280kb).

    Other developments 2001-2005


    In July 2003 the government abandoned a 59m behaviour management training programme for newly qualified teachers because it needed the money to avoid teacher redundancies caused by a shortfall in school budgets (The Independent 29 July 2003).

    But concerns continued to be expressed - by David Bell among others - that too many children were starting school lacking even the most basic social and communication skills. As a result, in September 2003 the minister for young people Ivan Lewis announced a 5m pilot programme in 3,500 primary schools to tackle bullying and disruptive behaviour in children as young as five (The Guardian 4 September 2003).

    Teachers' pay and conditions

    In August 2002 the government announced that teachers' pay would, for the first time since the 'payment by results' scheme in the nineteenth century, be linked to test results or pupils' behaviour (The Guardian 2 August 2002).

    'Workforce remodelling' began in September 2003. This government initiative aimed to reduce teachers' workload by employing more unqualified classroom assistants. All the teacher unions co-operated except the NUT, which warned that it would result in larger classes and teaching by unqualified staff. Charles Clarke was so angry that he refused to attend NUT conferences and banned DfES staff from negotiating with NUT representatives.

    Eighteen months later two other unions - ATL and NASUWT - expressed anger over the workload agreement. They said heads were refusing to guarantee teachers time for planning and assessment (The Guardian 22, 30 March 2005).

    Schools minister Stephen Twigg minister was booed and jeered by head teachers when he told them that no new money would be offered to cover the cost of giving teachers time for marking and preparation (The Guardian 2 May 2005).

    2004 Higher Education Act

    In January 2003 the government published its White Paper The future of higher education (pdf text 627kb) which proposed allowing universities to charge variable top-up fees. This was highly controversial but the government just managed to get the 2004 Higher Education Act (1 July 2004) through the Commons.

  • Download the Higher Education Act 2004 (pdf text 196kb).

    Building Schools for the Future

    In February 2004 the government announced Building Schools for the Future (BSF), a massive school rebuilding programme. More than 5bn would be spent rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England within 15 years, and a further 3bn would be spent on capital programmes mainly benefiting primary schools. The programme would be financed partly from public funds and partly using the controversial private finance initiative (PFI).

    2005 Education Act

    The 2005 Education Act (7 April 2005) was wide-ranging but relatively uncontroversial.

    Its provisions related to the inspection of schools, child minding, day care, nursery education and careers services, the training of school staff and 'other persons who teach', the supply of personal information 'for purposes related to education' and about the attendance of children at educational provision outside schools.

  • Download the Education Act 2005 (pdf text 648kb).

    2005-2007 Third term extremism

    New Labour won a historic third term in office at the general election in May 2005, though with a much reduced majority in the Commons. For the first time ever in a British election, the winning party gained fewer votes than the number of people who didn't vote at all. Blair berated the public for its apathy.

    But it wasn't apathy that kept people away from the polling booths. It was a combination of disgust at Blair's decision to support Bush's Iraq war and the blatant lies which had preceded it; lack of enthusiasm for a Tory opposition which had run a distasteful campaign focused on immigration; and the fact that, in terms of policies, there was little to choose between Blair and the Conservatives.

    There was a public outcry when Blair proposed making Andrew Adonis a minister. He had no ministerial experience, had never been elected, and was widely seen as one of 'Tony's cronies'. Blair ignored the concerns and gave Adonis a life peerage and the post of junior education minister.

    Blair's overall aim in his last term as prime minister was that

    the state should no longer be primarily a direct provider of services, but instead become a regulator and commissioner of services purchased from public, private and voluntary sectors. In one shape or other, markets are being introduced into the public sector - "contestability", in the jargon - in which providers compete not necessarily over price, but quality. (Wintour 2005)

    2006 Education and Inspections Act

    The 2006 Act was based on the 2005 white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All which clearly demonstrated that the longer a party remains in power, the more extreme its policies become.

