4 Ways the 1988 Education Act Harmed Teaching and Learning

Francis Gilbert's picture



Simon Gibbons’ article in the November 2015 issue of English in Education, the academic journal for the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), asks an important, punning question in its title: “W(h)ither the Radicals?”. It is a salutary piece which explores whether it is possible for English teachers now to be radical in both their pedagogy and their approach to content of the subject. Gibbons says in his abstract for the article: “History shows us that some of the most radical reformers of subject English harnessed their political ideals in their pursuit of a progressive pedagogy; is it possible now to adopt such an approach?” This challenge motivated me to ask Simon to talk about the figures who have been radical English teachers in the past and see if there are any lessons we can learn from these people and the organisations involved. Previous pieces written by me in this series have explored the ideas of Harold Rosen and the establishment of LATE/NATE in the “pre-1988” era. For many teachers of a certain age, 1988 is a watershed moment because it was then that Kenneth Baker’s Education Act was passed, making it statutory for all teachers to follow the National Curriculum. In the video, Michael Rosen and Simon discuss the details of this act and its repercussions. In response to their comments, I’ve made another “listicle” suggesting 4 ways that 1988 harmed teaching and learning; I should add these are not necessarily Michael and Simon’s views, but my interpretation of what they said and some of my ideas thrown in for good measure.

Teachers were robbed of their autonomy

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educational philosopher, argued that educational prescriptions necessarily diminish teachers and students’ power. His argument is relatively simple: when you are ordered to do something, unless you rebel against the order, you often do not think about why you’re doing it or what the consequences of doing it might be. You become an “instrument” rather than an active agent. By denying the right for teachers to choose what might be suitable for their pupils to learn, the government robbed the profession of its autonomy and thereby stopped teachers thinking about why they were teaching the prescribed content. Teachers became “delivery mechanisms” to fill up students with knowledge. Rather than seeing knowledge as something which is constructed with the learner whilst in dialogue with the teacher, knowledge became inert, a dead body to be carted from lesson to lesson and plonked on students’ desks to dissect and poke around in. The act of prescribing the curriculum robbed teachers of a vital freedom which changed the mood and method of far too many lessons for the worse. Disenfranchised teachers went through the motions because they had no serious “stake” in what was taught.

Teachers’ voices were marginalised

As SG/MR point out, the marginalisation of teachers became progressively worse as successive National Curricula (NCs) were introduced over the succeeding decades. With the first NC in 1988, Brian Cox, who wrote the first English orders, consulted with teachers widely and modified his views in the light of what he heard. As Simon says though, he was over-ruled by the minister when the curriculum he produced was not politically palatable, particularly regarding the teaching of grammar. His Knowledge About Language (KAL) prescriptions remain the most enlightened set of instructions we have about the teaching of grammar in any NC. However, as Michael points out, experts like his father, Harold Rosen, were not prepared for the tenor and approach that Whitehall took; in previous years, there had been some sort of uneasy consensus between government and the profession about what was taught and examined. This changed from 1988 when consultation with the profession became a paper exercise. From 88 onwards, it was the will of the relevant minister which prevailed. This has meant that the profession has been continuously tossed around in the political winds of the succeeding decades.

The NC edicts were confusing and often nonsensical

Michael is particularly funny on this point when talking about the inclusion of “E Brill” as a prescribed author on one of the NC orders. No such author exists! Since 1988, the NC has constantly been “picked at” like a scab by successive politicians; the 1988 orders were quickly replaced in the early 1990s by another version which was less enlightened but not so heavy on detail, and then re-written again in the Noughties, and then re-written by the Coalition government and made statutory in 2014. This meant that teachers were constantly changing their lesson plans, their schemes of work, their textbooks and pedagogical approaches in an arbitrary fashion. Since 1988, there has been an air of pedagogical, epistemological and ontological confusion which has left many teachers, students and parents scratching their heads about what is really going on.

The NC didn’t change society for the better

This is the central problem. For all the billions spent, the years devoted to implementing NC orders, have standards really risen? On one level they clearly have in that students have got better at passing exams. And yet on another level, have they? Has the NC brought up a generation of compliant robots who blindly follow the edicts of the neo-liberal society we live in? What’s happened to radical spirit of the 1960s and 70s? Why do we live in a society where inequality is growing, where private companies run roughshod over people’s lives, where we are faced with environmental catastrophe, where there is such intolerance, where unions are demonised and our rulers are from a wealthy, out-of-touch elite? Did the NC play its part in turning us into drones?

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 25/12/2015 - 19:30

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Wed, 30/12/2015 - 15:38

Co-operative school relationships won't happen until the 11-plus is abolished.

