Education in the UK

Preliminary pages
Introduction, Contents, Preface
Chapter 1 Up to 1500
Chapter 2 1500-1600
Renaissance and Reformation
Chapter 3 1600-1660
Chapter 4 1660-1750
Chapter 5 1750-1860
Towards mass education
Chapter 6 1860-1900
A state system of education
Chapter 7 1900-1923
Secondary education for some
Chapter 8 1923-1939
From Hadow to Spens
Chapter 9 1939-1945
Educational reconstruction
Chapter 10 1945-1951
Labour and the tripartite system
Chapter 11 1951-1964
The wind of change
Chapter 12 1964-1970
The golden age?
Chapter 13 1970-1974
Applying the brakes
Chapter 14 1974-1979
Progressivism under attack
Chapter 15 1979-1990
Thatcher and the New Right
Chapter 16 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 17 1997-2007
Tony Blair and New Labour
Chapter 18 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 19 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
Chapter 20 2015-2018

Organisation of this chapter

Gordon Brown
Education department
   Ed Balls
   John Denham
   Andrew Adonis

Early days
Inaugural statement
Conservative policies
The Children's Plan
   Building brighter futures
   21st Century Schools

2008 Education and Skills Act
   The bill
   Summary of the Act
2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act
   The bill
   Summary of the Act
2010 Children, Schools and Families Act
   2009 White Paper
   The bill
   Summary of the Act
Other Acts
   2007 Further Education and Training Act
   2008 Sale of Student Loans Act
   2008 Special Educational Needs (Information) Act
   2008 Children and Young Persons Act
   2010 Child Poverty Act
   2010 Equality Act

Building Schools for the Future
Academies and trust schools
   CPAC: Academies programme
   Ongoing problems
Faith schools
   Faith in the System
   Covert selection
   School Admissions Code
   Other concerns
National Challenge
Inspection regime
   CSFC: School accountability
   2008 NUT Conference
   One-day strike
   Head teachers
   ATL behaviour survey
   2008 White Paper: Back on Track
   2009 Steer Report: Behaviour
   Homophobic bullying
   2010 Steer Report: Home-School Agreements
Private schools
   Charitable status
Other school matters
   Regulatory burden
   School meals
   Budget cuts

The curriculum
Miscellaneous matters
   Ofsted: Maths
   NAO: Primary maths
   Macdonald report: PSHE
   Ofsted: Key Stage 3
   Ofsted: National Strategies
Curriculum reviews
   IRPC: the politics
   IRPC: interim report
   CPR: interim report
   CSFC: National Curriculum
   IRPC: final report
   Nuffield: 14-19 Review
   CPR: final report

Tests and league tables
Increasing concerns
CSFC: Testing and assessment
SATs fiasco
Contextualised value added scores
Balls' statement on testing
Union divisions
Expert Group on Assessment
SATs boycott

Exams and qualifications
A Levels
   CSFC: Testing and assessment
   CPAC: 14-19 reforms
Election battleground

Higher education
2009 Strategy paper: Higher Ambitions

Social mobility
Government initiatives
   Excellence and fairness
   Getting on, getting ahead
More reports
2009 White Paper: New opportunities
2009 Milburn Report: Unleashing Aspiration
The government's response

Towards the end
LibDems: Equity and Excellence
Election issues
   Technical schools
   The educational establishment
   Free schools
   Failing schools
   Primary education
The manifestos
   Liberal Democrat
The general election



Education in the UK: a history
Derek Gillard

first published June 1998
this version published May 2018

copyright Derek Gillard 2018
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Chapter 18 : 2007-2010

Brown and Balls: mixed messages


Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown (1951- ) (pictured), whose father was a minister of the Church of Scotland, was educated at Kirkaldy High School in a separate class for able children (an arrangement he is said to have resented), and read history at the University of Edinburgh. In 1972, while still a student, he was elected Rector of the University.

During the 1970s he lectured in politics at Glasgow College of Technology and was a tutor for the Open University. From 1980 until 1983 he worked for Scottish Television, first as a journalist and then as the current affairs editor.

In 1983 he entered Parliament as MP for Dunfermline East (which was subsumed into Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2005) and shared an office with Tony Blair. He held several shadow cabinet posts before becoming Shadow Chancellor in 1992.

After the death of John Smith in May 1994, Brown did not contest the Labour leadership, standing aside to allow Tony Blair to represent the modernising wing of the party. In return, Blair is said to have agreed to give Brown control of economic policy.

When the rebranded 'New Labour' party won its first landslide election victory in 1997, Brown was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. He held the post throughout Tony Blair's premiership, becoming the longest-serving Chancellor in modern history.

In 2000, at the age of 49, he married Sarah Macaulay. The couple endured great sadness: their first child, a girl, lived for only one day, and one of their two sons was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

Following Tony Blair's resignation, Brown became Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party on 27 June 2007.

In the autumn of 2007 advisors tried to persuade him to call a general election, which opinion polls indicated he would win, but he declined to do so. It was a costly mistake: within a year, a banking crisis and a global recession had thrown the economy off course, Parliament was brought into disrepute as the result of a scandal involving MPs' expenses claims, and David Cameron had revived the Conservative Party's fortunes. Labour suffered its worst local election results for forty years in May 2008 and fared equally badly in European elections. Some Labour backbenchers began calling for a leadership contest and there were rumours of plots against Brown.

The general election on 6 May 2010 resulted in a hung Parliament. After several days of anxious negotiations between the parties, Gordon Brown resigned as Prime Minister and Labour leader on 11 May, and David Cameron was invited by the Queen to form a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Brown continued to serve as MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath until May 2015, when he stood down.

In July 2012 he accepted the unpaid posts of United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity; and in 2015 he was appointed as an advisor to the Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO), the income from which he gave to the Gordon and Sarah Brown Foundation to support charitable work.

(For more on the political background of this period, see the Wikipedia pages on Gordon Brown and The premiership of Gordon Brown, from which much of the above information is taken.)

Education department

On becoming Prime Minister in June 2007, Gordon Brown immediately announced that the education department would be split into the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).

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 from the Home Office the 'Respect agenda', which had been launched by Tony Blair in 2005 to help local communities tackle antisocial behaviour.

DIUS took science and innovation from the Department for Trade and Industry and was to be responsible for the development, funding and performance of teaching and research in higher education. One of its main aims was the improvement of graduate skills. It would also oversee the 4bn adult portion of the Learning and Skills Council budget, and adult learning schemes such as the Train to Gain workplace education initiative.

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

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


On 28 June 2007, the day after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, Ed Balls was appointed Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (he was commonly known as the children's secretary); John Denham became Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The opposition spokesmen for the two departments - Michael Gove and David Willetts - were appointed on 2 July 2007.

Ed Balls

Ed Balls (1967- ) (pictured) attended Nottingham High School, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Keble College Oxford, and then Economics at Harvard.

After teaching at Harvard for two years, he joined the staff of the Financial Times in 1990.

A member of the Labour Party since his schooldays, he became an adviser to Gordon Brown in 1994, and entered Parliament as MP for Normanton (which later became Morley and Outwood) in 2005. He was appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury in 2006, and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in June 2007.

Following Labour's election defeat in May 2010, Balls served as Shadow Secretary of State for Education until 8 October, when the new party leader, Ed Miliband, appointed him Shadow Home Secretary and, in January 2011, Shadow Chancellor.

After losing his seat at the 2015 election, Balls became a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government and a Visiting Professor to the Policy Institute at King's College London.

John Denham

John Denham (1953- ) (pictured) read Chemistry at the University of Southampton, where he was President of the Students' Union in 1976-77.

He worked for a number of organisations including Friends of the Earth, War on Want, Christian Aid and Oxfam. He served as a local councillor in Hampshire and, for several years, was a member of the Executive Committee of the Fabian Society.

In 1992 he entered Parliament as MP for Southampton Itchen and held various ministerial posts in Tony Blair's administrations, including that of Minister of State at the Home Office, a post from which he resigned in March 2003 in protest at the Iraq war.

He returned to government when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, serving as Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills from 28 June 2007 to 5 June 2009, and then as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government until 11 May 2010. He resigned his Commons seat at the election in May 2015.

In November 2015 Denham became Professor of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University.

Andrew Adonis

As noted in the previous chapter, Andrew (Lord) Adonis had wielded enormous influence over education policy in the Blair administrations. He held on to his post as schools minister when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, but his influence waned and, in October 2008, he was moved from education to the Department of Transport.

Early days

Inaugural statement

Ed Balls made his inaugural statement as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in the House of Commons on 10 July 2007. He began by explaining that his new Department brought together 'for the first time ever in one place the responsibility for all policy across Government to promote the well-being of children and young people' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1319).

He outlined what had been achieved by the Blair administrations:

After decades of underperformance, we have turned the tide. We have rising standards - more than 58 per cent of 15-year-olds achieved five or more good GCSEs in 2006, compared to only 45 per cent in 1997. There is new investment, with 35,000 more teachers, 172,000 new classroom assistants, more than 1,100 new schools and more than 1,300 Sure Start children's centres. Teenage pregnancy rates are at a 20-year low. Re-offending rates among young people are down, and 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1319).
There were, however, still 'significant challenges', and Balls announced that the government would take immediate steps 'to reinforce our focus on standards in the classroom and personalised learning; to back teachers and improve discipline in and out of school; and to strengthen school leadership' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1319).

Sir Peter Williams, Chancellor of Leicester University and chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, would conduct a review of maths teaching in primary schools, building on 'the successful numeracy strategy that we launched nearly 10 years ago' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1319).

The testing regime would be maintained: it was 'essential for monitoring the progress of individual pupils'; but schools would be allowed to make 'well-informed judgments on when pupils should be tested'. The government did not approve of streaming, but strongly supported setting for individual subjects, 'with judgments made by heads and teachers, according to the needs of their school' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1320).

Balls confirmed the government's intention that all those up to the age of 18 should be in some form of education or training:

To secure our economic future and promote opportunity for all, we must also do more to improve the post-16 staying-on rate. We will legislate over the coming year to raise the education leaving age to 18, but we also need a 14-to-19 curriculum that is relevant and engages young people in learning, offering them the skills that they need for future study and to succeed in the workplace. Details of the first five new 14-to-19 diplomas will be available within the month and be ready to be introduced into schools and colleges in September 2008 (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1320).
He announced that the government would find an extra 265m over the next three years
to enable extended schools to do more to support disadvantaged children and young people. By year three, the funding will enable all schools to offer those children two hours per week of group activities in term time, plus 30 hours of additional activities over the holidays (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1320).
The Department would examine ways of further reducing 'unnecessary burdens' on teachers and heads so that professionals could 'get on with the job in the classroom' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1320).

He promised a 'more focused' secondary curriculum 'that teaches the basics, but reduces prescription and puts more power in the hands of individuals schools and teachers' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1321). There would be a greater focus on classroom discipline in Ofsted inspections.

Balls claimed that the academies programme was 'driving radical transformation in weak and failing schools in disadvantaged communities' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1321). He went on:

All academies now actively collaborate with schools and colleges in their area, just as all schools should co-operate with academies. ...

Results in academies are improving faster than they are in other schools. Truancy rates are down. Increasingly, inner-city local authorities such as Hackney, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield are putting new academies at the centre of their local school strategies. The test of whether an organisation can be a potential sponsor should not be its bank balance, but whether it can demonstrate leadership, innovation, and commitment to act in the public interest; so, from today, I am abolishing the current requirement for universities and high-performing schools and colleges to provide 2 million before they can sponsor an academy. Many universities are already engaged with academies. I now want every university actively to engage with academies.

It is my belief that, as we move towards our target of 200 academies by 2010 - rising thereafter to 400 - we should accelerate the pace of the academies programme over the next few years, with a much greater role for universities (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1321-22).

Balls said his Department could not bear the whole burden of improving the life chances of all children. The government therefore intended to draw up a Children's Plan, and would launch a nationwide consultation involving 'teachers, children's professionals, universities, colleges, the voluntary sector, parents, and children and young people' (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1323).

It was 'a challenging agenda', he said, but getting it right was 'critical to the future of our country':

Every child has talent, and through the measures that I have set out today and the consultation that we will now begin, we will ensure that every child gets the best start in life and the support they need to make the most of their talents (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1323).
In his reply, Michael Gove said:
First, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment? During his brief period on the Back Benches, he campaigned vigorously on child poverty and helped to secure improved respite care for the parents of disabled children. I place on record our admiration for that work, and express the hope that we can continue to work with him on those issues in a constructive, bipartisan way. May I also welcome what I take to be the good intentions that he brings to his office? Specifically, I welcome his commitment to use 'all the levers' at his disposal to strengthen family life. ...

I also applaud the Secretary of State's new commitment to excellence, diversity and discipline in our schools, which is another embrace of Conservative policy. However, that prompts the inevitable question why, after 10 years of a Prime Minister who promised a relentless focus on 'Education, education, education', is such an ambitious agenda still required? (Hansard House of Commons 10 July 2007 Col 1324).

In the autumn of 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 that for other departments but lower than in previous years. Teachers' leaders noted that the budget for each pupil would rise from 5,500 in 2007-8 to 6,600 in 2010-11, but pointed out 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).

Conservative policies

A few days after Brown's speech, Conservative leader David Cameron (pictured) launched his party's education policy paper, Raising the bar, closing the gap.

Described as 'an action plan for schools', it declared that a Conservative government would revolutionise education by supporting the creation of a new generation of academies, which would be

free, non-selective, and within the maintained system. They will typically be smaller than comparable, existing schools; they will be set up and run by existing educational providers, charities, trusts, voluntary groups, philanthropists and co-operatives on behalf of parents and pupils; they will be not-for-profit organisations and they will compete with surrounding local authority schools, helping to exert pressure for higher standards in the surrounding schools (Conservative Party 2007:36-37).
With regard to discipline in schools, the paper said:
The best approach to tackling poor discipline is to ensure that problems with the potential to escalate are dealt with immediately and that clear boundaries are set so that pupils recognise the absolute authority of teachers within the school. Sanctions against pupils who step outside these boundaries need to be instantly and consistently applied, ensuring that every pupil recognises the consequences of their actions (Conservative Party 2007:22).
It noted that 'top performing comprehensive schools' had
  • strict school uniform policies, with blazer, shirt and tie and with a zero-tolerance of incorrect or untidy dress;
  • extensive extra-curricular activities, which take place after school or in the lunch break;
  • around an hour for lunch (as opposed to 30 minutes in many weaker schools) - and generally they do not allow pupils to leave the school premises during the lunch break;
  • a system of prefects and a head boy and head girl; and
  • the opportunity to highlight and publicly reward achievement, both academic and sporting (Conservative Party 2007:31).
The policy paper stressed the importance of setting pupils by ability and claimed that Labour had failed to promote this strongly enough:
Labour's 1997 manifesto acknowledged the importance of setting and implied that the amount of setting in schools would be increased significantly. This has not taken place. In 1997 37 per cent of academic lessons were set by ability, rising to just 40 per cent by 2006. In some subjects, such as history and geography, nearly three-quarters of lessons take place in mixed ability classes (Conservative Party 2007:32).
Mixed-ability teaching, the Conservatives argued, had failed because teachers invariably taught to 'just below the average ability of the class',
thus boring the most able children and baffling the least able. This can often lead to disruption, truancy and disengagement (Conservative Party 2007:32).
Finally, a 'Pupil Premium' to increase per capita funding for 'pupils from deprived backgrounds' would result in schools being 'incentivised to seek out and accept pupils from more challenging backgrounds' (Conservative Party 2007:42).

At a conference in Brighton College in May 2008, Michael Gove told teachers that a Conservative government would reinstate traditional 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 (The Guardian 9 May 2008).

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 (quoted in The Guardian 9 May 2008).
Christine Blower, Acting General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), 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 (quoted in The Guardian 9 May 2008).

