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

The new administration
Brown and Balls
Cameron and Gove

The Children's Plan

2008 Education and Skills Act
2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act
2009 White Paper
2009 Children, Schools and Families Bill
2010 Children, Schools and Families Act
Other Acts relating to children and young people
   2007 Further Education and Training Act
   2008 Children and Young Persons Act
   2010 Child Poverty Act

Curriculum reviews
IRPC interim report
CPR curriculum report
CSFC National Curriculum report
IRPC final report
CPR final report
Nuffield 14-19 Review

Testing and assessment
CSFC Report
SATs fiasco
SATs boycott

Exams and qualifications
A Levels
Election battleground

Building Schools for the Future
Academies and trust schools
Faith schools
   Covert selection by faith schools
Private schools
The National Challenge

Other developments
   The inspection regime
   2008 NUT Conference
   One-day strike
   Head teachers
   Steer Report
Social mobility
School meals
Budget cuts
School uniform
Steiner course
Higher education

The election campaign
Gove's view of education
Free schools
Primary education

Summary of the period


Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Chapter 11 : 2007-2010

Brown and Balls: mixed messages

The new administration

Brown and Balls

Tony Blair was replaced as prime minister by former chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown (pictured). His new administration immediately announced that the education department would be split in two: the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) with Ed Balls as secretary of state, and the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) under John Denham. (Balls's official title was 'Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families', though he was usually referred to as 'the children's secretary').

There was some logic to this division. DCSF brought together all policy relating to children and young people: in addition to overseeing schools, it shared youth justice with the Ministry of Justice, child poverty with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, children's health with the Department of Health, and youth sport with the Department for Culture. It also took the 'respect' agenda from the Home Office. DIUS took science and innovation from the Department for Trade and Industry and would be responsible for the development, funding and performance of higher education, both teaching and research; together with adult learning, including Train to Gain and basic skills. It would oversee the 4bn adult portion of the Learning and Skills Council budget. One of its main aims was the improvement of graduate skills.

But there were complications in the arrangement. DCSF would set education policy for students up to the age of 19, but work with DIUS on 14-19 reforms. School pupils in the 14 to 19 age group and sixth form college students would come under DCSF, but general further education college students and apprentices aged 16 to 19 were the responsibility of DIUS, though they would be funded via local education authorities. The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) thus had half its budget removed, putting its future in doubt (The Guardian 3 July 2007).

In the event, DIUS only lasted two years. In June 2009 it was abolished and its responsibilities subsumed into a new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), led by Lord (Peter) Mandelson.

In his inaugural statement, the new children's secretary Ed Balls (pictured) said he would introduce legislation to raise the school leaving age to 18, improve school discipline, remove barriers to further expansion of the academies programme, and give teachers more scope to decide when pupils should be tested. He announced that Leicester University chancellor Sir Peter Williams, chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, would conduct a review of maths teaching in primary schools. An extra 265m over the next three years would be spent ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds could benefit from at least two hours a week of out-of-hours group activities in term time. Secondary teachers would be given an extra training day a year, and a scheme to encourage graduates to teach in inner-city schools would be expanded beyond London. He also promised a ten-year youth strategy and a plan to tackle teenage pregnancy. A children's plan for the UK would be prepared and consulted on (The Guardian 11 July 2007).

In October 2007 the new chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling announced the three-year settlement for education. A 2.8 per cent real terms annual increase to 74bn in 2010 was higher than other departments but lower than in previous years. Teachers' leaders pointed out that the budget for each pupil would rise from 5,500 in 2007-8 to 6,600 in 2010-11 but that this was still far short of the cost of a private school education. Darling also promised 250m to fund the Children's Plan scheme to make sure children arrived at school ready to learn and able to benefit from personalised support (The Guardian 10 October 2007).

In his first major speech on education, Gordon Brown told an audience of educationists at Greenwich University that 'failing' schools would have five years to improve their pupils' GCSE results or they would face take-over or closure. He set out wide-ranging plans to expand childcare, eradicate illiteracy and introduce more work-based apprenticeships to persuade more 16 year olds to stay on in education. 'This is a determined and systematic agenda to end failure', he said. 'We will see it through. We will not flinch from the task' (The Guardian 1 November 2007).

As we saw in the previous chapter, Lord (Andrew) Adonis had wielded enormous influence over education policy in the Blair administration. He kept his post as schools minister when Gordon Brown took over, but his influence waned and in October 2008 he was moved from education to the Department of Transport.

Cameron and Gove

Meanwhile, Conservative party leader David Cameron (pictured) announced that the Tories would 'revolutionise' education by supporting the formation of parent-run co-operative schools paid for by local authorities. He said he was setting up a 'Conservative Co-operative Movement' based on the ideals of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, the world's first successful co-operative.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) warned that the proposals would increase social segregation, and Co-operative Party general secretary Peter Hunt said: 'Co-operative Party policies are ... rooted in Labour philosophy. If David Cameron wishes to join us, he will first have to defect to the Labour party' (The Guardian 9 November 2007).

The new shadow education secretary was Michael Gove (pictured).

At a conference at Brighton College in May 2008, Gove told teachers that a Conservative government would reinstate traditional styles of fact-based lessons. Generations of children had been let down by so-called progressive education policies which had taught skills and 'empathy' instead of bodies of knowledge, he said.

He condemned the 'pupil-centred learning' theories which had gained support in the 1960s for 'dethroning' the teacher:

It is an approach to education that has been called progressive, but in fact is anything but. It privileges temporary relevance over a permanent body of knowledge which should be passed on from generation to generation ... We need to tackle this misplaced ideology wherever it occurs.
NUT acting general secretary Christine Blower said: 'Gove's attack on child-centred learning is an absurd caricature of reality ... If there has been a dethroning of teachers, it has been because successive politicians have decided that they know better than teachers about how children learn' (The Guardian 9 May 2008).

The Children's Plan

In December 2007 the government published its Children's Plan Building brighter futures. This important and ambitious document was based on widespread consultation involving children, young people, parents, teachers and policy makers, and was designed to underpin and inform all future government policy relating to children, their families and schools. It aimed to eradicate child poverty and reduce illiteracy and antisocial behaviour by 2020. In his Foreword, Ed Balls said he wanted to make Britain 'the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up'. (DCSF 2007:3)

The plan was based on five principles:

It set ten goals to be achieved by 2020:
  • enhance children and young people's well-being, particularly at key transition points in their lives;
  • every child ready for success in school, with at least 90 per cent developing well across all areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile by age 5;
  • every child ready for secondary school, with at least 90 per cent achieving at or above the expected level in both English and mathematics by age 11;
  • every young person with the skills for adult life and further study, with at least 90 per cent achieving the equivalent of five higher level GCSEs by age 19; and at least 70 per cent achieving the equivalent of two A levels by age 19;
  • parents satisfied with the information and support they receive;
  • all young people participating in positive activities to develop personal and social skills, promote well-being and reduce behaviour that puts them at risk;
  • employers satisfied with young people's readiness for work;
  • child health improved, with the proportion of obese and overweight children reduced to 2000 levels;
  • child poverty halved by 2010 and eradicated by 2020; and
  • significantly reduce by 2020 the number of young offenders receiving a conviction, reprimand, or final warning for a recordable offence for the first time, with a goal to be set in the Youth Crime Action Plan. (DCSF 2007:14)
The plan attempted to address a series of highly critical reports on British childhood by Unicef and others, and to demonstrate evidence of Gordon Brown's administration's much talked-of 'vision'. There would be new playgrounds and youth centres, personal tutors and one-to-one classes to give struggling pupils a chance to catch up and their parents a contact at school. There would be radical reform of the curriculum and testing regimes, and a mandatory master's-level qualification for all new teachers. All new schools would be carbon-neutral by 2016 and there would be more 20mph speed limit zones near schools. A dozen strategy reviews - on areas including drugs and alcohol, sex education, bullying and the commercialisation of childhood - would determine how the targets were to be met.

Children's campaigners welcomed the plan.

Children's Society chief executive Bob Reitemeier said: 'The responsibility for childhood rests with us all and we are encouraged that the children's plan looks beyond education to address fundamental areas such as parents and play.'

Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Kate Green commented: 'The common thread that will transform the plan's patchwork of measures into a successful whole is an end to child poverty ... It is now up to the Treasury to make sure that ... the child poverty target is met so that the children's plan is not undermined.'

Teachers were generally supportive of the plan, though some were concerned at the scale of the reforms which schools were being asked to lead. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the plan would make 'massive demands on schools' which would need the support of the full range of public services. 'If schools are to be placed at the core of social reform for children, as the breadth of the children's plan suggests, this places tremendous expectations on schools and their leaders', he said (The Guardian 12 December 2007).

  • Download The Children's Plan (pdf text 640kb).


    There were three major education acts in this period:

    2008 Education and Skills Act

    The Education and Skills Bill was jointly sponsored by DCSF and DIUS.

    The Act (26 November 2008):

    • raised the education leaving age to 18. Young people would be required to participate in education or training until their 18th birthday through:
      - full-time education or training, including school, college and home education;
      - work-based learning, such as an Apprenticeship; or
      - part-time education or training, if they were employed, self-employed or volunteering more than 20 hours a week;
    • rationalised the regulation and monitoring regime for independent schools and non-maintained special schools;
    • improved careers education for 11 to 16 year olds;
    • transferred responsibility for delivering the 'Connexions' service (which offered a wide range of support to young people) to local authorities;
    • empowered local authorities to arrange learning difficulty assessments in a person's final year of compulsory education and up to the age of 25 for any young person who would benefit from one;
    • placed a duty on the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to ensure the free provision of basic skills and first full level 2 qualification courses;
    • placed a duty on the LSC to ensure that 19 to 25 year olds who were undertaking their first full level 3 qualification did not have to pay tuition fees;
    • required school governing bodies to invite and consider the views of pupils on policy matters which affected them;
    • gave young people the right to express a school preference for sixth-form education and to appeal against any decision made;
    • required local authorities to produce annual reports on school admission arrangements in their area; and
    • made minor changes to the legislative regime governing the National Curriculum so that, from 2009, Key Stage 3 tests would no longer be compulsory.
  • Download the Education and Skills Act 2008 (pdf text 672kb).

    2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act

    This Act (12 November 2009):

    • created a statutory framework for apprenticeships and a right to an apprenticeship for suitably qualified 16-18 year olds;
    • gave employees the right to request time off for training, and required employers to consider such requests seriously;
    • abolished the Learning and Skills Council;
    • transferred responsibility for funding education and training for 16-18 year olds to local authorities;
    • made provisions with respect to the education of offenders;
    • created the Young Person's Learning Agency, the Skills Funding Agency, the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual), and a new agency to carry out the non-regulatory functions currently performed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority;
    • strengthened the accountability of children's services;
    • amended intervention powers in respect of schools which were causing concern;
    • established a new parental complaints service;
    • changed the school inspection arrangements;
    • created a new negotiating body for support staff pay and conditions; and
    • made provisions in respect of pupil and student behaviour.
    The bill gave Ed Balls and John Denham 153 new powers. 'Is this the most centralising education bill in history?' asked Warwick Mansell. He noted that under the 1944 Education Act the minister of education had had just three central duties: 'to promote the education of the people of England and Wales'; 'to promote the progressive development of schools and colleges'; and 'to secure that local authorities execute the national policy for providing a very comprehensive educational service'. But in the last twenty years, he argued, there had been 'a steady growth in the powers of central government, with the introduction of the national curriculum, national teaching strategies, and the targets and league table regime, all overseen and directed by ministers and civil servants' (Mansell 2009a).

    Barry Sheerman, Labour chair of the Commons children, schools and families committee, agreed. 'There does seem to be a general feeling out there, in the evidence the committee has received on several inquiries, of people desiring a swing back towards local autonomy', he said. 'Ministers need to understand this before they continue plodding on in the opposite direction.'

    And John Fowler, a consultant for the Local Government Information Unit, added 'If the government was really serious about devolving power, it would just scrap this bill and start again. I cannot see that happening.' It didn't.

  • Download the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 (pdf text 1.0mb).

    2009 White Paper: Your child, your schools, our future

    Before the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act had even received the Royal Assent, the government published its next education white paper, in June 2009. Your child, your schools, our future was to form the basis for the 2009 Children, Schools and Families Bill (which was intended to become the 2010 Children, Schools and Families Act, though most of it would be lost in the run-up to the general election).

    The white paper signalled the abandonment of what many had seen as Blair's most significant education reform - the National Strategies for literacy and numeracy. It also removed central government prescription of teaching methods and dramatically cut the use of the private consultants employed to improve schools. Schools would have more freedom and would be enabled to establish networks of school-to-school support to help drive up standards in a 'new era of localism'. Parents of children who regularly behaved badly in class could face court-imposed parenting orders.

    The white paper's key points were:

    • a pupil guarantee setting out new entitlements to personalised support for every child, matched by a parent guarantee for every parent;
    • all schools to have good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety;
    • all pupils to be taught in a way that meets their needs;
    • all pupils to have opportunities to take part in sport and cultural activities;
    • all schools to promote their pupils' health and well-being;
    • schools to work in partnership with other schools and with wider children's services;
    • local consortia to offer a choice of every one of the new diplomas to 14-19 year-olds;
    • partnerships of primary schools to share specialist teaching;
    • develop a system for accrediting good education providers who wish to run groups of schools;
    • more academies and trust schools;
    • develop a system for accrediting good education providers to run groups of schools;
    • strong accountability and rapid intervention when needed to further improve schools;
    • expand the role of 'School Improvement Partners' (SIPs);
    • develop a new School Report Card (SRC);
    • give schools greater flexibility and encourage greater innovation;
    • improve the relationship between central government, local authorities and schools;
    • new Masters degree in Teaching and Learning;
    • better development of support staff; and
    • governing bodies' fundamental duties to children, young people and the wider community to be enshrined in law.
  • Download the White Paper Your child, your schools, our future (pdf text 2.2mb).

    2009 Children, Schools and Families Bill

    These proposals formed the basis of the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

    One of the bill's provisions, first announced by ministers in October 2008, was that sex education from the age of five would be made a compulsory part of the national curriculum in primary and secondary schools. Schools would not be allowed to opt out, and faith schools would be given guidance on how to provide sex and relationship education - to include contraception, abortion and homosexuality - alongside conflicting religious beliefs (The Guardian 24 October 2008).