As Margaret Tulloch points out in Forum, (Vol. 57, No 3 2015) grammar school governors can decide to change to all-ability intakes if they can persuade existing parents in schools to support such a move (also covers academies).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 25/12/2015 - 19:23

It will come as no surprise to Francis that I entirely agree with him. The 1988 'Baker' Act was intended as a platform for the marketisation and eventual privatisation of the English school system. However it was not until the election of the Blair government in 1997 that the full destructive and corrosive power of the Act was fully exploited. Blair's Academies were the battering ram used to enforce the culture of privatisation onto the education system just as the Foundation Trust Act and the forced introduction of the customer/provider split in other public services had the same deliberate effect in the NHS and all other public services formerly provided by Local Authorities.

This is what I write about the 1988 Act in Section, '5.7' of 'Learning Matters'.

"Before the 1988 Education Reform Act the world of English schools was entirely different to the present day. I am not making a value judgement about this and will leave that to the reader – some will regard the period as thankfully discarded lefty anarchy. In those days individual teachers and schools had a very high degree of autonomy. There was no National Curriculum, no OfSTED, no government initiatives and no government involvement or interference whatever in the curriculum and teaching methods practised in schools.

This is not to paint a picture of an English education system of universal teacher driven radicalism. Most schools in the country remained staid institutions that had changed relatively little since the passing of the 1944 Education Act that established the principles of the post-war British education system. The character of local schools was strongly influenced, but not controlled, by Local Education Authorities (LEAs).

This was exactly the intention of the 1944 Act. A uniform national framework of schools was created within which diversity on the basis of elected Local Authorities was encouraged, with freedom from government interference deliberately built into the system. This was in part a reaction to the then recent sinister history of state control of the school curriculum in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

It took the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 to begin the dismantling of this consensus of non-interference in schools by the government. She is on record as stating that her greatest regret was not getting rid of ‘left-wing’ LEAs much sooner.

However belated, Kenneth Baker’s free market Education Reform Act eventually did the trick, with the new centralised powers further exploited by the 1997 Blair government. We now (2015) have an education system entirely managed and controlled by the government from London, with LEAs abolished in name and emasculated in function.

Teachers have now largely become downgraded to educational operatives charged with ‘delivering’ the latest initiative, or at the whim of the personal prejudices of the sponsors/owners of the new Free Schools and Academies, be they powerful individuals, private companies and charities, or faith based religious organisations.

The Blairite consensus that all of this was a good thing largely remains the unchallenged assumption of the mainstream media including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 other satellite channels and in the print media from the Sun and the Daily Mail to the Guardian and the Independent taking in the New Statesman as well as The Spectator on the way.

And all this despite the facts pointing conclusively and comprehensively to the recurring gross failures of the privatisation of public services over decades from Care Homes to Prisons, Trains to the NHS and of course our national education system from nurseries to universities.

It really is time Jeremy Corbyn and Lucy Powell mounted a significant challenge to all of this.

LSN and the powerful new book, 'The Truth about our Schools by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs, alongside 'Learning Matters' and others mentioned therein and elsewhere provide all the evidence and ammunition needed to destroy this consensus.

Let us hope for change in 2016.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Sun, 27/12/2015 - 21:16

Roger - is it safe to assume that the centralisation of education and cuts to local authority budgets have effectively dismantled the Education Act of 1944? If The Education and Adoption Bill provides a commitment for schools to become part of Multi-academy Trusts, given the competitive push for increasing floor targets, do you think it is likely that schools will be able to truly collaborate within and between these trusts (religious and secular)? Is it too late for schools to be influenced by local people for the common good of society?

agov's picture
Mon, 28/12/2015 - 09:29

Collaboration within trusts? That may depend on what you mean. Some headteacher innocents got their primary schools signed up to the MAT created by a local secondary school only to realise, too late, that it is not a partnership of equals. These headteachers then discover that effectively they have agreed to subject themselves to performance management by the headteacher principal of the lead secondary school. Which presumably means these subsidiary schools are not there to collaborate so much as to do as they are told.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 28/12/2015 - 12:06

The answers to your questions are, yes, no & no, with the last no qualified on the basis that it is never to late to change the national education policy. The only hope here lies with a transformed Labour opposition doing some serious homework about education. Jeremy Corbyn and Lucy Powell have a copy of. 'Learning Matters', but will they read it?

Will they read, 'The Truth about our Schools: Exposing the Myths, exploring the Evidence, by Melissa Benn & Janet Downs?