The Children's Plan

The central feature of the Brown government's education policy was The Children's Plan. Building on the Every child matters agenda of Tony Blair's second administration, and based on widespread consultations involving children, young people, parents, teachers and policy makers, the Plan was designed to underpin and inform all future government policy relating to children, their families and schools. It aimed to eradicate child poverty and significantly reduce illiteracy and antisocial behaviour by 2020.

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 much talked-of 'vision'.

Building brighter futures

The Children's Plan was launched in December 2007 with the publication of Building brighter futures.

In his Foreword, Ed Balls wrote that he wanted to make Britain 'the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up' (DCSF 2007c:3).

The Plan was based on five principles:

  • government does not bring up children - parents do - so government needs to do more to back parents and families;
  • all children have the potential to succeed and should go as far as their talents can take them;
  • children and young people need to enjoy their childhood as well as grow up prepared for adult life;
  • services need to be shaped by and responsive to children, young people and families, not designed around professional boundaries; and
  • it is always better to prevent failure than tackle a crisis later (DCSF 2007c:5-6).
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 2007c:14).
Thousands of playgrounds would be created or refurbished (DCSF 2007c:6-7); personal tutors and one-to-one classes would give struggling pupils a chance to catch up (DCSF 2007c:8-9); there would be 'a root and branch review of the primary curriculum' led by Sir Jim Rose (DCSF 2007c:9); and teaching would be made 'a Masters level profession' (DCSF 2007c:10).

All new schools would be carbon-neutral by 2016 (DCSF 2007c:11); 60m would be spent on improving youth facilities (DCSF 2007c:12); and there would be more 20mph speed limit zones near schools (DCSF 2007c:39).

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.

Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of the Children's Society, 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 (quoted in The Guardian 12 December 2007).
And 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 (quoted in The Guardian 12 December 2007).
Teachers were generally supportive of the plan, though some were concerned about 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. He went on:
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 (quoted in The Guardian 12 December 2007).
21st Century Schools: A World-Class Education for Every Child

Building brighter futures was followed, in December 2008, by the consultation document 21st Century Schools: A World-Class Education for Every Child.

The school system of the 21st century, it said, would need to ensure that children and young people were 'fully engaged with their education until at least the age of 18, reach world-class standards and acquire skills, understanding and qualifications that will serve them well in the future' (DCSF 2008d:5). They would need to learn 'in an environment of good behaviour' in which they were 'not bullied or discriminated against', and could 'develop the wider personal skills, characteristics and attitudes they need to succeed and make a positive contribution to society, while enjoying a fulfilling and healthy childhood' (DCSF 2008d:6).

Young people's additional needs (including special educational needs) would be met as early as possible so that they were not 'distracted or disengaged from learning' (DCSF 2008d:6); and there would be 'high levels of parental engagement and satisfaction with schools' (DCSF 2008d:6).

Schools would 'work more extensively and effectively with parents, other providers and wider children's services' (DCSF 2008d:7); and the government would develop 'an accountability framework and school improvement strategies for all schools, underpinned by the new School Report Card' (DCSF 2008d:8).

Breaking the Link

In 2009 DCSF published the first of what was planned to be a series of documents aimed at breaking the link between children's circumstances and their achievements. In the event, only two were published:


There were three major education acts in this period, though the third was much reduced in scope because of the impending general election:

  • 2008 Education and Skills Act;
  • 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act;
  • 2010 Children, Schools and Families Act.

2008 Education and Skills Act

Education and Skills Bill

The Education and Skills Bill, published on 29 November 2007, was jointly sponsored by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Presenting the bill for its second reading in the House of Lords on 10 June 2008, Lord Adonis said:

The Bill legislates in five main areas to improve education and skills. First, it will make it compulsory by 2015 for all young people to participate in some form of education or training, at least part time, until they are 18 years old. Secondly, it will make various provisions to encourage, enable and assist young people's participation. Thirdly, it will give adults certain rights to expect skills training and enable analysis to take place of the quality and value of such training. Fourthly, it will make a number of changes to the inspection and regulatory regime for independent schools and non-maintained special schools. Fifthly, it will help to ensure a fair and transparent admissions system to schools both pre- and post-16.

The most significant provisions raise the education and training leaving age to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015. The Bill's first clause places on all young people resident in England a responsibility to participate in education or training up to their 18th birthday from those dates, provided that they have not first achieved a level 3 qualification (Hansard House of Lords 10 June 2008 Cols 489-490).

Summary of the Act

The 2008 Education and Skills Act (26 November) was in five parts, of which the first three dealt with the raising of the education leaving age to 18.

Part 1 Chapter 1 required young people to participate in education or training until their 18th birthday through

  • full-time education or training, including school, college or home education;
  • work-based learning, such as an Apprenticeship; or
  • part-time education or training for those working more than 20 hours a week (Sections 1-9).
Chapter 2 set out the role of local education authorities and educational institutions in promoting the fulfilment of this duty; Chapter 3, the duty on employers to enable participation. Chapter 4 made provisions regarding parenting contracts and parenting orders; Chapter 5 dealt with attendance notices. Miscellaneous matters were covered in Chapter 6.

Part 2 concerned the provision of support services for young adults with learning difficulties and young people in general. It empowered local authorities to arrange learning difficulty assessments for students in their final year of compulsory education and for any young person up to the age of 25 who would benefit from an assessment (Section 80); and set out arrangements for careers advice (81), apprenticeships (82) and transport (83).

In Part 3, Section 86 dealt with adult skills including:

  • the learning aims for persons age 19;
  • the duty of the Learning and Skills Council to ensure the free provision of basic skills and first level 2 qualification courses; and
  • the duty of the Learning and Skills Council to ensure that 19 to 25 year olds undertaking their first full level 3 qualification (equivalent to two GCSE A levels) did not have to pay tuition fees.
Part 4 rationalised the regulation and monitoring regime for independent schools and non-maintained special schools.

Part 5 covered a variety of miscellaneous and general matters, including:

  • the right of young people to express a preference for sixth-form education and to appeal against any decision made (150);
  • school admission arrangements (151);
  • the powers of governing bodies in relation to the improvement of pupil behaviour (154);
  • the duty of governors and heads to implement National Curriculum assessment arrangements (156);
  • inspections of teacher training in England without prior notification (164); and
  • the duty of school governing bodies to consider the views of pupils on policy matters affecting them (157).

2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill was published on 4 February 2009. At its second reading in the Commons on 23 February, Ed Balls began by noting that the number of secondary schools 'below the basic benchmark' was now only 440, but said he wanted to go further:

The Bill challenges local authorities to tackle underperforming schools, but it also gives us the power, where they will not act, to step in and require them to take their responsibilities seriously. We will do so by requiring them to match new investment with new leadership through national challenge trusts and our academies programme (Hansard House of Commons 23 February 2009 Col 26).
The Bill also aimed to help schools improve behaviour and discipline: 'we are extending the powers that we have given school and college staff to search a pupil for weapons so that they may search also for drugs, alcohol and stolen property' (Hansard House of Commons 23 February 2009 Col 28).

On apprenticeships, Balls said that the bill represented 'the first overhaul of apprenticeship legislation for nearly 200 years':

It will put apprenticeships on a statutory basis, and establish the entitlement to an apprenticeship place for every suitably qualified young person who wants one. It will ensure that apprenticeships are of high quality, and that they will benefit young people and employers alike. It will also require schools to provide information, advice and guidance on apprenticeships, when it is in the best interest of pupils to do so. We are backing this with a 1 billion plan (Hansard House of Commons 23 February 2009 Col 32).


Writing in The Guardian (2 June 2009), Warwick Mansell noted that the bill gave Ed Balls and John Denham 153 new powers:

The bill gives the secretary of state the right to define, for example, the content of certificates for apprenticeships; to stipulate which courses, other than maths, English and ICT [information and communications technology], students aged 16 to 19 should be entitled to study; to direct a local authority to 'provide information about accountable resources held, received or expended' by its schools; to specify the maximum amount of compensation that an employee is entitled to should his or her employer be found by an employment tribunal to have illegally denied him or her the right to training; to require a local authority to produce a revised statement on its transport plans for sixth-formers following a complaint; and, strangely, to stipulate, for qualifications for young people aged 19 or over, the minimum level of attainment in literacy and numeracy needed 'to operate effectively in day-to-day life' (Mansell 2009a).
'Is this the most centralising education bill in history?' asked Mansell. 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' (Mansell 2009a).

But in the last twenty years there had been 'a steady growth in the powers of central government', with the introduction of the National Curriculum, National Literacy and Numeracy 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 House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, commented:

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. Ministers need to understand this before they continue plodding on in the opposite direction (quoted in The Guardian 2 June 2009).
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' (quoted in The Guardian 2 June 2009).

Summary of the Act

The 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act (12 November) was huge. Its 265 pages contained thirteen parts dealing with:

Part 1 Apprenticeships, study and training: created a statutory framework for apprenticeships and a right to an apprenticeship for suitably qualified 16-18 year olds (Sections 1-39); it set out the duties of employers to facilitate such training (40).

Part 2 LEA functions: local education authorities in England were required to 'secure that enough suitable education and training is provided to meet the reasonable needs of -

(a) persons in their area who are over compulsory school age but under 19, and
(b) persons in their area who are aged 19 or over but under 25 and are subject to learning difficulty assessment' (41).
Sections 48-52 made provisions with respect to the education of young offenders.

Part 3 The Young People's Learning Agency for England: provided for the establishment of the Agency (60) and set out its functions and funding arrangements (61-80).

Part 4 The Chief Executive of Skills Funding: to be appointed by the Secretary of State (80). Sections 82-121 set out the duties of the post.

Part 5 Supplementary matters relating to Parts 2 to 4: the abolition of the Learning and Skills Council (123-124).

Part 6 The sixth form college sector: local authorities were to be prohibited from establishing new sixth-form colleges (125-126).

Part 7 The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation: the Act provided for the creation of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, to be known as Ofqual (127); and set out its objectives and duties (128-131) and its functions in relation to qualifications (132-158), assessment arrangements connected with the National Curriculum (159), and the Early Years Foundation Stage (160).

Part 8 The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency: the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was to be renamed the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (175). Its objective was 'to promote quality and coherence in education and training in England' (176). The Authority's functions in relation to qualifications, the curriculum, the Early Years Foundation Stage and assessment arrangements were to include providing advice to the Secretary of State and conducting programmes of research and development (178-192).

Part 9 Children's services: set out arrangements for promoting co-operation to improve the well-being of children, including the establishment of Children's Trust Boards (194), targets for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children (195), and arrangements for children's centres (198-202).

Part 10 Schools: amended local education authorities' powers to intervene in schools which were causing concern (203-205); laid down new rules regarding the investigation of complaints against schools by parents or pupils (206-224); changed the arrangements for school inspections (225-226); and provided for the creation of a School Support Staff Negotiating Body (227-241).

Part 11 Learners: amended previous Acts to give members of staff the power to search pupils in schools and students in further and higher education for prohibited items (242-245); changed the rules about recording and reporting the use of force in schools and in further and higher education institutions (246-247); set out arrangements for school behaviour and attendance partnerships (248); and changed the name of pupil referral units to short-stay schools (249)

The remainder of the Act (Parts 12 and 13) dealt with various miscellaneous and general matters.

2010 Children, Schools and Families Act

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

Before the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act had 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 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 the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, though the government would

still expect every primary school to be teaching daily 'literacy hours' and daily mathematics lessons (DCSF 2009d:9).
In his Foreword, Ed Balls wrote that:
we can now take the historic step of setting out in law our new Pupil and Parent Guarantees. For each young person, this will mean a school where:
  • there is good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety;
  • they are taught a broad, balanced and flexible curriculum including skills for learning and life;
  • they are taught in a way that meets their needs, where their progress is regularly checked and where additional needs are spotted early and addressed quickly;
  • they take part in sport and cultural activities;
  • their health and wellbeing is supported; and
  • they have the chance to express their views, and they and their families are welcomed and valued (DCSF 2009d:3-4).
The White Paper's key points were that:
  • schools would have more freedom and would be enabled to establish networks of school-to-school support to help drive up standards (DCSF 2009d:23);
  • there should be a pupil guarantee setting out new entitlements to personalised support for every child, matched by a parent guarantee for every parent (DCSF 2009d:25);
  • all schools should have good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety (DCSF 2009d:26);
  • parents of children who regularly behaved badly in class could face court-imposed parenting orders (DCSF 2009d:27);
  • schools should be given greater flexibility and encouraged to innovate (DCSF 2009d:28);
  • schools should work in partnership with other schools and with wider children's services (DCSF 2009d:43);
  • local consortia should offer a choice of every one of the new diplomas to 14-19 year-olds (DCSF 2009d:44);
  • there should be more academies and trust schools (DCSF 2009d:44);
  • partnerships of primary schools would share specialist teaching (DCSF 2009d:46);
  • a system would be developed for accrediting good education providers who wished to run groups of schools (DCSF 2009d:48);
  • there would be strong accountability and rapid intervention to improve schools when needed (DCSF 2009d:55);
  • the role of 'School Improvement Partners' (SIPs) would be expanded (DCSF 2009d:55);
  • there would be a new School Report Card (SRC) (DCSF 2009d:55);
  • the use of the private consultants employed to improve schools would be cut (DCSF 2009d:60)
  • the relationship between central government, local authorities and schools would be improved (DCSF 2009d:66);
  • there would be a new Masters degree in Teaching and Learning (DCSF 2009d:84);
  • there should be better development of support staff (DCSF 2009d:84); and
  • governing bodies' fundamental duties to children, young people and the wider community would be enshrined in law (DCSF 2009d:84).
Children, Schools and Families Bill

These proposals formed the basis of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, published on 19 November 2009.

The Bill's provisions regarding sex education caused problems for the government. Ministers had announced in October 2008 that sex education 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 new regulations, which were due to come into effect in September 2011, were amended. All schools would still be required to teach sex education, but the government 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 was still not enough for the Catholic Education Service, which lobbied the government to make further changes. Ministers backed down and agreed that sex and relationships education (SRE) could reflect a school's religious character.

Critics argued that this 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 (quoted in 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 (quoted inThe Guardian 18 February 2010).
A Catholic school would thus 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 that the amendment would not dilute 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.

Despite the concerns, the amendment was passed by 268 votes to 177 without debate, because of a lack of time at the report stage on 23 February 2010. Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws told the Commons:

I am very sad about the change that the Government have made regarding sex and relationship education, which did not come out of any pressure in Committee. I do not believe that even the Conservative party, which has traditionally been cautious about such issues, proposed to amend the legislation in that way. Now, we have this amendment that we have not had the opportunity to debate today and that cuts directly across the commitment in the Bill to promote equality and diversity (Hansard House of Commons 23 February 2010 Col 264).
Alison Ryan, education policy adviser of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), 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 (quoted in The Guardian 24 February 2010).
And National Secular Society Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood complained that the government had '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' (quoted in The Guardian 24 February 2010).

In an editorial, 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).
In the event, none of this mattered because, with a general election just a month away, all the sex education provisions in the bill - and most of the others - were lost.

Summary of the Act

The 2010 Children, Schools and Families Act (8 April) was in three parts:

Part 1 made provisions concerning children with special educational needs, exceptional provision for ill or excluded children, the powers of governing bodies, and Local Safeguarding Children Boards.

Part 2 dealt with proceedings in family courts.

Part 3 made minor amendments to the 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act and the 2008 Education and Skills Act.

Other Acts

2007 Further Education and Training Act

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

  • the Learning and Skills Council for England (Sections 1-13);
  • institutions within the further education sector (14-23), including their power to award foundation degrees (19);
  • industrial training levies (24-25);
  • the formation of, and investment in, companies and charitable incorporated organisations by higher education corporations (26); and
  • the powers of the Welsh Assembly in relation to education (27).
2008 Sale of Student Loans Act

The 2008 Sale of Student Loans Act (21 July) allowed the government to sell student loans to a third party, and set out the regulations regarding such sales.

2008 Special Educational Needs (Information) Act

The 2008 Special Educational Needs (Information) Act (21 July) amended the 1996 Education Act in relation to the provision and publication of information, with the purpose of 'improving the well-being of children in England with special educational needs' (Section 1).