    It proposed that:

    • all primary and secondary schools would be encouraged to become independent state schools ('trust schools') backed by private sponsors - businesses, charities, faith groups, universities or parent and community organisations. Like the academies, they would determine their own curriculum and ethos, would appoint the governing body, own their own assets, employ their own staff and set their own admissions policy. They would be required to have parents' councils which would have a say in the day to day running of the school and on issues such as school meals, uniform and discipline;
    • schools would be required to 'take note of' guidelines on admissions and there would be a pupil banding scheme to ensure a mix of abilities;
    • a school deemed to be failing would be given a year to improve before a 'competition for new providers' was held. It would then be reopened as an academy or a trust school with a private sponsor;
    • parents would be given the right to set up new schools, to close 'failing' ones and to sack head teachers;
    • good schools would be encouraged to expand or link up with neighbouring schools in federations, and successful schools would be able to apply for new responsibilities such as teacher training;
    • local education authorities would lose most of their powers and would become 'parents' champions' rather than education providers;
    • teachers would be given the legal right to discipline pupils;
    • parenting contracts and orders would be extended and parents who failed to fulfil their contractual duties would face fines;
    • schools would be encouraged to tailor lessons to individual pupils and there would be more support for struggling pupils; and
    • pupils from low income families would get subsidised transport to any of the nearest three schools within a six-mile radius.
  • Download the white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All (pdf text 964kb).

    The white paper was mired in controversy right from the start. Adonis's fingerprints were all over it. 'The first half - promoting private intervention, looking to all but abolish local authority involvement in state schools - reads as almost unadulterated Adonis', commented Will Woodward in The Guardian (Woodward 2005).

    This caused problems for education secretary Ruth Kelly, who warned that the proposal to create trust schools was ill-thought through. She was overruled by Adonis and Blair and was warned by colleagues that if she didn't go along with them her ministerial career would be a short one (Daily Mail 17 October 2005; The Observer 23 October 2005).

    But it wasn't only Kelly who was unhappy with Blair's proposals. Teachers and Labour MPs were furious and even cabinet members (including Gordon Brown and John Prescott) were worried. Former education secretary Estelle Morris described the white paper as 'one of the most contradictory documents ever produced by government' (The Guardian 22 November 2005).

    More than a hundred Labour MPs threatened to rebel. Their main concern centred, once again, around the issue of selection. Blair pointed out that selection on grounds of ability had been illegal in new schools since 1998, but his critics argued that this still left a large - and probably increasing - role for covert selection. The white paper's proposal to take many more schools out of local authority control and give them greater autonomy in determining their selection procedures would make the situation worse, and the proposed code of admissions did not have statutory force.

    In mid December, a group of 58 Labour backbenchers - including nine former ministers - published an alternative white paper. They said the plans for trust schools were likely to 'strengthen rather than break' the link between being poor and underachieving in education (The Guardian 15 December 2005).

    Kelly responded that trust schools were not 'a new category of school' and would be no more independent from local authorities than existing foundation schools (The Guardian 20 December 2005). This was disingenuous, to say the least, and she was given an extremely hostile reception by local government officials at the North of England education conference in Newcastle (The Guardian 7 January 2006).

    By mid January, more than half of Labour backbenchers had signed up to the alternative white paper (The Guardian 18 January 2006). Kelly made matters worse by telling them they 'didn't understand' the government's plans (The Guardian 21 January 2006).

    Relations deteriorated even further when it was revealed that Kelly had suppressed a crucial report warning that her plans would widen the educational gulf between rich and poor children (The Observer 22 January 2006). And the Sutton Trust published new research showing that top-performing comprehensives which controlled their own admissions were already excluding poorer pupils (The Guardian 24 January 2006).

    As the first reading of the education bill drew nearer, attempts were made to find compromises, especially on the issues of admissions and the role of local authorities. Deputy prime minister John Prescott caved in. 'My ideas have developed about how we can take forward the traditional values of comprehensive education in a modern setting', he said (The Guardian 4 February 2006).

    Having made a number of concessions, Blair refused any further changes to his bill (The Guardian 7, 9 February 2006) and Kelly insisted she would retain her right to prevent local authorities opening new comprehensive schools (The Guardian 27 February 2006).

    Many backbenchers deeply disapproved of the mass handover of publicly owned, democratically accountable schools to unelected private bodies. The bill, they argued, represented 'the first irreversible step towards the privatisation of the state schools system' (Matthew Taylor The Guardian 20 February 2006).

