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This essay discusses influences of social policy development in education over the last 30 years. It also discusses the impact of these policies in relation to social exclusion, inequality and poverty.
Throughout the post-war period, there have been many attempts to reform the UK education system, often with an explicit intention to raise standards and make it more productive. Notable reforms have included a nationally prescribed curriculum, vigorous attempts to raise participation in post-compulsory schooling and the introduction of tuition fees for higher education. In addition to concerns about widening access and educational inequality, in the 1980s there emerged widespread fears about poor and falling standards in UK education system (Machin and Vignoles, 2006). Specifically, there were concerns that too many individuals were leaving school too early and with little in the way of basic skills. Examination underachievement had also been recognised by education policy-makers as a particular problem (ibid).
In the light of these concerns, successive Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s increased the pace of reform and introduced so called “market mechanisms” into the UK education system, in an attempt to force schools to raise standards. The move towards a ‘quasi-market’ in education, was kick started by a significant piece of legislation – the 1988 Education Reform Act – which not only introduced the market reforms discussed here, but also the National Curriculum.
At the last election, Labour swept to power on the catchphrase “education, education, education” however, according to (Wood, Jaffrey & Troman in Fielding, 2001) there has been widespread disappointment in New Labour’s education policies, which on the whole have not steered too far wide of those put in place by Margaret Thatcher. David (2003) also agrees with this notion but argues that New Labour continues to develop educational policies on excellence, introducing notions of social exclusion and inclusion and identifying policies specifically to tackle issues of poverty through education. It may therefore be argued that raising education standards for all is important not only to the success of a modern economy but also to the creation of a socially just society.
Since the 1990s, New Labour’s political values have shared many neo-liberalism characteristics especially in moving what has been called a post-welfare society. In implementing many of their education policies, they have continued with an emphasis on moral values, individuality and personal responsibility (Jones, 1996, pp.17-18). However, David (2003, p.356) argues that New Labour redefines such notions on an individual basis rather than on the basis of social groups, such as social class or those economically disadvantaged on the basis of family circumstances. This raises a question about fairness of opportunity in education for some social groups, for example Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups face additional barriers to ‘inclusion’ relating to their ethnicity and are disproportionately likely to perform poorly and suffer exclusion, including; employment, educational out comes, truancy and school exclusions (SEU, 2004).
It may be argued that few of the policy developments in education have had issues of equality of opportunity uppermost or explicitly on the agenda. The driving force behind policy making may therefore have been more to do with value for money and quality assurance but largely due to political influence. In addition, the public sector is more exposed to political direction and scrutiny than the private sector; public policies in education stipulate the conditions under which schools must operate. However, according to Kemmis (1990) many of the changes in educational policies over the past thirty years or so, have been due to the political work of organised social movements exerting considerable pressure for change, with calls for action on poverty, women inequalities, minorities and people with disabilities leading the government to formulate policies and programmes in education which sought to provide equality of educational opportunity. He further notes that these movements were dissatisfied with the role that education plays in the maintenance of the existing social order. Showing that, people are no longer prepared to leave policy making to politicians and bureaucrats. They wish to be involved in the steering of policy processes. For example the feminist movement will not permit issues of gender inequality in education to drop off the policy agenda. Similarly, BME groups want a direct say in the policy making process. Thus the language of educational policy, according to Kemmis (1990), is linked to political compromises between competing but unequal interests.
Secondly, Changes in social attitudes towards authority, particularly among young people, have also created new pressures for education. As (Willis 1990 cited in Taylor, Fazal and Rizvi, 1997. P.4) has argued, students brought up on the cultural values of the globalised mass media are unlikely to be comfortable with the requirements of bureaucratically defined regimes of discipline. Such cultural and attitudinal changes have demanded policy shifts in education.
Alcock (2008, p.198) states that “social policy development is also closely dependent upon the economic structure of the society and upon the economic growth within it”. While, Blakemore and Griggs (2007, p.147) state that due to economic pressures, the government abolished free tuition and instead passed the Teaching and Higher Education Act that requires students to pay tuition fees. As a consequence, there has been an increase in the number of English students choosing to attend Scottish and Welsh universities to avoid tuition fees. On the other hand, the youth labour market has led to calls for educational policies designed to ensure greater retention in senior secondary schools and curricula that are more vocationally responsive; leading to the Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA) subsidy for 16 to 19 year olds. Evaluation of EMA suggests substantial impact from the subsidy that overall, educational participation post 16 was 4.5 percentage points higher than before (Dearden et al., 2005).