2008 Children and Young Persons Act

The provisions of the 2008 Children and Young Persons Act (13 November) concerned:

  • the delivery of local authority social work services for children and young persons (Sections 1-6);
  • the functions of local authorities and others in relation to children and young persons (7-33), including the enforcement of care standards in children's homes; and
  • the independent review of determinations relating to adoption (34).
2010 Child Poverty Act

The 2010 Child Poverty Act (25 March):

  • set targets relating to the eradication of child poverty (Sections 1-7): the target for the year beginning 1 April 2010 was that no more than 1.7m children should be living in homes classified as poor (1(2));
  • established the Child Poverty Commission (8);
  • set out the duties of local authorities and others in relation to child poverty (19-25); and
  • made minor amendments to the 1996 Education Act relating to free school lunches and milk (26).

2010 Equality Act

The 2010 Equality Act (8 April) was huge and wide-ranging (239 pages containing 218 Sections and 28 Schedules). It replaced nine major Acts and almost one hundred sets of regulations which had been issued over several decades.

Education was dealt with in Part 6 of the Act, which comprised chapters relating to schools, further and higher education institutions, and qualfications bodies.


Building Schools for the Future

On 9 August 2007 the Commons Education and Skills Committee (CESC) published its report on the early stages of Building Schools for the Future (BSF), which it described as 'an immensely ambitious programme designed to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in England over 15 years at a cost of 45 billion' (CESC 2007b:3).

Sustainable Schools: Are we building schools for the future? argued that:

  • local authorities needed more time to consider what they wanted of their schools - 'the difficulties faced by earliest waves of authorities in coping with deadlines suggest that this would be time well spent' (CESC 2007b:3);
  • there were risks associated with the public finance initiative (PFI) scheme, which had been used 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 government, said the Committee, 'needs to set out more clearly than it has done so far its assessment of the sustainability of the levels of revenue commitments across local authorities in general' (CESC 2007b:3);
  • the government should 'have the courage of its convictions, and allow local authorities greater flexibility to develop local solutions within a clear framework of priorities, such as the need to promote innovative approaches to learning and the need to embed sustainability' (CESC 2007b:4);
  • the scheme should be regularly reviewed and questioned - it was 'vitally important lessons are learned from the earliest schools and projects in the process' (CESC 2007b:4);
  • within a basic framework, local authorities 'should be given more freedom to shape their local school system as they consider appropriate' (CESC 2007b:6).
The Committee was anxious about the environmental impact of the programme:
The schools estate contributes 2% to national carbon emissions overall, but that figure represents almost 15% of UK public sector carbon emissions. If the Government is to meet a target of at least 60% reduction against the 1990 baseline, and if it intends to set an example by the way in which it looks after the public sector building stock, it clearly has to address the issue of schools' carbon emissions (CESC 2007b:5).
As to the cost of the programme, the Committee said:
We are not arguing that BSF is a waste of money or that it should not proceed. Indeed it represents an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that all of the physical spaces which pupils occupy effectively support their learning. What we are saying is that, given the scale of the project and the amount of money proposed to be spent, there is a danger that everyone involved will concentrate on getting through to the end and that the question of whether the project's scope and aims remain appropriate will not be asked (CESC 2007b:5).
In October 2007 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).

In the first four years of the BSF programme, local authorities had struggled to set up the PFI partnerships which provided most of the funding, so in April 2008 ministers announced that the aim would now be to build just four new schools in each local authority area. A DCSF spokesman said there were still 'ambitions' for every school to have a plan in place, even if building work had not started by 2020 (The Guardian 10 April 2008).

An audit conducted by the government's architecture watchdog, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), suggested that four out of five 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

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown had said virtually nothing about the academies programme until three months before Tony Blair resigned when, 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 content to preside over the expansion of the programme, despite continuing problems and controversies.

Meanwhile, struggling private schools decided that becoming academies was the answer to their financial difficulties. By August 2007 four were already changing status, two more had applied and twenty were said to be interested. Other private schools were considering sponsorship of academies: Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, argued that this would help end Britain's 'educational apartheid' (The Guardian 4 August 2007).

CPAC Report: The Academies programme

In its report, The Academies programme, published on 18 October 2007, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (CPAC) noted routine overspending in the building of academies.

The Committee's main findings were that:

  • existing academies had made progress, for example in raising pupils' attainment at GCSE, but it was too early to tell whether rising attainment was sustainable;
  • literacy and numeracy of academy pupils had risen but were still low, at less than half the level of attainment in all secondary schools;
  • many academy sixth forms were small, which restricted the range of subjects they could offer. They should collaborate with neighbouring schools, colleges, other training providers and employers, to broaden the curriculum and give young people beyond the age of 16 a wide range of educational options;
  • a small number of academies had had high levels of exclusions, possibly as part of a short-term strategy to improve pupil behaviour. The Department should scrutinise trends in individual academies' exclusions to assess whether exclusions rates were reducing to be more in line with similar schools;
  • of the first 26 academy buildings, 17 had incurred cost overruns averaging 3.2m, or well over 10 per cent. The Department did not yet know the costs of running academies in the longer term;
  • a small number of academies had paid sponsors to provide services which should have been put out to competitive tender, so as to meet existing procurement regulations and avoid conflicts of interest;
  • there were fewer planned or open academies than might have been expected in the north of England. The Department's target was that 60 of the first 200 academies should be in London. It should examine deprivation data when deciding the location of a new academy to make sure that its programme for academies reflected the Government's overriding objective to raise attainment in deprived areas, and that academies were built in areas with the greatest need;
  • academies were 'a relatively costly means of tackling low attainment'. The Department should reject proposals that put at risk the viability of local schools and colleges providing a good quality education, including proposals relating to education from age 16. It should not approve academy projects in locations where a less costly solution, for example requiring less capital expenditure and lower or no start-up funds, would provide better value for money;
  • following changes announced in the Budget of March 2007, academies should make their facilities available for use by their communities, and the Department should consider whether there would be a future need to address this issue in relation to voluntary-aided schools being rebuilt as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme; and
  • there should be more systematic sharing of lessons learnt from the first academy projects (CPAC 2007:5-6).
Ongoing problems

By December 2007, twenty-one universities had been persuaded by ministers to adopt academies, but Oxford and Cambridge rejected the idea. At Cambridge there were concerns about potential conflicts of interest in admissions; while at Oxford, a spokesperson told The Guardian that the university was working with schools in 56 local authorities and strongly supported raising aspirations for all young people. 'We would be reluctant to be formally associated with a single school', he said (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. The proposal was opposed by 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: under Tony Blair, he and Andrew (Lord) Adonis had promoted the academies programme, and his removal from SSAT was seen as a sign that the influence of Adonis was waning (The Guardian 20 December 2007). Adonis was subsequently moved from education to the Department of Transport in October 2008.

By the start of 2008, the government was running into difficulties finding enough sponsors for academies. 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'. Thirty-four schools had already become trusts and 307 were working towards trust status (The Guardian 16 January 2008).

Meanwhile, the Church of England announced plans to convert some existing cathedral schools into academies. 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 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 (quoted in The Guardian 8 February 2008).
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, chair of Northampton Academy and board member of the United Learning Trust (ULT), 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).

Ed Balls told Labour's spring conference in February 2008 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. He said he 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 National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (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 Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (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 the University of London Institute of Education (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 liberal think-tank CentreForum argued that the academies programme should be extended to 'failing' primary schools, a view supported by Andrew Adonis and another former education adviser to the Blair government, Conor Ryan (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 first 36 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 the autumn term in 2008. He said the zero-tolerance approach was crucial because 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 told the government it no longer wished to sponsor Middlesbrough's Unity City Academy (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 plan was supported 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, a reduction of 16 per cent. Across England as a whole the proportion of pupils on free school meals had fallen by only 1.7 per cent (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. EACT, 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, and Ofsted placed the school 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 (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).

Meanwhile, parents and local communities continued to oppose academies:

  • in Furness, parents raised a 6,000-signature petition against the imposition of an academy, four campaigners were 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. Some sponsors withdrew (The Guardian 5 May 2009).
By August 2009, 130 academies had been opened at a cost of almost 5bn, 67 were due to open in the autumn term 2009, and a hundred more were planned for September 2010. The government told sponsors to expect cuts in funding: EACT warned that some of its small rural schools might have to close if spending was reduced (The Guardian 29 August 2009).

As the 67 new academies opened, Ed Balls said they were part of the biggest wave of new schools since the Victorian era, and he insisted that the government would reach its target of 400 academies (The Guardian 7 September 2009).

But, in a clear sign that ministers were becoming desperate to find sufficient sponsors, Balls 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).

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 the largest academy sponsor, United Learning Trust (ULT), an Anglican charity chaired by former Conservative education minister Angela Rumbold, which also ran ten private schools. In July 2009 school inspectors rated Sheffield Park 'inadequate' in all categories. Other ULT academies were also causing concerns and, 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 (The Guardian 13 September, 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 not yet received any. In total, sponsors had so far paid barely two-thirds of the 145m they had promised towards capital costs in the seven years since the first of England's 200 academies had opened. This was 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

In 2007, a third of all state schools in England were run by religious groups, mostly the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. There were also 37 Jewish schools, seven Muslim, two Sikh, one Seventh Day Adventist and one Greek Orthodox school.

Faith in the System

Conscious of growing public unease at the increasing number of religious schools, in September 2007 the DCSF published Faith in the System, a 'joint vision statement' in which the government and the providers of 'publicly-funded schools with a religious character' highlighted 'the very positive contribution' which the schools made as 'valuable, engaged partners in the school system and in their local communities and beyond' (DCSF 2007a:1).

At the same time, DCSF sought

to dispel some of the common myths and misunderstandings around faith schools and to build a basis for greater understanding and dialogue within society (DCSF 2007a:1).
The government welcomed the contribution which faith schools made - 'both as a result of their historical role and now as key players in contributing to the more diverse school system with greater opportunities for parental choice that we seek' (DCSF 2007a:4).
The Government remains committed to supporting the establishment of new schools by a range of providers - including faith organisations - where local consultation has shown that this is what parents and the community want, and where this greater diversity will help to raise standards (DCSF 2007a:4).
For their part, the governors and staff of all schools were expected
to meet their legal requirements to promote a positive attitude to diversity of faith, race and ethnicity through every aspect of every pupil's school experience. In particular, staff and governors will encourage pupils to respect their own and other faiths and beliefs in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony with those of other faiths and no faith (DCSF 2007a:7).
On the subject of school admissions, the document said:
The Government welcomes the wide support given by the faith school providers for the new admissions policies introduced in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the new School Admissions Code, such as the prohibition of interviewing and other unfair criteria, and the encouragement of practices that will ensure that all schools contribute to fair access (DCSF 2007a:17).
A further expansion of faith schools was envisaged:
The Government will work with local authorities as the commissioners of schools and school places in each area and with faith organisations to remove unnecessary barriers to the creation of new faith schools. In particular, the Government will encourage independent schools to enter the maintained sector in their existing premises so that the need for capital funding is not a barrier to entry (DCSF 2007a:18).
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) warned that, despite the government's claims, too many faith schools discriminated against pupils of other religions 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' (quoted in The Guardian 10 September 2007).

Covert selection

Schools minister Jim Knight warned schools that he would not tolerate 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 - most of them faith schools - had been reported to the admissions watchdog and accused of covertly selecting more able students (The Guardian 18 January 2008).

Research by Rebecca Allen at the University of London Institute of Education (ULIE) showed that, in deprived inner-city areas, religious schools admitted ten per cent fewer poor pupils than was representative of their localities, whereas local authority secondary schools accepted thirty per cent more and therefore had a disproportionately deprived intake. The research also showed that faith schools admitted over fifty per cent more pupils in the top quarter of the ability range (The Observer 2, 13 March 2008).

Barry Sheerman, chair of the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, said 'It astonishes me that faith schools are so good at making sure they have fewer children from poorer backgrounds and fewer children with special needs'; and Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, commented:

All the evidence is that when you get pupils from different social classes mixing together, it is a real positive and when you get children of different abilities mixing, it is a real positive. It does not disadvantage the highest achievers, but it does advantage the lowest. Social segregation is not only bad for community cohesion; it is also bad for learning (quoted in The Observer 2 March 2008).
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 (quoted in 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, former education minister 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 was planned to 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 (quoted in The Guardian 15 September 2008).
Year 8 pupils at St Monica's Roman Catholic High School in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, were to have been immunised against cervical cancer as part of the government's 100m programme to vaccinate all 14- to 18-year-old girls. But the governors refused to allow the vaccinations to take place at the school, despite the advice of the Catholic Education Service, which backed the government's campaign against the human papilloma virus (The Guardian 25 September 2008).

The Chief Schools Adjudicator, Philip Hunter, said more than half of all school authorities 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 Ed Balls' view, expressed earlier in the year, that most of the problems were in faith schools (The Guardian 4 November 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 (quoted in The Guardian 4 December 2008).
School Admissions Code

A revised version of the School Admissions Code was published in December 2008, to come into force on 10 February 2009.

In his Foreword to the Code, Ed Balls wrote:

Through the Education and Skills Act 2008 we have strengthened the statutory admissions framework to ensure that all schools adopt fair and lawful admissions practices. Local authorities have an important role to monitor compliance with the Code and are now required to report annually to the Schools Adjudicator on the fairness and legality of the admission arrangements for all schools in their area. As the independent enforcer of fair access to schools, the Schools Adjudicator now has a wider remit to consider any admission arrangements that come to his attention in addition to any complaints received through an objection. The Schools Adjudicator will report annually to the Secretary of State on how fair access is being achieved locally (DCSF 2008c:7).
The Admissions Code
  • banned schools from holding interviews with parents and/or children
    as a method for deciding whether a child is to be offered a place at a school. Interviews must not form part of the admissions process and admission authorities must not use either face-to-face interviews or interviews by telephone or other means (DCSF 2008c:20);
  • reiterated the ban on the introduction of selection by ability, other than for banding or for sixth forms:
    Only grammar schools or schools with partially selective arrangements which already had such arrangements in place during the 1997-98 school year are permitted to continue to use selection by ability (DCSF 2008c:21);
  • endorsed the use of home-school agreements as 'a useful means of promoting greater involvement by parents in their children's education' (DCSF 2008c:21), but made clear that
    schools must not ask parents to sign, or express a willingness to sign, agreements before they have been offered a place at the school (DCSF 2008c:21);
  • argued that school uniform played 'a valuable role in contributing to the ethos and setting the tone of a school' (DCSF 2008c:26), but called on governing bodies to
    limit the expense of uniforms so that parents on low incomes do not feel that the prospective cost of the uniform means that they cannot apply for their preferred school (DCSF 2008c:26);
  • banned local authorities and governing bodies from asking for
    any form of payment or for voluntary contributions, donations or deposits (even if refundable) as part of the admissions process (DCSF 2008c:27); and
  • reminded faith schools that they were required
    to offer every child who applies, whether of their faith, another faith or no faith, a place at the school if there are places available (DCSF 2008c:36).
Other concerns

In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland instructed its schools to disband Amnesty International support groups because of the charity's pro-abortion stance (The Guardian 18 September 2007); and the 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).

In March 2009, 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 Times Educational Supplement 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 commented:

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? (quoted in The Times Educational Supplement 6 November 2009).


In his speech to the annual conference of the National College of School Leadership (NCSL) in Birmingham in June 2008, Ed Balls argued that the continued existence of 164 grammar schools was consigning children to failure at the age of 11:

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.

Some secondary moderns are showing that it is possible to achieve really excellent results. But the fact is that selection does make it more difficult for these schools. They still have a much more deprived intake than their neighbouring grammar schools - over six times more in fact (quoted in The Guardian 20 June 2008).

He promised 1m for every 'struggling' secondary modern school to fund partnerships with other schools (The Guardian 20 June 2008).

