New Labour and Secondary Education, 1994-2010
Clyde Chitty, 2013
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
185pp., £50.00 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-230-34061-9
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2013
On that Friday morning in May 1997, the sun shone, strangers smiled at one another, and the whole country seemed to be breathing a collective sigh of relief. After eighteen years of Tory rule - ten of the aggressive and divisive Thatcher; eight of the incompetent and sleaze-ridden Major - the election of Tony Blair's first 'New Labour' government, swept to power with a Commons majority of 179, felt like a breath of fresh air.
And nowhere was this sense of optimism more keenly felt than in the teaching profession. In staffrooms across the country, teachers hoped - some even dared to believe - that the Blair government would usher in a new 'golden age' in education. The daily rubbishing of schools by ministers and the media would cease, tests and league tables would disappear, Chris Woodhead would be sacked, Ofsted scrapped, and grant maintained schools would be brought back under local authority control.
Perhaps most importantly of all, selection for secondary education would finally be abolished. There were good grounds for believing this. After all, David Blunkett, then shadow education secretary, had promised the Labour Party conference on 4 October 1995: 'Read my lips. No selection by examination or interview'. And the move would have had widespread public support, as a recent ICM poll had shown.
These hopes were soon to be dashed: the first New Labour government would prove very different from any previous Labour administration. Indeed, in many ways - its belief in market forces and its commitment to globalisation, for example - it would be virtually indistinguishable from its Tory predecessors.
How this came about is the subject of Clyde Chitty's new book.
In his introductory chapter, Chitty acknowledges that 'doubts and misgivings ... are often expressed about the value of writing contemporary history' because 'all the judgments one makes have to be transitory and provisional'. He justifies writing the book, however, on the basis that 'the writing of all history is as much about explanation as it is about judgment' (p.3).
In Chapter 2 he begins his explanation with an outline of the origins and history of the three main political parties in England (Conservative, Labour and Liberal), because 'only by understanding the nature of their development since the middle of the nineteenth century is it possible to appreciate the principles underpinning their evolving attitudes toward state education - and particularly at the secondary level' (p.9).
He examines 'the extent to which these parties either differed or agreed on major issues of social policy, including education' and asks, 'in which decades, and for what reasons, was either consensus or conflict the dominant feature of the political debate?' (p.25). He notes that the 1944 Education Act, part of the 'post-war settlement', was regarded by all parties as a cornerstone of the welfare state. The administrative framework of 'a national system, locally administered' was 'a source of much pride', involving as it did 'the continuing operation of a benign partnership between central government, local government, and individual schools and colleges' (p.26).
This post-war consensus finally broke down with the economic recession of the mid-1970s, when the Conservative leadership 'began to embrace a new updated version of the classical market liberalism of the nineteenth century' (p.27). The Thatcher government's 1988 Education Reform Act marked 'the abandonment of the essential principles that had governed the organisation of schools since 1944'. Henceforth, education would become 'a commodity to be purchased and consumed' (p.28).
He argues that a new period of consensus began with Tony Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994 - but this one was 'largely on the Right's terms' and involved the rejection of most of the principles which had underpinned the 'welfare capitalist consensus' of the post-war years (p.29).
In Chapter 3 he reviews the education policy of the Labour Party between 1944 and 1994, which he describes as a period of 'missed opportunities and uneasy compromises' (p.31). Ever since its formation, the party had been unable to agree what it meant by 'secondary education for all', and had been ambivalent in its attitude to comprehensive education. The notion of differentiated schooling persisted after the second world war, with Ellen Wilkinson, the first Labour minister of education, unwilling to challenge the 'existing orthodoxy' (p.35) and her successor, George Tomlinson, accepting 'wholeheartedly' the divided nature of the British educational system (p.36). Later in the 1950s policy documents adopted a more positive approach to comprehensive education, but 'there was still ambiguity in Labour thinking as to the likely fate of grammar schools' (p.37).