    But religious groups objected, and the government amended the new regulations, which were due to come into effect in September 2011. While all schools would still be required to teach sex education, it now said that parents could withdraw children under 15 from the lessons, which would only be compulsory for 15 and 16 year olds (The Guardian 5 November 2009).

    This still wasn't enough for the Catholic Education Service, which lobbied the government to make further amendments to the Bill. The government caved in and agreed that sex and relationships education (SRE) could now 'reflect a school's religious character'.

    Campaigners said the change would allow faith schools to discourage the use of contraception and teach that homosexuality was wrong. The Accord Coalition (a newly-formed group of Hindu, Christian and Humanist organisations campaigning to stop state-funded schools from discriminating against students and teachers on the grounds of religion) accused Balls of implicitly condoning homophobia in schools and undermining his own attempts to tackle homophobic bullying. Chair of Accord Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain said:

    It is astonishing that the government plans to deny young people of their right to accurate, balanced SRE ... Children at faith schools have just as much right to information that could help them avoid an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection. (The Guardian 18 February 2010)
    A DCSF spokesman dismissed the complaints:
    All maintained schools will be required to teach full programmes of study in line with the principles outlined in the bill, including promoting equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity. Schools with a religious character will be free to express their faith and reflect the ethos of their school, but what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones. (The Guardian 18 February 2010)
    In other words, a Catholic school would be required to teach children the facts about contraception, but would be allowed to try to persuade them that its use was immoral.

    Balls insisted the amendment would not 'water down' the bill: it would still require state schools to teach pupils about the importance of stable relationships, including civil partnerships, and it would forbid the promotion of homophobia.

    Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws accused ministers of being in a 'terrific muddle' over the issue and said the amendment 'completely undermines the objectives of this part of the bill' (The Guardian 23 February 2010).

    Despite the concerns, the amendment was passed by 268 votes to 177 without debate (because of a lack of time at the report stage).

    Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) education policy adviser Alison Ryan said: 'We believe this amendment is unhelpful and unnecessary because it upsets the balance of the bill by placing the religious character of the school above the promotion of equality and tolerance of diversity.'

    National Secular Society executive director Keith Porteous Wood commented: 'The government have once more bowed to pressure from the Catholic church, betraying the children in faith schools who have a right to objective and balanced sex education' (The Guardian 24 February 2010).

    And an editorial in The Guardian commented:

    This looks like a case of the government being led away from the path of righteousness by ecclesiastical lobbying, which has happened several times before. There was, for instance, the climbdown over the plan to force faith schools to take some children from outside their own flock. There was also section 37 of the 2008 Education Act, which undercut Labour's solid record on discrimination at work by allowing schools to hand-pick staff on the basis of their creed. Many devout people - and many believers in faith schools - are represented by the Accord Coalition, which argues that no state-funded institution should be exempted from norms that all other public bodies must follow. Unless all religious schools are required to see the light, the contradictions will become unsustainable. The recurring pattern of church lobbying and Whitehall climbdowns is testing society's faith in church schools as being a force for good. (The Guardian 24 February 2010)

    2010 Children, Schools and Families Act

    In the event, with the general election just a month away, all the sex education provisions (and many others) were lost from the Children, Schools and Families Act (8 April 2010).

  • Download the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 (pdf text 124kb).

    Other Acts relating to children and young people

    In addition to the three major education acts summarised above, there were three other acts relating to children and young people during this period:

    2007 Further Education and Training Act

    The Further Education and Training Act (23 October 2007) made provisions about:

    • the Learning and Skills Council for England;
    • institutions within the further education sector;
    • industrial training levies;
    • the formation of, and investment in, companies and charitable incorporated organisations by higher education corporations; and
    • the making of Welsh Assembly Measures in relation to the field of education.
  • Download the Further Education and Training Act 2007 (pdf text 196kb).

    2008 Children and Young Persons Act

    The Children and Young Persons Act (13 November 2008) made provisions about:

    • the delivery of local authority social work services for children and young persons;
    • the functions of local authorities and others in relation to children and young persons;
    • the enforcement of care standards in relation to certain establishments or agencies connected with children; and
    • the independent review of determinations relating to adoption.
  • Download the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (pdf text 228kb).

    2010 Child Poverty Act

    The Child Poverty Act (25 March 2010):

    • set targets relating to the eradication of child poverty; and
    • made other provisions about child poverty.
  • Download the Child Poverty Act 2010 (pdf text 140kb).

    Curriculum reviews

    Three major reviews of the curriculum were undertaken in this period:

    Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum

    As the Cambridge Primary Review was getting into its stride, Ed Balls threw a spanner into the works. On 9 January 2008 he wrote to Sir Jim Rose inviting him to conduct 'an independent review of the primary curriculum' with a view to making 'final recommendations to the Secretary of State by March 2009 so that the new primary curriculum can be introduced from September 2011'.

    The government's justification for this new review of primary education was presumably that it had already commissioned a review of the secondary curriculum and had introduced an early years 'foundation stage'. As Rose put it, you couldn't 'just extend one backwards, the other forwards, tie a knot in the middle and say that's primary education' (Wilby 2008).

    However, given that the Cambridge Review - the biggest investigation of primary education since Plowden - was already under way, many felt that the Rose review was designed as a spoiler. The government was fed up with adverse headlines like 'Poor performance linked to substandard classrooms', 'Government policy has created impersonalised education', and 'Study reveals stressed out 7 to 11 year olds' (Wilby 2008). It was also concerned that the Cambridge Review would condemn England's testing regime - the hated SATs. So it created the IRPC as a diversion, 'with a suspiciously similar email address, a claim that it too is independent, and an identical deadline for its final report of spring 2009' (Wilby 2008).

    There were other concerns about the IRPC. One was that the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency (QCA) was required to produce draft programmes of study based on the report's recommendations during the consultation period, effectively rendering redundant most of the responses. Another was that the views of representatives of local authorities and teachers' professional associations who attended meetings during the 'informal' consultations were apparently excluded.

    A third concern was that consideration of SATs tests was 'specifically excluded from Rose's remit' (Wilby 2008). Introducing the IRPC's interim report on 8 December 2008, Rose urged ministers to review the arrangements for SATs (already abolished in all parts of the UK except England). 'I'm ruled out of making recommendations about testing', he told Polly Curtis. 'That's not to say every school doesn't ask about testing. It's the elephant in the room' (The Guardian 8 December 2008).

    IRPC Interim Report

    The report's main recommendations were:

    • there should be a smoother transition between early years and primary education, and between primary and secondary education;
    • subjects should be combined with cross-curricular study;
    • teachers should have more flexibility within a richer curriculum;
    • there should be more and better computer education;
    • the value of play to children's learning and development should be made explicit in any revisions to the primary curriculum;
    • primary schools should focus on teaching only one or two foreign languages;
    • children should acquire a range of personal, social and emotional qualities essential to their health, well-being and life as a responsible citizen in the 21st century; and
    • summer-born children should start primary school in the September after their fourth birthday, with some children starting part-time.
    The report proposed that the primary curriculum should comprise six 'areas of learning':
    • understanding English, communication and languages;
    • mathematical understanding;
    • scientific and technological understanding;
    • human, social and environmental understanding;
    • understanding physical health and well-being; and
    • understanding the arts and design.
    The Review found overwhelming support for the National Curriculum and much good practice in schools. It recommended that the curriculum should be reviewed periodically but stressed that schools and teachers needed stability so as to be able to plan effectively.

  • Download the IRPC Interim Report (pdf text 2.1mb).

    The Cambridge Primary Review - Towards a new primary curriculum

    In order to contribute to the final IRPC report, the Cambridge Review brought forward publication of its material on the curriculum. Towards a New Primary Curriculum was published on 20 February 2009 in two parts: Past and Present and The Future. Its authors commented:

    Some readers may become impatient with the history, the account of witnesses' concerns and our apparent preoccupation with the problematic. For them, solutions are more important. They are of course welcome to turn straight to Part 2. Yet it is only by understanding the history, recognising the deeply-rooted and often cyclic nature of the problems, and by accepting the inadequacy of some of the surrounding discourse, that we can make progress. That is why the grounding provided by Part 1 is essential. Without it, we shall simply repeat past mistakes. (Alexander and Flutter 2009a:1)
    It bemoaned the politicisation of the curriculum and warned that children's lives were being impoverished by the government's insistence that schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of creative teaching. It argued for a broad, balanced and rich curriculum including art, music, drama, history and geography.

    In the authors' view, a future primary curriculum must:

    • 'confront and attempt to address the problems and challenges in current arrangements;
    • be grounded in explicit principles of design and implementation; and
    • pursue and remain faithful to a clear and defensible statement of educational aims and values.' (Alexander and Flutter 2009b:21)

    CSFC Report on the National Curriculum

    The House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee published its report on the National Curriculum on 2 April 2009.

    The key points in its 32 conclusions and recommendations were:

    • the National Curriculum was in 'urgent need of significant reform': it should prescribe as little as possible, parents should be better informed, the Programmes of Study for the new secondary curriculum were 'overly complex';
    • the Early Years Foundation Stage and the Early Learning Goals should be reviewed;
    • the curriculum freedoms that academies enjoyed should be immediately extended to all maintained schools;
    • a system of Single Level Tests linked to targets, and potentially to funding, could further narrow the curriculum;
    • the idea that there was one best way to teach was not supported by the research evidence and so should not be the basis for the delivery of the National Curriculum;
    • the Department should cease presenting the National Strategies guidance as a prop for the teaching profession and adopt a more positive understanding of how schools and teachers might be empowered in relation to the National Curriculum;
    • the Department should spend less on producing guidance and more on the dissemination of research findings;
    • the theory and practice of curriculum design should be given a much higher profile within the standards for Qualified Teacher Status;
    • the Department should show how it would support the move to a much less prescriptive curriculum and less centrally-directed approach to its delivery;
    • there should be better continuity and coherence in the current National Curriculum - and across the National Curriculum, Early Years Foundation Stage and 14-19 arrangements;
    • the Department should take more account of the views of children and young people;
    • the Department should put in place a cycle of around five years for curriculum review and reform and avoid initiating additional change outside that cycle: reviews should scrutinise the Early Years Foundation Stage, National Curriculum and 14-19 arrangements as a continuum, not as discrete 'chunks';
    • the agency with main responsibility for the development of the National Curriculum should be truly independent from the Department;
    • like the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual), the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) should be independent of Ministers and required to report to Parliament through the Select Committee;
    • there should be 'an overarching statement of aims for the National Curriculum' to provide it with 'a stronger sense of purpose, continuity and coherence';
    • a statement of provision for learners from 0 to 19 should be introduced;
    • there should be 'an overarching diploma' which would replace all other qualifications for learners aged 14 to 19; and
    • these changes must be accompanied by improved communication and co-ordination between teachers and practitioners across the different phases of education. (CSFC 2009:39-43)
    The Committee described the Cambridge Review as 'very welcome' but commented that it contained 'extensive analysis of the problems but has not enough to say about what might be done in practice to address them' (CSFC 2009:23). It went on:
    The Rose Review and the Cambridge Review both recognise that the primary curriculum is overly full, but neither offers a practical basis that appeals to us for reducing the load. As we have indicated, we would see greater merit in stipulating a basic entitlement for literacy and numeracy and offering general guidelines on breadth and balance to be interpreted by schools and teachers themselves. (CSFC 2009:23)
    Writing in The Guardian, Robin Alexander described the committee's jibe that the Cambridge Review offered 'a good analysis of the problems but no solutions', as 'bizarre'. He continued:
    Apart from the detailed proposals on curriculum aims, substance, structure, development and implementation, which the committee appears not to have noticed, other ideas from the Cambridge review appear, almost verbatim, in the committee's own recommendations: abandoning the national strategies in their present form; supporting local ownership; reconfiguring the roles of national agencies, local authorities and schools; making Curriculum Matters central to initial teacher training. More bizarre still, the committee's report includes as an appendix a comparison of the Rose and Cambridge curriculum reports, which says enough to contradict its criticisms of both of them. (Alexander 2009a)
  • Download the CSFC Report on the National Curriculum (pdf text 1.5mb).

    IRPC Final report

    The IRPC's final report was published on 30 April 2009. Jim Rose said he had tried to 'capture the distinctiveness of the primary phase and to ensure it is recognised as more than a postscript to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and a prelude to secondary education' (DCSF 2009a:9).

    The report's key points were:

    • subjects, and the essential knowledge, skills and understanding they represented, were important but were not sufficient - cross-curricular studies were important, too;
    • there should be a stronger focus on curriculum progression;
    • by the age of seven, children should have a secure grasp of the literacy and numeracy skills they needed to make good progress thereafter;
    • the teaching and learning of information and communication technology (ICT) should be improved;
    • there should be greater emphasis on personal development through a more integrated and simpler framework for schools;
    • there should be stronger links between the EYFS and Key Stage 1, and between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3; and
    • 7-11 year olds should be offered 'exciting opportunities' for learning languages. (DCSF 2009a:10-12)
    Writing in The Guardian, Mike Baker compared the Rose review with the Plowden report of 1967. He noted that the Plowden committee had had 25 members, including several heads, and had benefited from having six school inspectors and one local authority inspector seconded to it throughout. It had taken three years and produced 556 pages covering 'the physical development of children, the growth of the brain, parental attitudes, social change, health and social services, and the ways schools were organised, designed and equipped'.

    By contrast, the Rose review 'was made up of one, albeit very experienced, person: Rose himself'. He had an advisory group of leading heads - which met just five times, his report was only 154 pages long and restricted in scope - his remit didn't even allow him to consider the question of tests.

    Baker noted that:

    There is, of course, another inquiry currently under way, which aims to match the thoroughness of Plowden. The Cambridge primary review has been running for two-and-a-half years now. Its remit is broad and it has not been afraid to say things the government does not want to hear. And there is the rub. In the past, governments set up big independent education inquiries; now they prefer to have their own short, sharp reviews - and seem scarcely interested in anything else. (Baker 2009)
    A statutory consultation on the IRPC's recommendations followed by publication of revised programmes of study and guidance should have enabled the new primary curriculum to be implemented, as planned, in September 2011. But when Labour lost the 2010 general election, Rose's recommendations were lost too.

  • Download the IRPC Final Report (pdf text 3.3mb).