    The first reading of the Education and Inspections Bill took place on 15 March 2006. As expected, Blair was forced to rely on Conservative MPs to get it through. 52 Labour MPs voted against and a handful abstained (The Guardian 16 March 2006).

    During the third reading, in May 2006, 67 backbenchers voted for a rebel amendment which would have required schools to hold a parents' ballot before they became independent trusts (The Guardian 24 May 2006). But with Tory support, Blair got his bill, by 422 to 98 votes. It was the largest rebellion ever suffered by a Labour government at third reading (The Guardian 25 May 2006).

    The main provisions of the Education and Inspections Act (8 November 2006) were:

    • all schools could become trust schools by forming links with external partners who would be able to appoint the majority of the governors, own their own assets, employ their own staff, set their admission arrangements and be able to apply for additional flexibilities;
    • local authorities would be required to promote choice, diversity, high standards and the fulfilment of potential for every child, respond to parental concerns about the quality of local schools, act as decision-maker on school organisation matters, ensure that young people have a range of exciting things to do in their spare time, appoint School Improvement Partners for maintained schools, and provide positive activities for young people; and
    • the admissions framework would reaffirm the ban on new selection by ability, place a ban on interviewing, strengthen the status of the Code on School Admissions, bringing in new powers for admissions forums, and extend the duty on local authorities to provide free transport for the most disadvantaged families.
    In addition, the Act:
    • required governing bodies to promote well-being and community cohesion, and to take the Children and Young People's Plan into consideration;
    • created a power for staff to discipline pupils;
    • extended the scope of parenting orders and contracts;
    • improved provision for excluded pupils;
    • put in place a new entitlement to specialised diplomas for young people;
    • set new nutritional standards for food and drink served in maintained schools;
    • merged several existing inspectorates to form an enlarged Ofsted, covering the full range of services for children and young people, as well as life-long learning; and
    • replaced references to 'local education authorities' with 'local authorities' in all legislation (Section 162).

  • Download the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (pdf text 1.0mb).

    The academies programme

    Meanwhile, the government was pushing ahead with its academies programme, despite continuing problems and persistent criticisms.

    Among the problems:

    • two sponsors pulled out of major projects (The Guardian 14, 22 June 2005);
    • GCSE results published in January 2006 showed that half the academies were among the worst-performing schools in England (The Guardian 19 January 2006);
    • parents campaigned against an academy planned to replace Hurworth School in Blair's Sedgefield constituency (The Guardian 7 March 2006);
    • it was revealed that 23 of the 27 academies were still waiting to receive the money their sponsors had promised (The Guardian 3 May 2006);
    • a study at Edinburgh University found that the academies had failed to improve exam results compared with the comprehensives they had replaced (The Guardian 22 May 2006);
    • parents complained about Trinity Academy at Thorne, near Doncaster (The Guardian 30 May 2006); and
    • parents mounted legal challenges against the imposition of academies in Islington, Merton and Sheppey (The Guardian 13 June 2006).
    Criticisms came from:
    • PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who reported that academies faced a number of 'significant problems' including widespread bullying and inappropriate buildings (The Guardian 16 June 2005);
    • local education authorities, who called the academies programme a 'hugely expensive' use of taxpayers' money and an unproven way of transforming failing schools (The Guardian 30 June 2005);
    • Labour MPs, who were unhappy about the involvement of religious organisations (The Observer 7 August 2005); and
    • head teachers, who were almost unanimous in their opposition to plans for more academies (The Guardian 13 September 2005).
    In addition, Ofsted criticised:
    • the West London Academy in Northolt for its unsatisfactory curriculum and leadership, poor pupil behaviour and the 'extremely high' rate of exclusions (The Guardian 4 August 2005);
    • the Bexley Business Academy in Kent as 'inadequate' (The Guardian 21 January 2006);
    • the 26m academy at Peckham as having 'significant weaknesses' (The Guardian 23 February 2006); and
    • the Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough for its low attendance rates, poor teaching, inappropriate buildings and 'exceptionally low' results (The Guardian 20 March 2006).
    And in February 2007 the National Audit Office reported that academies achieved poor GCSE results in English and maths, fell well below the national average in performance at A Level, failed to collaborate with other local schools and their communities, and had cost millions of pounds more than anticipated (The Guardian 23 February 2007).