By 1964, when the Labour Party was returned to power with a very slim majority, there was 'widespread popular disenchantment with the divided system of secondary schools' and local authorities were already beginning to experiment with comprehensive schools. The Labour government decided to make comprehensivisation a national policy, but it was not being 'radical' or 'revolutionary': it was simply 'responding to, or taking account of, local initiatives of a widespread nature' (p.42).
The decision to request but not require LEAs to submit schemes for comprehensivisation in Circular 10/65, coupled with the fact that supporters of comprehensive reform were unclear as to what they were actually fighting for, 'played into the hands of the opponents of reform at a time when the optimism of the 1960s was giving way to the disillusionment of the 1970s' (p.51) and the Right was reasserting itself. In his Ruskin College speech in October 1976, Jim Callaghan attempted to 'wrest the populist mantle' from Margaret Thatcher's Tories, and to 'pander to perceived public disquiet at the alleged decline in educational standards in state schools' (p.53).
Between 1979 and 1997, the party was forced to react to the radical education policies being pursued by the Thatcher and Major administrations. Its problem was that 'it could not be seen to be against choice and diversity', even though it was well aware of 'the basic inequalities that Conservative policy produced' (p.56).
In Chapter 4, Chitty seeks to explain the origins of New Labour's educational philosophy. Tony Blair's election as leader - and his adoption of Andrew Adonis as one of his closest advisers - ensured that the party's earlier (albeit half-hearted) policy of introducing a nationwide system of comprehensive secondary schools would now be reconsidered. He quotes both men: Blair's description of comprehensive schools as 'non-selective and frequently non-excellent, and, on occasions, truly dire' (p.66); and Adonis's view that 'The comprehensive school revolution ... destroyed many excellent schools, without improving the rest' (p.67).
At Blair's first party conference, shadow education secretary Ann Taylor, who supported comprehensive schools, received no backing from the leadership and was soon replaced by David Blunkett, 'who was quite prepared to rethink Labour's education policy' (p.70). This was most obvious in relation to selection, where 'No selection' (1995) became 'No more selection' (1996).
It is easy to conclude that under Tony Blair the Labour party jettisoned its previous commitment to comprehensive education, choosing instead to focus on 'standards, not structures' (p.75). However, because the party had never been clear about what it meant by 'secondary education for all', it is, Chitty suggests, 'difficult to claim that Blair and his allies were reversing a policy that had the unequivocal support of all the leading figures in the party' (p.77), some of whom argued that grammar schools ensured 'middle-class support for the state education system' and facilitated 'working-class upward mobility' (p.77).
In Chapter 5, Chitty charts the steady abandonment of the comprehensive ideal during Tony Blair's decade as prime minister.
The 1997 Labour manifesto made it clear that there would be no return to the 11-plus, but it also rejected 'the monolithic comprehensive schools that take no account of children's differing abilities'. Instead, New Labour preferred schools which identified 'the distinct abilities of individual pupils', and organised them in 'streamed or setted classes' which were designed to 'maximise their progress in individual subjects' (p.80).
The 1997 white paper Excellence in Schools repeatedly asserted that 'standards matter more than structures', so it seems 'somewhat ironic', says Chitty, that the 1998 Education Act was, in fact, 'chiefly concerned with structure' - 89 of the 145 sections were devoted to 'the new categories of state maintained schools, their establishment, financing, admissions, and selection arrangements' (p.88). Comprehensive schools were not mentioned.
In 2000, David Blunkett announced the Fresh Start scheme for 'failing' schools and launched the City Academies Programme. Chitty notes that by the time David Blunkett left office in June 2001, 'there was a hierarchy of at least 16 types of secondary schools, each with its own legal status and unique admission procedures' (p.93).
In Blair's second term there were more specialist schools, advanced specialist schools, a thousand 'Beacon Schools' and more faith schools. In 2002, Blunkett's successor, Estelle Morris, angered many in the teaching profession with her comment that there were some comprehensive schools she 'simply wouldn't touch with a bargepole' (p.99).
The Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners was launched in 2004 by Blair's next education secretary, Charles Clarke. This declared that the key feature of the government's 'new and modernised' education system would be 'personalisation'. But the Strategy's 'most controversial and far-reaching' proposal was the creation of a network of 'independent specialist schools' to replace 'traditional comprehensives' (p.100).