    Cambridge Primary Review - Children, their World, their Education

    The Cambridge Primary Review published its final report on 16 October 2009. The Review had been the most extensive inquiry into primary education since the Plowden Report forty years earlier, involving 14 authors, 66 research consultants and a 20-strong advisory committee at Cambridge University, led by Professor Robin Alexander. Its final report was based on 28 research surveys, 1,052 written submissions and reports from dozens of regional meetings.

    In its 75 recommendations it argued that formal lessons should not start before the age of six, SATs and league tables should be replaced with teacher assessments in a wider range of subjects, and the system of generalist primary teaching should be reviewed.

    The report was critical of political decision-making processes. It condemned:

    centralisation, secrecy and the 'quiet authoritarianism' of the new centres of power; the disenfranchising of local voice; the rise of unelected and unaccountable groups and individuals taking key decisions behind closed doors: the 'empty rituals' of consultation; the replacement of professional dialogue by the monologic discourse of power; the politicisation of the entire educational enterprise so that it becomes impossible to debate ideas or evidence which are not deemed to be 'on message', or which are 'not invented here'; and, latterly coming to light, financial corruption. (Alexander 2009b:481)
    It noted that since 1989, and especially since 1997, national government had 'tightened its control over what goes on in local authorities and schools'; and warned that 'the power of government and its agencies has reached far more deeply into the recesses of professional action and thought than is proper in a democracy or good for schools themselves' (Alexander 2009b:508).

    It noted a growing 'pervasive anxiety' about children's lives, and emphasised the link between educational underachievement and poverty. 'What is worrying is the persistence of a long tail of severely disadvantaged children whose early lives are unhappy, whose potential is unrealised and whose future is bleak' (Alexander 2009b:71).

    The Review's conclusions were backed by all the teacher unions. National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) general secretary Mick Brookes said:

    This comprehensive study of primary education must be taken seriously by government. The fact the work in progress has been completely ignored by the government is a sign of weakness. This report is truly independent, unlike work commissioned and controlled by the DCSF which largely says what it wants to hear. There are recommendations in this report that could transform the primary ethos and turn pessimism into hope. (The Guardian 16 October 2009)
    NUT general secretary Christine Blower said:
    It is absolutely extraordinary that the government has decided to ignore the Cambridge Review recommendations. Any government worth its salt, particularly in front of an impending general election, would have embraced this immensely rich report as a source of policy ideas. It is not too late for the government to recognise that not all good ideas emanate from the minds of civil servants. (The Guardian 16 October 2009)
    And Nansi Ellis, head of education policy and research at the ATL, warned that 'primary education must not become a battlefield in the forthcoming election - children and their learning will be the first casualties' (The Guardian 16 October 2009).

    Unsurprisingly, the report was rubbished by the government. Schools minister Vernon Coaker said the government was already reforming the curriculum and testing, and accused Alexander's report of suggesting a 'woolly' accountability system:

    It's disappointing that a review which purports to be so comprehensive is simply not up to speed on many major changes in primaries. The world has moved on since this review was started. If every child making progress and reaching their potential is what matters, then Professor Alexander's proposals are a backward step.' (The Guardian 16 October 2009)
    And just to rub salt into the wound, Balls announced that every four year old in England would be offered a place at school or nursery so that they could start full-time education a year earlier. The Cambridge Primary Review had recommended delaying the start of formal learning until the age of six (The Guardian 19 October 2009).

    Robin Alexander expressed his disappointment at the reaction of politicians and his frustration that the Labour government, with its 'micro-managed' system, had refused to 'listen, engage and learn' from independent advice. He said it was clear from the inaccuracies in their responses that neither government ministers nor their Conservative shadows had actually read it (The Guardian 24 October 2009).

    Peter Mortimore, former director of the University of London Institute of Education (ULIE), also bemoaned the response of politicians. Writing in The Guardian, he commented:

    Weep, Cambridge team. Your efforts to produce clear analyses and innovative ideas in the interest of fostering something better than political point-scoring, repetitive myths and ideological rigidity have been strangled at birth. Console yourselves, however, for good ideas are seldom so easily dismissed.
    He concluded:
    The pity is that politicians, who pollsters tell us are only trusted by 13% of the population, can so easily make such fools of themselves by endeavouring to close down all thinking outside their own. How much wiser to welcome new ideas and give civil society, including teachers - who are trusted by 82% of the population - the chance to debate how best to improve the education of our youngest learners. (Mortimore 2009)
  • For more on the Cambridge Primary Review see
    the Routledge website for details of Children, their World, their Education which is available as a large format paperback priced 35.99;
    the Cambridge Primary Review Trust website, which now contains probably the largest single compendium of evidence and commentary on English primary education;
    my summary and review of Children, their World, their Education.

    Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and training

    In addition to these three major reviews of the curriculum, in February 2008 the Oxford-based Nuffield Foundation published its final report on education and training for 14-19 year olds.

    Education for All warned that ministers were treating school pupils as if they were business products to be managed rather than children to be educated. The government's aim of boosting the British economy was overshadowing the true role of schools in young people's lives. Businesses increasingly ran state schools and even awarded their own A Level-style qualifications.

    The lead director of the Review, Professor Richard Pring, said:

    The changes at 14-19 are too often driven by economic goals at the expense of broader educational aims. This is reflected in the rather impoverished language drawn from business and management, rather than from a more generous understanding of the whole person. We need to give young learners far more than skills for employment alone, even if such skills are key to the country's economy.
    Inevitably, the DCSF rubbished the report. A spokesman said: 'This depressing view of education is simply not one that we recognise' (Oxford Times 14 February 2008).

  • Various documents, including a summary of Education for All, can be downloaded from the website of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and training.

    Testing and assessment

    Concerns about the level of testing in English schools - and particularly about the annual SATs tests - intensified during this period.

    The QCA urged schools to stop 'drilling' pupils for the tests. Chief executive Ken Boston warned that 'in many schools too much teaching time is taken up with practice tests and preparing for the key stage tests in English, mathematics and science, at the expense of actual teaching in these core subjects and other areas' (The Guardian 11 August 2007).

    Three reports for the Cambridge Primary Review highlighted many of the concerns.

    One found that national tests at 7 and 11 left most children stressed and led to a 'pervasive anxiety' about their lives and the world they were growing up in. Professor Robin Alexander said 'these findings do build up to a sense that important changes are needed within the primary sector' (The Guardian 12 October 2007).

    Another noted that English children were among the youngest in the world to start formal learning and were the most tested throughout their education. It found that parents were increasingly seeking alternative forms of education such as home schooling or Steiner schools to free their children from the state sector's regime of testing and targets (The Guardian 8 February 2008).

    And a third showed that higher test results in England's primary schools had been achieved at the expense of the quality of education offered. Teacher-pupil relationships had been eroded by a focus on whole-class teaching and preparation for 'high stakes' national tests (The Guardian 29 February 2008).

    CSFC Report on Testing and Assessment

    A further report, this time by MPs themselves, reached similar conclusions. The House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee report on Testing and Assessment, published in May 2008, warned the government that SATs tests had distorted the education of millions of children because schools focused on getting them through the tests rather than improving their knowledge and understanding. Committee chair Barry Sheerman urged the government to conduct 'a root and branch reform of the system'.

    The report recommended:

  • Download Testing and Assessment (pdf text 631kb).

    Although the government was adamant it would keep the tests in England (they had already been abolished in other parts of the UK), it did at least make some attempt to respond to the worries about them by trialling new 'lighter touch' tests. More than 400 schools took part in the two-year 'Making Good Progress' pilot project in which children were tested when their teachers felt they were ready rather than at the end of the key stage. Ministers hoped the new tests, which formed part of the Children's Plan, would replace the existing SATs tests from 2010 (The Guardian 9 May 2008).

    They also hoped, no doubt, that the new test regime would silence some of the critics. But disaster was about to strike.

    SATs fiasco

    First, schools reported widespread IT problems with the summer's SATs tests: markers struggled with the new online marking system and schools were unable to log on to register students at the start of this week's tests (The Guardian 16 May 2008).

    Then the publication of results for 11 and 14 year olds was delayed. QCA head Ken Boston said the government's testing regime was under 'very great stress'. He told an emergency Commons select committee meeting that he was considering legal action against ETS, the American company which had failed to deliver the year's SATs results on time. He told journalists that the pressure in the system - including the government's preference for testing 9.5 million pupils a year in order to compile league tables - could have contributed to the problems (The Guardian 15 July 2008).

    Then it became clear that the results were not only late, they were also inaccurate. ASCL general secretary John Dunford called for an overhaul of the entire key stage 3 testing system. He said:

    The government and Ofsted use the SATs results to make judgements about whether schools will fail their inspections and heads can lose their jobs as a result. The results need to be accurate and schools will be much angrier at lack of accuracy than delay. Results will be scrutinised this year as never before and the number of appeals is almost certain to rocket. (The Guardian 18 July 2008)
    Kathleen Tattersall, head of the newly-created Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual) warned that if the results proved to be as inaccurate as reports suggested, the government should annul them.

    And two of the three major exam boards confirmed that they were not bidding for the five-year 165m contract to run the SATs because they did not believe there was a strong enough educational rationale for them (The Guardian19 July 2008).

    Ministers ordered an inquiry into the fiasco, to be led by Lord Sutherland.

    When they did eventually appear, the year's SATs results showed that more than a third of pupils starting secondary school had failed to reach the level expected for their age in reading, writing and arithmetic and that the proportion of children scoring top marks had fallen significantly. Head teachers said it could be because schools were neglecting the brightest pupils so as to focus their effort on getting as many pupils as possible up to the national targets (The Guardian 6 August 2008).

    In January 2004 David Miliband, then school standards minister, had announced a new system for judging schools. Since then, schools had been given a 'contextualised value added' score (CVA), which took into account the number of students on free school meals and with special educational needs, ethnicity, age, gender and the spread of ability. Miliband had said CVA would be a 'fairer' way to judge schools.

    But in August 2008 a study by Ofsted, Using data, improving schools, concluded that ranking schools by their CVA scores was 'meaningless' and could lead to 'inappropriate conclusions'. Its author, David Jesson, professor of education at the University of York, warned the government to use CVA 'with care' and 'recognise its limitations'. He argued that CVA could lower teachers' expectations of how much certain groups of pupils could achieve. 'Misusing the data to predict future performance could depress expectations of groups of pupils that have performed less well in previous years', he said (The Guardian 6 August 2008).

    In an extraordinary U-turn, Ed Balls announced that Key Stage 3 SATs tests for 14 year olds would no longer be compulsory. (The change was made in the 2008 Education and Skills Act). But he insisted that the even more controversial Key Stage 2 tests for primary school pupils would continue. He told parliament that there would be extensive changes to the national testing system which would halve the testing burden on schools, and a new 'report card', based on a New York scheme, which would grade every school in England and give parents more information (The Guardian 15 October 2008).

    Teacher unions welcomed the scrapping of the Key Stage 3 tests but expressed 'bitter disappointment' at ministers' resolve to preserve those at Key Stage 2. NAHT general secretary Mick Brookes said: 'We are dismayed at the decision to keep the current test arrangements for 11 year olds. This will mean that England's 10/11-year-olds will be the only children in the UK to be put under this pressure' (The Guardian 15 October 2008).

    The government's announcement that Key Stage 3 SATs were effectively to be abolished resulted in a dramatic drop - around fifty per cent - in the number of teachers taking part in courses run by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Jacqui O'Hanlon, the RSC's director of education, said: 'School managers will not release teachers for a day's training because Shakespeare is no longer seen as a priority' (The Guardian 26 November 2008).

    Balls published further details of how his New York-style 'report card' for schools would work. It would pull together all the information currently available about schools into a single annual document, including test scores, ratings of how quickly children progressed, Ofsted scores and measures of child well-being through parent and pupil surveys. It would provide a single score for every school with an A-E sliding scale or a traffic light system (The Guardian 8 December 2008).

    QCA chief executive Ken Boston resigned three days before the publication of Lord Sutherland's report on the summer's SATs problems, saying he was 'taking responsibility' for the worst exam fiasco to hit schools in recent years. Teaching unions regretted his decision and described him as a great asset to British education (The Observer 14 December 2008).

    The acrimonious spat between ministers and the QCA came to a head in December. The QCA board disbanded the National Assessment Agency (NAA), responsible for the SATs tests, and suspended the agency's chief executive, David Gee. It also suspended Boston, having refused to accept his resignation. Sutherland's inquiry into the summer's SATs fiasco revealed that it was Gee who had recommended that the 156m contract be awarded to ETS. Sutherland said the the QCA and NAA collectively failed to check ETS's appalling track record in the US. The report blamed everyone involved: ETS was 'not fit for purpose', the QCA had failed to prevent the marking process spiralling into chaos, and DCSF officials had ignored the warning signs (The Guardian 17 December 2008).

    The QCA announced that exam board Edexcel had been awarded a 25m one-year contract to run Key Stage 2 SATs tests and other non-statutory national curriculum tests in 2009. Edexcel had previously held the SATs contract from 2005 to 2007. But the QCA warned that the rush to appoint Edexcel to run the 2009 tests had left little time to test marking systems to ensure they did not collapse again. Before he was suspended in mid-December Ken Boston had written to Balls, warning him that whilst Edexcel was committed to achieving the deadline, there was 'no guarantee that events will not cause them to miss it' (The Guardian 31 December 2008).

    SATs boycott

    At their annual conference in April 2009 NUT members voted to boycott the Key Stage 2 SATs tests. But instead of debating the sound educational reasons for doing so, they demanded a ten per cent pay rise and a minimum of a day a week to mark and prepare work. In The Guardian, Jenni Russell commented:

    What timing. What judgement. Here were militant employees with secure jobs and good pensions picking this particular moment in our economic history to demand less work for more money. Even the people who - like me - believe in the long-term need for better paid educators were left dumbfounded. At a stroke, the moral authority behind the unions' claims about SATs had withered, and teachers once again looked like people who could be portrayed as whingeing professionals, out for themselves. The government - which has always taken the line that national tests are an essential check on whether teachers are actually doing their job - must have breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. (Russell 2009)
    Just days after NUT members voted to boycott SATs, members of the rival NASUWT union did exactly the opposite: they threatened to strike if ministers abolished the tests. Ed Balls thus faced the possibility of industrial action whatever he chose to do (The Guardian 16 April 2009).