    Yet still Blair was determined to pursue the controversial policy - indeed, he now said he wanted to see 400 academies across the country. And in his first public pronouncement on the subject, Gordon Brown praised the 'tremendous success of the academy movement' (The Guardian 20 March 2007).

  • For a fuller account of the history of the academies programme, see my article Axes to Grind: the first five years of Blair's academies (2007).

    Faith schools

    The 2005 white paper's proposal to allow religious organisations to control more schools was widely criticised. A Guardian/ICM poll revealed that two thirds of the public agreed with the statement that 'the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind' (The Guardian 23 August 2005).

    There was mounting concern about the teaching of creationism as science in some of the academies. Organisations representing scientists in 67 countries - including the UK's Royal Society - warned that scientific evidence about the origins of life was being 'concealed, denied, or confused' by schools teaching creationism. It urged parents as well as teachers to provide children with the facts about the origins and evolution of life on Earth (The Guardian 22 June 2006).

    Faced with the growing tide of hostility to religious schools, the new education secretary Alan Johnson (pictured) announced that the government would require new faith schools to admit up to a quarter of their pupils from families of other faiths or none. The Roman Catholic Church and the Board of Deputies of British Jews expressed outright opposition and the suggestion was dropped (The Guardian 17 October 2006).

    Schools minister Andrew Adonis proposed that faith schools should be allowed to favour members of their own religion when appointing support staff. The GMB union and the National Secular Society said the change would extend discrimination (The Guardian 24 October 2006).


    Parents' leaders called for an end to selective education after exam results showed that most of the worst performing schools were in the shire counties which still had grammar schools (The Independent 20 January 2007).

    Conservative leader David Cameron pledged there would be 'no return to the eleven plus' or to grammar schools under a Conservative government (The Guardian 10 January 2006). Less than a fortnight later a poll showed that three quarters of his party members disapproved of his statement (The Observer 22 January 2006).

    Cameron and his shadow education secretary David Willetts ran into further trouble over their grammar schools policy in May. Cameron said 'a pointless debate about creating a few grammar schools is not going to get us anywhere', and promised instead to concentrate on raising standards and improving discipline in all England's 24,000 state schools. Willetts argued that 'academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it'. Tory MPs thought otherwise and the new policy was attacked by a dozen backbenchers at a meeting of the 1922 Committee (The Guardian 17 May 2007).

    While Blair steadfastly defended the existence of England's remaining 164 grammar schools, in Northern Ireland plans were announced to abolish selection and replace the eleven plus with a new 'pupil profile' drawn up throughout a child's primary education and used as a basis for teachers to advise parents which secondary school their child should attend. After 2008, all pupils between 11 and 14 would get a comprehensive education (The Guardian 7 February 2006).

    New research by York University's David Jesson showed that children who did not pass the eleven plus were condemned to lower standards of education than if they went to a comprehensive school in a non-selective area (The Observer 19 February 2006).

    Brighton's Labour-controlled council caused consternation when it announced it would be allocating some places at secondary schools by lottery. Middle class parents fought a bitter war involving death threats, espionage and allegations of gerrymandering over whose children had the right to go to the best schools in the city. Critics warned that Brighton's most deprived children had been left voiceless and marginalised (The Guardian 1 March 2007).

    Curriculum and testing


    In November 2005 an NFER report concluded that the 386m Excellence in Cities scheme had failed to raise rates of achievement at Key Stage 3 or at GCSE because pupils were entering secondary schools without 'the appropriate skills and attitudes' (The Guardian 25 November 2005).

    At the end of November 2005 Ruth Kelly announced that primary schools would be forced to teach reading by 'synthetic phonics', a method which had first achieved prominence in 1998, when a study showed improved reading abilities in Clackmannanshire four year olds. The proposal was universally condemned by experts in the teaching of reading, who pointed out that the study had been tiny and flawed. Kelly ignored them all.