Peter Newsam, former Director of the University of London Insititute of Education (ULIE), suggested that England's grammar schools could be turned into sixth-form colleges (The Guardian 17 November 2009).

Meanwhile, the eleven plus was abolished in Northern Ireland, 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 Catholic schools set their own entrance exams, against the advice of their bishop and of Sinn Féin education minister Catriona Ruane, who told the schools they were 'holding to ransom' the overwhelming majority of pupils, parents, schools and teachers who wanted to see an end to selection (The Guardian 8 September 2009).

Ulster Unionists demanded the reintroduction of some form of eleven-plus test and said they would refuse to support the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Stormont assembly on 7 March 2010 - the 'Hillsborough' deal which was vital to keep the assembly in operation - unless an agreement on the eleven plus was reached (The Guardian 12 February 2010).

The National Challenge

In February 2008 Ed Balls told The Guardian that he was determined to tackle the 638 state secondary schools which Ofsted said were 'failing'. Local authorities had until the summer to develop individual action plans for the schools and, if they failed to 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).

Three months later, local authorities were told they had fifty days to submit their action plans for the 638 schools, which 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 have been problematic in the case of several of the schools, which were already academies.

Ed 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.

The National Challenge 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 of the 360 schools on the National Challenge list 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 (The Guardian 11 June 2008).

John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), 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 (quoted in The Guardian 11 June 2008).
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 National Union of Teachers (NUT) challenged ministers' claims that the 638 schools were failing. 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).

In November 2008, Ed Balls announced that schools which were achieving satisfactory results but were failing to improve were to be labelled as '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. Teachers' unions warned against putting 'crude' labels on schools (The Guardian 13 November 2008).

In January 2009, the DCSF added eighty more schools to the National Challenge list, 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 (The Guardian 15 January 2009).

In June 2009, Ed Balls wrote to all local authorities in England which had 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).

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 (ie without giving the normal 48 hours' notice) and would make greater use of 'local intelligence' - complaints from parents - to investigate schools where it was feared that standards were slipping (The Guardian 13 December 2007).

Three months later, Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert announced another shake-up of the inspection regime. 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 basic literacy and numeracy skills - the '3Rs' (The Guardian 8 February 2008).

Researchers at the University of London Institute of Education (ULIE) 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 schools' performance which inspectors then failed to investigate, they claimed (The Guardian 24 March 2008).

In May 2008 Gilbert announced two further changes to the Ofsted inspection regime. First, she told the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families 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 concerns about poorly performing teachers, saying that it often took too long to 'get rid of them' (The Guardian 15 May 2008).

A few days later she announced that Ofsted would 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 and warning the children that their teachers were not preparing them properly for their 'future adult lives'. Chris Keates, General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) said the letters were 'ill-conceived'. 'The letters in effect give licence to pupils to question the professionalism of the school and its staff', she said. 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; this was in response to concerns that children's behaviour was deteriorating because they were not being sufficiently stimulated in class. Inspectors would tell struggling schools what was going wrong in their lessons and explain why pupils were not paying attention, she said (The Guardian 5 January 2009).

Ofsted's Annual Report for 2008-2009, published in November 2009, 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 inadequate teaching which 'fails to inspire, challenge and extend children, young people and adult learners' (Ofsted 2009b:8).

The new inspection regime was criticised by children's services chiefs and head teachers' leaders, who said it was forcing social work departments to focus on passing inspections instead of looking after children; good schools were being rated as mediocre on routine technical matters; and some sub-contracted inspectors were not fit for the job. Former Chief Inspector 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).

CSFC report on School Accountability

In their report on School Accountability, published on 7 January 2010, the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (CSFC) argued that self-evaluation - as 'an iterative, reflexive and continuous process, embedded in the culture of a school' - was 'a highly effective means for a school to consolidate success and secure improvement across the full range of its activities' (CSFC 2010:32). Ofsted should do more to encourage schools to 'be creative and produce evidence of the self-evaluation process which works for them and speaks to the true culture and ethos of their own school' (CSFC 2010:34).

With regard to Ofsted itself, the Committee supported - 'in general terms' - the approach to inspection set out in the 2009 framework (CSFC 2010:54) but suggested that

If visits to schools are to be as short as two days - and bearing in mind that some of those days will be taken up by preliminaries rather than by inspection itself - inspectors will need to be highly trained and well qualified if they are to make an accurate evaluation of school provision (CSFC 2010:55).
Ofsted should 'aspire to have HMIs lead all inspections' (CSFC 2010:59), and should 'rebalance its inspection framework in two ways, in order to reflect better the true essence of the school' (CSFC 2010:72):
First, when evaluating academic attainment, we recommend that Ofsted gives less evidential weight given to test results and derivative measures and gives more weight to the quality of teaching and learning observed by inspectors in the classroom. Second, when evaluating a school's performance in terms of pupil well-being and other non-academic areas, we recommend that Ofsted should move beyond the search for quantitative measures of performance and that it should focus more effort on developing qualitative measures which capture a broader range of a school's activity (CSFC 2010:72).
The Committee was critical of England's testing regime and school league tables:
The Achievement and Attainment Tables present a very narrow view of school performance and there are inherent methodological and statistical problems with the way they are constructed. For instance, they are likely to favour independent and selective schools, which have a lower intake of deprived children or of children with Special Educational Needs. It is unsurprising, therefore, if such schools consistently top the academic league tables. Yet most of those who may wish to use the Tables, particularly parents, remain unaware of the very serious defects associated with them and will interpret the data presented without taking account of their inherent flaws. As a result, many schools feel so constrained by the fear of failure according to the narrow criteria of the Tables that they resort to measures such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, an inappropriate focusing of resources on borderline candidates, and encouraging pupils towards 'easier' qualifications, all in an effort to maximise their performance data. There is an urgent need for the Government to move away from these damaging Achievement and Attainment Tables and towards a system which gives a full and rounded account of a school's provision (CSFC 2010:79).
As to Ed Balls' proposal to introduce a school report card, the Committee said:
We welcome in principle the introduction of the school report card as a rationalisation of current accountability mechanisms and an attempt at providing a broader evidence base for assessing schools' performance. However, the Government must take care in developing its proposals that it tailors the school report card to the particular needs of the English schools system. Lessons can be learned from international practices and the case of the New York school report card will be particularly relevant; but the Government should not assume that what works elsewhere will necessarily work in the English system (CSFC 2010:85).
In conclusion, the Committee argued that the complexity of the school accountability and improvement system in England was 'creating a barrier to genuine school improvement based on the needs of individual schools and their pupils' (CSFC 2010:98). It was therefore time for the government
to allow schools to refocus their efforts on what matters: children. For too long, schools have struggled to cope with changing priorities, constant waves of new initiatives from central government, and the stresses and distortions caused by performance tables and targets.

The Government should place more faith in the professionalism of teachers and should support them with a simplified accountability and improvement system which challenges and encourages good practice rather than stigmatising and undermining those who are struggling (CSFC 2010:106).


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).

2008 NUT Conference

At their annual conference in Manchester, members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) threatened to strike unless the government promised 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 to reverse the policy of teaching reading exclusively through phonics. The union's 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).

Delegates voted to launch a campaign against military recruitment campaigns in schools. The union had complained to Ed Balls that some lesson materials prepared with Ministry of Defence (MoD) backing contained 'misleading propaganda' which 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 national one-day strike on 24 April 2008 (the first since 1987) and warned that there would be more if the government did not improve its pay offer (The Guardian 25 April 2008).

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 persuaded to leave their present posts to run academies when positions arose (The Observer 14 September 2008).

The situation was highlighted again in January 2009, when the annual survey of headship vacancies by Education Data Surveys 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 to encourage governors to use their discretion in deciding head teachers' salaries. In a Commons written statement, he said:

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 21st century school (Hansard House of Commons 23 June 2009 Col 51WS).
In January 2010 Education Data Surveys reported that some secondary schools were offering relocation packages and private health insurance in addition to six-figure salaries, 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).


ATL behaviour survey

At their annual conference in Torquay in March 2008, members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (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).

2008 White Paper: Back on Track

In May 2008 the government published Back on Track, a White Paper setting out its proposals for the education of the 135,000 children who were excluded from school each year, a third of whom were in pupil referral units (PRUs).

In his Foreword, Ed Balls wrote:

No school should ever be required to take a pupil who is not ready to return from permanent exclusion, and no school should be required to take an unfair share of pupils who have been permanently excluded. But young people do not disappear when they are permanently excluded. Where a pupil remains in alternative provision because they are not ready to be re-integrated to a mainstream or special school, it is essential that they nonetheless receive an education that puts them on the path to success in adulthood. This is not just the right thing for them, but for their local community and for society more widely (DCSF 2008b:2).
26.5m would be spent in trialling new specialist centres to be run by 'the private and voluntary sectors' (DCSF 2008b:2). All schools would be expected to take their 'fair share' of excluded pupils (DCSF 2008b:8); every child would have a tailored plan for improving their behaviour and school results (DCSF 2008b:14); and league tables for pupil referral units would be published (DCSF 2008b:14).

2009 Steer Report: Learning Behaviour: Lessons Learned

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. In March 2008 Ed Balls announced that they would be granted new powers to search pupils for alcohol, drugs and stolen goods, and this measure was included in Sections 242-245 of the 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act.

In the meantime, Sir Alan Steer was commissioned to produce a follow-up report to Learning Behaviour, which had been published in 2005.

Learning Behaviour: Lessons Learned, published in April 2009, 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 2009c:3).

The report made 47 recommendations, including:

  • operation of the new legal power to search pupils should be reviewed within three years;
  • schools should be reminded of their power to discipline pupils for behaving inappropriately out of school;
  • all schools should be required to produce a written policy identifying their key learning and teaching aims, strategies and practices;
  • independent exclusion appeals panels should be retained;
  • the DCSF and the professional associations should agree how best to disseminate good practice on raising standards of behaviour in schools;
  • early intervention was particularly important;
  • the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) should review how initial teacher training prepared teachers to manage pupil behaviour;
  • 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; and
  • local authorities should be proactive in supporting schools to develop their behaviour management strategies. (DCSF 2009c:6-14).
Homophobic bullying

In November 2007 the DCSF issued new guidance to schools on preventing and dealing with homophobic bullying.

Homophobic bullying urged schools:

  • to acknowledge and identify the problem of bullying;
  • to develop policies which recognise the existence of homophobic bullying;
  • to promote a positive social environment;
  • to provide information and support for pupils;
  • to include addressing bullying, including homophobic bullying, in curriculum planning;
  • to feel able to use outside expertise;
  • to encourage role models;
  • not to assume that all pupils or staff are heterosexual, or that all pupils experiencing homophobic bullying are gay; and
  • to celebrate achievements (DCSF 2007b:7).
A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) 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 (quoted in The Guardian 20 March 2009).
In March 2009 Stonewall published 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 (Stonewall 2009:3).
(An updated version of Homophobic bullying in Britain's schools was published in 2014. It can be found, along with other publications, on the Stonewall website.)

2010 Steer Report: Behaviour and the role of Home-School Agreements

Sections 4 and 5 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, published on 19 November 2009, dealt with the use of home-school agreements. On 1 March 2010, Ed Balls wrote to Sir Alan Steer, asking him to provide advice on the subject.

Sir Alan submitted his report on Behaviour and the role of Home-School Agreements two weeks later, on 15 March 2010.

In his letter to Ed Balls, he wrote:

Schools work very hard to establish good relations with their communities. This is highly valued by parents and is one of the reasons why the large majority are happy with the school their child attends. ...

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to restate my opinion that the great majority of pupils are well behaved and that behaviour standards are high in the great majority of schools. The evidence from Ofsted clearly supports this position (DCSF 2010:3).

In his report, Sir Alan argued that:
Home-school agreements have an important role in ensuring that schools and parents work together to maintain high standards (DCSF 2010:5).
He warned, however, that
Home-school agreements should not be seen as being solely concerned with issues of behaviour, or as solely a means of coercion when problems arise. When operated well, home-school agreements inform; promote pupil-parent-school engagement and bring together other school policies into a coherent whole. They cannot be seen as providing a simplistic and legalistic solution to problems. They will never fulfil that function (DCSF 2010:6).
In conclusion, Sir Alan suggested that:
Learning, teaching and behaviour are closely interconnected. Engaging all staff, schools should draw up a learning and teaching policy which promotes consistent high standards in a school and supports teachers and school staff in their work. The best way to engage parents is by engaging their children.

In recent years schools have experienced a period of considerable change. Important and laudable initiatives have been launched which command widespread support. The focus should now move to supporting the implementation of those changes. It is in the interests of children that schools now enjoy a period of relative calm (DCSF 2010:7).

Private schools


Summerhill, the unorthodox Suffolk independent boarding school, had been classed as failing by Ofsted inspectors in 1999:

The school fails to meet the requirements for registration under the Education Act 1996 in the following respects: the instruction is not efficient or suitable; the welfare of boarders is not adequately safeguarded and promoted; the school does not provide suitable accommodation (Ofsted 1999:5).
Ofsted revisited the school in 2007. This time, inspectors gave it a much more positive report:
Summerhill is a democratic, self-governing school ... based on the notion that children should be free to decide for themselves how to spend their time in school (Ofsted 2007c:1).
The school provided 'a satisfactory quality of education for its pupils' (Ofsted 2007c:2); teaching was 'good' (Ofsted 2007c:2); and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of the pupils was 'outstanding' (Ofsted 2007c:3).

Charitable status

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).

Other school matters

Regulatory burden on schools

According to the Liberal Democrats, between 1997 and 2008 there had been 16 Bills, 64 Green and White Papers, more than 370 consultation papers and 1650 new regulations affecting schools - amounting to a new government measure every two days (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:21). The huge quantity of paper arriving on head teachers' desks from the DCSF and other government departments was the subject of an enquiry by the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee (MSIC).

Its report, The cumulative impact of statutory instruments on schools, published on 13 March 2009, noted that, in 2006-7, 'the Department and its national agencies produced over 760 documents aimed at schools' and that 'No single part of the department was aware of the totality of what was being offered' (MSIC 2009:5)

The Committee recommended that the DCSF should:

  • 'minimise the burdens imposed upon schools by Regulations from all Government Departments' (MSIC 2009:7);
  • give schools 'at least one full term's lead-in time between the notification of a new requirement in a statutory instrument and the commencement of that requirement (MSIC 2009:9);
  • 'intensify their work to improve communication to schools, which needs to be fully informed by advice provided by practitioners' (MSIC 2009:10);
  • ensure that all significant statutory instruments were subjected to post-implementation review, and that the review findings should be made known to Parliament (MSIC 2009:11);
  • 'seriously consider a less heavy-handed approach to maintained schools' (MSIC 2009:14); and
  • 'shift its primary focus away from the regulation of processes through statutory instruments, towards establishing accountability for the delivery of key outcomes' (MSIC 2009:15).
Head teachers welcomed the report. John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), 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 (quoted in The Guardian 15 March 2009).
'Delivery', he said, was the job of postal workers and midwives, not teachers and head teachers (The Guardian 15 March 2009).

School meals

A survey by the School Food Trust, which had been set up by Tony Blair's government in 2005 to encourage children to eat healthier food, found that the average secondary school had 23 fast-food outlets within a mile of its 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 in two local authorities to provide every child with free school meals. If the two-year trial improved health, school standards and pupils' behaviour, 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 school 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 result in the school meals service being 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. In Britain, 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 organised by the National College of School Leadership, but 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. National Association of Head Teachers 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).

The curriculum

Miscellaneous matters

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) published plans in July 2007 for a reduced Key Stage 3 curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds in England, to be introduced in 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 personal, social and health education (PSHE), which was now said to stand for 'personal, social, health and economic well-being' (The Guardian 13 July 2007).

In September 2007, Ed 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 (quoted in The Guardian 1 December 2007).
One science textbook author told The Guardian that he had been instructed 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).