    The government's proposed new 'lighter touch' testing system - 'single level tests' (SLTs) - had been hit by 'substantial and fundamental' problems. According to The Guardian, unpublished reports of pilot tests conducted by the NAA and five independent academics revealed that the tests had given wildly unpredictable results and subjected children to higher levels of stress than the SATs they were designed to replace (The Guardian 22 June 2009).

    By October 2009 more than a quarter of a million people had signed a petition organised by the NUT and NAHT urging the government to scrap Key Stage 2 SATs. The two unions began exploring with their members whether there would be widespread support for a boycott of the tests (The Guardian 2 November 2009).

    In April 2010 head teacher members of the NUT and NAHT in England voted overwhelmingly for a boycott (The Guardian 16 April 2010).

    Ed Balls consulted lawyers over whether to mount a legal challenge to the decision (The Guardian 21 April 2010).

    Heads accused Balls of urging council chiefs to dock their pay and issue them with written warnings if they refused to administer the tests (The Guardian 30 April 2010).

    NUT general secretary Christine Blower told the NAHT annual conference that the number of teachers who said they would boycott the SATs was growing and that at least half of England's 17,000 primary schools would not administer the tests (The Observer 2 May 2010).

    The SATs began on Monday 10 May - four days after the general election. A quarter of all primary schools boycotted them - a significant proportion but disappointing, given the level of support for the boycott expressed by heads and teachers and the hostility to the tests among the wider public.

    Exams and qualifications


    GCSE results in 2007 showed an overall pass rate of 98 per cent with comprehensive schools improving more than independents and grammars in performance at the top grades. Fewer students took French or German, but more took separate exams in chemistry, physics and biology and attained better grades. ASCL general secretary John Dunford said:

    GCSE students this year submitted over 26m papers and pieces of coursework. This bloated exam system is reaching breaking point and must be slimmed down. Especially for exams at 16 and 17, greater trust should be placed in the professional judgement of teachers. (The Guardian 24 August 2007)
    The government barred state schools from offering Cambridge University exam board's new elite International GCSE in core subjects, raising fears that the divide between state and private schools would grow as independent schools were enthusiastic about the new qualification (The Guardian 4 November 2009).

    A Levels

    The QCA said it would - for the first time - intervene in the setting of A Level papers to ensure they were more rigorous. Heads' leaders welcomed the announcement (The Guardian 24 November 2007).


    The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual) was launched on 16 May 2008. Its head, Kathleen Tattersall, promised to investigate the 'reliability' of exams (The Guardian 16 May 2008).


    The first five of the government's new diplomas - in construction, media, engineering, IT and society, and health and development - were due to be introduced in September 2008 for 40,000 students in 900 schools and colleges. By 2011 14 vocational diplomas would be available, and in October 2007 Ed Balls announced that three more diplomas, in science, languages and humanities, would be added to these. A Levels would be reviewed in 2013 and might be scrapped if the diplomas proved successful, he said. NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott said the move represented a 'fundamental change of heart' by the government, which, under Tony Blair, had rejected Mike Tomlinson's 2004 proposals to end the historic divide between academic and vocational education (The Guardian 24 October 2007).

    In March 2008, Balls announced that an extended diploma with more emphasis on academic skills to prepare students for university would also be introduced in 2011. He hoped the new qualification would be backed by the universities. Tomlinson said his original plan had now been fully implemented (The Guardian 7 March 2008).

    But the diplomas were not without their critics:

    • the Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee report on Testing and Assessment, published in May 2008, warned that the introduction of diplomas for 14 to 19 year olds was in danger of being undermined by insufficient teacher training, and urged ministers to end uncertainty in schools by deciding whether to abolish A Levels and GCSEs after the diplomas were introduced;
    • leading independent schools said the diplomas were too complex and decided to opt out;
    • researchers at ULIE warned of a widening gap between vocational and academic education, as private schools increasingly opted for a new range of academically elite qualifications, including the international baccalaureates and Cambridge University's Pre-U (The Guardian 30 June 2008); and
    • in October 2008 the Commons public accounts committee warned that the government's plan to introduce diplomas to replace A Levels and GCSEs in England was at risk because the new qualification was not seen as credible by parents, employers and universities. Nearly 30,000 had been spent for each of the 20,000 students who had just started diplomas and it was intended that the courses should be available to every 14 to 19 year old within five years. But, the MPs said, the government didn't know the future costs of the scheme, many schools and colleges were not ready, and students were confused about the purpose of the diplomas. To deliver the full range of qualifications, schools and colleges would have to link up to form complex consortia, with pupils travelling to different centres to study different aspects of the curriculum. The report commended the aim of ending the academic-vocational divide but warned that careers guidance was so poor that pupils might be confused by the extra option of diplomas on top of the GCSEs, A Levels and vocational courses already available (The Guardian 7 October 2008).

    Election battleground

    Qualifications rapidly became a key election issue. As the 2009 exam results season began, the Conservatives accused the government of encouraging children to give up academic GCSEs in favour of vocational qualifications. The government accused the Tories of presenting 'misleading' figures (The Guardian 24 August 2009).

    There was a clear divide between the aims of Ball and Gove. Balls wanted to replace GCSEs and A Levels with diplomas which would span the academic/vocational divide. Gove wanted all children to have a purely academic grounding at least until the age of 16. Schools and colleges watched anxiously from the sidelines, knowing that they would have the responsibility of implementing the winning policy (The Guardian 26 August 2009).

    Andrew Hall took up his post as the new chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), facing the possibility that if the Conservatives won the forthcoming general election he might quickly be out of a job (The Guardian 3 November 2009).


    Building Schools for the Future

    The Commons education select committee published its report on the early stages of the 45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. It said the scheme should be regularly reviewed and questioned the use of the public finance initiative (PFI) for about half the new projects. Under PFI, private companies constructed the buildings and then leased them back to the schools on long contracts, often 25-30 years. The committee noted that central government often pressured local authorities into accepting academies as part of the BSF scheme and it argued that local authorities should have more freedom over the regeneration of schools (The Guardian 9 August 2007).

    In October 2007 the new Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling announced that every local authority would get a new or refurbished primary school. A 200m fund would pay for building work for 75 schools by 2011, doubling the planned primary school building programme over the next three years (The Guardian 10 October 2007).

    But the BSF programme had been beset with problems over its four-year history, as local authorities struggled to set up the PFI partnerships which provided most of the funding. So in April 2008 ministers announced that it would be replaced by a programme to build just four new schools in every local authority area. A DCSF spokesman said there were still 'ambitions' for every school to have a plan in place, even if building work hadn't started by 2020 (The Guardian 10 April 2008).

    And an audit conducted by the government's architecture watchdog, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), said that eight out of ten designs for secondary schools proposed under the BSF initiative were 'mediocre' or 'not yet good enough' and only one in five were considered to be 'good' or 'excellent'. Problems identified in the forty proposed designs which were reviewed by CABE included bullying hotspots in secluded yards, noisy open plan areas which made teaching difficult, and classrooms which were too dark or prone to overheating on sunny afternoons (The Guardian 21 July 2008).

    Academies and trust schools

    While Tony Blair had been prime minister, Gordon Brown seemed to have little enthusiasm for academies and trust schools - at least, he had said very little about them until three months before Blair resigned. Then, in his first public pronouncement on the subject, he had praised the 'tremendous success of the academy movement' (The Guardian 20 March 2007).

    As prime minister, however, he seemed happy enough for Ed Balls to continue - indeed, to expand and intensify - the policy of handing over the education of the nation's children to used car salesmen, carpet manufacturers and, of course, 'faith groups'.

    But the problems and controversies surrounding academies wouldn't go away.

    Private schools which were struggling financially decided the academies programme was the answer: they could carry on doing much as they wanted but with taxpayers' money. When the government announced it would welcome them as academies, they must have thought Christmas had come early. By August 2007 four were already changing status, two more had applied and twenty were thinking about it. Other private schools were considering sponsorship of academies and Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, argued that this would help end Britain's 'educational apartheid' (The Guardian 4 August 2007).

    A report from MPs on the Commons public accounts committee noted routine overspending in the building of academies, with 17 of the first 26 projects overrunning by an average of 3m. And it warned that academies were still using exclusions to get behaviour under control, breaking laws by procuring services from their sponsors, and failing to engage with local communities (The Guardian 18 October 2007).

    Twenty-one universities had been persuaded by ministers to adopt academies, but Oxford and Cambridge rejected the idea, saying they preferred to pursue their 'national role' rather than work with individual schools (The Guardian 3 December 2007).

    Arms company BAE Systems, which was under criminal investigation in Britain, the US and Europe over corruption allegations, offered 400,000 to sponsor an academy in Barrow-in-Furness, where it built nuclear submarines. Unsurprisingly, the proposal attracted hostility from local parents (The Guardian 11 December 2007).

    Major changes at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) saw its forty-strong council replaced with a new board of twelve directors, and Sir Cyril Taylor, who had chaired the Trust for twenty years, replaced by Sir James Hill, chair of governors of a Bradford academy. Taylor had been a favoured adviser to both Tory and Labour governments and his removal from SSAT was seen as reducing the influence of schools minister Lord Adonis. Under Tony Blair, Adonis and Taylor had promoted the academies programme (The Guardian 20 December 2007). Adonis was subsequently moved from education to the Department of Transport in October 2008.

    Desperate to find more sponsors, Ed Balls had already exempted some universities, colleges and schools from raising the 2m fee to sponsor an academy. Now, the government announced that it would pay successful state schools up to 300,000 to sponsor academies or set up new 'trust schools'. 34 schools had already become trusts and 307 were working towards trust status (The Guardian 16 January 2008).

    The Church of England announced plans to convert some existing cathedral schools into academies as part of its target of establishing a hundred of the schools. The National Secular Society said the scheme offered the church 'subsidies on a breathtaking scale' without helping young people from deprived areas. Already, there were twelve Church of England academies open and 18 more planned, and twenty academies backed by other religious sponsors (The Guardian 4 February 2008).

    Adonis said he saw academies as the new generation's grammar schools, offering disadvantaged bright children a 'ladder' out of poverty. He said:

    My vision is for academies to be in the vanguard of meritocracy for the next generation in the way that grammar schools were for a proportion of the post-war generation - providing a ladder, in particular, for less advantaged children to get on, and gain the very best education and qualifications, irrespective of wealth and family background, but without unfair selection at the age of 11.
    Anti-academy campaigners said that setting up 'quasi-grammar schools' would lead to a two-tier system of education (The Guardian 8 February 2008).

    In a paper published by the Reform think-tank, Richard Tice, chairman of Northampton academy and member of the United Learning Trust (ULT) board, the largest academy sponsor, said the government should make it easier for academies to exclude the worst-behaved pupils (they were already excluding ten times as many pupils as other state schools) and sack poorly performing teachers. Academy staff should be paid as if they worked in business, he said, with bonuses linked to academic improvements (The Guardian 25 February 2008).

    Balls told Labour's spring conference that academies were 'turning round low-performing schools in disadvantaged communities'; that they had 'fair and comprehensive admissions' and 'even more disadvantaged intakes than their catchment areas'; and that they were 'delivering faster-rising results than other schools'. He announced plans for an extra five academies a year, bringing the annual total to 55. Balls believed that the changes he had made to the governance, curriculum requirements and sponsorship regime of academies would remove concerns that they were going to be selective and outside the local authority structure (The Guardian 29 February 2008).

    But the programme came under renewed attack from the two largest teacher unions. At their annual conference in Birmingham, members of the NASUWT passed a motion to ballot members on industrial action in schools which were forced to become academies against the wishes of the staff. And the head of the NUT said academies were compelling teachers to choose either to sign legal documents committing them to the 'values' of their new sponsors or to leave their jobs without compensation (The Guardian 26 March 2008).

    The government announced 115 new trust schools, including the first co-operative trust school, in Stockport, Greater Manchester, where pupils, parents and teachers were to be involved in decision-making (The Guardian 10 April 2008).

    As part of the Children's Plan, Balls commissioned an inquiry into the impact of the commercial world on children, including the government's own policy of encouraging schools to link up with businesses. It was to be led by David Buckingham, a professor at ULIE and a leading authority on children and the media (The Guardian 19 May 2008).

    Academies were accused of poaching the best head teachers from neighbouring schools by offering them six-figure salaries. Ministers claimed that academies had almost doubled the proportion of their pupils getting five good GCSEs but teacher unions said this had been at a cost to other state schools, which were helpless to compete against the high salaries paid by academies (The Guardian 9 June 2008).

    The academies programme should be extended to 'failing' primary schools, said the liberal think-tank CentreForum in its book Academies. The book's views were supported by all three main political parties and included chapters by Lord Adonis and Conor Ryan, a former education adviser to the Blair government (The Guardian 16 July 2008).

    Fifty-one new academies opened in September 2008. Ministers claimed that academies had out-performed other schools in GCSE results but neglected to mention that in nine of the 36 oldest academies GCSE scores had declined (The Guardian 30 August 2008).

    According to research by insurance company Zurich, private schools were rejecting the government's attempts to encourage them to sponsor academies - just six per cent of independent schools had considered doing so (The Guardian 12 September 2008).

    Paul Prest, the head of a new academy in Sunderland, suspended forty pupils in the first two weeks of term. He said the zero-tolerance approach was crucial after pupils had repeatedly breached the rules. Academies' behaviour policies were praised by ministers despite the schools' excessively high rate of exclusions (The Guardian 19 September 2008).

    Amey plc, the private sponsor of Middlesbrough's Unity City Academy, told the government it no longer wished to sponsor the school (The Guardian 10 October 2008).

    The City Academy Bristol, which the government had listed as one of its 'National Challenge' schools because of its poor performance, announced that it was proposing to open fee-charging branches in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The move was promoted by Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, which was also planning to open a number of foreign branches. Ray Priest, the head teacher of the City Academy Bristol, said opening 'branded schools' overseas would help to establish his academy as a 'global educational establishment' (The Guardian 10 October 2008).

    An independent inquiry into the academies programme by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), commissioned by the government, showed that results had improved markedly but that the proportion of pupils the schools took from the poorest homes had shrunk, supporting claims by critics that more able students were being selected to improve results. The inquiry raised doubts about the planned expansion of the programme and warned of shortages of heads and sponsors. Separate figures, obtained by the Liberal Democrats through a parliamentary question, revealed the extent of the drop in the number of pupils on free school meals in academies. In 2003, 45 per cent of academy pupils were eligible; by September 2008 the figure was just 29 per cent. The 16 per cent drop in academies compared with a 1.7 per cent fall across England as a whole (The Guardian 14 November 2008).