    In December 2006 the report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group was published. Chaired by Christine Gilbert (who went on to become head of Ofsted), 2020 Vision set out the Review Group's recommendations for schooling in the future. The report argued that pupils should have more choice in what they studied, should mark their own work and grade their teachers' performance. Traditional grades should be replaced by feedback, and pupils should be entered for exams as soon as they were ready, rather than waiting until they reached a certain age. Teachers gave the report a guarded welcome (The Guardian 4 January 2007).

  • Download 2020 Vision (pdf text 221kb).

    The new arrangements for the Key Stage 4 (post 14) curriculum, which had been introduced in 2004, had led to a dramatic fall in the number of children learning foreign languages. In February 2007, therefore, ministers announced a shake-up of foreign language teaching. Schools would now be allowed to teach Mandarin and Urdu rather than the more traditional French or German (The Observer 4 February 2007).

    The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) published new plans for Key Stage 3 (11 to 14 year olds). The proposals were designed to give schools greater flexibility in deciding what to teach and make it easier to allow children of different abilities to progress at their own speeds. There would be a greater focus on 'life skills' (The Guardian 5, 6 February 2007).

    In April 2007 the QCA began consulting on a new secondary curriculum scheduled for introduction in September 2008. The move was part of a major overhaul of teaching at Key Stages 3 and 4. QCA chief executive Dr Ken Boston said the aim was to ensure that all pupils were 'actively and imaginatively engaged in their learning' (The Guardian 3 April 2007).

    Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, now campaigning to become Labour leader and prime minister, announced a review of the Numeracy Strategy and promised to ensure that by 2010 more than 300,000 pupils would benefit from one-to-one tuition in maths (The Guardian 15 May 2007).

    An Ofsted report, Making Sense of Religion, found that the teaching of Christianity was 'often much less rigorous and more fragmented' than units of work on other faiths and that GCSE syllabuses paid little attention to issues related to religion's role and significance in contemporary Britain. It argued that a national curriculum for religious education in English schools might be needed to guarantee standards and help improve community cohesion (The Guardian 18 June 2007).

    A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation challenged the common perception that African-Caribbean, black or Bangladeshi pupils achieved lower standards at school than white working-class pupils. The report called for reform of school league tables, especially at GCSE level, which it said discouraged many schools from admitting pupils who might lower their scores. London School of Economics professor Robert Cassen, the report's lead author, said:

    Disadvantaged children are behind educationally before they enter school and need more pre-school help. Improvements could be made to identify and support children who are late in learning to read and write at primary school, and to address their problems before they become entrenched. It is expensive - but even more expensive not to do it. (The Guardian 22 June 2007)
    Tests and exams

    QCA chief executive Ken Boston admitted that pupils faced a huge and excessive exam load which had distorted the balance of what was taught in schools. He said he was determined to reduce the number of tests that pupils in England and Wales were forced to sit (The Observer 26 March 2006).

    Schools minister Jim Knight announced that GCSE exams in English and maths were to be made harder as part of a major government drive to raise basic educational skills (The Observer 20 August 2006) and education secretary Alan Johnson said that primary school maths lessons would focus more on mental arithmetic. Children would be expected to master their multiplication tables by the age of eight (The Guardian 8 September 2006).

    In January 2007 Johnson announced that pupils in England would face more but shorter national tests if pilot schemes in ten local authorities were successful. National targets and league tables would remain. They were 'non-negotiable', he said (The Guardian 9 January 2007).

    The General Teaching Council for England (GTC) called for all national school tests for 7, 11 and 14 year olds to be scrapped. It pointed out that children in England took around 70 different tests before the age of 16, making them the most tested in the world. GTC chief executive Keith Bartley said:

    Of course there still needs to be a way of testing pupils when their standard education comes to a close ... But placing added stress on pupils, teachers and parents on a regular basis before that time is not creating the best environment for learning. We need to ... let them [teachers] do what they are trained for. (The Guardian 11 June 2007)
    The GTC's demand was supported by the Liberal Democrats and by Jon Cruddas, one of the candidates for Labour's deputy leadership, but firmly rebuffed by the government and the Conservatives.

    The Cambridge Primary Review

    The Cambridge Primary Review was launched in October 2006. Sponsored by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and led by Professor Robin Alexander, the review aimed 'to gather evidence from a wide range of sources, sift facts from rhetoric, and stimulate debate about the future of this vital phase of education'.