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. In an attempt to revive language teaching in schools, ministers announced 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 May 2007 Richard Caborn, sports minister in Tony Blair's last administration, had said he wanted to 'boost the number of people who take part in shooting sports, particularly among young adults' (quoted in The Guardian 26 January 2008).

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 (The Guardian 26 January 2008).

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 (quoted in 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 Association of Teachers and Lecturers (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 five hundred children by researchers from the University of London Institute of Education (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. 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. 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 Key Stage 3 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.
John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), commented:
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).
Schools minister Andrew (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).


Ofsted report: maths

An Ofsted survey of 84 primary and 108 secondary schools found that maths teaching was outstanding in 11 per cent, good in 44 per cent and satisfactory in 40 per cent. Mathematics: understanding the score, published in September 2008, warned that

strategies to improve test and examination performance, including 'booster' lessons, revision classes and extensive intervention, coupled with a heavy emphasis on 'teaching to the test', succeed in preparing pupils to gain the qualifications but are not equipping them well enough mathematically for their futures (Ofsted 2008b:4).
It was of vital importance to 'shift from a narrow emphasis on disparate skills towards a focus on pupils' mathematical understanding' (Ofsted 2008b:4):
The fundamental issue for teachers is how better to develop pupils' mathematical understanding. Too often, pupils are expected to remember methods, rules and facts without grasping the underpinning concepts, making connections with earlier learning and other topics, and making sense of the mathematics so that they can use it independently (Ofsted 2008b:5).
Ofsted published two follow-up documents to Mathematics: understanding the score on 4 March 2009, one for teachers in Primary schools and one for teachers in Secondary schools.

NAO report: primary maths

In its report Mathematics Performance in Primary Schools: Getting the Best Results, published in November 2008, the National Audit Office (NAO) noted that, 'after significant early increases, improvements in attainment in primary mathematics have slowed in recent years' (NAO 2008:8); and it warned that

The Department has not met its key performance target for the last spending round and meeting its targets for 2011 will be a considerable challenge (NAO 2008:8).
The NAO was concerned that:
Girls' progression in mathematics between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 is lower than for boys and the gap is especially marked for girls starting from a lower level in mathematics at age 7 (NAO 2008:11).
It recommended that:
Teachers need more subject-based training in mathematics aimed at directly enhancing their practice in the classroom and their use of formative assessment to track pupils' achievement and help them to progress (NAO 2008:11).
The Department's Strategy had achieved 'a more consistent approach across schools in the teaching and assessment of mathematics' (NAO 2008:11), but there was
a further need to increase pupils' enjoyment of the subject. Both are necessary for pupils to remain motivated and do their best in mathematics (NAO 2008:11).
Macdonald Report on PSHE

Since its introduction in the early 1990s, the National Curriculum had not included personal and social education as a statutory requirement. Many schools taught it, but in varying forms.

The Every Child Matters agenda, developed by Tony Blair's second administration in 2004, placed a duty on schools to promote their pupils' wellbeing, but personal and social education remained non-statutory and its status was therefore unclear.

On 23 October 2008, ministers announced the government's intention to make Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) a statutory requirement, and Sir Alasdair Macdonald (pictured), head teacher of Morpeth School in Bethnal Green, east London, was asked to offer advice on how best to achieve this,

focusing on specific issues such as pressures on the curriculum, the role of governing bodies and the right of parental withdrawal from sex and relationships education (SRE), as well as on the wider implications of this proposed change (DCSF 2009a:5).
Sir Alasdair's report, Independent Review of the proposal to make Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education statutory, was published by the DCSF on 28 April 2009.

The aim of PSHE, he said, was

to help children and young people deal with the real life issues they face as they grow up. The issues that PSHE education covers are central to young people's wellbeing: nutrition and physical activity; drugs, alcohol and tobacco; sex and relationships; emotional health and wellbeing; safety; careers; work-related learning; and personal finance. In doing so, PSHE education plays a major role in schools' contribution to the five Every Child Matters outcomes (DCSF 2009a:7).
He made twenty recommendations, including:
  • 'PSHE education should become part of the statutory National Curriculum, in both primary and secondary phases';
  • governing bodies should retain the right to determine their school's approach to sex and relationships education (SRE), 'to ensure that this can be delivered in line with the context, values and ethos of the school', though it 'must be consistent with the core entitlement to PSHE education';
  • 'the existing right of parental withdrawal from SRE should be maintained';
  • Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses should include some focus on PSHE education;
  • the DCSF should 'continue to support a PSHE continuing professional development (CPD) programme';
  • PSHE should be excluded from the requirement to have statutory levels of attainment; and
  • the DCSF should work with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to find 'appropriate and innovative ways of assessing pupil progress in PSHE education' (DCSF 2009a:7-9).
Ofsted report: Key Stage 3

Ofsted inspectors visited 37 schools between May 2008 and March 2009 to assess how well they were implementing the new Key Stage 3 curriculum, introduced in September 2008.

In Planning for change: the impact of the new Key Stage 3 curriculum, published in June 2009, they reported that, in the most successful schools, senior leaders 'ensured that staff were involved in developing a vision of and model for a coherent whole-school curriculum', and monitored the implementation of the changes 'regularly and systematically' (Ofsted 2009a:5).

In almost all the schools,

there was evidence that the new curriculum was having a positive impact on students' progress in lessons and their enjoyment of learning. However, it was too early to identify a significant impact on students' standards (Ofsted 2009a:6).
Ofsted recommended that:

the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) should:

  • provide support and guidance for schools to help them to devise coherent plans across the curriculum for the whole-curriculum dimensions, functional skills and personal, learning and thinking skills of the new curriculum (Ofsted 2009a:6);
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) should:
  • provide further support to schools to help them to assess students' progress in developing personal, learning and thinking skills (Ofsted 2009a:6);
Schools should:
  • ensure that all subjects meet the statutory requirements in planning to implement the programmes of study at Key Stage 3;
  • analyse the extent to which their curriculum provides opportunities for students to develop personal, learning and thinking skills, and create coherent plans to extend these opportunities across the school, based on the needs of their students;
  • ensure that the whole-curriculum dimensions underpin the curriculum; and
  • develop their knowledge of the curriculum in the primary phase and ensure that planning helps promote smooth and effective transitions (Ofsted 2009a:6-7).
Inspectors judged that 'Leadership and management of the new Key Stage 3 curriculum were outstanding in seven of the 37 schools surveyed, good in 19 and satisfactory in eight' (Ofsted 2009a:7).

Ofsted report: National Strategies

During the autumn term 2008, inspectors visited 12 local authorities and held discussions with nine senior regional directors of the National Strategies to evaluate the effectiveness of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. They also visited 33 primary schools and 21 secondary schools in the same authorities between December 2008 and March 2009.

In The National Strategies: a review of impact, published in February 2010, they reported that

Almost all the schools visited considered that the National Strategies had contributed to improving the quality of teaching and learning and the use of assessment, and valued their materials. However, the frequent introduction of new initiatives had led to overload and diminished their potential effectiveness. Evaluation of the impact of the National Strategies' many programmes was also a weakness at national and local level (Ofsted 2010:1).
They recommended that:

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) should:

  • commission systematic and independent evaluation of existing programmes delivered through the National Strategies so that the most effective activities can be continued beyond 2011 (Ofsted 2010:6).
The DCSF and the National Strategies should:
  • prioritise fewer school improvement initiatives and identify those that are demonstrably effective;
  • give schools and local authorities more time to implement, consolidate and evaluate these, as well as opportunities to tailor them to the specific needs of their schools;
  • increase the emphasis on intensive periods of school-based, high-quality professional development;
  • before 2011, be clear about what they expect of all schools in terms of developing literacy and numeracy (Ofsted 2010:6).
The National Strategies and local authorities should:
  • develop the skills of senior officers in the National Strategies and the local authorities in order to provide more effective quality assurance;
  • provide high-quality training to all consultants working in schools to ensure that evaluation of impact helps to accelerate the rate of pupils' progress (Ofsted 2010:6).
Schools should:
  • prepare for the transition to a new system of school support after 2011 which involves much greater responsibility for selecting and managing their own support for improvement;
  • focus on persistent weaknesses in teachers' classroom skills, including assessment for learning, by providing them with demonstrably effective support and challenge and by disseminating the practice of their best teachers (Ofsted 2010:6).
By the time the report was published, Ed Balls had announced the abandonment of the National Strategies as part of a move to end centralised control and promote more collaboration between schools (The Guardian 24 February 2010).

Curriculum reviews

Four curriculum reviews were undertaken in this period:

  • the government's 'Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum' (IRPC), conducted by Sir Jim Rose, published its interim report in December 2008 and its final report in April 2009;
  • the Cambridge Primary Review (CPR), sponsored by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and led by Professor Robin Alexander, which had begun work in 2006, published Towards a new primary curriculum in February 2009 and its final report Children, their World, their Education in 2010;
  • the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (CSFC) published its report on the National Curriculum in April 2009; and
  • the Oxford-based Nuffield Foundation published its final report on education and training for 14- to 19-year-olds in June 2009.
IRPC: the politics

In December 2007, Ed Balls invited Sir Jim Rose to conduct a review of the primary curriculum, with the aim of introducing the new curriculum in September 2011.

In his remit letter to Sir Jim, Balls wrote:

this will be the most fundamental review of the primary curriculum for a decade. A strong, coherent curriculum which has flexibility to personalise teaching and learning is crucial to driving up standards further. It is central to achieving the ambitions we have set out in The Children's Plan and to delivering the outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda (DCSF 2008a:142).
The government's justification for a review of primary education was presumably that the secondary curriculum had already been reviewed and the Early Years Foundation Stage introduced. As Rose put it, you could not 'extend one backwards, the other forwards, tie a knot in the middle and say that's primary education' (quoted in Wilby 2008).

However, many felt that the Rose review was designed to pre-empt the recommendations of the Cambridge Review - the most thorough investigation of primary education since Plowden - which was already under way. The government, tired of adverse headlines about 'stressed-out 7- to 11-year-olds' (quoted in Wilby 2008), was concerned that the Cambridge Review would condemn England's testing regime, and especially the SATs tests. 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).

Announced as an 'independent' review, it was in fact highly circumscribed in its remit. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) went to great lengths to present Rose as an 'independent expert' and to describe the working practices of his team who spent several months gathering evidence (Cunningham 2012:36).
Writing in Forum, former HMI Colin Richards argued that the Rose review
was never going to be independent since it was set up by a beleaguered government; it was headed up by Jim Rose, the government's primary 'fixer'; it was staffed by government-paid officers; it was published by a government department in an absurdly glossy (and expensive) format; it was straitjacketed by a government-inspired brief to which it has adhered tenaciously; and it contained no direct or indirect challenge to, or questioning of, any current or past government policies. It had all the hallmarks of an 'independent' report from a group of MPs justifying their own expenses (Richards 2009:299).
The main concern of teachers, however, was that consideration of SATs tests was 'specifically excluded from Rose's remit' (Wilby 2008). Instead, England's testing regime would be reviewed by an 'Expert Group on Assessment' (of which more below), the setting up of which Balls announced in his Commons statement on assessment on 14 October 2008.

At the launch of the IRPC's interim report on 8 December 2008, Rose urged ministers to review the arrangements for SATs, which had already been 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' (quoted in The Guardian 8 December 2008).

IRPC: interim report

Rose and his advisory group of heads

drew on the views of over 1,000 parents, nearly 2,000 teachers, took into account the views of 5,000 primary pupils, visited 57 nursery, primary and secondary schools and compared primary schools in England with others in Europe, Asia and around the world. They looked at the latest research, consulted experts and made surveys to make sure that their aims and key findings were supported by teachers and parents. Their review responded to evidence from teachers that the curriculum was too prescribed and that any new curriculum would need to be much more flexible to enable teachers to tailor lessons for individual children and classes (Cunningham 2012:36).
The Interim Report of the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum 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 (DCSF 2008a:5).
It recommended that:
  • the National Curriculum should be retained as an entitlement for all children and should be reviewed at agreed intervals as a whole;
  • the revised primary curriculum should be underpinned by a statement of aims and values fit for all stages of statutory education;
  • neither discrete subject teaching nor cross-curricular studies should disappear from primary schools;
  • the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) should work with others, including heads and teachers, to validate essential knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes in each of the proposed six areas of learning, and organise them into manageable programmes of learning;
  • the QCA should investigate whether it would help schools if the new primary curriculum were set out in three, two-year phases;
  • primary schools should continue to give priority to literacy and numeracy, with serious attention paid to developing spoken language;
  • the QCA and BECTA - the government agency for information and communications technology (ICT) - should review whether aspects of the Key Stage 3 curriculum for ICT would be more appropriately taught in Key Stage 2;
  • personal, social and health education (PSHE) should be developed with physical education (PE) in an area of learning, provisionally to be entitled 'Understanding physical health and well-being';
  • children should normally enter the reception class in the September following their fourth birthday;
  • teachers and practitioners should be supported in providing effective play-based learning;
  • schools should be helped to implement the principles of personalised learning so that the benefits were fully realised in one-to-one teaching, group work and whole class teaching;
  • the revised primary National Curriculum should build on the learning that has taken place in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS);
  • Key Stage 1 teachers should be involved in the moderation of Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessments within schools;
  • the National Strategies should aim to strengthen curricular continuity between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3;
  • teachers should be encouraged to exploit the links between English and other language(s) and realise the potential, for example, of role play and drama for young children learning a modern language;
  • schools should focus on teaching only one or two languages and, as far as possible, the languages offered should be those which children will be taught in Key Stage 3;
  • the commendable work that was taking place to support the delivery of language teaching through workforce development programmes should be continued at existing levels of funding; and
  • Ofsted should review by 2014 how well schools were managing the introduction of languages as a compulsory subject (DCSF 2008a:8-11).
CPR: interim report

In order to contribute to the final IRPC report, the Cambridge Primary Review brought forward publication of Towards a New Primary Curriculum. It 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 (CPR 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 (CPR 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.

In its 32 conclusions and recommendations, it argued that:

  • the National Curriculum was in 'urgent need of significant reform': it should prescribe as little as possible, parents should be better informed, and 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 immediately be 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 a 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 should 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 (7 April 2009), Robin Alexander described the Committee's criticism of the Cambridge Review as 'bizarre'. He commented:
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).
IRPC: final report

The Final Report of the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum 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 2009b:8).

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- to 11-year-olds should be offered 'exciting opportunities' for learning languages. (DCSF 2009b:10-12)
Writing in The Guardian (19 May 2009), the educational journalist and broadcaster 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 did not 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).
The government's announcement that the new curriculum would be implemented, as planned, in 2011
was positively welcomed by primary schools as a significant prospect of improvement. The QCDA [Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency] issued documentation and materials from which schools began planning, often with energy and enthusiasm, but all that work was rendered null and void only eight months later as the new Coalition Government announced that the Rose recommendations for the 2011 primary curriculum would be scrapped and a new curriculum review was to be begun (Cunningham 2012:37-28).
Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and training

The Review, funded by the Oxford-based Nuffield Foundation, was established in 2003 to review all aspects of 14-19 education and training: aims; quality of learning; curriculum; assessment; qualifications; progression to employment, training and higher education; provision of education and training; governance and policy.

Led by Richard Pring and Geoff Hayward, of the University of Oxford Department of Education, it was the largest review of 14-19 education since the Crowther Report, 15-18, in 1959.