Ruth Kelly succeeded Clarke as education secretary, so it was she who had to pilot the 2006 Education and Inspections Bill through the Commons. She did not find it easy. The bill's proposals 'served to alienate a large body of opinion within the Labour Party, both inside and outside parliament' and Kelly 'found it difficult to mount a coherent defence of the government's broad agenda' (p.101). In the event, the government made three minor concessions and got its bill - 'but only with the support of the Conservative opposition' (p.104).
Summing up the education initiatives of the Blair years, Chitty notes that 'a number of key phrases and slogans' tended to recur: there was a need to concentrate on standards, not structures; to promote 'choice and diversity' at the secondary level; to reject the idea of the 'one-size-fits-all' comprehensive; and to move on to a 'post-comprehensive era'. He argues that Blair's 'third way' was a vague concept which seemed to require the creation of many new types of secondary school, to 'attract the support of the middle and aspirant classes'. For New Labour's critics, this rigid hierarchy of schools 'served chiefly to undermine the Blairite rhetoric of "equality of opportunity", and to sharpen divisions and insecurities' (p.105).
Having given us a chronological account of the history, in the next two chapters Chitty examines two issues which have dominated educational politics during the past thirty years. Chapter 6 deals with the privatisation of education; Chapter 7 with the erosion of the National Curriculum, particularly as it relates to secondary education.
He begins by noting that there are several forms of privatisation. Drawing on the work of Stephen Ball and Richard Pring, he outlines some of them: private and not-for-profit companies, and voluntary, community and non-governmental organisations 'in all manner of income-generating activities within the public sector, especially within health and education' (p.107). He argues that the privatisation of education in the 1980s marked 'the systematic erosion, and possibly even abandonment, of the commitment to a common educational service, based on pupil needs rather than upon private means, and accessible to all young people on the basis of equal opportunity' (p.108).
He traces the course of Tory attempts at privatisation from Keith Joseph's desire to introduce education vouchers (thwarted), through Kenneth Baker's City Technology Colleges (lack of sponsors), to the introduction of Ofsted (whose inspectors were not seen as 'allies in the process of improving schools') (p.116).
He goes on to consider how Tony Blair responded to the liberalising and privatising agenda of Thatcher and Major, especially with regard to social policy. He argues that 'the precise positioning of Blair's political philosophy is open to debate' and that there were 'both significant continuities and significant ruptures between Thatcherism and Blairism' (p.117).
Labour's privatisations included Education Action Zones; King's Manor School in Guildford; Hackney LEA (some services); Islington LEA (almost all services); Public Private Partnerships (including the Tories' Private Finance Initiative); and the Academies Programme (a greatly extended version of Baker's CTCs).
He concludes that under New Labour 'the privatisation of schools is a development that has come to dominate the educational landscape' (p.128), with concerns being expressed about the abandonment of the 1944 Education Act's principle that schools should be 'a public service under direct local democratic control, administered by people who know the schools, the local area, and the local people'. (p.128).
In his chapter on the erosion of the National Curriculum, Chitty begins by pointing out that Kenneth Baker's decision to include provision for such a curriculum in the 1987 Education Bill 'did not have the wholehearted support of Conservative MPs' - nor even of Mrs Thatcher herself. She wanted a limited 'core' curriculum of 'compulsory' subjects and felt that anything more would be 'at variance with the Right's programme for creating more choice and variety in the system' (p.129). However, having threatened his resignation if his plans were not included in the bill, Baker got his way and a ten-subject National Curriculum (plus religious education) was imposed on schools.