  • For more on the Cambridge Primary Review see the next chapter of this history (section on Curriculum reviews); the website of the Cambridge Primary Review; and my summary of the Review's final report Children, their World, their Education.


    2005 Steer Report: Learning behaviour

    The Practitioners' Group on School Behaviour and Discipline, chaired by Sir Alan Steer, presented its report Learning behaviour in October 2005.

    The report listed six 'core beliefs' about behaviour in schools:

    • The quality of learning, teaching and behaviour in schools are inseparable issues, and the responsibility of all staff;
    • Poor behaviour cannot be tolerated as it is a denial of the right of pupils to learn and teachers to teach. To enable learning to take place preventative action is the most effective, but where this fails, schools must have clear, firm and intelligent strategies in place to help pupils manage their behaviour;
    • There is no single solution to the problem of poor behaviour, but all schools have the potential to raise standards if they are consistent in implementing good practice in learning, teaching and behaviour management;
    • Respect has to be given in order to be received. Parents and carers, pupils and teachers all need to operate in a culture of mutual regard;
    • The support of parents is essential for the maintenance of good behaviour. Parents and schools each need to have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities;
    • School leaders have a critical role in establishing high standards of learning, teaching and behaviour. (DfES 2005:2)
  • Download the Steer Report Learning behaviour (pdf text 979kb).


    In January 2006 the Commons public accounts committee said the government had squandered 885m over seven years in a futile attempt to reduce the number of truants. It found that, despite numerous initiatives to improve attendance and behaviour, the number of children missing lessons each day in England had risen by almost 5,000 in a year.

    And in September 2006 DfES figures revealed that nearly 1.4 million children - one in five of all pupils in England - had played truant from school in the previous year (The Guardian 22 September 2006).


    The Commons education select committee called for a national inquiry into the scale of bullying in schools. It feared that the problem was being downplayed by schools anxious to protect their reputations and singled out Roman Catholic schools in particular. It condemned the Catholic church for refusing to follow government guidelines urging schools to set up specific policies against homophobic bullying (The Guardian 27 March 2007).

    Other developments 2005-2007

    Building Schools for the Future

    A survey by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that half the schools built between 2000 and 2005 were poor, with only 19 per cent rated as excellent or good. Nine of the ten worst-designed new schools were built using the controversial private finance initiative (PFI) (The Guardian 4 July 2006).

    The chief executive of the government's 45bn Building Schools for the Future scheme admitted that the plans were 'over-ambitious and not deliverable' and that local authorities were struggling to manage the complex construction contracts (The Guardian 16 January 2007).

    Middle schools

    By 2006 only three local authorities - the Isle of Wight, Bedfordshire and Northumberland - were still exclusively three-tier. A few other authorities had small areas with middle schools.

    Bedfordshire's 33 middle schools remained open in September 2006 following a successful parents' campaign. In Northumberland parents had lobbied hard to keep their middle schools and no decision on their future had yet been made. In Suffolk, where about half the schools were in a three-tier system, ideas for restructuring were being considered.

    97 per cent of children in England were now in two-tier systems with transfer at age 11 (The Guardian 5 September 2006).

  • For more on middle schools see chapters 6 and 9 of this history and the website of the National Middle Schools Forum, which represents the interests and aspirations of middle school head teachers, staff, pupils and governors.


    A new Ofsted inspection regime was introduced in September 2005. Inspections were now to be shorter and sharper and schools would only be given only a couple of days' notice of inspectors' visits. David Bell described the changes as 'the most radical since Ofsted was set up in 1992' (The Guardian 30 August 2005).

    Christine Gilbert (pictured) replaced David Bell as head of Ofsted and chief inspector of schools on 1 October 2006. She had been a teacher and a head and had had various local government posts including that of chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

    On 1 April 2007, as decreed by the 2006 Education and Inspections Act, Ofsted became 'The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills'. In addition to its existing schools inspection role, the new Ofsted took on responsibilities from three other existing inspectorates: the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI); the work relating to children of the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI); and the work relating to the children and family courts of HM Inspectorate of Court Administration (HMICA).

