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 Education for all (home)



Section 1. A Bit of History

The three main themes of the Reviews (the aims of educations, their realisation in teaching and learning, and the institutional provision for teaching and learning) have a history. Some knowledge of that history is essential for understanding the present and shaping the future.

Key points

  • ‘We’ve been here before’: future policy should learn from the past.
  • That ‘past’, following the 1944 Butler Act, saw the value of educational partnerships.
  • Subsequent policy changes followed in the light of independent reports of evidence.

The most important ‘bit of history’ which makes this Review of Reviews necessary is the constant change, especially in England, of ministerial responsibility for education and training. Since 1976 there have been 15 Secretaries of State, the longest term being that of Keith Joseph (5 years), the shortest that of Estelle Morris (1 year). Under these Secretaries of State there have been over 50 Ministerial appointments with various responsibilities.

One thing is certain, therefore, about the governance of education at the highest level, namely, that no one is around for very long. It must be difficult for new ministers to get a clear grasp of their respective briefs, before they move to their next ministerial responsibility in another government department. Hence, this reminder of ’where we have come from’.

The 1944 Education Act shaped a national system of education for England and Wales. Although national, it was to be maintained by democratically elected local education authorities. The Act ensured public support, through central grant and local taxation, for community schools as well as voluntary aided and controlled schools, whose trustees were usually the Churches. The division between primary and secondary (normally at the age of 11) created for the first time secondary education for all, eventually to be extended to the age of 16. The Act legislated for provision of nursery schools and classes, special education, and ‘county colleges’ where young people from 15 to 18 could attend part-time.

It is important to note amongst other things:

  • the absence of central government control over curriculum content and pedagogy;
  • responsibility of local education authorities (LEAs) for the shape of local provision;
  • lack of a national system of examinations (left to awarding bodies in universities);
  • the assumption of professional teacher responsibility for the curriculum.

A tripartite system was implicit in the emphasis on provision according to ‘age, ability and aptitude’, and emerged in most LEAs – selection to grammar schools at 11 for roughly 15%, a few going to technical schools and the majority to secondary modern schools. Comprehensive schools did not emerge until the 1970s

Every so often, problems arose. Therefore, independent reports thought deeply educational aims and sought research evidence regarding expansion of 15-18 (Crowther Report, 1959); lack of examinations and qualifications for the majority (Beloe Report, 1960); expansion of higher education (Robbins Report, 1963); meeting the needs of ‘half our future’ (Newsom Report, 1963); reform of primary education (Plowden Report, 1967); reform of primary education in Wales (Gittins Report, 1968); Language for Life (Bullock Report, 1975).

These reports were taken seriously by Ministers, civil servants and the teaching profession as they developed and implemented policy. Presupposed was the improvement of education through partnership between teachers (with professional expertise), local authorities (with knowledge of local needs and provision), and central government (with legal responsibility to ensure a national framework and adequate resources). That partnership is illustrated in the creation, detailed in the Lockwood Report (1964), of the ‘Schools Council for the Curriculum
and Examinations’ – an advisory body, which supported, on the basis of research, curriculum development and professional development of teachers, with a parallel Council in Wales.

This post-war partnership enabled some exemplary provision, but it also produced variability.  In the 1970s, public criticism was articulated more strongly and HMI reports challenged the status quo. The Prime Minister, in his Ruskin Speech of 1976, initiated a national debate on educational provision.  Increasingly, learner entitlements and national priorities were asserted, and new frameworks and standards were created to which teachers were expected to comply.

With the increasing control over education and training by central government, reflected in the creation by the Education Reform Act of 1988 of a National Curriculum (similarly in Wales), came a decline in, though by no means end to, independent reports. Lord Dearing, for instance, provided three reports addressing perceived problems in the National Curriculum, in post-16 examinations and in higher education(i).  However, that broad picture, as presented in earlier reports, came increasingly to depend on the initiative of independent foundations. Following Sir Claus Moser’s presidential address to the British Association in 1990, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation established its own National Commission to carry out an overall review of the education and training scene – in the words of Sir Claus Moser

… a review which would be visionary about the medium and long-term future facing our children and this country; treating the system in all its inter-connected parts; and, last but not least, considering the changes in our working and labour market scenes.(ii)

Much has been achieved since the National Commission. However, new problems have arisen. Certainly there have been ‘changes in our working and labour market scenes’ not anticipated in 1990. But questions are raised about: quality of learning; curriculum content; assessment, examinations and qualifications; professional responsibilities of teachers; provision and funding; transition from one phase to another; progression into employment, further training and higher education; and the roles of local and national government.

However, in education, simple answers are rare. The issues which arise invariably pose dilemmas, and decisions taken in one circumstance may need to be reviewed in another.  The wise policy maker and practitioner ‘dig down’ to the underlying issues and seek to understand them.  Only in this way, can sound judgements be made.

For example, there is clearly a need for appropriate frameworks to organise national education provision.  From our recent history, we know that too little structuring brings problems of quality and entitlement – but we also know that too much central control also compromises improvement and innovation.  The pendulum may only stop swinging when a principled balance of responsibilities is established and sustained. 

These questions have become more acute with the determination of the Government in England to create more Academies and Free Schools on the Swedish model, thereby affecting the collaboration between providers which had been an important part of previous policy.  It was thought, therefore, that further independent scrutiny of the system is needed – in the spirit of the philosopher, Karl Popper:

The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he knows. He knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the lookout for the unavoidable unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will always avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible to disentangle causes and effects, and to know what he is really doing.(iii)

It is in the light of such a perceived need that the several independent reviews, outlined in the Introduction, were commissioned. These cover the life-span ‘from cradle to grave’ (the phrase used by the IFLL to depict ‘life-long learning’). Despite the independence of these different reviews, there is much overlap especially in the aims and values inherent in their respective visions of education. Together they provide a coherent vision of ‘the medium and long-term future facing our children and this country’.
It is the aim of this synopsis to bring these different reviews together, to reinforce their shared vision educational aims, and to highlight what that vision entails for policy and practice.  We hope that incoming Ministers will appreciate the importance of ‘a bit of history’ and consider the challenges and principles highlighted. After all, the future is in their hands.

Notes and References

(i)Dearing Reports: 1994, National Curriculum and its Assessment, London: SCAA; 1996, Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, London: SCAA; 1997, Higher Education in the Learning Society, Leeds: NCIHE

(ii) Moser, C., 1990, Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

(iii)Popper, K., quoted in a letter to the Guardian from R.C.Mountain, 24.11.2010


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