Political, economic and social influences have not however been the only factors responsible for changing policy in education. Technological changes may also have demanded revision to educational policy, and in particular to curriculum priorities and teaching styles. With ever emerging new technologies changing partners of everyday life, then education cannot remain oblivious to these changes. Governments have been quick to invest large amounts of money in the teaching of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in schools and lifelong learning programmes.
The introduction of new educational policies should primarily be to address personal and academic development and ultimately provide a more equitable education system for all. However, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2006) stated that the impact of educational services not always able to meet individual needs’ has over the years disproportionately affected particularly groups of BME young people, which is recognised in the Every Child Matters (ECM) consultation paper, as it asserts that: ‘…teenagers from some BME groups face greater challenges than others in growing up’ (Youth Matters: Green Paper. 2005:13). The impact of poor service delivery to BME young people is compounded by the fact that minority ethnic population is over represented in almost all measures of social exclusion (ODPM, 2003) and their poor socio-economic position is closely associated with low educational attainment. This in turn impacts on their prospects to gain employment which in turn often results in being drawn into a life of crime. African Caribbean young men in particular are over represented at every stage of the criminal justice system (Graham in Sallah and Howson, 2007, p 176). One could argue that in fact the education system has systematically ensured that Black young people do not succeed (Richardson, 2006). This is not surprising as it has also been acknowledged that the British education system has also failed or lowered the aspirations of the poor and or White working class people (Sewell, 1997). This is particularly important in that, poor achievers are most obvious amongst the poor and disadvantaged. For example, high socio-economic groups appear to have better information on, and understanding of school performance, via league tables (West and Pennell, 1999). Whether parents act on this information, choosing for their children to attend the best schools, then there is a clear tension between strategies to raise standards and policies to reduce inequality. Socio-economic background also relates to school quality and pupil performance via peer groups. For example, attending a school with very few children from lower socio-economic groups is highly beneficial academically speaking (Feinstein, 2003). If parental choice leads to greater socio-economic segregation across schools, such peer group effects may further reinforce social exclusion.
The motivation behind the introduction of the market reforms was to raise standards and achievement, rather than issues related to inequality. The evidence on the impact of these reforms on children’s achievement is minimal, however, empirical evidence from the USA (Chubb and Moe, 1990) is supportive of the view that decentralised schooling systems can produce better results, measured in terms of educational outcomes (Hoxby, 2000). Evidence for the UK by Bradley et al (2001) found that schools with the best examination performance grew most quickly and that, increased competition between schools led to improved exam performance. Gibbons, Machin and Silva (2005) report little evidence of a link between choice and achievement, but find a small positive association between competition and school performance. However, they attribute this to school location or pupil sorting.
Evaluating the impact of nationally introduced education policies and the impact of continual vocational systems is not easy according to Machin and Vignoles (2006). Perhaps the best way to evaluate new qualifications is to consider their labour market value, since this reflects the demand by employers for this type of qualification and the skills embodied in it. The evidence is that NVQs and indeed GNVQs, have minimal economic value in the labour market (Dearden et al., 2002). In particular, NVQ2 qualifications may actually have a negative impact on individuals’ wages, in many sectors of work.
Higher Education (HE) in the UK is viewed as a success story, with continually rising participation in HE since the late 1960s. However, there have been concerns about who is accessing HE. Evidence by Machin and Vignoles (2006) showed that during the last fifteen years, participation in HE had largely been the preserve of the higher socio-economic groups in the UK. Furthermore, there is evidence that the gap in HE participation between richer and poorer students actually widened, at least in the mid and late 1990s (Blanden and Machin, 2004). Contrary to what many believed before the expansion of higher education, the expansion appears to have actually acted to increase educational inequalities, so that a greater share of HE participants is from well off backgrounds (ibid). It may be argued that although poorer students are more likely to go on to higher education than they were in the past, the likelihood of them doing so relative to their richer peers is actually lower than was the case in earlier decades. Furthermore, tuition fees introduced by labour in 1999 leave poorer students with huge debts to pay on graduation.
This essay concludes that, educational policies do not emerge in a vacuum but reflect compromises between competing interests expressed by the dominant interests of capitalism in the one hand, and the oppositional interests of various social movements on the other. While it is true that some policies are responses to particular social changes, it is also the case that these changes may themselves be represented in a variety of different ways and accorded contrasting significance. Educational policy initiatives may thus be viewed as responses to the struggle over particular constructions of social political, economic and cultural changes. However, the evidence of positive impact of the reforms on the poor, minorities and the socially excluded is minimal. In this way, it can be concluded that the state is not neutral and politically driven with respect to the changes occurring in education, as its own interest in sponsoring some changes and preventing others is reflected in policy development.
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