    Higher education

    In February 2006, six months before the introduction of student tuition 'top-up' fees, the university admissions service UCAS reported a 3.4 per cent drop in the number of people applying to university - the first fall for six years (The Guardian 16 February 2006).

    Research carried out by a team led by Nick Foskett at Southampton University suggested that those worst hit by tuition fees would be middle-class students whose families were just above the threshold for financial support (The Guardian 3 April 2006).

    Top-up fees came under attack again in July 2006 when figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed a small drop in the proportion of young first-year university students from low-income families. The percentage of students coming from state schools and colleges had also fallen (The Guardian 20 July 2006).

    And in October 2006, UCAS revealed that 15,000 fewer students had started university compared with the previous year. Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Sarah Teather said 'The evidence is now undeniable - top-up fees deter people from going to university. Ministers must reconsider this mistaken policy that has such a negative impact' (The Guardian 19 October 2006). (Her view would not prevent her from voting for a tripling of tuition fees when she became a coalition government minister in 2010).

    Head teachers

    In September 2006, the General Teaching Council reported that schools in England were facing a leadership crisis with only 4 per cent of teachers wanting to become heads within the next five years. At the same time, more than a third of head teachers said they were planning to retire by 2011 (The Guardian 5 September 2006).

    A report for the DfES by PricewaterhouseCoopers said schools should be allowed to appoint business executives as heads, even if they were not qualified as teachers (The Guardian 18 January 2007).

    School leaving age

    Education secretary Alan Johnson proposed that all teenagers should stay in some form of education and training up to the age of 18. He hoped that this change in the school leaving age - the first since 1973 - might be implemented in 2013. The idea was broadly welcomed, though teacher unions warned that it would need to be properly funded (The Guardian 13 January 2007).

    Two months later, Johnson warned that teenagers who broke the proposed new leaving age, to be phased in from 2013, could face 50 fixed penalty fines or Asbo-style attendance orders. National Union of Teachers general secretary Steve Sinnott warned that 'Criminalising young people is no way to ensure committed involvement. It will only serve to alienate and undermine any desire disaffected young people feel towards continuing their education' (The Guardian 23 March 2007).

    Tim Brighouse

    In April 2007 Tim Brighouse (pictured), whose career had spanned three decades, announced his decision to retire.

    He had been chief education officer in Oxfordshire (where he once interviewed me for a job - which I didn't get!) and then, after a brief professorship at Keele University, chief education officer in Birmingham, whose LEA Ofsted described in 2002 as 'an example to all others of what can be done, even in the most demanding urban environment'.

    Finally, in his role as London schools commissioner, he had overseen the London Challenge, a scheme to make the capital 'a world leader in education'.

    Peter Wilby noted that Brighouse had been described as 'charismatic, visionary, inspirational, even saintly' and he quoted a former Downing Street aide as saying 'He's wonderful. Everybody will tell you that' (Wilby 2007).


    Following a series of revelations in the media, Ruth Kelly announced new measures to prevent sex offenders from working in schools (The Guardian 20 January 2006).

    An employment tribunal in Leeds decided that Aishah Azmi, a Muslim teaching assistant who had refused to remove her veil when male colleagues were present in the classroom, was not the victim of religious discrimination. She was sacked (The Guardian 20 October, 25 November 2006).

    The Blair legacy

    Tony Blair ended his decade as prime minister by offering the Church of England a multi-million-pound expansion programme which, over a five year period, would see the number of church-run academies increase by a hundred. It was, perhaps, an unsurprising gesture by a man whose enthusiasm for faith schools had become almost an obsession.

    Whether or not it was unsurprising, for many people it was certainly unwelcome. National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson commented

    The Church of England cannot get children into church, so it is determined to bring church into school, where the children have no choice and no escape. It is Mr Blair's final, self-indulgent gift to the religious establishment. (The Guardian 19 May 2007)
    Blair left 10 Downing Street at the end of June 2007. He was said to have been very concerned about his 'legacy' and worried that he would be remembered for just one thing: the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. On that, only time will tell.

    In education, the high hopes of many on that spring morning in May 1997 had been sadly dashed. Instead of trying to repair some of the damage done by the Thatcher and Major governments, Blair and his adviser Adonis had actually made the situation worse: they had extended covert selection under the guise of specialism, expanded privatised provision of schools and services, further diminished the role of local education authorities, and hugely increased the role of churches and other faith groups in educational provision.