    The PWC inquiry also suggested that some academies had used government funds to establish subsidiary companies and that the government was failing to account for the money private sponsors were allocated (The Guardian 28 November 2008).

    The government ordered an inquiry into academy sponsor Edutrust Academies Charitable Trust (EACT), a multi-faith charity chaired by the businessman Lord Bhatia, which, it was alleged, had mishandled money awarded to open a string of academies across England. The DCSF launched an inquiry into concerns raised by the charity's former chief executive, whose contract was terminated days after he complained of irregularities in 'governance and financing' at the organisation (The Guardian 28 November 2008).

    Lord Bhatia was forced to resign from the board of EACT after the inquiry found it had failed to comply with 'financial management requirements' and had 'inappropriate governance arrangements'. Ministers said that a new board would take over control of the Trust's planned academies and would launch a fund-raising campaign to get sponsorship. EACT was due to open eight of the 80 academies being launched in September 2009 (The Guardian 13 March 2009).

    One of the government's newest academies, Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, was forced to close for a day when demonstrations by pupils got out of hand. Staff threatened to strike over pay cuts, parents demanded an emergency Ofsted inspection, the school failed and was placed in special measures. Chief executive Peter Noble and head teacher Mark Yearsley resigned. Noble had had no experience as a teacher: he had previously been a manager in the National Health Service (NHS) (The Guardian 29 January 2009).

    Schools minister Jim Knight confirmed that the government would consider applications for academy status from private schools struggling to stave off closure. Anthony Seldon, head teacher of Wellington College, said becoming an academy would not be the 'move of choice' for many private schools, but it could be their only option. Teachers' leaders said it amounted to a 'bail-out' for failing private schools. Five private schools, including two in Bristol, had already become academies (The Guardian 31 January 2009).

    By 2009, academies were seen by both Labour and the Conservatives as the future of education. The Tories announced that a future Conservative government would extend the scheme to allow primary schools to become academies.

    But there was still opposition from parents and local communities:

    • in Furness parents raised a 6,000-signature petition against the imposition of an academy, four campaigners had been elected to the district council, and the campaign group Our Schools Are Not for Sale was expected to win seats on the county council;
    • in Northampton plans to replace Unity College, a Church of England secondary school, with an academy were shelved for a year after parents presented a 1,000-signature petition against it;
    • in Croydon an advertisement for the role of principal of one of two academies planned for the borough was published before consultation meetings had taken place;
    • in Durham the county council and sponsors planned to open three new academies in 2012: there was strong local opposition and teachers considered industrial action; and
    • there was also strong opposition to academies in Derby, Dudley, Preston and Tamworth and some sponsors withdrew. (The Guardian 5 May 2009)
    The government warned academy sponsors to expect cuts in funding but said it was still planning to expand the number of academies. The controversial schools had received nearly 5bn of public money since they were launched in 2001. 130 academies were already open, 67 were due to open in the autumn term 2009 and a hundred more were planned for September 2010. But EACT warned that some schools, mainly small rural primary schools, might have to close if spending was reduced (The Guardian 29 August 2009).

    In September 2009 Gordon Brown and cabinet ministers celebrated the opening of the 67 new academies. Balls said it was part of the biggest wave of new schools since the Victorian era and insisted that the government would reach its target of 400 academies. In a sign that ministers were desperate to keep the academies programme going, he announced that the government would abandon its policy of charging charities, businesses and individuals a 2m sponsorship fee to run the schools. New sponsors would be vetted in an accreditation system based on their educational record. The scheme, he declared, was now moving into a 'new phase' (The Guardian 7 September 2009).

    But, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned:

    The case hasn't been made for academies. We have a target which will mean one in ten secondaries are academies and the jury is still out on whether academies work. Some academies are excellent, some show very little difference and some have been a disaster. It can be a dangerous experiment. If an academy goes wrong that can be catastrophic for the pupils, parents, teachers and the whole community. (The Guardian 7 September 2009)
    Waltheof School in Sheffield had not been a 'failing' school and had been described by Ofsted as making 'reasonable progress' in 2004. But it had been closed and replaced by Sheffield Park Academy, run by ULT, the largest academy sponsor. In July 2009 school inspectors rated it 'inadequate' in all categories. It was the third academy to have failed an inspection. ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said the news strengthened the case for a fresh investigation into academies (The Guardian 13 September 2009).

    Sheffield Park wasn't the only ULT academy causing concerns. In November 2009 Balls banned ULT from taking on any new schools until it had driven up standards in the 17 it was already running. ULT, an Anglican charity chaired by former Tory education minister Angela Rumbold, also ran ten private schools (The Guardian 5 November 2009).

    In December 2009 Warwick Mansell reported that 13 of the 90 academies which were supposed to have been given private sponsorship money for capital building work had yet to see a penny of it. In total, sponsors had so far paid barely two-thirds of the 145m they were supposed to have paid towards capital costs in the seven years since the first of England's 200 academies had opened, despite the fact that these financial commitments were written into the contracts academy sponsors had had to sign 'to gain control of decisions on the curriculum, staffing and assets of these quasi-independent institutions, funded mainly by taxpayers' (Mansell 2009b).

    Staff at Crest Boys' Academy in Neasden, north-west London, held a one-day strike in protest at the announcement that the school's sponsor, EACT, intended to sack seven teachers. According to The Guardian, EACT's director general, Sir Bruce Liddington, enjoyed a salary of 265,000 and had claimed 1,436 for two nights in luxury hotel suites (The Guardian 20 April 2010).

    Faith schools

    Conscious of growing public unease at the increasing number of religious schools, Balls and leaders of the major faiths published Faith in the System. In return for state funding of their schools (ninety per cent of building costs and all running costs), faith groups agreed to 'promote social cohesion'. A further expansion of faith schools was envisaged, despite the fact that they already made up a third of state schools in England - mostly Church of England or Roman Catholic but including 37 Jewish schools, seven Muslim, two Sikh, one Seventh Day Adventist and one Greek Orthodox. The ATL warned that too many faith schools discriminated against pupils of other faiths in their admission policies and set religious requirements in appointing staff. ATL questioned why schools 'in which the majority of funding comes from the state, should, as the government proposes, nurture children in a particular faith' (The Guardian 10 September 2007).

    Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland the Roman Catholic Church was instructing its schools to disband Amnesty International support groups because of the organisation's pro-abortion stance (The Guardian 18 September 2007).

    Worse, Bishop of Lancaster Patrick O'Donoghue issued a 66-page document in which he instructed Catholic schools in his area to stop 'safe-sex' education, put a crucifix in every classroom, use science to teach about the 'truths of the faith', only mention sex within the 'sacrament of marriage', insist that contraception was wrong and prohibit support for charities 'that promote or fund anti-life policies, such as Red Nose Day and Amnesty International, which now advocates abortion'. The Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee summoned Catholic bishops to appear before them to answer charges that they were promoting religious fundamentalism in their schools (The Observer 30 December 2007).

    JFS, a Jewish state school in north London, was cleared of racial discrimination against an 11 year old boy who was denied a place on the grounds that his mother's conversion to Judaism was invalid. High court judge Mr Justice Munby said 'The core aim of JFS is to educate those whom it, in common with the OCR [Office of the Chief Rabbi], considers to be Jews, irrespective of their practice or observance, and in an ethos which is avowedly Orthodox Jewish. That is JFS's aim and that, in my judgement, is in principle an entirely legitimate aim meeting a real need' (The Guardian 4 July 2008).

    In September 2008 it became legal for state-funded faith schools to include religion as a selection criterion for teaching and non-teaching posts. In response, a coalition of Hindu, Christian and Humanist organisations launched the 'Accord' campaign to stop state-funded schools from discriminating against students and teachers on the grounds of religion. Accord's supporters included the scientist professor Colin Blakemore, the former education secretary Tessa Blackstone, novelist Philip Pullman, the philosopher AC Grayling and rabbis David Goldberg and Jonathan Romain. Goldberg said faith schools caused people 'to live parallel lives' (The Guardian 30 August 2008).

    Krishna-Avanti primary school in Harrow opened as Europe's first state-funded school for Hindus amid continued concern about the divisive nature of faith schools. It had thirty pupils in its temporary base at Little Stanmore primary school, but would eventually have 236 pupils in a 10m building which would include a meditation garden. Jonathan Romain, commented: 'Some parents will feel reassured by a school that shares their faith and cultural background, but everybody should also be aware of the impact this may have - limiting their children's knowledge of and interaction with children from other cultures, and also depriving other community schools of Hindu participation' (The Guardian 15 September 2008).

    Year eight pupils at St Monica's Roman Catholic High School in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, were to have been vaccinated against cervical cancer as part of the government's 100m programme to vaccinate all 14 to 18 year old girls. But the school's governors banned the girls from having the vaccination at school, against the advice of the Catholic Education Service, which backed the government's campaign against the human papilloma virus (The Guardian 25 September 2008).

    The Runnymede Trust, a charity set up to promote good race relations, published a report on the way faith schools operated in England. It said the schools should stop selecting pupils according to their religion and do more to serve the most disadvantaged children. Rob Berkeley, the trust's deputy director and author of the report, said:

    Given the importance of issues around cohesion, it's time for a shift, so that schools that are funded by taxpayers are responsive and reflect the needs of all pupils and not just those of a particular religion. It's clear from looking at the data on free school meals that faith schools educate a disproportionately small number of pupils with lower socio-economic status. (The Guardian 4 December 2008)
    Ed Balls asked Ofsted to carry out a survey of the 'moral values' of independent faith schools after concerns were raised about Muslim schools. Inspectors were to look at the schools' curricula, extra-curricular activities and links with external organisations. Since 2003, independent schools had been required to enable pupils to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence, to distinguish right from wrong, to respect the law, to have a broad general knowledge of England's public institutions and services and to appreciate and respect their own and other cultures in a way that promoted 'tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions' (The Guardian 9 March 2009).

    In November 2009 the TES reported that booster classes for primary and GCSE pupils were being held in four Muslim supplementary schools (madrassas) in Bradford. The pilot scheme, funded with 550,000 of public money over three years, was said to be making a difference to pupils' exam results, but the scheme was controversial. National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said:

    These institutions are devoted almost entirely to pumping Islam into the heads of their pupils. We need to know who will keep tabs on these indoctrination centres to ensure taxpayers' money is properly spent. Although there is no suggestion that the Yorkshire scheme is suspect, if this kind of idea rolls out, who knows what will happen? (TES 6 November 2009)
    Covert selection by faith schools

    Schools minister Jim Knight warned schools he would crack down on any breaches of the new admissions code, which had been in operation for twelve months and was designed to prevent selection and social segregation, after it emerged that nearly eighty schools - mainly faith schools - had been reported to the admissions watchdog and accused of covertly selecting more able students (The Guardian 18 January 2008).

    Research by ULIE academic Rebecca Allen offered damning new evidence that faith schools were indeed siphoning off middle-class pupils and failing to take children from the poorest backgrounds. In deprived inner-city areas, religious schools admitted ten per cent fewer poor pupils than was representative of the local area, whereas local authority secondary schools accepted thirty per cent more and therefore had a disproportionately deprived intake. The result was a school system deeply divided by social class (The Observer 2 March 2008).

    Allen's research also showed that faith schools admitted over fifty per cent more pupils in the top quarter of the ability range (The Guardian 13 March 2008).

    The chief schools adjudicator, Philip Hunter, said more than half of all school authorities - local councils and faith schools - were breaching the new admissions code, which aimed to prevent the covert selection of pupils. There had been 'widespread' failure by schools to remove discriminatory questions about parents' marital and employment status from application forms and to make clearer the definitions in their admissions rules. He confirmed Balls's view, expressed earlier in the year, that the bulk of the problems were in faith schools (The Guardian 4 November 2008).

    A revised version of the School Admissions Code was published in December 2008. It banned schools from holding interviews or asking parents to make financial contributions or offer practical support. All admissions authorities - including faith schools - were to consult with parents and the local community and improve the information parents received on the admissions process (The Guardian 4 December 2008).


    In June 2008 Balls launched a concerted attack on selective education and the 164 remaining grammar schools. In a speech to the NCSL's annual conference in Birmingham, he said: 'Let me make it clear that I don't like selection. I accept though that selection is a local decision for parents and local authorities. But I do not accept that children in secondary moderns should be left to fall behind.' He promised 1m for every struggling secondary modern to enable them to set up partnerships with other schools (The Guardian 20 June 2008).

    Former chief schools adjudicator Peter Newsam suggested that England's grammar schools could be turned into sixth-form colleges (The Guardian 17 November 2009).

    Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland Sinn Féin education minister Catriona Ruane had abolished the official 11 plus test but Roman Catholic grammar schools in the province - along with 34 state grammar schools whose pupils were mostly Protestant - were determined to fight the decision. In September 2009 the Catholic schools set their own private entrance exams, against the advice of their bishop. Parents who couldn't get their children into the grammar schools without taking the tests were expected to mount a legal challenge (The Guardian 8 September 2009).

    Ulster Unionists refused to support the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Stormont assembly on 7 March - the 'Hillsborough' deal which was vital to keep the assembly in operation - unless an agreement could be reached on testing primary school children (The Guardian 12 February 2010).

    Private schools

    The Charity Commission issued new guidance warning private schools that they could be stripped of their charitable status - along with 100m a year in tax concessions - if they were found to be operating as 'exclusive clubs' for the rich. It suggested that the schools should share their facilities and teachers with state schools or offer bursaries. Independent school leaders welcomed the guidance, but some MPs said it did not go far enough (The Guardian 16 January 2008).

    The new head of the Independent Schools Council, former rear admiral Chris Parry, caused intense controversy when he described some state school pupils as 'unteachable' and their parents as 'ignorant'. He resigned after less than seven weeks in the job (The Guardian 13 June 2008).

    'Failing' schools: The National Challenge

    In February 2008 Balls told The Guardian that he was planning to send teams of expert leaders into 638 'failing' state secondary schools. Local authorities had until the summer to develop individual 'action plans' for the schools and if they didn't improve they would have to become academies or trust schools, or close altogether (The Guardian 25 February 2008).

    A fortnight later, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling warned that the deadline for the 638 schools to improve or face closure would be brought forward to 2011. He announced a 200m plan to give the schools intensive support (The Guardian 13 March 2008).