Its final report, Education for All: The future of education and training for 14-19 year olds, was published in June 2009, together with a Summary of its findings. It argued for an understanding of education for all which would provide:

  • the knowledge and understanding required for the 'intelligent management of life';
  • competence to make decisions about the future in the light of changing economic and social conditions;
  • practical capability - including preparation for employment;
  • moral seriousness with which to shape future choices and relationships;
  • a sense of responsibility for the community (Nuffield 2009:3).
It made five over-arching demands:
  • The re-assertion of a broader vision of education in which there is a profound respect for the whole person (not just the narrowly conceived 'intellectual excellence' or 'skills for economic prosperity'), irrespective of ability or cultural and social background, in which there is a broader vision of learning and in which the learning contributes to a more just and cohesive society.
  • System performance indicators 'fit for purpose', in which the 'measures of success' reflect this range of educational aims, not simply those which are easy to measure or which please certain stakeholders only.
  • The re-distribution of power and decision-making such that there can be greater room for the voice of the learner, for the expertise of the teacher and for the concerns of other stakeholders in the response to the learning needs of all young people in their different economic and social settings.
  • The creation of strongly collaborative local learning systems in which schools, colleges, higher education institutions, the youth service, independent training providers, employers and voluntary bodies can work together for the common good - in curriculum development, in provision of opportunities for all learners in a locality and in ensuring appropriate progression into further education, training and employment.
  • The development of a more unified system of qualifications which meets the diverse talents of young people, the different levels and styles of learning, and the varied needs of the wider community, but which avoids the fragmentation, divisiveness and inequalities to which the present system is prone (Nuffield 2009:4).
In an interview with The Oxford Times (14 February 2008), Richard Pring warned that ministers were treating school pupils as if they were business products to be managed rather than children to be educated, and that the government's aim of boosting the British economy was overshadowing the true role of schools in young people's lives:
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 (quoted in The Oxford Times 14 February 2008).
And writing in Forum (Summer 2009), Pring argued that
The language of education has increasingly become dominated by the language of performance management - the language of targets and performance indicators, of audits and quality control, of outputs related to inputs, of clients and customers. Part of that same language of management and control is to see the teacher as 'the deliverer' of the curriculum - the curriculum being a content and a plan of action created elsewhere.

This is a far cry from seeing the teacher as an expert both in that which has to be taught and in the learners who are to be transformed by what the teacher has to say and to do. The role of the teacher is to communicate what is seen to be worthwhile in terms of knowledge, understanding, appreciation, skills or practices to the young learner - bearing in mind the particular learning needs and problems of these learners in these contexts. As such, the teacher is a curriculum developer rather than a curriculum deliverer.

This professional role of the teacher has been emasculated by the centralised and detailed organisation of learning by the government operating through targets and through ever more restrictive specifications for learning. But it was not ever thus, and if so many of the problems outlined [in the Review] are to be tackled then the more positive and creative role of the teacher needs to be reasserted (Pring 2009:203).

A spokesman for the DCSF dismissed Pring's comments: 'This depressing view of education is simply not one that we recognise', he said (quoted in The Oxford Times 14 February 2008).

(Many of the documents produced by the Review can be downloaded from the website of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education and training.)

CPR: final report

The final report of the Cambridge Primary Review, Children, their World, their Education, was published by Routledge 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 (CPR 2009c: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' (CPR 2009c: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 (CPR 2009c:71).
(For a fuller summary of the contents of the final report, see my review of Children, their World, their Education.)

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 (quoted in The Guardian 16 October 2009).
National Union of Teachers 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 (quoted in The Guardian 16 October 2009).
And Nansi Ellis, head of education policy and research at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that 'primary education must not become a battlefield in the forthcoming election - children and their learning will be the first casualties' (quoted in The Guardian 16 October 2009).

However, schools minister Vernon Coaker dismissed the report. He pointed out that the government was already reforming the curriculum and testing, and claimed that the Review was proposing 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 (quoted in The Guardian 16 October 2009).
And, as if to rub salt into the wound, Ed 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 (3 November 2009), 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. ...

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 2009b).

(The Cambridge Primary Review closed in 2010, but the documents it produced - a huge compendium of evidence and commentary on English primary education - can be found on the website of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.)

Tests and league tables

Increasing concerns

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

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (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 (quoted in The Guardian 11 August 2007).
Several interim reports for the Cambridge Primary Review (CPR) highlighted the concerns.

Community Soundings, published on 12 October 2007, reported that teachers were critical of the current assessment regime, arguing that SATs

  • put children and teachers under intolerable pressure;
  • are highly stressful;
  • constrain the curriculum, especially in respect of the arts and humanities;
  • subvert the goal of learning for its own sake;
  • undermine children's self esteem;
  • run counter to schools' stated commitments to a full and rounded education;
  • turn the final year of primary schooling into the wrong kind of educational culmination - a year of cramming and testing;
  • disadvantage those children whose parents cannot afford to pay for private SAT coaching (CPR 2007:19-20).
Teachers, said the report, did not deny the importance of formal assessment. However, 'they wished to shift the emphasis from tests to teacher assessment, and to detach pupil assessment from school accountability' (CPR 2007:20).

Professor Robin Alexander said 'these findings do build up to a sense that important changes are needed within the primary sector' (quoted in The Guardian 12 October 2007).

Another CPR interim report, Primary Curriculum and Assessment: England and other countries, published on 8 February 2008, compared England's regime with those in twenty-one other countries. It found that English children were among the youngest in the world to start formal learning and were the most tested throughout their education.

In summary, assessment in England, compared to our review countries, is pervasive, highly consequential, and it is more generally assumed by the public to objectively portray the actual quality of primary education in schools. ... As a result of the foregrounding of assessment for accountability, there is a complex assessment industry and machinery within and without schools in England that is not paralleled at all in our comparison group of countries (CPR 2008:14).
(All the CPR's interim reports can be found on the website of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.)

CSFC Report on Testing and Assessment

Another report reached similar conclusions. The House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (CSFC) report on Testing and Assessment, published on 13 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 Guardian 13 May 2008).

The report recommended that there should be:

  • more use of internal teacher assessment (CSFC 2008:25);
  • an inquiry to assess the extent of the problem of schools 'teaching to the test' (CSFC 2008:42);
  • a reduction in the number of times children were tested (CSFC 2008:52);
  • sample testing of a handful of pupils in each school rather than whole-cohort tests (CSFC 2008:62); and
  • 'a full review of assessment standards' by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as ministers had failed to address concerns about grade inflation (CSFC 2008:62).
The government was adamant it would keep the tests in England, despite the fact that they had already been abolished in other parts of the UK, but it did 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 'stage not age' 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: schools were unable to log on to register students at the start of the week of tests, and markers struggled with the new online marking system (The Guardian 16 May 2008).

Next, the publication of results for 11- and 14-year-olds was delayed. QCA chief Ken Boston said the government's testing regime was under 'very great stress'. At an emergency meeting of the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee he said 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. John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, 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 (quoted in The Guardian 18 July 2008).
Kathleen Tattersall, Chair and Chief Regulator of the newly-established 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 (The Guardian19 July 2008).

Two of the three major exam boards confirmed that they would not be 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 was significantly lower than in the previous year. Head teachers suggested that this could be because schools were neglecting the brightest pupils so as to focus their efforts on getting as many pupils as possible up to the national targets (The Guardian 6 August 2008).

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

The acrimonious row between ministers and the QCA came to a head in December. The QCA board disbanded the National Assessment Agency, which was responsible for the SATs tests, and suspended its Chief Executive, David Gee. It also suspended Boston, having previously refused to accept his resignation.

Lord Sutherland's report revealed that it was Gee who had recommended that the 156m contract be awarded to ETS, and that neither the QCA nor the NAA had checked 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 awarded a 25m contract to the exam board Edexcel to run Key Stage 2 tests and other non-statutory National Curriculum tests in 2009. Edexcel had previously held the SATs contract from 2005 to 2007. However, Ken Boston warned Ed Balls that, while 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).

Contextualised value added scores

In January 2004 David Miliband, then school standards minister, had announced a new 'fairer' system for judging schools, using 'contextualised value added' scores (CVA), which took into account the number of students on free school meals and with special educational needs, their ethnicity, age and gender, and the spread of ability.

A study for Ofsted by David Jesson, Professor of Education at the University of York, Using data, improving schools, published in August 2008, argued that, because CVA took account of

not only the pupils' prior attainment, but also other factors such as the level of deprivation they experience, their special educational needs, and ethnicity and gender, it provides an important measure of the 'school effect' - the difference made by the school itself. If a school is doing relatively well with the pupils it has, whatever its context, its CVA indicator will be positive (Ofsted 2008a:6).
However, although CVA could provide 'powerful insights into aspects of schools' performance' (Ofsted 2008a:7), it needed to be used with care:
CVA is calculated from information within the national pupil database, and can only take account of the variables incorporated within that database. This means that some factors which may have an impact, such as the education and occupation of a pupil's parents, cannot be included because there are no national data available to investigate whether there actually is a relationship, and to model it if there is (Ofsted 2008a:7).
Furthermore, it was critical to realise that CVA should not be used to predict the performance of individuals:
It is solely based on the progress of pupils with different characteristics in the past. Mis-using the data to predict future performance could depress expectations of groups of pupils that have performed less well in previous years. ... When setting targets for future performance schools should strive to set equally challenging aspirations for all pupils: they should not assume that pupils from particular groups will perform better or less well than others (Ofsted 2008a:7).
Interviewed by The Guardian (6 August 2008), David Jesson warned the government to use CVA 'with care' and 'recognise its limitations'.

Balls' statement on testing

In the Commons on 14 October 2008 Ed Balls made a statement about changes to the assessment and accountability system, including the discontinuation of statutory national Key Stage 3 tests. He told MPs that he was making 'far-reaching reforms' which would

strengthen the role of key stage 2 national tests for 11-year-olds; radically reform the current key stage 3 testing regime in secondary schools; and introduce a new, simpler and more comprehensive way of reporting to parents on primary and secondary school performance (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 677).
At Key Stage 1, he said, 'we have already rightly replaced externally marked tests with teacher assessment and introduced new catch-up teaching for children at risk of falling behind'; while at Key Stage 2, 'stage not age' single-level tests were being piloted. He went on:
However, I am convinced that externally marked key stage 2 national curriculum tests are essential to give parents, teachers and the public the information they need about the progress of each primary age child and of every primary school. Some argue that we should abolish the tests, but that would be the wrong thing to do (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 678).
Head teachers, he said, had argued that a more flexible system of assessment at Key Stage 3 would allow schools to 'focus their efforts more effectively on personalised teaching and learning and to use the flexibility of the new secondary education curriculum' (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 678). 'Stage not age' single-level tests had been piloted at Key Stage 3, but they had not worked effectively and the National Assessment Agency had been told to stop the trials.

The Secretary of State then announced the effective abolition of Key Stage 3 tests:

as part of a wider overhaul of key stage 3 assessment, children will no longer be required to do national tests at the age of 14. Instead, we will ensure that every parent receives regular reports on their child's progress in years 7, 8 and 9, and that teachers have the training and support to help every child make good progress. We will continue to provide key stage 3 test papers to any school that wants to use them internally, and we will ensure that schools properly focus in years 7 and 8 on the progress of those children who did not reach the expected standard at key stage 2, with effective one-to-one tuition and catch-up learning. We will also introduce an externally marked test, with a sample of pupils to measure national performance at key stage 3, so that the public can hold the Government to account (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 678).
Some parents, he argued, found it difficult to judge how well their local schools were performing from national tests or Ofsted reports alone, so the government planned to introduce a new 'school report card' for all primary and secondary schools. It would
help parents better to understand how well schools are raising standards and improving, compared with other schools in their area. It will show how each school is supporting the progress of every child and playing its role in supporting the wider development and well-being of children. It will draw on the successful model being used in New York city and elsewhere, but it will be designed to suit our schools (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 679).
Detailed proposals would be drawn up for consultation by the end of the year, and a White Paper would follow in the spring.

Finally, Balls announced the setting up of an 'Expert Group on Assessment':

These are far-reaching reforms and it is vital that we get the details right. We will draw on the analysis and findings of the Select Committee report, and we will work closely with our social partners to take them forward without unnecessarily adding to teacher work load. To advise us on the development of this new system, I am also today appointing a new expert group, and placing copies of its detailed terms of reference in the Libraries of both Houses (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 679).
In his reply, shadow children's secretary Michael Gove said:
I welcome the clarity of the Secretary of State's analysis of the case for external assessment at the end of key stage 2. We need proper information on how individual children are making progress, and we need accurate information about how individual schools are doing. However, he is aware that there is still widespread concern that preparation for national curriculum testing occupies too much school time. He will know, I hope, that there are real worries that a move to single-level testing at key stage 2 - the so-called 'stage not age' testing - may lead to individual schools testing their pupils more often and more intensively as they try and retry to get individual pupils to the appropriate level so that league table rankings improve. Will he ensure in the pilots that he is undertaking that there will not be more tests, more teaching to the test and a narrower learning experience and that there will not be league tables that distort rather than clarify?

May I also welcome what I take to be the spirit of the Secretary of State's announcement on key stage 3 testing? I have argued for fewer national tests and more rigour, and we want to work constructively to improve the assessments and qualifications regime. So I welcome his proposal to ensure that all parents have timely information each year about the progress that children are making between 11 and 14 (Hansard House of Commons 14 October 2008 Col 679-680).

The teacher unions welcomed the abandonment of the Key Stage 3 tests but expressed 'bitter disappointment' at ministers' resolve to preserve those at Key Stage 2. National Association of Head Teachers 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 (quoted in The Guardian 15 October 2008).
The abolition of Key Stage 3 SATs resulted in a sudden 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).

In December 2008, Balls published further details of how the New York-style 'report card' for schools would work. It would draw 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).

Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said her organisation was delighted that the government was rethinking accountability in English schools - there had been 'too much reporting to Whitehall at the expense of the needs of local communities'. She went on:

The report card is an interesting attempt to improve the presentation of school information. The government must use its consultation to have an open discussion about the opportunities and pitfalls of a report card, including looking at experiences in the USA and Canada. And we want a lot more thought to be given to how and whether it is realistic to try to measure pupils' well-being (quoted in The Guardian 8 December 2008).
For the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), General Secretary John Dunford commented:
We do not want to see the whole performance of a school reduced to a single grade. Schools already have a single grade - the Ofsted judgment - and it would be taking the pursuit of simplicity too far to pretend that a single grade can summarise the whole performance of the school (quoted in The Guardian 8 December 2008).
Union divisions

At their annual conference in April 2009, members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) voted to boycott the Key Stage 2 SATs tests. However, instead of debating the 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 National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) 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).

Report of the Expert Group on Assessment

It was against this unpromising background that, in May 2009, the Report of the Expert Group on Assessment was published.

The Expert Group on Assessment (EGA), which had been set up following Ed Balls' Commons statement on 4 October 2008, consisted of five members: Yasmin Bevan (a secondary head), Tim Brighouse (former London Schools Commissioner), Gill Mills (a primary head), Jim Rose and Maurice Smith (former acting Chief Inspector of Schools).

They had been asked to advise on:

  • what guidance should be provided for schools in relation to the tests at Key Stage 2;
  • the current assessment arrangements for Key Stage 1, in particular whether national moderation of teacher assessment was working effectively;
  • what should be done to ensure that every parent received regular reports on their child's progress;
  • how to ensure a strong focus on progression through Key Stage 3;
  • the 'development and delivery of a robust national sampling system' to provide information about national standards in English, maths and science in Year 9;
  • whether anything further was needed to ensure that the accountability system had 'sufficient focus on literacy and numeracy';
  • how best to ensure that 'this package of measures is coherent, manageable and minimises burdens on schools'; and
  • Ed Balls' proposed new school report cards (EGA 2009:38-39).
It will be clear from this list that the Group had not been asked whether SATs should continue, only to advise on how they should be conducted and the uses to which they should be put:
This report explores the purposes of assessment, the extent to which the current system meets these purposes, and what improvements should be made to it (EGA 2009:3).
The report began by arguing that assessment had four purposes:
  • to optimise the effectiveness of pupils' learning and teachers' teaching;
  • to hold individual schools accountable for their performance;
  • to provide parents with information about their child's progress; and
  • to provide reliable information about national standards over time (EGA 2009:3).
Of these, the most important was the first:
The assessment system as a whole must prioritise the use of assessment to benefit pupils' learning. ... In particular, we would like to see greater emphasis on formative assessment in order to aid pupil progress (EGA 2009:3-4).
The Group made nine recommendations:
  • Key Stage 3 tests should continue to be made available to schools which wanted to use them;
  • there should be 'cross Key Stage moderation of teacher assessment to improve reliability and trust';
  • transition from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 should be improved;
  • help should be provided for lower attainers at Key Stage 2 to enable them to catch up at the start of Key Stage 3;
  • the quality of teacher assessment should be strengthened;
  • the School Report Card should be introduced 'as soon as is practically possible';
  • at Key Stage 2, tests in English and mathematics should remain 'as a key accountability measure for all primary schools';
  • reporting to parents should be improved; and
  • a national sample testing system should be introduced for pupils at the end of Year 9, in order to monitor national standards over time (EGA 2009:7-9).