The fact is that commercial pressure always tends to corrupt. There are some public services that must always be lifted clear of such corruption. The police service is one such. The evidence is also pretty clear in relation to health care and education.

On 29 January 2014 I posted a thread on the LSN website with the provocative title, ‘Is school improvement a good thing?’. In my post I mentioned my research described in (3.1) 'Learning Matters'.

This is one of the anonymous responses:

“Roger – many thanks for your post – it contains so much of importance. I completely agree with you about the false concept of ‘school improvement’. I can give an example from my own experience. To get the % of maths C+’s up the school employed a range of strategies including the following:

- Pupils began studying the GCSE curriculum in Y7 and as soon as they were able to get a C they sat the exam (many of them in Y8). There were many, many resits until the magic C was achieved.

- From Y9 the C/D borderline pupils were taught in small groups with multiple teachers - all other groups were larger with just one teacher (and the groups got bigger through the year after each round of exams).

- Maths was given more time on the timetable at the expense of everything else. Maths teachers were ‘encouraged’ to provide daily ‘maths intervention’ classes in the morning before school and at the end of the day.

- Pupils were rewarded for attendance with free take-away food. C/D borderline pupils were ‘paid’ with shopping centre vouchers if they got their C in Y10 instead of Y11.

- Pupils were withdrawn from other lessons to do extra maths in the fortnight leading up to the exam.

- Pupils were entered for multiple exam boards.

- Pupils were entered for multiple routes (linear and modular) at the same time.

- Private tutors were bought in by the school to work one-to-one with individual C/D borderline pupils.

The overall effect is to increase the % getting C in maths but at the expense of higher and lower achievers in maths. It also impacts on the results in all other subjects because of loss of timetable allocation and withdrawal of students from classes on an ad hoc basis.

The pressure on pupils to achieve the pass was immense and destructive and led to lower levels of commitment and motivation in other subjects."

The inventive power of capitalism is truly immense. This is why it must always be firmly under democratic control with strong and effective safeguards against the ever present threats of innovative corruption.

In our marketised and academised English education system the democratic controls together with the effective safeguards against corruption have both been removed in an orgy of triumphal glee.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Mon, 28/12/2015 - 21:07

I was getting at equal partnerships in MATs. Presumably the Regional Schools Commissioner has a role to ensure fair play before heads take the plunge. I can't think of any other accountability measure.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Mon, 28/12/2015 - 21:53

Thanks Roger. This is a sad state of affairs.

I am pleased Jeremy Corbyn and Lucy Powell have a copy of Learning Matters. Let's hope they also read The Truth about our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence, by Melissa Benn & Janet Downs.

It seems that with the exception of paper 'consultations' education is changing at a rapid pace but communities are not being informed until changes are done and dusted.

In terms of ensuring collaboration between schools the Labour Party needs to formulate policy and practical guidance, as a matter of urgency, to inform decisions of school governors, teachers and parents in resolving difficult choices.

To avoid forced academisation or the closure of so-called coasting schools perhaps it might be possible to form co-operative school alliances and non-hierarchical MATs without lead schools to pool resources amidst austerity...

agov's picture
Tue, 29/12/2015 - 10:22

Up to a point. At a conference I attended Frank Green, the current National Schools Commissioner, conceded that co-operatives were an alternative to academisation but also made clear that the co-operative could itself be academised if it failed to meet expected standards.
I've no idea why Schools Commissioners would ensure fair play especially if the problem is that gullible headteachers and governors can't be bothered to read or understand documents that clearly state what the new relationship would be.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Tue, 29/12/2015 - 20:55

That's a coincidence. I attended a co-operative conference in Lincoln 2/3 years ago where it was pointed out converter academies could adopt co-operative structures with nearby schools, but only in non-selective areas.

agov's picture
Wed, 30/12/2015 - 12:36

Wouldn't that be non-selective schools rather than non-selective areas?

Michael Pyke's picture
Mon, 28/12/2015 - 14:48

In addition to the points made by Francis - all of them unanswerable - the 1988 Act also did enormous damage to the concept of education as a public good. The assumption behind the Act's marketising tendencies was that education is essentially a commodity of the kind that Hirsch termed a "positional good." As such, it cannot be equally available to all children - even though the taxpayer at large provides it - but must be competed for by parents in what amounts to a zero sum game.

The argument that such an approach leads to higher standards by forcing schools to "raise their game" in order to attract pupils is, of course, entirely hypocritical. As we have repeatedly seen, successive waves of "game raising" result only in the rules being changed, so that the hierarchical structure of the system remains intact!

The origins of this nonsense can be traced back to the infamous Clarendon Commission Report of 1864, which created the private school system.

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