    Balls launched the 'National Challenge' on 10 June 2008, with funding of 400m. Its target was that at least thirty per cent of pupils in each secondary school should achieve a minimum of five A*-C grade GCSEs including English and maths by 2011.

    It aimed to tackle 'the link between deprivation and attainment' and offered 'targeted help for teaching and learning', support to develop strong leadership, the flexibility to design 'local bespoke solutions' and 'more radical changes' such as the setting up of academies and National Challenge Trusts 'where this would benefit the school'.

    Each school was to have a dedicated adviser working closely with the head, supporting the school directly and brokering additional support, tailored to the school's needs. The formation of partnerships between schools would be encouraged.

    But the language was not all positive. Local authorities were told (yet again) to produce within fifty days detailed 'action plans' for each of the 638 secondary schools which the government deemed to be 'failing'. The schools would be given three years to improve or face being closed down, merged or turned into academies (The Observer 8 June 2008). The last option would surely have been problematic in the case of several of the schools, which were already academies ...

    ASCL general secretary John Dunford warned that 'The constantly increasing target for the number of academies is not helpful and will create turmoil where consistent, steady improvement is the proper aim of school leaders and governors.' While the 400m injection was welcome, schools would 'not be helped by the threat of closure or academy status which will hang over many of these schools for the next three years', he said (The Guardian 11 June 2008).

    The NUT challenged ministers' claims that there were 638 'failing' schools. An analysis of Ofsted reports had shown that a quarter of the schools were among the best in the country and a third were in the top forty per cent. Half were considered to be satisfactory and meeting pupils' needs. NUT acting general secretary Christine Blower wrote to the heads of the 638 schools offering support in fighting against the 'arbitrary target' and threat of closure. Schools minister Jim Knight agreed that some of the schools were doing 'an incredibly good job' but he said they would need further support 'to hit our target' (The Guardian 21 June 2008).

    Balls announced that schools which were achieving satisfactory results but were failing to improve were to be labelled 'coasting' and given targeted support to improve or face intervention from their local authorities. Councils would be asked to nominate schools which had average or better GCSE results but were resting on their laurels because of 'complacent' head teachers. Hundreds of schools were expected to be identified, including some grammar schools. Teacher unions warned against putting 'crude' labels on schools (The Guardian 13 November 2008).

    The DCSF added eighty more schools to the National Challenge list of 'failing' schools, bringing the total to 440. However, data in the annual school league tables showed that more than 200 of these schools had done well enough to move above the government's threshold of thirty per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and maths. 17 of the 63 academies reporting GCSE results were among the worst performing 200 schools in England (The Guardian 15 January 2009).

    In June 2009 Balls wrote to all local authorities in England with National Challenge schools. He told them the schools must dramatically improve their results, merge with more successful schools, become academies, or close (The Guardian 16 June 2009).

    Other developments


    The QCA published plans for a reduced curriculum for 11 to 14 year olds in England, to be introduced from September 2008. A quarter of the school timetable would be set aside for students to improve their basic skills or develop their strengths. The new regime would include cookery (though unions feared many schools no longer had the facilities for this), citizenship (to include work on 'British values' and 'national identity'), and an optional 'economic well-being and financial capability' strand in PSHE, which was now said to refer to 'personal, social, health and economic well-being' (The Guardian 13 July 2007).

    In September 2007, Balls announced a catch-up programme for writing skills in primary schools, and the establishment of an independent exam standards body reporting directly to parliament. Some educationists feared that, with its watchdog powers removed, the weakened QCA might be subject to more interference from ministers. Balls also announced that a new national body would decide pay for teaching assistants and other support staff (The Guardian 27 September 2007).

    Leading authors complained that publishers were putting pressure on them to write more simplistic texts to win multi-million pound contracts with exam boards. Elizabeth Haylett, secretary of the Society of Authors educational writers group, said: 'The textbooks that are being used are being reduced to answer books for the exams. There's no opportunity for children to read beyond the test. They are learning parrot-fashion.' One science textbook author had even been told to write a factually incorrect answer because there was an error in the curriculum and the book had to match (The Guardian 1 December 2007).

    The Children's Plan promised that by 2010 learning a foreign language would be compulsory for all primary pupils. But there were problems at secondary level. In 2007 the number of candidates taking GCSE French was eight per cent lower than in the previous year, German more than ten per cent lower. Research for the National Centre for Languages showed that more than half of England's secondary schools were now teaching languages to less than half their GCSE pupils. To attempt to revive language teaching in schools, ministers announced that a 53m package (5m more than in the previous year): pupils would be offered intensive language classes and university students would be sent into schools as 'ambassadors' for languages (The Guardian 20 December 2007).

    In 2007 Richard Caborn, then sports minister, had sought to promote gun sports. In the year following his remarks, gun groups claimed that the number of schools providing rifle ranges for pupils had 'surged'. One local authority was planning to introduce shooting at 16 of its schools, and an academy due to open in September 2008 in a deprived area of south Bristol was to have a shooting range. Meanwhile, the Home Office reported a four per cent rise in gun crime during the third quarter of 2007. Lyn Costello, co-founder of Mothers Against Murder and Aggression said:

    There is no reason why children should play with toy guns at five let alone real ones at 15. In the present climate we should not be encouraging children to use guns. We have to stop this ... It's disgusting that on a weekly basis young people are being killed and then we're spending taxpayers' money on teaching them to shoot. (The Guardian 26 January 2008)
    The government committed 775m over three years to increase the minimum amount of school sport from two to five hours a week by 2012. Specialists said that without major changes to the system, particularly in specialist teacher training, the five-hour target might not be achievable (The Guardian 2 February 2008).

    At their annual conference in Torquay, members of the ATL heckled schools minister Jim Knight when he suggested it was 'perfectly acceptable' to teach maths to pupils in classes of up to 70 (The Guardian 20 March 2008).

    A study of the progress of 500 children by researchers from ULIE into the Every Child a Reader project showed that individual tuition helped to reduce the gender gap (The Guardian 9 May 2008).

    The government was determined that young children should be taught to read using basic phonics, to write short sentences and to use punctuation. It commissioned academics at ULIE to look into the effectiveness of these policies. Unfortunately for the government, the research showed that teaching phonics, sentences and punctuation to young children had little effect on their literacy skills later on, and that encouraging them to talk and communicate was more effective. So the government suppressed the report, which was released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Liberal Democrats (The Guardian 14 July 2008).

    As the new school year began, heads warned that pupils and teachers faced some of the biggest education reforms in twenty years, including:

    • a new early years foundation stage with nurseries having to assess pupils as young as three;
    • a new secondary curriculum for 11 to 14 year olds;
    • new requirements for GCSEs ('functional' maths and English tests);
    • changes in A Level syllabuses;
    • new diploma qualifications; and
    • the raising of the school leaving age to 17 by 2013 and to 18 by 2015.
    ASCL general secretary John Dunford said: 'There's never in my experience been so many changes in such a short time. Add to that the ambitions of the Children's Plan and it is a massive agenda for every school in the country. It's too much at once. Each of these changes has merit but the problem is the numbers that are coming at one time' (The Guardian 30 August 2008).

    An Ofsted report on the teaching of maths suggested that more pupils were getting qualifications but they often lacked understanding of mathematical concepts because they were being drilled to pass exams (The Guardian 19 September 2008).

    Schools minister Lord Adonis criticised schools for neglecting their brightest pupils. Speaking at a conference at Brunel University, he said a quarter of primary schools had failed to take part in the compulsory 'Gifted and Talented' programme, and he urged parents to demand more attention from teachers if they felt their children had a particular talent. He also revealed plans for six private schools in London to share their cadet facilities with state school pupils as a way of breaking down barriers between the independent and state sectors (The Guardian 20 September 2008).

    A report by the National Council of Education Excellence, a body set up by Gordon Brown, suggested that schools in England should be rated according to the proportion of their pupils who went on to top universities (The Guardian 3 October 2008).

    A report from the National Audit Office said the Labour government's drive to improve the nation's mathematical skills had levelled off, with nearly a quarter of 11 year olds failing to reach the expected level at the end of primary school. Girls were falling behind boys and needed particular attention. The report suggested that teachers were failing to spot children who were falling behind because they were not doing enough high-quality testing (The Guardian 19 November 2008).

    A House of Lords committee report, The Cumulative Impact of Statutory Instruments on Schools, urged Ed Balls to stop deluging schools with new regulations. Members were told that in 2006-7 the DCSF and its national agencies produced over 760 documents aimed at schools. 'No single part of the department was aware of the totality of what was being offered', the report said. Head teachers welcomed the report. ASCL general secretary John Dunford said a 'juggernaut of policies, laws and regulations hurtles at ever increasing speed towards us, seemingly out of control'. Schools in England had been besieged by 79 policy consultations and at least 300 announcements from the DCSF in 2008 and expected an even greater number in 2009 (The Guardian 13 March 2009).

    Dunford was also concerned that the government was promoting what he described as the 'Tesco model' of schools. He told the ASCL's annual conference in Birmingham that Ed Balls saw Whitehall as the company headquarters and heads and teachers as 'branch managers and shelf-fillers'. He went on:

    This Tesco management model of England Schools plc ... is all summed up in that dreadful word 'compliance'. Compliance, I used to read in management books, is the lowest form of commitment, to be encouraged in those who have no job flexibility, no initiative and limited intelligence. Is this what ministers really want of their school leaders? I sincerely hope not. Yet that is how it sometimes feels.
    He said 'delivery' was the job of postal workers and midwives, not teachers and head teachers (The Guardian 15 March 2009).

    Ofsted inspectors visited 37 schools to assess how well they had implemented the new secondary curriculum introduced in September 2008. Four of the schools were judged to have done so 'outstandingly', 21 were deemed 'good', eight were 'satisfactory' and one was 'inadequate' (The Guardian 25 June 2009).

    In 2007 the government had announced plans to introduce a single funding mechanism for all nurseries, in the state and private sectors, for the free 12.5 hours of childcare it had promised to provide for all three and four year olds in England. It now asked local authorities to confirm by April 2010 how they would meet that pledge for September, when the entitlement would rise to 15 hours. State nurseries had historically received far more funding than private ones, and head teachers warned that, with no extra money on offer, the result would be a large transfer of government funding from state nurseries to private ones run for profit (The Guardian 2 November 2009).

    Ofsted visited 54 schools to evaluate the effectiveness of the national literacy and numeracy strategies. It found that in more than half the secondary schools and a third of primary schools, the programme had not rooted out 'weaknesses in basic teaching skills'. The concentration on English, maths and science had 'risked the neglect of other subjects' and teachers and local authority officers felt burdened by the deluge of initiatives which accompanied the strategies. Ed Balls had already announced that the national strategies would be scrapped as part of a move to end centralised control and promote more collaboration between schools (The Guardian 24 February 2010).



    Summerhill, the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Suffolk independent boarding school where children decide how to spend their time, swearing is allowed and, weather permitting, staff and students can sunbathe in the nude, had had a long battle with the government. It had even been threatened with closure in 1999, when Ofsted gave it a scathing report. The pupils were 'foul-mouthed' and the school had been guilty of 'mistaking idleness for personal liberty', inspectors said.

    But Ofsted's 2007 report on the school was glowing. 'Pupils' personal development, including their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, is outstanding', the inspectors concluded. Students were 'courteous, polite and considerate', made 'good progress' and were 'well-rounded, confident and mature' when they left (The Guardian 1 December 2007).

    The inspection regime

    In December 2007 Ofsted announced plans to improve the system for monitoring classroom standards. From 2009 its inspectors would conduct 'snap visits' to schools without giving the normal 48 hours' notice and would make greater use of 'local intelligence' - complaints from parents - to investigate schools where standards were feared to be slipping (The Guardian 13 December 2007).

    Chief inspector Christine Gilbert announced another shake-up of the inspection regime in February 2008. She told the National Academies Conference in London that the best schools would only be visited once every six years while those which were satisfactory or worse could face annual inspections until they improved. She added that Ofsted would focus more on the 'shocking' number of pupils who left primary schools without mastering the three Rs (The Guardian 8 February 2008).

    ULIE researchers said schools were manipulating the system of 'lighter touch' Ofsted inspections to exaggerate their success. Self-evaluation forms, introduced in 2005, allowed head teachers to give rosy judgements of their success which inspectors then failed to investigate, they said (The Guardian 24 March 2008).

    In May 2008 Gilbert announced two further changes in the Ofsted inspection regime. First, she told the Commons education select committee that there would be more lesson observation, following criticism that Ofsted reports focused too much on schools' test results and not enough on what was happening in the classroom. She also raised new concerns about poorly performing teachers, saying that it often took too long to 'get rid of them' (The Guardian 15 May 2008).

    Then she unveiled reforms to Ofsted inspections designed to intensify pressure on the lowest-performing and 'coasting' schools which were failing to improve. Standards had 'stalled', she said, and 'the gap between outcomes for specific groups of children and young people and the majority remains too large' (The Guardian 20 May 2008).

    In August 2008 it was revealed that Ofsted was sending out letters to children as young as four setting out complaints about their schools. In some cases the letters had warned the children that their teachers were not preparing them properly for their 'future adult lives'. NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said the letters were 'ill-conceived' and called for them to be scrapped. 'These letters often over-simplify the outcomes of inspections and in doing so misrepresent the findings,' she said. 'The letters in effect give licence to pupils to question the professionalism of the school and its staff.' An Ofsted spokeswoman said the letters were 'a valuable tool in engaging pupils in both the inspection and subsequent school improvement' (The Guardian 16 August 2008).

    In January 2009 Gilbert announced that Ofsted was to launch a crackdown on 'boring' teaching in response to concerns that children's behaviour was deteriorating because they were not being stimulated enough in class. Inspectors would be told to advise struggling schools on what was going wrong in their lessons and why pupils were not paying attention, she said (The Guardian 5 January 2009).

    Ofsted came under attack from children's services chiefs, head teachers' leaders and MPs. It was accused of being 'flawed, wasteful and failing'. Its new inspection regime was forcing social work departments to focus on passing inspections instead of looking after children, good schools were rated as mediocre on routine technical matters and some sub-contracted inspectors were not fit for the job. Former chief inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson suggested that Ofsted had been struggling to cope since its responsibilities had been expanded to include inspecting children's services as well as schools and childcare (The Guardian 23 November 2009).