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) expressed disappointment that the Group had not recommended the abolition of Key Stage 2 SATs. General Secretary Christine Blower said:

All of the arguments about getting rid of tests for 14-year-olds apply to 11-year-olds as well. We really think there is no point in testing every single 11-year-old in the country. Even if there is a will to change the league tables, it won't happen unless you get rid of the tests. We're saying we're happy to do sampling and teaching assessments but get rid of tests in all three subjects at Key Stage 2 (quoted in The Guardian 6 May 2009).
For former HMI Colin Richards, the Expert Group's report was as disappointing as the Rose review of the primary curriculum.
Whatever the five members' expertise it was not an expertise in assessment. Leaving aside the two (token?) headteachers, none of the other members has published anything substantial on assessment, sat on any previous committees on assessment, undertaken any research on assessment or conducted any national assessments of children themselves. This might conceivably bring a degree of detachment to their deliberations but certainly not expertise. The Group's primary function was to legitimise the Government's view that the purpose of assessment is to hold individual schools accountable for their performance - the very issue at the heart of the current controversy (Richards 2009:299-300).
The Report, he argued, was fundamentally conservative. It should have recommended the 'immediate abolition' of SATs on educational grounds, and on the grounds that 'they represent a form of child abuse'. Instead, the testing regime remained 'unchallenged and unchanged' (Richards 2009:302).

SATs boycott

Meanwhile, the government's proposed new 'lighter touch' testing system - the 'single level tests' - had been hit by 'substantial and fundamental' problems. According to The Guardian, unpublished reports of pilot tests conducted by the National Assessment Authority and five independent academics revealed that the tests had given wildly unpredictable results and had 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 the National Association of Head Teachers (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 him 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.

Exams and qualifications


The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual) came into being on 16 May 2008. Its first Chair and Chief Regulator, Kathleen Tattersall (1943-2013), promised to investigate the 'reliability' of exams but warned that it was unrealistic to expect the system to be perfect.

She told the Press Association

There's a broad expectation that assessment should be absolutely perfect and accurate ... There is a precision expected of the system. We need to explore whether that sort of expectation is well-founded, or whether within the system there are some trade-offs between absolute reliability of that nature and the validity of the way in which we go about assessment (quoted in The Guardian 16 May 2008).


GCSE results in 2007 showed an overall pass rate of 98 per cent with comprehensive schools improving more than independent schools and grammar schools 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.

John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented:

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 (quoted in The Guardian 24 August 2007).
In November 2009, schools minister Iain Wright announced that, because it did not cover parts of the National Curriculum, Cambridge University's new International GCSE would not count towards school league tables. The decision effectively prevented state schools from offering the exam.

John Dunford welcomed the government's decision. He said: 'We do not want a market in qualifications. Exams are not items on a supermarket shelf. They determine young people's futures and should not be subject to market pressures'.

But shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said a Conservative government would allow the qualification. 'Top independent schools are already opting for the more rigorous international exam because it is more valued by universities and employers', he said. 'If children from state schools are unable to trade in the same exam currency as their wealthier peers, the government is effectively ensuring that they cannot compete on a level playing field' (The Guardian 4 November 2009).

A Levels

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


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. It was intended that 14 vocational diplomas would be available by 2011 and, in October 2007, Ed Balls announced that three more diplomas - in science, languages and humanities - would be added. A Levels would be reviewed in 2013 and might be scrapped if the diplomas proved successful, he said (The Guardian 24 October 2007).

National Union of Teachers 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 be introduced in 2011. He hoped the new qualification would be backed by the universities. Tomlinson argued that his original plan had now been fully implemented (The Guardian 7 March 2008).

CSFC Report on Testing and Assessment

But there were some concerns about the diplomas. In their report on Testing and Assessment, published in May 2008, the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (CSFC) warned that:

As the introduction of the new Diplomas approaches, evidence suggests that teachers feel unprepared for the new qualifications and there is anxiety about the limited amount of training they are due to receive. We wonder how schools will collaborate to provide the new curriculum in the competitive environment created by the imperative to show well in performance tables (CSFC 2008:4).
There had been disappointment that the last Blair administration had decided not to implement in full the proposals of the Tomlinson report and create a unified, overarching Diploma to replace the current qualifications system. Instead, the Diploma had emerged as a further qualification alongside existing qualifications. However, the government was now intending to 'bring the best of existing qualifications within the Diploma framework' (CSFC 2008:78).
With a full Government review of Diplomas, GCSEs, A-levels and other general qualifications announced for 2013, we are beginning to suspect that the wheel may have turned full circle and that the Government intends to adopt the Tomlinson proposals after all (CSFC 2008:78).
The CSFC concluded:
The whole education sector would welcome greater clarity on the future direction of Diplomas. We urge the Government to make clear what its intentions are for the future of Diplomas and other 14-19 qualifications and whether it is, in fact, heading towards one, overarching framework for all 14-19 qualifications as Mike Tomlinson's Working Group on 14-19 Reform proposed in 2004 (CSFC 2008:82).
Meanwhile, leading independent schools said the diplomas were too complex and decided to opt out; and researchers at the University of London Institute of Education (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 new 'Pre-U', a programme of study designed to prepare students for university (The Guardian 30 June 2008).

CPAC Report on 14-19 reforms

In their report Preparing to deliver the 14-19 education reforms in England, published in October 2008, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (CPAC) argued that:

  • providing more learning opportunities for young people that integrate academic and vocational study was commendable, but much remained to be done to achieve it;
  • diplomas could further complicate an already complex system of qualifications for young people;
  • some consortia were much more advanced than others in their preparations to offer diplomas;
  • work experience was an essential part of the Diplomas, but some 45 per cent of consortia had not involved employers in deciding how to provide it;
  • providing the teaching and facilities to support the broad curriculum was particularly difficult in rural areas with dispersed communities;
  • diplomas had yet to be widely accepted as credible qualifications;
  • the Department did not know the full cost of implementing the 14-19 reforms;
  • the existence of two major capital funding programmes created a risk that a mismatch in timing could result in capital projects not supporting the 14-19 reforms, or lead to unnecessary expenditure; and
  • sufficient good-quality teaching staff were needed to deliver diplomas, but 45 per cent of consortia had yet to carry out a skills audit (CPAC 2008:5-6).
In the event, it was the issue of timing which would prove the main problem for the future of the government's proposed 'academic' diplomas:
It was obvious ... that by the year 2013, when the review of A Levels was scheduled to take place, there would have to be a general election. If the Conservatives were successful ... A Levels would undoubtedly remain outside any diploma framework. The change of heart over the Tomlinson Report had come too late in the narrative of the New Labour administration; and those traditionalists who were in favour of the old regime were to benefit from the government's timidity and prevarication (Chitty 2013:148-149).

Election battleground

Qualifications rapidly became a key election issue. 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 Ed Ball and Michael Gove. Balls favoured replacing 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 policy of whichever party won the election (The Guardian 26 August 2009).

In November 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 election he might quickly be out of a job (The Guardian 3 November 2009).

Higher education

Within a week of becoming Prime Minister in 2007, Gordon Brown promised to increase the number of university students eligible for grants. The pledge was welcomed as a sign of his commitment to achieving Labour's aim that, by 2010, half of all young people should go to university.

However, in December 2008, ministers were forced to introduce a cap on places after discovering a 200m shortfall in the higher education budget. This meant that, in autumn 2009, although there were 3,000 extra full-time university places - the largest ever increase - it was not enough to keep up with the surge in demand (The Guardian 20 August 2009).

Higher Ambitions - The future of universities in a knowledge economy

On 2 November 2009 Peter (Lord) Mandelson, whose Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) had assumed responsibility for higher education in June, launched Higher Ambitions - The future of universities in a knowledge economy, 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.

In his Foreword, Peter Mandelson wrote:

the Government will not relent on its commitment to wider participation and fair access to our universities. Higher education equips people with the skills that globalisation and a knowledge economy demand, and thereby gives access to many of this country's best jobs. Everyone, irrespective of background, has a right to a fair chance to gain those advantages. This is vital not just as a question of social justice and social mobility but also for meeting the economy's needs for high level skills (DBIS 2009:3).
He went on to stress that:
  • business and employers need to contribute more. They will do this through joint research programmes, vocationally oriented courses that they part-fund, sponsorship of students and much greater use of universities for management and leadership training (DBIS 2009:4);
  • universities themselves will have to be more efficient and effective. Universities already need to be rigorous in withdrawing from activities of lower priority and value, so that they can invest more in higher priority programmes. That will need to intensify (DBIS 2009:4); and
  • it is necessary to look afresh at the contribution who benefit from higher education - taxpayers, students, and the private sector. Following the launch of these proposals, the Government will commission an independent review into this question (DBIS 2009:5).

Social mobility


Concerns about the UK's lamentable record on social mobility had been growing for many years. During this period it was the subject of several reports.

Ofsted's Annual Report for 2006-2007, published in October 2007, noted that

Recent data analyses and research studies confirm the close association between poverty and low educational achievement, with pupils from low income backgrounds continuing to perform less well than more advantaged pupils (Ofsted 2007b:65).
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 changed little in thirty years.

The Cambridge Primary Review's Research Survey 5/2, by Harry Daniels and Jill Porter of Bath University, 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 conditions such as dyslexia and autism, which had powerful lobby groups, 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).

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 rates rose during the summer when children had less access to structured activities (The Observer 25 May 2008).

The Sutton Trust's report, Social Mobility and Education, was launched at a private conference in New York in June 2008 attended by leading UK education figures and politicians including Cabinet Office minister Ed Miliband. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and based on 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.

Government initiatives

In response to such concerns, Gordon Brown's government published a series of consultation documents and strategy papers setting out its vision of a fairer Britain.

Excellence and fairness: Achieving world class public services

The Green Paper Excellence and fairness: Achieving world class public services was published by the Cabinet Office in June 2008. It set out the government's proposals for increasing social mobility.

In his Foreword, Gordon Brown said the government's aims were:

  • to combine excellence with fairness;
  • to respond to people's rising aspirations; and
  • to unleash a new professionalism in our public services (Cabinet Office 2008:5-6).
The document argued that
Only strong, reformed public services can deliver the personal opportunities and the secure communities Britain needs to thrive in the coming decades. Achieving this will require a new set of relationships at the heart of our public services; between empowered citizens and professionals; between professionals and government; and between citizens and the state (Cabinet Office 2008:43).
It noted that the Children's Plan, published in the autumn of 2007, had
included measures to empower parents and raise the quality of teaching. For example, the Plan proposed new rights to regular, up-to-date information for parents and the introduction of a Masters level qualification for teaching (Cabinet Office 2008:43).
And it concluded that
It is through these new measures and the further development of these approaches in the forthcoming months and years that excellent outcomes, more personalised approaches, better value for money and greater fairness and equity can be achieved. This agenda is how we will move towards world class services across the country (Cabinet Office 2008:43).
Getting on, getting ahead

In November 2008 the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit (COSU) published Getting on, getting ahead, a discussion paper analysing the trends and drivers of social mobility.

In his Foreword, Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne wrote:

The latest academic research shows there are encouraging signs with many of the educational inequalities that prevent social mobility now being addressed. However, we still have a way to go to realise the Government's ambition of a society where social background does not determine future success in life, and where everyone can reach their full potential (COSU 2008:3).

The document listed 'Four life stages crucial to building people's capabilities':

  • Giving children the best start in their early years: there is growing evidence these years are critical to success in later life, not least through basic physiological and brain development. However, in the UK, family background still has a large impact on the pace of development;
  • Improving educational attainment at school: how children do in school remains the single most important determinant of future success. However, one of the UK's major international weaknesses has been the large number of people emerging from school with few qualifications;
  • Creating pathways from education to work: gaining a degree will remain the most likely way to get the best jobs. But while most children see this as the obvious path to follow, too many with the right results from the least advantaged backgrounds are not making it to university. Conversely, children from these backgrounds are heavily overrepresented in the vocational system, and among those dropping out of the system altogether; and
  • Helping people get on in work: most of the UK's workforce in 2020 are already adults today, so increasing mobility must also focus on equipping them to take advantage of future opportunities. People's training opportunities at work currently serve to entrench previous unfairness by going mainly to the already skilled (COSU 2008:8).
Conservative shadow work and pensions secretary Chris Grayling dismissed the document as a government propaganda exercise. 'The reality in Britain today is that we have some of the lowest social mobility in the industrialised world', he said (The Guardian 11 November 2008).

More reports

Writing in The Guardian, John Crace argued that:

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).
In Successful Leadership for Promoting the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils, commissioned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), Denis Mongon and Chris Chapman noted that:
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 Key Stage 4 is three times as wide as the gender gap (Mongon and Chapman 2008:1).
The urgent need for action was underlined in December 2008, when exam results showed that only 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 (quoted in The Guardian 16 December 2008).
Since 1988, successive governments had allowed parents in England to choose their children's schools, on the basis that this would force under-performing schools to improve. The effectiveness of this policy was examined in Parental choice of primary school in England: what 'type' of school do parents choose?, published in November 2009. Simon Burgess and colleagues at the University of Bristol noted that 'In general most parents get their first choice of school (94%) and this is equally true for both more and less advantaged parents' (Burgess et al 2009:18) but, they added,
Our results indicate however that this is partially because poorer parents make more 'realistic', i.e. less ambitious, choices on their LA [local authority] application form, reflecting differences in preference and/or constraint. Where low SES [socio-economic status] parents make ambitious school choices they have a much lower chance of securing their first choice of school than similarly ambitious high SES parents. Geographical location and population density are also significant factors in whether a pupil is allocated their most highly nominated school. Again this has implications for school choice policy. If, in areas where there is a lot of potential competition between schools, more advantaged families have a higher chance of achieving their more ambitious choices than do poorer parents, this could tend to exacerbate social segregation in our schools (Burgess et al 2009:18).

2009 White Paper: New opportunities: Fair chances for the future

The White Paper New opportunities: Fair chances for the future (Cm 7533), published in January 2009, set out the government's vision of post-recession Britain.

In his Foreword, Gordon Brown argued that

If Britain can seize the opportunities of this new global age, our future is full of potential. Our country will be richer in the years to come. But the ultimate prize will be greater still: the opportunity to create not just a richer country, but a fairer society.

This is the modern definition of social justice: not just social protection but real opportunity for everyone to make the most of their potential in a Britain where what counts is not where you come from but what you aspire to become, a Britain where everyone should be able to say that their destiny is not written for them, but written by them (Cabinet Office 2009:1).

The government, he promised, would:
  • continue its 'pre-school revolution', offering 'more free early learning and childcare places to disadvantaged children and giving extra help to families in real trouble';
  • take 'the next steps in raising standards in schools', offering new rewards for the most effective teachers to work in the schools facing the biggest challenges;
  • offer school leavers a 'September guarantee', with every 16- and 17-year-old guaranteed a place at college or school or learning at work; and
  • support opportunity throughout people's lives by increasing financial support for those who want to retrain, gain new qualifications and get better jobs (Cabinet Office 2009:2).
The White Paper announced the setting up of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (Cabinet Office 2009:69), chaired by Alan Milburn.

2009 Milburn Report: Unleashing Aspiration

A graduate of Lancaster University, Alan Milburn (1958- ) (pictured) entered Parliament in 1992 as MP for Darlington, and held various posts in Tony Blair's administrations, including that of Secretary of State for Health. He resigned from the Cabinet on two occasions, citing the difficulty of combining family life in North-East England with a demanding job in London.

In January 2009 he was invited by Gordon Brown to chair the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (PFAP).

The Panel's final report, Unleashing Aspiration, was published in July 2009. Its 88 recommendations sought to improve social mobility by reforms at every stage of life, from early years and school education, to universities, internship practices and recruitment processes.

In his Foreword, Milburn wrote:

The huge growth in professional employment that took place after the Second World War was the engine that made Britain such a mobile society. By opening their doors to people from a rich variety of backgrounds, the professions created unheard of opportunities for millions of men and women. In the decades since then, of course, social mobility has slowed down in our country. Birth, not worth, has become more and more a determinant of people's life chances. But that may be changing. There is now evidence that the long-running decline in social mobility has bottomed out. And a big growth in professional jobs is creating the conditions for a second great wave of social mobility in the near future (PFAP 2009:5).
The size of the challenge was considerable. The report noted that:
although only 7% of the population attend independent schools, well over half the members of many professions have done so. For example, 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants, and 32% of MPs were independently schooled (PFAP 2009:18).
And although there was some evidence that this situation was 'improving slightly' (PFAP 2009:19), the Panel was concerned
that social mobility is not what it could be in the UK and that the professions have become more socially exclusive over time. We believe this to be an issue for the majority, not the minority, in our society (PFAP 2009:25).
The Panel believed that
a socially mobile society is not just a laudable objective. It is a necessity if the UK is to flourish - economically as well as socially. We believe that all children should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Individual success should reflect innate talent and ability, not background or birth. We also believe that what is right on ethical grounds in the 21st century is also right on economic grounds. In a globally competitive economy, the key to success depends on unlocking the talents of all our people. The most important resource of a company or a country is no longer its raw materials, or its geographical location, but the skills of the whole workforce. A knowledge economy needs a mobile society (PFAP 2009:27).
Social mobility, said the Panel, should 'explicitly be the top overarching social policy priority for this and future governments' (PFAP 2009:40).

The report's recommendations included:

New partnerships between the professions and government:

  • a new national career mentoring scheme;
  • improved work experience;
  • visits to universities; and
  • more opportunities to build the 'soft skills vital to a professional career: communications, teamworking, confidence' (PFAP 2009:47).
Schools and colleges:
  • expanding the supply of good schools;
  • increasing the number of city academies;
  • transforming careers advice;
  • changing the school curriculum to place more emphasis on soft skill development and extra-curricular activity; and
  • requiring schools to 'change the way they measure pupil outcomes, focusing on their end destination rather than just qualifications' (PFAP 2009:47).
Higher education:
  • making the traditional academic year more flexible;
  • investing more to support remote and online learning; and
  • removing the 'increasingly indefensible division between part-time and full-time higher education in relation to funding, regulatory and student support frameworks' (PFAP 2009:47).
In addition, there should be:
  • new partnerships between universities and local schools, and between universities and the professions;
  • more account taken of the educational and social context of pupils' achievements to inform university admissions procedures; and
  • better monitoring of the effectiveness of widening participation programmes, and a new vocational route to university through a programme of Apprenticeship Scholarships (PFAP 2009:48).
Internships and work experience:
  • establishing a new internship code to create a fair and transparent system for advertising and recruiting to internships;
  • new forms of funding to support interns; and
  • new guidance for employers, with a new national Kitemark for internship schemes, recognising and rewarding best practice (PFAP 2009:48).
Recruitment and selection processes:
  • collection of data on the socio-economic background of all members of the Senior Civil Service;
  • each profession to review current practice and produce an action plan for improvement; and
  • updating the online Professional Recruitment Guide to help employers to develop fairer recruitment practices (PFAP 2009:48).
Flexible entry and progression into the professions:
  • new vocational routes into the professions;
  • increasing the use of 'paraprofessionals' in public services and the professions;
  • extending the right to flexible working to all, once economic circumstances allow; and
  • simplifying access to training, with new Lifelong Skills Accounts (PFAP 2009:49).
Delivering new opportunities:
  • the Panel on Fair Access to meet annually for the next three years to assess and report on progress;
  • reinvigoration of the UK Professional Collaborative Forum with a broader remit for sharing best practice and advising employers;
  • the creation of a new social mobility charter mark to recognise and reward employers' best practice; and
  • establishment of a new social mobility commission (PFAP 2009:49).
The Panel concluded:
We believe there is every chance of a second great wave of social mobility in our country. But we do not believe it will just happen. It requires a change of attitudes to broaden opportunities in society and at different stages of life. The professions need to take a lead in rejecting the old elitist notion that the UK can progress on the basis of opportunities being available only to some people some of the time. Instead, we advocate an approach that will see opportunities becoming available to more people more of the time. We reject the myth that this entails either dumbing down or social engineering. Instead, we believe it will benefit the professions and help both our society and our economy to flourish. We argue that it will need action from more than one organisation or one part of society. It is certainly not just a job for government or the professions. It is a job for all (PFAP 2009:49).

The government's response

The government published its response to the Panel's proposals in January 2010. In his Foreword to Unleashing Aspiration: the government's response, Pat McFadden, Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS), wrote:

The great talent and ability of Britain's children is not limited to the few, or concentrated in private schools, but evident in the many. We must do more to nurture, encourage and realise that potential or, on current trajectory, tomorrow's professionals will be drawn almost entirely from the better-off 30% of families in this country. That is not fair, and it cannot be good enough for us (DBIS 2010:2).
The government pledged to:
  • establish a Social Mobility Commission to 'provide expert evidence on trends and policy on social mobility', and produce 'an annual report on progress against the Panel's recommendations';
  • introduce 'a new duty on key public bodies to tackle socio-economic inequalities - a key barrier to social mobility';
  • promote 'a challenging programme of work with the professions themselves to transform the life chances and job opportunities of the next generation of young people';
  • improve 'the way in which information, advice and guidance is offered to young people and the way this improves their employability skills and life chances';
  • ensure that 'access to the life-changing opportunities offered by a university education are based on talent and potential, not birth or background';
  • maintain its ambition that half of all young people should participate in higher education, and also that 'three quarters of young people should participate in higher education or complete an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician level course by the age of 30';
  • ensure that young people could 'progress through vocational routes to high status professional careers' and that adults had 'the chances to acquire the skills to get on in the workplace and branch out to create new enterprises' (DBIS 2010:7-8).

Towards the end

Liberal Democrats: Equity and Excellence

In January 2009, the Liberal Democrats published Equity and Excellence, a paper which set out education policies for discussion at the party's spring conference.

Right from the outset, it was clear that the whole tone of this Policy Paper was going to be markedly different from that of anything produced by New Labour or the Conservatives (Chitty 2009b::223).
While the Paper did not underestimate the importance of basic literacy and numeracy skills, it argued that education was also about 'appreciation of the arts, music, sport and the humanities, and about developing the skills to understand and contribute as citizens' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:7).

Educational success in England, the paper noted, was 'highly correlated with family income', and social mobility was 'lower than in almost every other developed country' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:8).

Tackling 'the performance gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds' would therefore be the party's 'number one priority': it would require more money for schools and colleges with 'the most challenging intakes', so that every community could be served by a 'high-quality local school' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:10).

The Paper proposed that 2.5bn a year should be spent on a Pupil Premium 'to bring the funding of the most disadvantaged pupils - those entitled to free school meals - up to the average level of funding in private day schools' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:11).

Another key theme of the Paper was an emphasis on the importance of local authorities and schools in raising educational standards: it criticised both Conservative and Labour governments for their focus on centralised 'traditional' solutions (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:21).

It proposed the creation of an independent Educational Standards Authority, which would take over much of the work of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Ofqual, and would also oversee the work of Ofsted. It would be 'completely independent of ministers' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:22).

As to the various types of school, the Paper argued that

  • local authorities should decide what should be done with the remaining 164 grammar schools (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:24);
  • faith-based schools should be allowed to continue, and new ones established where appropriate, but selection of pupils by faith should be phased out within five years (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:25); and
  • academies should be replaced by 'sponsor managed schools', which, like all other schools, would be 'under the strategic oversight of local authorities and not ministers in Whitehall' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:26).
With regard to curriculum and assessment, the Paper proposed that
  • the 'existing, overly prescriptive, 600 page National Curriculum' should be scrapped and replaced by a 'light touch' twenty-page 'Minimum Curriculum Guarantee' (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:16);
  • a unified framework of 14-19 curriculum and qualifications should be created, in line with the recommendations of the 2004 Tomlinson Report (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:16-17); and
  • Key Stage SATs tests should be scaled back, so that only the core skills of English and maths would be tested (Liberal Democrat Party 2009:17).

Election issues

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 should be limited to inspecting only those schools not achieving the standard expected of them (The Guardian 13 August 2009; BBC News 13 August 2009).

Technical schools

At the Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester in October 2009, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove announced that a Tory government would build technical schools in every city to train a new generation of builders, technicians and engineers. He told delegates:

Our new technical schools will provide credible, high-quality vocational education in each major city. We will also triple the number of young apprenticeship places to 30,000 and remove the cap that stops state schools offering these places. This is crucial to tackling youth unemployment and recovering from the recession (quoted in The Guardian 5 October 2009).
Labour pointed out that it was already working with former Conservative education secretary Kenneth (Lord) Baker to create new technical schools: the DCSF had approved one 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).

The educational establishment

Gove also promised to destroy the 'educational establishment' he claimed was responsible for 'dumbing down' schools. 'For far too long', he told delegates, 'out-of-touch bureaucrats have imposed faddy ideologies on our schools' (quoted in The Guardian 7 October 2009).

As education secretary, 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).

Party leader David Cameron endorsed 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).

Michael Gove's claim that a culture of 'defeatism and political correctness' had dumbed down education was quickly rebutted. In a letter to The Guardian, John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (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 the University of London Institute of Education (ULIE), took Gove to task over his curriculum proposals. Writing in The Times Educational Supplement, 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 (White 2010).
Under a Tory government, argued White, 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 of Nottingham Trent University was equally dismissive of Michael 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 had 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.'

Free schools

Michael Gove had first proposed the creation of up to 2,000 Swedish-style 'free schools' in September 2008. They would be independent schools run by or for parents but paid for by the state. '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' (quoted in The Guardian 9 February 2010).

He made the policy a key feature of the Conservative election campaign, but it was widely criticised.

Per Thulberg, Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, said 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 (The Guardian 9 February 2010).

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 the University of London Institute of Education (ULIE), said 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 (quoted in The Guardian 2 March 2010)
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 (The Guardian 26 April 2010).

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 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 particularly embarrassing for Michael Gove because Kings International College, run by 3Es Enterprises, was in his Camberley constituency, and because it highlighted the potential dangers in 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).

Failing schools

Meanwhile, politicians' obsession with 'failing' schools was still evident.

For Labour, 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 take over the running of poorly-performing primary schools. Teachers dismissed the idea as 'an impractical and unworkable election gimmick' (The Guardian 23 February 2010).

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

Primary education

As the general election approached, the head of the Cambridge Primary Review, Professor Robin Alexander, warned that there was 'a great deal of unfinished business' in relation to primary education. Writing in The Guardian (27 April 2010), he said:

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 Conservatives highly unlikely to adopt them, he appealed directly to teachers to take forward the Review's agenda and announced the launch of a network to support 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 manifestos

While the education sections of the three main parties' election manifestos displayed differences in approach and emphasis, many of the underlying policies seemed remarkably similar.


Labour's manifesto, A future fair for all promised:

  • increased spending on frontline Sure Start and free childcare, schools and 16-19 learning;
  • expansion of free nursery places for 2-year-olds and 15 hours a week of flexible, free nursery education for 3- and 4-year-olds;
  • every pupil leaving primary school secure in the basics, with a 3Rs guarantee of one-to-one and small-group tuition for every child falling behind; and in secondary school, every pupil with a personal tutor and a choice of good qualifications;
  • a choice of good schools in every area - and, where parents are not satisfied - the power to bring in new school leadership teams, through mergers and take-overs, with up to 1,000 secondary schools part of an accredited schools group by 2015; and
  • every young person guaranteed education or training until 18, with 75 per cent going on to higher education, or completing an advanced apprenticeship or technician level training, by the age of 30 (Labour Party 2010:3:2).

In their manifesto, Invitation to join the Government of Britain, the Conservatives pledged:

We will improve standards for all pupils and close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest. We will enhance the prestige and quality of the teaching profession, and give heads and teachers tough new powers of discipline. We will restore rigour to the curriculum and exam system and give every parent access to a good school (Conservative Party 2010:51).
Liberal Democrat

And the Liberal Democrat manifesto, Change that Works for You, declared that:

We will free schools from the present stranglehold of central government control and encourage them to be genuinely innovative.

We will invest additional money in the schools system to allow schools to cut class sizes, pay for one-to-one tuition, introduce catch-up classes, or take other steps to ensure that every child has the best possible education.

We will therefore ensure that every neighbourhood is served by an excellent local school or college (Liberal Democrat Party 2010:33-34).

(For a more detailed analysis of the manifestos of the three parties, see my article Hobson's Choice: education policies in the 2010 general election.)

The general election

Labour had been in power for thirteen years; the country had recently suffered a banking crisis and a major recession; and a scandal involving fraudulent expenses claims by MPs (of all parties) had seriously damaged public trust in politicians.

The Conservatives were, in some ways, in a similar position to that of Labour in 1997: after several unpopular right-wing leaders, they had found in David Cameron a younger, fresh-faced individual with a more modern outlook and popular appeal.

It was surprising therefore that opinion polls did not give Conservatives a bigger lead. The election looked set to be the closest for years: political commentators forecast a hung Parliament with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power. Despite this, the three main parties all conducted what many felt were lacklustre campaigns.

As expected, the election, held on Thursday 6 May 2010, produced no overall winner. 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 Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.


What are we to make of education in England under Gordon Brown and Ed Balls?

First, it is worth bearing in mind that the Brown government was in power for just three years. Despite - or perhaps, because of - its limited timespan, it displayed enormous energy and ambition, producing numerous policy documents, reports, and Green and White Papers, as well as piloting several significant Acts through Parliament.

It was, undoubtedly, a government with a social conscience, committed 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 young people, and to bring some much-needed coherence to policy-making by drawing together all the government departments and agencies which had responsibility for their education and welfare. This approach was refreshingly new.

Equally commendable was the government's determination to improve the UK's dismal record on social mobility, bringing forward, in the 2009 White Paper New opportunities: Fair chances for the future, proposals to benefit all citizens at all stages of their lives. This represented Gordon Brown's much talked-of 'vision' .

In other respects, however, the picture is, perhaps inevitably, a mixed one.

Although Ed Balls made no secret of his opposition to selection for secondary education, he continued the policy pursued by previous governments of undermining comprehensive schools and the role of local authorities by increasing the number of academies and trust schools, so that

By the time Gordon Brown's government was defeated in May 2010, the comprehensive school, where it still existed, was just one of nearly 20 types of secondary schools, each with its own legal status and unique if imprecise admission procedures (Chitty 2013:168).
However, he did take steps to prevent schools - especially faith schools - from covertly selecting pupils from more affluent backgrounds. Perhaps if he had had longer as children's secretary, he might have been more successful in achieving this aim.

He was, to his credit, determined to tackle the issue of homophobic bullying in schools, and to ensure that all children received appropriate sex and relationships education. His decision to require religious schools to provide such education was welcome. His capitulation in the face of religious lobbying was not.

He talked much about returning decision-making to schools and local communities but insisted on, for example, compelling schools to use a particular method of teaching reading - 'synthetic phonics' - against the advice of world experts.

He was clearly concerned about many aspects of England's testing and league tables regime. Yet he was adamantly committed to maintaining it, at least at Key Stage 2, in the face of widespread hostility from parents, teachers and governors; despite clear evidence of the damage it was causing, not least to the children themselves; and in spite of the fact that all other parts of the UK had abandoned the regime.


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Chapter 17 | Chapter 19