    Then there were the fiascos: David Blunkett's vicious rows with Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead; the botched introduction of Curriculum 2000 leading to the crisis in AS and A Levels in 2002 when 300,000 papers had to be remarked; Estelle Morris's denigration of comprehensive schools and her resignation; and Ruth Kelly's decision not to implement Tomlinson's diploma proposals.

    Writing in The Guardian (8 December 2009) Polly Curtis observed that the Blair decade had seen a trend towards a more traditional style of education: 'rigorous approaches to behaviour, the rise of the uniform, increasing setting in schools and thorough testing'. Schools had certainly benefited from a vastly increased budget - a 56 per cent increase over the ten years. Exam results had improved: the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and maths had risen from 40.7 per cent in 2000 to 47.3 per cent in 2008. But she warned that under pressure from league tables, targets and Ofsted, some 'perverse incentives' had emerged:

    Schools rushed to introduce more vocational qualifications to allow them to climb the league tables. When maths and English were included in the league table measure, schools began entering children early for those exams, then allowing them to drop the subjects once they had attained the all-important C grade. It also drove schools to focus on children on the C/D borderline at the expense of others. (Curtis 2009)

    Peter Mortimore summed up the period thus:

    Much needed to be done when this government came into office in 1997. And many teachers wanted to help improve schools and make our society more equal. But, instead of the formulation of a long-term improvement plan based on the two big questions - what sort of education system is suitable for a modern society, and how can excellence and equity be made to work together - schools got top-down diktat. Successive ministers, and especially their advisers, thought they knew 'what works'. They cherry-picked research, suppressed evaluations that gave them answers they did not want, and compounded the mess. Trusting teachers - which is what ministers do in the best-performing countries - was not on the agenda. (Mortimore 2009)

    Simon Jenkins was equally disillusioned. He noted that the 1944 Education Act and the abolition of the eleven plus in the 1960s had 'sought to break the dominance of religion and class over public sector schooling in Britain' and that 'to a large extent they succeeded'. But he warned: 'Ever since, religion and class have been fighting their way back. Blair and Adonis are their latest champions. This is archaic' (Jenkins 2006).

    If only Blair and Adonis had heeded the advice of Chitty and Dunford in 1999:

    Only when the Labour government understands the importance of creating a single unified system of fully comprehensive secondary schools under local democratic control and without selective enclaves, will the country have an education system of which we can truly be proud. (Chitty and Dunford 1999:32)


    Beckett F (2004) 'Business class' The Guardian 9 July

    Chitty C (1998) 'Selection fever' The Guardian 13 October

    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

    Curtis P (2009) 'The end of the 'bog-standard' comprehensive' The Guardian 8 December

    DfEE (1997) White Paper Excellence in schools Cmnd 3681 London: HMSO

    DfES (2005) Learning behaviour The Report of The Practitioners' Group on School Behaviour and Discipline London: DfES

    Hodgson A and Spours K (2005) 'Divided we fail' The Guardian 1 March

    Jenkins S (2006) 'Blair and Adonis are taking our schools back to the 30s' The Guardian 25 January

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

    Labour Party (1995) Diversity and excellence: a new partnership for schools London: Labour Party

    Millar F (2003) 'Admissions impossible' The Guardian 11 November

    Morris E (2002) 'Why comprehensives must change' The Observer 23 June

    Mortimore P (2009) 'Missed opportunities and mad ideas: the government's legacy' The Guardian 7 July

    NAW (2001) The learning country National Assembly for Wales

    Newsam P (1998) 'How can we know the dancer from the dance?' Forum 40(1) 4-9

    Pullman P (2003) 'All around you is silence' The Guardian 5 June

    Riddell M (2000) 'Good riddance to the bully' The Observer 5 November

    Wilby P (2007) 'The secrets of Saint Tim' The Guardian 24 April

    Wintour P (2005) 'Blair's public service crusade' The Guardian 25 October

    Woodward W (2005) 'Andrew Adonis' The Guardian 28 October

    Chapter 9 | Chapter 11