    Ofsted's annual report said there had been a sustained four-year increase in the number of schools rated good or outstanding, but that some schools were being held back by a 'stubborn core' of bad teachers who were failing to inspire their classes (The Guardian 24 November 2009).


    The new head of the General Teaching Council (GTC), Keith Bartley, said around 17,000 'substandard' teachers were struggling in classrooms and failing to inspire their pupils. Middle-aged male teachers were a particular worry. Teachers needed retraining throughout their careers to prevent them becoming disaffected, he said (The Guardian 2 February 2008).

    NUT Conference March 2008

    At their annual conference in Manchester NUT members threatened to strike if the government did not promise to cut classes to no more than twenty pupils by 2020. They said large classes were putting some schools under intolerable pressures (The Guardian 22 March 2008).

    The conference heard evidence of a crisis in children's happiness and mental health and debated calls to scrap the most restrictive elements of the national curriculum and reverse a government order that literacy be taught through phonics. NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott said teachers wanted a system which was 'liberal and flexible' and not imposed by government. 'We want a return to a time when there was a potential for magic moments in the classroom', he said (The Guardian 24 March 2008).

    NUT members expressed concern about research which showed that faith schools were fuelling social, ethnic and religious segregation and flouting admissions laws. Extraordinarily, their solution was to prevent the establishment of more single-faith schools but to provide religious facilities - faith-based instruction, prayer rooms and visits by imams, rabbis and priests - in all schools. Secularists were not impressed. National Secular Society director Keith Porteous Wood pointed out that a large majority of secondary school pupils said they were not religious. 'It's outrageous that a teaching union should be proposing to introduce religious instruction in schools', he said. 'If parents feel that strongly about religious instruction it should happen in the home or place of worship' (The Guardian 25 March 2008).

    Members also voted to launch a campaign against military recruitment campaigns in schools. The union said it had complained to Ed Balls that 'misleading propaganda' in some lesson materials prepared with Ministry of Defence (MoD) backing undermined schools' legal duty to present controversial issues in a balanced way. One worksheet supplied by the MoD said the British army was 'helping the Iraqis to rebuild their country after the conflict and years of neglect'. It did not mention the US-led invasion, the countless Iraqi civilian deaths or the fact that not a single weapon of mass destruction had ever been found (The Guardian 26 March 2008).

    One-day strike

    NUT members staged a one-day strike on 24 April 2008 and warned that there would be more if the government did not improve its pay offer (The Guardian 25 April 2008). It was the first national NUT walk-out since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

    Head teachers

    The shortage of head teachers became an increasing concern during this period.

    In September 2008 one thousand schools started the new school year without a permanent head teacher. Teachers' leaders, already alarmed at the growing number of vacancies in both primary and secondary schools, were furious when it was revealed that the DCSF had drawn up a secret list of heads and senior teachers who could be poached to run academies when positions arose (The Observer 14 September 2008).

    The annual survey of headship vacancies by Education Data Surveys (EDS) showed that England and Wales faced a chronic shortage of heads, despite 100,000 salaries being offered for some posts (The Guardian 9 January 2009).

    Ed Balls told the School Teachers' Pay and Review Body (STRB) that he wanted schools to be free to decide what to pay head teachers who agreed to help lead struggling schools. He told parliament:

    To recognise the greater responsibility associated with running a number of schools, I will be encouraging governing bodies to make responsible use of the flexibilities that they already have to determine an appropriate level of pay for these heads in a way that is not constrained by the maximum of the leadership pay range but is appropriate, fair and transparent. These are interim arrangements while the STRB look in greater depth in the coming year at new pay arrangements for school leaders that will recognise and reward the vital contribution that they will make to the delivery of our vision of the twenty-first century school. (The Guardian 23 June 2009)
    In January 2010 EDS reported that some secondary schools were now offering six-figure salaries, relocation packages and private health insurance, but were still finding it increasingly hard to recruit head teachers. Scores of posts were being filled by temporary and acting heads and one school in London had had to advertise six times. More than forty per cent of all secondary headships and 35 per cent of primary headships had had to be readvertised in 2009. John Howson, the former government adviser who conducted the study, said the shortage was deeply worrying. 'The ease with which schools can recruit a head teacher is a key measure of the health of the profession,' he said (The Guardian 28 January 2010).


    At their annual conference in Torquay, members of the ATL heard the results of a survey of behaviour in UK schools. Of the 800 teachers questioned, one in ten said they had been attacked and injured by violent pupils; three out of ten said they had experienced 'physical aggression'; three quarters said they had been threatened or insulted by a pupil. Almost all reported problems with low-level disruption. ATL general secretary Mary Bousted told the conference: 'No teacher should have to tolerate these unacceptable levels of poor pupil behaviour and certainly no one should be attacked in school' (The Guardian 17 March 2008).

    Ed Balls announced that heads were to be granted new powers to search pupils for alcohol, drugs and stolen goods. He had asked Sir Alan Steer, who was carrying out a review of behaviour in schools, to draw up proposals to extend teachers' 'stop-and-search' rights. Heads already had the right to search pupils suspected of carrying knives and had been given guidance on how to use airport-style metal detectors to screen young people (The Guardian 27 March 2008).

    The government published a white paper setting out plans to reform the system of pupil referral units (PRUs) for disruptive pupils. 26.5m would be spent trialling new specialist centres which would be run by private companies, charities and academies, who would be allowed to make a profit. Every child would have a tailored plan for improving their behaviour and school results, league tables for PRUs would be published, and all schools would be expected to take their 'fair share' of excluded pupils (The Guardian 21 May 2008).

    The government announced that secondary schools and colleges in England would receive 720,000 over two years to train 'pupil mentors', who would learn how to defuse arguments through discussion and listen sensitively to classmates with family problems. Ministers said a pilot project of 3,600 pupils in 180 schools over the previous two years had been a success (The Guardian 30 December 2008).

    Steer Report: Learning Behaviour: Lessons Learned

    Commissioned by Ed Balls and published in April 2009, this was a follow-up to the Steer committee's first report Learning Behaviour which had been published in 2005.

    Steer said good teaching was a prerequisite for good behaviour: 'The need for consistent good quality teaching, as the basis for raising standards and reducing low level disruption, has been highlighted both by Ofsted and fellow practitioners' (DCSF 2009b:3).

    The report stressed:

    • the importance of early intervention and of disseminating good practice advice to schools;
    • appropriate engagement of and support for pupils, withdrawal from classes where appropriate;
    • the engagement of parents should be supported and strengthened, with more consistent use of parenting contracts;
    • the role of local authorities in prioritising support for schools and making provision for excluded pupils; and
    • the roles of local authorities and children's trusts in relation to behaviour and attendance partnerships.
  • Download the 2009 Steer Report Learning Behaviour: Lessons Learned (pdf text 2.1mb).


    Ed Balls launched a 3m scheme to train teenagers to counsel their younger schoolmates and offer 'conflict resolution' to tackle bullying (The Guardian 15 November 2007).

    A British Council survey found that almost half of UK secondary school pupils regarded bullying as a problem in their school - a higher proportion than in the rest of Europe. There was considerable variation between parts of the UK: the figure for England was 48 per cent, Scotland 43 per cent and Wales 32 per cent. However, 42 per cent of UK students said they were happy in school most of the time compared with 33 per cent on average in the rest of Europe (The Guardian 29 February 2008).


    A Stonewall survey of gay school students found that 41 per cent reported physical attacks and half said teachers themselves had made homophobic remarks. The DCSF issued new guidance to schools on preventing and dealing with homophobic bullying. Ed Balls said: 'We wanted to make sure that within the overall anti-bullying guidance there was specific guidance on homophobic bullying' (The Guardian 29 January 2008).

    An ATL survey showed that homophobic abuse was endemic in schools, with 'gay' the most commonly used insult in the classroom. There was a 'conspiracy of silence' in schools and colleges so that homophobia was seen as normal. Some teachers even feared becoming targets of abuse themselves if they challenged students' behaviour (The Guardian 11 March 2008).

    Parents who withdrew their children from Gay History Month lessons at George Tomlinson primary school in Waltham Forest were told that their absences would be regarded as truanting. A local council spokesperson said it was right that schools were tackling homophobia:

    Waltham Forest council wants to promote tolerance in our schools by teaching children everyone in our society is of equal value. This is a core part of the national curriculum for all schools in the country. We are supporting teachers and schools in taking positive and innovative steps to develop children's ability to respect people's differences.
    A group of rabid homophobes from a Baptist church in Kansas threatened to picket George Tomlinson school but their leader, Fred Phelps, was barred from entering Britain to stop him spreading 'extremism and hatred' (The Guardian 20 March 2009).

    In March 2009 Stonewall published its Teachers' Report Homophobic bullying in Britain's schools as part of its Education for All campaign. Its key findings were that:

    • nine in ten secondary school teachers and more than two in five primary school teachers said children and young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, experienced homophobic bullying, name calling or harassment in their schools;
    • secondary school teachers said that homophobic bullying was the second most frequent form of bullying after bullying because of weight and was three times more prevalent than bullying due to religion or ethnicity;
    • 95 per cent of secondary school teachers and three quarters of primary school teachers reported hearing the phrases 'you're so gay' or 'that's so gay' in their schools;
    • eight in ten secondary school teachers and two in five primary school teachers reported hearing other insulting homophobic remarks such as 'poof', 'dyke', 'queer' and 'faggot';
    • nine in ten teachers and non-teaching staff at secondary and primary schools had never received any specific training on how to prevent or respond to homophobic bullying;
    • more than a quarter of secondary school staff said they would not feel confident in supporting a pupil who decided to come out to them as lesbian, gay or bisexual; and
    • half of secondary school teachers who were aware of homophobic bullying in their schools said the vast majority of incidents went unreported.
  • Download Homophobic bullying in Britain's schools from the Stonewall website.

    Social mobility

    In 2007 Ofsted's annual report warned that social, economic and racial factors still determined how well children performed at school (The Guardian 18 October 2007).

    A report by Jo Blanden and Stephen Machin for the Sutton Trust, Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain, published in December 2007, showed that by the age of seven the most able children in Britain's poorest homes were outperformed by the least gifted children from wealthy homes. It concluded that social class was still the biggest predictor of school achievement, the likelihood of getting a degree and even a child's behaviour; and suggested that the advantages of being born in a privileged home had not changed in thirty years.

  • Download Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain from the Sutton Trust website.

    Research conducted at Bath University by Harry Daniels and Jill Porter for the Cambridge Primary Review showed that a child's chances of receiving extra help for a special educational need was dictated by geography, class, race and gender, rather than the nature of the learning difficulty. Middle class children received better support more quickly, and powerful lobby groups, such as those for dyslexia and autism, received disproportionate levels of funding. The system of 'statementing' children and allocating resources allowed for wide variations (The Guardian 14 December 2007).

    A government-backed study by Dr Steve Strand at Warwick University found that white working-class teenagers performed worse than their black and Asian classmates in GCSE exams (The Guardian 28 March 2008).

    Thursday's Child, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think-tank close to the government, recommended that the long summer holiday should be shortened. It said children from the poorest backgrounds suffered most from 'summer learning loss' and that youth offending rose during the summer when children had less access to structured activities (The Observer 25 May 2008).

    A study on social mobility, funded by the American Carnegie Corporation and presented at a private conference in New York hosted by the Sutton Trust, was attended by leading UK education figures and politicians including Cabinet Office minister Ed Miliband. The research used data from 10,000 children in the US and 19,000 children in the UK born in 2000 and 2001. It found that children's vocabulary, cognitive abilities and behaviour were closely linked to family income, with children from the poorest homes much less well equipped to deal with starting school. The effects of being from a low-income home were more pronounced in the UK than the US because of the UK's wider difference in incomes (The Guardian 7 June 2008).

    Meanwhile, politicians traded statistics. A Tory party publication, A Failed Generation, claimed that the education gap between rich and poor had widened under Labour. Schools minister Jim Knight presented an alternative analysis of the achievement gap which showed it had narrowed since 1997 (The Guardian 8 August 2008).

    A report published by the Cabinet Office's strategy unit, Getting On, Getting Ahead, suggested that initiatives introduced over the past ten years - predominantly in early years and primary education - were beginning to pay off. Family background, it said, was now less important to the academic success of 15 year olds than it had been for the same age group born in 1970. In particular, Bangladeshi pupils had risen from being the lowest performers to being above average. Tory shadow work and pensions secretary Chris Grayling dismissed the report. 'This has all the hallmarks of a government propaganda exercise', he said. 'The reality in Britain today is that we have some of the lowest social mobility in the industrialised world.'

    Writing in The Guardian, John Crace argued that 'the truth lies between the two':

    There have been significant improvements in raising attainment levels in some areas, particularly among minority ethnic groups, but one large section of the population has missed out on the decade of rising standards - the white working class. (Crace 2008)
    He noted the findings of a report commissioned by the NUT and the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and written by Denis Mongon and Chris Chapman at Manchester University's school of education. Successful Leadership for Promoting the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils argued that the cycle of underachievement had been endemic in this group since mass education was introduced in Victorian times. Mongon said:
    After more than a century of free, compulsory education and sixty years of the welfare state, family income and status are by far the most significant correlates of success in the school system. Although gender is also an independent and significant factor, the social class attainment gap at 16 is three times as wide as the gender gap. (quoted in Crace 2008)
    The government's aim to close the social gap in exam results was certainly proving difficult to achieve. In 2008, just 16 per cent of white boys on free school meals reached the target of five good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with the national average of 48 per cent (The Guardian 12 December 2008).

    Figures released in parliament showed that a million children living below the poverty line were not receiving free school meals because the income threshold to qualify was lower than the current level used to define poverty. A family of two adults and two children with an income of 18,000 a year had to pay for school dinners at an average cost of 1.70 a day per child. Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Laws said: 'For the most disadvantaged children, a school dinner can be the only hot meal they get. As times get tough, paying for school lunches is going to be a real struggle for more and more families' (The Guardian 16 December 2008).

    Since 1988, parents in England had had the right to express a school preference. Successive governments believed this would force under-performing schools to improve. But in Parental choice of primary school in England: What type of schools do parents choose?, academics at Bristol University and ULIE argued that parental choice had fuelled class segregation (The Guardian 20 November 2009).

    School meals

    Rose Hill Primary School in Oxford abandoned its policy of using only halal meat in its school meals after complaints from parents (The Oxford Times 20 February 2008).

