The history of educational reform within the United Kingdom has been a long and tumultuous one, and too detailed to be fully described in this text. I would like to outline what I believe are the key educational policies that shaped British history. I was born in 1979, a time when major changes in education had already been established. Of particular interest to me is the period of the mid-1990's onwards, which I have chosen to highlight in some depth. The changes implemented from 1997 by the New Labour government had a dramatic impact on national education. From 2000, the National Curriculum was modified and this became the singularly most influential educational event in my life so far, as I will explain.
I have read with some interest about the Education Act of 1944, also commonly referred to as the "Butler Act". This lead to the establishment of the Tripartite System, and lead to the separation of primary, secondary and grammar school education (Finch, 1984), a format which is still applicable today. Although this may seem divisive, in reality however, the educational system prior to the Act was largely meritocratic and unstructured. The Act was innovative in that it lead to the increased education of women and the working class, and as a result, a far higher percentage attended higher education after secondary school (Education Act, 1944). The Act also stipulated that secondary education was to be free and accessible to all, and fees for publicly-provided or grant-maintained schools were phased out. The academic ability of students was assessed by the '11-plus' examinations and those that passed could be selected by grammar schools for further education. Those that failed went to secondary schools. From a practical viewpoint, however, the number of grammar school places available to students varied between local authorities, with the awarding of 'pass' marks having to take account of specific local circumstances (Chitty, 2002). From one perspective, the Standard Assessment Tests (SAT's) that some local education authorities employ to categorise the academic abilities of eleven-year-olds today are a modern version of the 11-plus examinations. Of course, children today are not condemned to a lesser education based on their results, which some may argue was the outcome for children who failed the 11-plus examinations in 1944.
In 1965 the Labour government attempted to demolish the selective secondary system with universal comprehensive schools (Ward and Eden, 2009). I was educated throughout my life at comprehensive schools, as are 90% of pupils today, and the notion that a school brings together children of all academic abilities is a great one. At some stage in the 1960's a move was made to increase the compulsory leaving age for school children to sixteen. This was enacted in 1972. I was born in 1979 when the incoming Conservative government had already brought in several changes, including the Assisted Places scheme. This allowed children who could not afford to go to fee-paying independent schools to be provided with free or subsidised places, as long as they could successfully pass the school's entrance examination (Fitz et al, 1989). I personally did not benefit from this scheme but I have several colleagues who were educated via the Assisted Places scheme, and they believe it to have been highly advantageous to their careers.
The Education Reform Act (ERA) 1988 was pivotal in the history of education in England. It brought about several major changes to the education system, including the introduction of the National Curriculum. This was composed of ten core subjects that were compulsory for secondary school education. It ensured that all state schools of Local Education Authorities had a common curriculum, thereby ensuring assessments could be standardised (Qualifications & Curriculum Authority, 2010). Up until the late 1980's, schools themselves determined what and how they taught, with the only constitutional requirement being that schools provided religious education. The ERA paved the way for the publication of schools' examination results, and the creation of national league tables based on school performance (Capel et al, 2005). The Act encouraged competition between schools, with the promise of increased funding to those schools that attracted the most pupils.
The 1997 General Election empowered the New Labour government, which had education high up on the political agenda. This was the period which significantly influenced my educational path. During the early part of 2000 I decided to pursue my interest in Mathematics. Many of my peers, like me, would have benefited from a modular structure to the A'Level examinations but prior to 2000 this did not exist. The A'Level system preceding 2000 was based on a two year course, followed by final examinations at the end of this time. Changes to A' Level structure was necessary, given the inefficiency of this system, where up to 30% of students were failing to complete or pass (Hodgson et al, 2005.).
The introduction of the Curriculum 2000 allowed me the flexibility needed to successfully study for and complete A' Levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics. I had a need for flexibility in my education, as many teenagers do. I was largely home-schooled during my teenage years, a necessity due to difficult personal circumstances. The old systems of A'Level examinations at the end of two years prove to be exceptionally difficult in my situation. It was therefore a remarkable turn of events for me when Curriculum 2000 was introduced. This reformed the Further Education system into the current structure of AS levels, A2 levels and Key Skills. (Hodgson et al, 2005.). One of the most important goals of Curriculum 2000 was to encourage students to broaden their horizons beyond the tradition of studying three A-levels, and instead, study a broader range of subjects. This new initiative allowed me to break each component of the subject down, piece-by-piece into easily absorbable information from the comfort of my own home. The examinations for each module could be taken at various times throughout the year, which was ideal for me. The old system of examinations meant that examinations were held at a fixed point annually, with no leeway either side.
The early part of the 21st century also brought the creation of specialist schools, a notion first broached by the previous Conservative government. The idea was outlined in a government White Paper (Schools Achieving Success, 2001). The idea behind specialist schools was to create a tier of secondary schools that specialise in certain areas of the curriculum, such as Mathematics, Computing and Engineering (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2010.). In contrast to this, the Assisted Places scheme - which had been introduced by the Conservative government - was abolished, as this was viewed by some as educational elitism (Gillard, 2001). The latter part of this decade has ushered in changes which are set to have an impact on the future generation. The key policy that will shape future education is the decision to raise the school-leaving age to eighteen. The idea behind this is to encourage a new generation of young adults who have the skills necessary for modern-day employment, for it has become evident over time that there has been a decline in unskilled jobs. An additional aim of increasing the school-leaving age is to increase the flexibility of careers offered, such as by offering apprenticeships and work-based training, instead of purely academic learning. The changing economic climate has dramatically impacted the availability of jobs, both skilled and unskilled, and there is a clear need for young people to leave school equipped for potentially challenging times. The former Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls, speaking in 2007, said: "The days where many people could leave school at sixteen without qualifications and work their way up into a fulfilling and rewarding career are behind us...those who leave school early without good skills and qualifications are less likely to get a good job" (DirectGov, 2007).
There have been many more policies and governmental initiatives over the last sixty years that have influenced education in the United Kingdom. What I have touched upon in this commentary are those that I think that have had the most profound impact, and influenced my own education. I would like to conclude with a passage from Benjamin Disraeli, who succinctly voices an opinion I share: "Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends".