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


Cameron's year

Into the abyss
May's grammar schools
Other matters
   Acts of Parliament

In conclusion
A very brief history of a very long struggle
Some final thoughts
Keep the faith


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 20 : 2015-2018



The general election on 7 May 2015 resulted in a Conservative government, led by David Cameron, with a Commons majority of twelve seats. Nicky Morgan kept her post as Secretary of State for Education.

Ed Miliband resigned immediately after the election, and Harriet Harman served as acting leader of the Labour Party while a lengthy leadership contest was held. Tristram Hunt continued in his role as shadow education secretary.

Secretaries of State for Education since May 2015:

8 May 2015Nicky Morgan (1972- )
14 July 2016Justine Greening (1969- )
8 January 2018Damian Hinds (1969- )

Shadow education secretaries since May 2015:

8 May 2015Tristram Hunt (1974- )
12 September 2015Lucy Powell (1974- )
27 June 2016Pat Glass (1957- )
29 June 2016Angela Rayner (1980- )

(Pat Glass resigned two days after being appointed, saying that the divisions in the Labour Party made the position untenable.)

Cameron's year

At the Opening of Parliament on 27 May, the Queen's Speech included a single sentence on education:

Legislation will be brought forward to improve schools and give every child the best start in life, with new powers to take over failing and coasting schools and create more academies (Queen's Speech 27 May 2015).
On 3 June, Nicky Morgan presented her Education and Adoption Bill to the Commons. She said it would 'sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes' obstructing the conversion of local authority schools into academies (The Guardian 3 June 2015).

During the second reading of the Bill, on 22 June, Morgan told MPs that 'teachers and leaders in education know best how to run their schools' and that she wanted 'more schools to benefit from the freedom that academy status brings' (Hansard House of Commons 22 June 2015 Col 638).

The Sutton Trust report, Missing Talent, published in June 2015, showed that bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds who performed well at primary school achieved poorer results at GCSE than their better-off peers.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the number of children living in poverty was expected to reach 2.5m in 2015 - the first time it had risen in a decade. David Cameron said his government was considering a redefinition of poverty (The Guardian 23 June 2015).

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that students' maintenance grants would be replaced by loans for those starting courses in September 2016 (The Guardian 9 July 2015).

The left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn (1949- ) was declared leader of the Labour Party on 12 September 2015.

Sections 1-14 of the 2016 Education and Adoption Act (16 March) sought to make it quicker and easier to convert maintained schools into academies; Section 15 concerned the functions of local authorities in relation to adoption.

The White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, published by the DfE in March 2016, proposed:

  • Great teachers - everywhere they're needed
  • Great leaders running our schools and at the heart of our system
  • A school-led system with every school an academy, empowered pupils, parents and communities and a clearly defined role for local government
  • Preventing underperformance and helping schools go from good to great: school-led improvement, with scaffolding and support where it's needed
  • High expectations and a world-leading curriculum for all
  • Fair, stretching accountability, ambitious for every child
  • The right resources in the right hands: investing every penny where it can do the most good (DfE 2016a:1-2)
In its report, Training new teachers, published on 10 June 2016, the Commons Public Accounts Committee was critical of the DfE. It began by observing that:
Training enough new teachers, of the right quality, is central to the performance of our schools and the life chances of pupils. We are, therefore, disappointed that the Department for Education has missed its targets to fill teacher training places four years running, with significant shortfalls in some subjects. There is a lot of good teaching delivered by teachers who do excellent jobs day in, day out, in classrooms across the country. One consequence of shortfalls is that a significant proportion of lessons in some important subjects is being taught by teachers without relevant post-A-level qualifications (CPAC 2016:3).
The Committee was aware that some of the measures proposed in Educational Excellence Everywhere - 'if implemented effectively' - could address some of the problems but, it warned, 'for the moment the challenges, and our conclusions, remain unaddressed' (CPAC 2016:3).

Into the abyss

David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, in an attempt to placate the right wing of the Conservative party, ended in disaster. Following the narrow victory for the 'Leave' campaign, he resigned as Prime Minister on 13 July 2016 and was succeeded by Theresa May (1956- ) (pictured).

Justine Greening replaced Nicky Morgan as Secretary of State for Education on 14 July.

May's grammar schools

On 9 September 2016, May gave her 'great meritocracy' speech, announcing an end to the ban on new grammar schools. Three days later, the DfE published Schools that work for everyone, a consultation document whose main concern was the creation or expansion of schools which were specifically not for everyone. It proposed that:

  • independent schools should sponsor academies or free schools, and should offer free places to 'those who are insufficiently wealthy to pay fees' (DfE 2016b:14);
  • universities should be required to sponsor schools as a condition of charging higher fees (DfE 2016b:20);
  • existing grammar schools should be encouraged to expand, new grammar schools should be permitted, and existing comprehensive schools should be allowed to become selective (DfE 2016b:24); and
  • the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions should be abolished (DfE 2016b:33).
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner (pictured) was vigorous in her condemnation of the proposals, and hoped that Conservatives who were sceptical about them would join her:
If there are Conservatives, and I genuinely feel there are, who believe this is not going to help our children - and it won't - then they need to speak out and do the honourable thing (quoted in The Guardian 9 September 2016).
A week later, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published research showing that grammar schools had no 'significant positive impact' on social mobility. David Laws, Chair of EPI and a former schools minister, said
It is clear from our analysis that creating additional grammar schools is unlikely to lead to either a significant improvement in overall education standards or an increase in social mobility. Indeed ... the total attainment gaps between poor children and richer children could well increase (quoted in The Guardian 23 September 2016).
Angela Rayner commented:
This report demonstrates, once again, that grammar schools only take a tiny number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The truth is that results and performance in every school, not just in grammars, have far more to do with a child's background than anything else. That's why we need an education policy for all our children, not just a tiny minority in grammar schools (quoted in Schools Week 23 September 2016).
The day after the EPI report was published, Jeremy Corbyn launched a national campaign against the government's grammar-schools policy. Rayner said
We will not let Theresa May get away with segregating children by creating new grammar schools. Labour is united against her plans to provide a privileged education for the few, and a second-class education for the rest (quoted in Schools Week 24 September 2016).
By March 2017 there was widespread hostility to May's plans.

Writing in The Guardian (9 March 2017), Simon Jenkins warned that:

Such is the opposition to a revival of selection that local councils will probably refuse to have all their 11-year-olds sit an exam for a handful of places at May's glamour establishments. They will be left with yet another vagrant institution to add to the academies, specialist schools, free schools and technology colleges, relics of some passing minister's whim for novelty. Money will be wasted. Headteachers will resign in despair. The victims of these battles, the children, will soldier valiantly on (Jenkins 2017).
Former Conservative education secretary Nicky Morgan, Labour's former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell, and former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg combined to write an article for The Observer (19 March 2017), in which they said
All the evidence is clear that grammar schools damage social mobility. While they can boost attainment for the already gifted, they do nothing for the majority of children who do not attend them. Indeed, in highly selective areas children not in grammars do worse than their peers in non-selective areas (Morgan, Powell and Clegg 2017).

Education secretary Justine Greening (pictured) was clearly unhappy with the policy and tried to find ways to justify it, claiming, for example, that the new grammar schools would 'support young people from every background, not the privileged few' (The Guardian 13 April 2017).

In a letter to The Guardian (14 April 2017), Peter Newsam, former Chief Education Officer for the Inner London Education Authority and Director of the University of London Institute of Education, argued that:

The notion that grammar schools do, could or ever have benefitted more than a few 'ordinary working-class families' is absurd. For every 25 or so members of an age group that are selected into a grammar school, 75 have no alternative but to attend a secondary modern school or to become the secondary modern element of some other school. Social mobility works both ways: up or down. There is no better way of depressing the prospects of most of the 11-year-old children the government says it is trying to help than to ensure the failure of those children at such an early age. The greatest of this country's ministers of education, RA Butler, knew this. He wrote in 1980: 'I believe that the death of the 11-plus combined with the birth of the comprehensive are the most significant developments in education in the past decade. I welcome both that death and that birth.'

The worst possible thing to do now is to create selective schools in coastal areas with poorly performing schools. Creating even one selective school in such an area is likely to create, as anyone knows who has had to deal with this, one or more sub-secondary modern schools. This is an expensive and frankly evil way to worsen the prospects of most 'working class families' in the area (Newsam 2017).

Delegates at the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) voted to oppose the grammar-schools policy. NUT General Secretary Kevin Courtney told the conference that the union was investigating reports that some schools were already becoming quasi-grammar schools, and he suggested the union might take legal action (The Guardian 15 April 2017).

May, who had previously said she would not call a snap election, then did just that. With Labour MPs still in disarray over the leadership of the party, and opinion polls showing a Conservative lead of more than twenty per cent, she hoped for a landslide to give her a clear mandate in negotiations with the European Union, which were due to begin in June.

Labour's election manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few, promised to create 'a unified National Education Service' to provide 'cradle-to-grave learning' (Labour Party 2017:34). With regard to the schools, it said:

Labour will not waste money on inefficient free schools and the Conservatives' grammar schools vanity project. Labour does not want a return to secondary moderns. We will also oppose any attempt to force schools to become academies (Labour Party 2017:37).
The election, which took place on 8 June, was a disaster for the Conservatives, who lost their Commons majority and were only able to form a new government with the (expensive) support of Northern Ireland's reactionary Democratic Unionist Party.

At the Opening of the new Parliament, the Queen's Speech included two sentences on education. Grammar schools were not mentioned:

My government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded. My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future, including through a major reform of technical education (Queen's Speech 21 June 2017).
Damian Hinds (pictured) replaced Justine Greening on 8 January 2018. In his first major interview as education secretary, he told The Sunday Times that he planned to abolish the fifty per cent cap on faith-based admissions to over-subscribed free schools, in order to facilitate the establishment of more Roman Catholic schools. He also said he would 'enthusiastically' support the expansion of England's remaining grammar schools (Schools Week 18 February 2018).

Three months later, Hinds revealed that the government was allocating 50m to help existing grammar schools to expand (The Guardian 11 May 2018). He also announced that the government had abandoned its plan to abolish the fifty per cent cap on faith admissions in new free schools. Instead, it was planning a new wave of religiously-selective voluntary-aided faith schools (BBC News 11 May 2018).

Other matters


Commissioned by Justine Greening, Diane Rochford's Review of assessment for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests, published by the DfE in October 2016, made ten recommendations (listed on page 7 of the report), including removal of the statutory requirement to use Performance scales (known as P scales) in assessing the attainment of pupils with special educational needs.

In its report, Financial sustainability of schools, issued on 14 December 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) noted that cost pressures would result in an eight per cent real-terms reduction in per-pupil funding for mainstream schools between 2014-15 and 2019-20, and that mainstream schools would need to make savings of 3bn during the same period (NAO 2016:4).

In January 2017 Ofsted published its inspection report on Kings College Guildford, which it rated as inadequate in all respects. The school, known as Park Barn County Secondary School until 1991, had been the first local authority school in the country to be handed over to a private company by the New Labour government in 2000, and had become an academy in September 2014.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (CPAC) was critical of the DfE in its report, Capital funding for schools, issued on 26 April 2017. It warned that:

The system for funding new schools and new places in existing schools is increasingly incoherent and too often poor value for money. The Department for Education is spending well over the odds in its bid to create 500 more free schools while other schools are in poor condition. Many free schools are in inadequate premises, including many without on-site playgrounds or sports facilities. The Department believes it is acceptable to appropriate community facilities and parks for routine school use. Add to this that local authorities are legally responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places for all children to attend good schools, even though they have no direct control of free school or academy places or admissions policies. All this made us question how much of a grip the Department really has in providing school places where they are needed (CPAC 2017:3).
The curriculum in reception classes was the subject of an Ofsted report, Bold beginnings, published in November 2017, which surveyed a sample of good and outstanding schools.

Acts of Parliament

The 2017 Children and Social Work Act (27 April) included four sections (4-7) which set out the duties of local authorities and schools in relation to 'previously looked-after children' (children who had been cared for in local authority homes).

The provisions of the 2017 Technical and Further Education Act (27 April) were largely concerned with administrative matters.

The 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (27 April) provided for the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS) (Sections 1-2) and United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) (91), and abolished the Higher Education Funding Council for England (81) and the office of Director of Fair Access to Higher Education (DFA) (82).

In conclusion

A very brief history of a very long struggle

This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England's children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.

The poor were almost entirely excluded from schools until the Industrial Revolution, when it became clear that England needed an educated workforce if it was to compete successfully in world trade.

Even then, there was hostility to the very idea of mass education. Tory MP Davies Giddy warned that it would render the labouring classes 'factious and refractory', enable them to read 'seditious pamphlets', and encourage them to be 'insolent to their superiors' (Hansard House of Commons 13 June 1807 Vol 9 Cols 798-9).

The argument for mass education was eventually won, but the system which emerged, towards the end of the nineteenth century, was based on the entrenched class divisions of English society.

These divisions survived into the twentieth century, only now it was argued that they were based not on social class, but on the theory of fixed intelligence promoted by Cyril Burt and the eugenicists. The result was the tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools, established in 1945.

By this time, however, the notion of fixed intelligence had been shown to be spurious and, for a brief spell - in the 1960s and early 1970s - it looked as though, finally, all of England's children would enjoy the benefits of being educated together in schools which were fully comprehensive.

But it was not to be. The neo-liberal governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major began the process of turning the public education service into a market: competition was now seen as more important than collaboration; choice and diversity were valued more highly than equality of opportunity.

Tony Blair's New Labour governments took the process further by creating a multiplicity of schools - including the academies - and increasing the number and range of faith schools, while at the same time attempting to micromanage the teaching process itself.

Under Gordon Brown, Ed Balls tried to take a holistic view of the needs of children, but refused to reverse the overall direction of government policy.

And finally, Michael Gove sought to change almost every aspect of England's education system to the point where the word 'system' hardly seemed appropriate any more.

Some final thoughts

As long ago as 1961, in his book The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams argued:

It is a question of whether we can grasp the real nature of our society, or whether we persist in social and educational patterns based on a limited ruling class, a middle professional class, a large operative class, cemented by forces that cannot be challenged and will not be changed. The privileges and barriers, of an inherited kind, will in any case go down. It is only a question of whether we replace them by the free play of the market, or by a public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture (Williams 1961:155).
More than half a century on, it is clear that governments of both main parties have chosen 'the free play of the market'.

Stewart Ranson, Emeritus Professor at Warwick University, has commented:

Over the past 20 years the neo-liberal agenda of choice and competition in schools has undermined public education. When the present contradictions finally implode, the nation will need a Royal Commission that leads a national conversation to rebuild education based on justice. Education should not depend on power and wealth, but on recognising that extending all the capabilities of all children is the nation's first public good (Ranson 2010:158).
And in his last column for The Guardian, Peter Mortimore, former Director of the University of London Institute of Education, wrote:
Over my years in the education service, I have witnessed the policies of 28 secretaries of state. I have observed the work of scores of local authority education officers, hundreds of heads and thousands of teachers, teacher trainers and pupils in many different countries.

I have seen great progress: British teachers today are amongst the best I have seen anywhere. But the improvements to the system, so obvious in the first half of my career, have not kept pace. Anthony Crosland's request to local authorities to go comprehensive, the raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16, the Plowden Committee's concern for the disadvantaged, the merging of the GCE and CSE into the GCSE and the abolition of corporal punishment pointed the way to a modern education system.

Regrettably, the influence of the anti-progressive Black Papers, the wasted opportunity of James Callaghan's Great Debate and the systematic rubbishing of the comprehensive ideal by both Tories and New Labour have stymied progress. In addition, the downgrading of local government and the creation of new types of schools - from Kenneth Baker's city technology colleges to Michael Gove's free schools - have fashioned a deeply fragmented English education service. Add to this the haughty control and command of New Labour's classroom diktats, and small wonder that - despite the dedication of those who work in schools - the system is a mess (Mortimore 2010).

Yet, as John Smyth and Terry Wrigley have argued, there is no reason why England, along with Australia and the US, should have education systems based on inequality:
Things need not be this way, and the fact that these powerful English-speaking countries manifest shamefully high levels of inequality yet appear deaf to any alternatives says much about the ideologically driven nature of this particular reform paradigm. The lessons from Finland could not be more stark, and while impossible to transplant or copy, they stand as demonstrable evidence that a commitment to equitable school provision and more democratic systems of quality control pays off handsomely in high levels of achievement and without any of the social disfigurement experienced in countries where schooling is blighted by the neoliberal project (Smyth and Wrigley 2013:202).
The result of creeping privatisation, suggests Melissa Benn, is that we - citizens and parents - are becoming
passive spectators of an alliance between the private sector and politicians as they step in to 'save' civil society from its failures, including the apparent failure of egalitarianism (Benn 2011:199).
Public services, she argues, should 'remain within the remit of a dynamic democratic state, at every level' (Benn 2011:200):
We could organise our education system along much simpler and fairer lines, and in ways that unify, not divide, the nation. ... A service that allows the poorest family to feel confident that their child will receive a broadly similar educational start in life to their better-off peers, and one that promises to enrich and challenge all. A service based on neighbourhood schools - housed in well-designed, well-equipped, aesthetically pleasing and properly maintained buildings, enjoying plenty of outdoor space - with balanced intakes and a broad, rich curriculum that will allow each child, whatever their talents, temperament or interests, to flourish (Benn 2011:201).
And she concludes:
It is time ... to reclaim the mantle of genuine reform for our side in the long-running school wars. Genuine comprehensive reform is unfinished. There is much exciting work still to be done. The rewards, in terms of better-educated citizens of the future and greater common ground between communities and religions and classes, could be enormous. The alternative scenario - of an increasingly fragmented, mistrustful and divided nation, controlled rather than enlightened, dependent on the unstable whim of private or religious enterprise - is too frightening to contemplate (Benn 2011:204).

Keep the faith

Given that we now have a government (and a Labour leadership) apparently determined to do irreparable damage to the future of the next generation by pursuing 'Brexit' (taking Britain out of the European Union), and an education secretary who supports the creation of yet more segregated schools, it is easy to feel profoundly pessimistic about what the future might hold.

For our young people's sake, however, we must endeavour to remain positive, and there are some signs of hope.

With regard to the Brexit problem, 75 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Britain to remain in Europe (Ipsos MORI 5 September 2016), and it seems likely that, had they been allowed to vote (as they were in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum), 16- and 17-year-olds would have been at least as positive.

It is not surprising, therefore, that young people around the country are mobilising in support of Britain's continued membership of the European Union. Groups such as Our Future Our Choice and For Our Future's Sake are busy campaigning, and representatives of a million students in more than 60 universities and colleges have written to their MPs demanding a say on any final deal. An increasing number of MPs are at last beginning to accept the inevitability of another vote (The Observer 13 May 2018). Sanity may yet prevail.

In education there are now dozens of organisations campaigning for a fairer system of schools based on local democracy, a more child-focused approach to the curriculum, and an end to England's grotesque testing regime. They include Comprehensive Future, Forum, Learning Without Limits, the Local Schools Network, and Reclaiming Schools (whose websites can all be found on the links page of this site).

As the sociologist Stuart Hall (1932-2014) has argued, there is no reason why the neo-liberal project in education should be permanent:

No project achieves 'hegemony' as a completed project. It is a process, not a state of being. No victories are permanent or final. Hegemony has constantly to be 'worked on', maintained, renewed, revised. Excluded social forces, whose consent has not been won, whose interests have not been taken into account, form the basis of counter-movements, resistance, alternative strategies and visions ... and the struggle over a hegemonic system starts anew. They constitute what Raymond Williams called 'the emergent' - and are the reason why history is never closed but maintains an open horizon towards the future (Hall 2011:26).
Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.

Derek Gillard
16 May 2018


Benn M (2011) School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education London: Verso

CPAC (2016) Training new teachers Report of the Commons Public Accounts Committee

CPAC (2017) Capital funding for schools Report of the Commons Public Accounts Committee

DfE (2016a) White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere London: Department for Education

DfE (2016b) Green Paper Schools that work for everyone London: Department for Education

Hall S (2011) 'The Neoliberal Revolution' Soundings 48 Summer

Jenkins S (2017) 'The return of the 11-plus is Theresa May's first real Trump moment' The Guardian 9 March

Labour Party (2017) For the Many, Not the Few London: The Labour Party

Morgan N, Powell L and Clegg N (2017) 'On this we can all agree. Selection is bad for our schools' The Guardian 19 March

Mortimore P (2010) 'Fight Gove's big sell-off of public education' The Guardian 7 December

NAO (2016) Financial sustainability of schools Report of the National Audit Office.

Newsam P (2017) 'Theresa May's grammar school vanity project will institutionalise failure' The Guardian 14 April

Ranson S (2010) 'Returning Education to Layering Horizons?' Forum 52(2) 155-158

Smyth J and Wrigley T (2013) Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling New York: Peter Lang

Williams R (1961) The Long Revolution London: Chatto and Windus

Chapter 19 | Timeline