    A survey by the School Food Trust, set up by ministers in 2005 to encourage children to eat healthier food, found that secondary schools had, on average, 23 fast-food outlets within a mile of their buildings. The Trust suggested that, to prevent pupils from buying junk food, schools should not allow them to leave the premises at lunchtime. School leaders said the proposal was unworkable (The Guardian 28 March 2008).

    Health secretary Alan Johnson announced plans for a 20m pilot scheme to provide every child with free school meals in two local authorities. If the two-year trial improved health, school standards, pupils' behaviour and take-up of school meals, it could be expanded to every local authority, he said (The Guardian 25 September 2008).

    Catering firms belonging to the Local Authority Caterers Association warned the government that new rules on schools meals due to come into force in secondary schools in September 2009 would lead to even more pupils deserting canteens for fast-food outlets and could make the school meals service no longer viable (The Guardian 23 March 2009).

    Five years after the outcry over 'Turkey Twizzlers', led by TV chef Jamie Oliver, the Food for Life Partnership warned that progress towards healthier school meals would stall if budgets for ingredients were cut (The Guardian 15 December 2009).

    Budget cuts

    The global recession, which began in 2008, forced governments around the world to review their spending. Britain was no exception. In a sign of things to come, Ed Balls urged schools to save 750m a year by turning off lights, cutting back on heating and sharing cleaners. Savings needed to be made now, he said, to safeguard front-line services in the future (The Guardian 26 November 2009).

    The message was reiterated three months later at a conference run by the NCSL, only this time heads were asked to make 'efficiency' savings of 1bn without reducing front-line staff. The government was promising a 0.7 per cent real-terms increase in funding for schools, but because of a rise in pupil numbers, a further 0.9 per cent would be needed to maintain the status quo. NAHT general secretary Mick Brookes said it would be difficult for heads to find 1bn without threatening front-line staff: teaching assistants could be particularly vulnerable (The Observer 7 February 2010).

    School uniform

    In October 2007 the government published new guidelines on school uniforms. Schools minister Jim Knight said:

    I strongly support school uniforms and would like all schools to adopt them. They can instil pride and unity, support a strong school ethos and prevent the jealousy, rivalry and conflict that can arise when children wear different clothes. But the cost of uniforms must never be a barrier for poorer families. (The Guardian 5 October 2007)

    Steiner course

    The only dedicated university course for Steiner school teachers had struggled to recruit new students since the government cut funding for second degrees. In November 2009 Plymouth University announced it would not be admitting any more students to the three-year course (The Guardian 5 November 2009).

    Higher education

    Within a week of becoming prime minister in 2007 Gordon Brown had surprised universities by promising to increase the number of students eligible for grants. The pledge had been welcomed by students as a sign that the new prime minister was serious about Labour's target of getting half of young people into university by 2010. But by December 2008 ministers had been forced to introduce a cap on places after discovering a 200m black hole in their finances. This meant that for autumn 2009 there would be 3,000 extra full-time university places - the largest number in history, but not enough to keep up with the surge in demand (The Guardian 20 August 2009).

    In November 2009 Lord Mandelson (whose Department of Business, Innovation and Skills had assumed responsibility for higher education in June) launched A New Framework for Higher Education which set out a ten to fifteen year strategy for universities, designed to aid the country's economic recovery and pave the way for an overhaul of student tuition fees.

    Its key points were:

    • a 'consumer revolution' to give students more information about courses and future earnings potential;
    • a drive to make universities work more closely with industry in designing courses and funding them; and
    • a new focus on universities as engines of social mobility, encouraging the use of 'contextual data' in selection processes to identify hidden talent among pupils from low-performing schools. (The Guardian 3 November 2009)

    The election campaign

    In the summer of 2009 the date of the forthcoming general election had not yet been announced but most commentators assumed (rightly) that it would be in May 2010. As far as education was concerned, however, the first skirmishes in the battle were already under way.

    The Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank, recommended that a Conservative government should abolish at least eight quangos, including the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the exams regulator Ofqual, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the National College for School Leadership. Ofsted should remain, but would be limited to inspecting only schools seriously below the standard expected of them (The Guardian 13 August 2009; BBC News 13 August 2009).

    Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove announced that he would build technical schools in every city to train a new generation of builders, technicians and engineers - a plan developed by former Conservative education secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker. Labour pointed out that it was already doing just that: the DCSF had approved a technical school in Birmingham, to be sponsored by Aston University, and had provided officials to work with Baker on expanding the scheme (The Guardian 5 October 2009).

    Gove's view of education

    Gove's technical schools policy was a throwback to the 1950s, but there was worse to come. He upset the teaching unions - and just about everybody else involved in education - by promising to destroy the 'educational establishment' he claimed was responsible for 'dumbing down' schools. He told the Conservative Party conference that he would sideline local authorities, scrap the curriculum agency, sack the worst head teachers, have fewer Ofsted inspections for good schools, encourage competitive sports, and insist on traditional values in the classroom, with former soldiers imposing discipline and pupils expected to wear ties. The state monopoly over schools would be abolished by allowing every school the chance to become an independent academy with greater control over the curriculum, the pay of teachers and the organisation of the school day (The Guardian 7 October 2009).

    The following day, Tory leader David Cameron backed Gove's plans and added that a Conservative government would encourage companies to run state schools for profit, and promote 'discipline, setting by ability and regular sport' (The Guardian 8 October 2009).

    Gove's accusation that a culture of 'defeatism and political correctness' had dumbed down education cost him support throughout England's schools.

    In a letter to The Guardian, the head of the ASCL and 26 leading head teachers wrote:

    As leaders of state secondary schools, and therefore presumably fully paid-up members of the 'educational establishment' to which Michael Gove referred in his speech to the Conservative party conference, we would like to challenge the image of the state education sector portrayed in that speech. 'Faddy ideologies' have been resisted by schools. Recent years have seen a strong focus on raising the quality of teaching and learning, increasing the number of young people who achieve well, improving their behaviour and broadening their opportunities and life chances. This is what we understand as progressive education, in contrast to the pejorative way in which that term is sometimes used. (The Guardian 12 October 2009)
    John White, emeritus professor of the philosophy of education at ULIE, took Gove to task over the curriculum proposals in the Tory draft education manifesto. Writing in the TES he said: 'For him, there is only one vehicle to get us to these destinations: the traditional school subject. He sets his face against everything else. Cross-curricular teaching is out. Projects and themes are anathemas.' Under a Tory government, there would be no regrouping of subjects into wider 'areas of learning' as recommended in the Rose review of the primary curriculum. Subjects like maths, science and history were the only way forward. 'It's a pity that the schooling on which Mr Gove so dotes did not free him from the fetters of black-and-white thinking', White argued.

    And he concluded:

    Since 1997 we have broken away from the rigidities of Ken Baker's original national curriculum. Not fast enough for many of us, perhaps, but in the right direction. Mr Gove would wind the clock back to the 1988 curriculum, itself a virtual copy of the curriculum for the new state secondary schools introduced in 1904. This is conservatism indeed. But is this creation of a horse-drawn, narrowly franchised, imperial age the beacon we should be following a century and more later? (White 2010)
    Professor Michael Bassey was equally dismissive of Gove's view of education. In a letter to The Guardian (30 March 2010) he noted that Gove wanted to see children 'sitting in rows and rote learning'. Gove had told one newspaper that 'the best training of the mind' would be 'learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages'. Yet he'd also said that 'A Conservative government would ... free teachers and leaders in schools from bureaucracy to give them more space to innovate, to excel, and by excelling, to inspire others.' Bassey commented: 'The freedom that the Conservatives offer seems to be the freedom to spend the next ten years teaching the chronology of the monarchy to children sitting in straight lines'.

    Meanwhile, David Cameron accused 'failing' schools of pandering to a culture of defeatism and 'dumbing down to the lowest common denominator'. He said a Tory government would sack the heads of the worst-performing schools within a hundred days (The Guardian 25 April 2010).

    Free schools

    Gove's other big idea was to establish up to 2,000 Swedish-style 'free schools' - independent schools run by or for parents but paid for by the state. He had first proposed these in September 2008. 'We have seen the future in Sweden and it works', he declared. 'Standards have been driven up. If it can work there, it can work here.'

    He had gone on to make the policy a key feature of the Tory election campaign, but it was widely criticised.

    Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education, said the free schools had 'not led to better results' in Sweden. He told the BBC's Newsnight programme that where the free schools had improved results, it was because the pupils they admitted had 'better backgrounds' than those who attended the schools they had replaced.

    Furthermore, recent international studies had shown that England was ranked higher than Sweden for pupils' maths and science knowledge and in the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study Sweden's ranking for science had fallen further than any other country's (The Guardian 9 February 2010).

    Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at ULIE, said Tory plans for more academies and free schools amounted to the breaking up of the model of state education which had operated in England since 1902:

    It's a process of the dissolution of state schooling. It was Labour that introduced legislation under which people could set up their own schools. This is taking it a step further and opening it up to more diverse providers being able to set up schools. This is the beginning of the end of state schools as we know them. (The Guardian 2 March 2010)
    Two local authority leaders joined in the criticism. Kent County Council leader Paul Carter said giving parents and other groups the funds to start free schools would threaten local education budgets, and Hampshire's cabinet member responsible for schools, David Kirk, insisted that local authorities should be allowed to improve existing schools rather than being forced to give parents the power to set up new ones.

    Leading education lawyer Graham Burns, who was acting for three parent groups trying to set up schools in anticipation of a Conservative administration, told The Guardian that parents from from poor neighbourhoods would be unable to set up their own schools because they lacked money and influential friends (The Guardian 26 April 2010).

    And finally, just four days before the election, it was revealed that one of the first state schools to take on a private partner had had to be 'rescued' by its local council after it was deemed inadequate by inspectors. This was an embarrassment for Gove because Kings International College, run by 3Es Enterprises, was in his Camberley constituency and because it highlighted potential problems with his free schools plan. Local Liberal Democrat councillor David Whitcroft commented: 'Michael Gove has been talking about what is going on in Sweden; it might be more useful if he looked at what is going on in his own constituency' (The Observer 2 May 2010).

    Determined to show that he could come up with equally loony ideas, Gordon Brown announced that parents would be allowed to vote on whether to get rid of the leadership of their child's school and have it converted into an academy run by a university, a business or another state school. These 'sponsors' - the first to be named was carpet shop owner Lord Harris - would be allowed to run chains of poorly performing primary schools. Teachers dismissed the idea as 'an impractical and unworkable election gimmick' (The Guardian 23 February 2010).

    Primary education

    As the general election approached, Robin Alexander noted that there was 'a great deal of unfinished business' in relation to primary education:

    The Rose proposals for the primary curriculum have disappeared in the pre-election legislative wash-up, leaving schools confused and frustrated. The long-running SATs conflict is heading for its high noon. Rumblings continue about inspection. The national strategies have come and are about to go, leaving an uncertain legacy. A growing appetite for genuine and lasting reform competes with teachers' understandable longing for a period of stability after 13 years of constant change. (Alexander 2010)
    With the Labour government having rejected the recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review, and the Tories highly unlikely to adopt them, he appealed directly to teachers to take forward the Review's agenda and announced the launch of a network supporting those who were keen to build on the report 'and in many cases have begun to do so':

    Many of the priorities we nominate will be advanced only if teachers, and the communities they serve, seize the opportunity and the evidence provided by initiatives such as the Cambridge Primary Review, and use them to debate the central educational questions which too often go by default: what primary education is for; what constitutes an enabling and balanced curriculum; how research on learning and teaching can be translated into classroom practice that fully engages every child; in what kinds of decisions about their lives and learning young children can or should be involved; how educational quality and standards should be defined and assessed; and how - individually and in partnership - schools should be organised. (Alexander 2010)


    The general election was held on Thursday 6 May 2010. There was no overall winner, and after several days of anxious negotiations between the parties, Gordon Brown resigned on 11 May and the Queen invited David Cameron to form a coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats.

  • For an analysis of the party manifestos and the policies of the new coalition government, see my article Hobson's Choice: education policies in the 2010 general election (2010).

    Summary of the period

    What are we to make of education in England under Ed Balls? It's a very mixed picture.

    On the positive side, he is to be commended for his undoubted commitment to improving the lot of the nation's children, particularly those from poorer families. The Children's Plan was, as we have seen, an ambitious attempt to take a holistic view of the lives and prospects of children and to bring some much-needed coherence to policy-making by drawing together all the government departments and agencies which impinged upon them. This approach was refreshingly new.

    He was very opposed to selection for secondary education and took steps to prevent schools - especially faith schools - from covertly selecting pupils from more affluent backgrounds. He was also determined to crack down on homophobic bullying in schools.

    On the negative side, it is to be regretted that he was so adamantly committed to maintaining the indefensible testing and league tables regime in England's schools, in the face of widespread hostility from parents, teachers and governors, and despite clear evidence of the damage it was causing, not least to the children themselves.

    It is also regrettable that he was content to ignore the wishes of parents and teachers by continuing to increase the number of academies and trust schools, and that, despite his obvious concerns about faith schools, he was apparently happy to see their numbers grow too.

    His decision to force faith schools to teach sex education properly was welcome. His capitulation in the face of religious lobbying was not.

    And finally, like many politicians he talked much about returning decision-making to schools and local communities. So it's odd that he still insisted on, for example, compelling schools to use a particular method of teaching reading - 'synthetic phonics' - against the advice of the world's experts in the teaching of reading.

    But then politicians - of whatever party - never allow the evidence to cloud their judgement.


    Alexander RJ (2009a) 'What is the primary curriculum for?' The Guardian 7 April

    Alexander RJ (ed) (2009b) Children, their World, their Education Final Report and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review London: Routledge

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    DCSF (2009b) Learning Behaviour: Lessons Learned A review of behaviour standards and practices in our schools Nottingham: DCSF

    Mansell W (2009a) 'Big brothers' The Guardian 2 June

    Mansell W (2009b) 'Are academies just "a ludicrously expensive con-trick"?' The Guardian 1 December

    Mortimore P (2009) 'Cambridge review team, take heart - your ideas may yet triumph' The Guardian 3 November

    Russell J (2009) 'It was a great moral victory. Then teachers lost the plot' The Guardian 16 April

    White J (2010) 'Turning the clock back to subject slavery' TES 5 February

    Wilby P (2008) 'Jim'll fix it' The Guardian 5 August

    Chapter 10 | Chapter 12