Chitty notes that the curriculum for Key Stage 3 'remained virtually intact for the next 20 years, largely because it represented what most secondary schools were doing anyway' (p.133). The Key Stage 4 curriculum, however, 'was in the process of being abandoned, even before it was actually implemented' (p.133). The number of compulsory subjects was reduced in 1991, but continuing concerns (about Key Stage 4 and the use of tests and examination tables) persuaded John Major's government to commission a full-scale review of the National Curriculum. Sir Ron Dearing's report, published in January 1994, recommended reductions at Key Stages 3 and 4 and the adoption of three 'pathways' - occupational, vocational and academic - 'as part of a broad 14-to-19 continuum' (p.135). So, by the time the Conservatives left office in 1997, 'the Key Stage Four curriculum bore little resemblance to the framework devised ten years earlier by Kenneth Baker' (p.136).
Chitty notes that the Key Stage 3 curriculum 'attracted comparatively little attention from New Labour education ministers during the ten-year period of the Blair government' (p.136). It wasn't until Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007 that plans were announced for a slimming down of the curriculum at this Key Stage.
With regard to Key Stage 4, New Labour sought to build on the policy advocated by Dearing of seeing curriculum provision for older students in terms of a 14-19 'continuum'. Its 2002 green paper 14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards set out 'an evolving vision for far greater coherence in the 14-19 phase of education and training in England, whereby the age of 16 would lose its status as "a traditional break-point" in the lives of young students' (p.138). To the dismay of many, it advocated making modern foreign languages and design and technology optional subjects at Key Stage 4.
Following 'one of the most extensive consultation exercises ever carried out by the education department' (p.140) another discussion paper was produced. 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence repeated the government's commitment to the concept of a 14-19 'continuum', but it rejected advice that modern foreign languages and design and technology should be reinstated as 'compulsory' subjects. 'From the 2004-2005 academic year onwards, English, mathematics, and science would be the only academic "survivors" from Kenneth Baker's original 1987 framework' (p.141).
For the longer term, the government announced that it would be setting up a new working party to look at 14-19 reform, headed by Mike Tomlinson. 'One of its main tasks would be to look at ways of introducing a sort of English Baccalaureate' (p.141). Tomlinson's final report, 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform, published in October 2004, recommended that GCSEs and A Levels should be components of a new wide-ranging diploma and that students would choose academic or vocational subjects, or a mixture of the two. Tomlinson said he hoped that the names 'GCSE' and 'A Level' would 'eventually disappear', so that the new diploma would acquire 'full integrity'. His optimism turned out to be misplaced: even as he was speaking, Blair and his education secretary were 'desperately seeking to distance themselves from the report's main conclusions' (p.144).
The white paper 14-19 Education and Skills was published in February 2005. In her Foreword, education secretary Ruth Kelly argued that it set out the details of a major reform programme 'building from the excellent work of Sir Mike Tomlinson and his Working Group on 14-19 Reform'. As Chitty points out, the rest of the 93-page document 'rejected most of Tomlinson's key proposals' (p.145).
The issue of 14-19 reform was raised again two years later, when the new schools secretary Ed Balls made it clear that the government (now under Gordon Brown) had had second thoughts about some of Tomlinson's proposals. Balls announced that in future diplomas would not be restricted to vocational or work-related areas of the curriculum: three new diplomas - in languages, sciences, and humanities - would be launched in September 2011. He clearly hoped that these 'academic' diplomas would become the 'qualification of choice' for 14- to 19-year olds' (p.147). He said a review of A Levels would take place in 2013 and he refused to guarantee their survival. 'Not surprisingly', comments Chitty, his speech had 'a mixed reception', with The Times claiming that 'A Levels Face Axe in Favour of Diplomas' and shadow schools secretary Michael Gove telling the paper that 'Diplomas were supposed to be about improving vocational education not undermining academic excellence' (p.147).
Balls's proposals were lost in the election of 2010. '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' (p.148-9).
Finally, in Chapter 8, Chitty reviews recent education developments in England in the context of the international scene, focusing particularly on trends in America, Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavia.
He begins with an examination of the changes which have occurred since 1945 in 'the perception of the comprehensive high school as the most suitable institution for the education of adolescents in advanced industrialised societies' (p.151).
He describes the post-war popularity of the American high school and later attempts to undermine it: Reagan's desire to see 'choice and diversity in the American education system' (p.157), and the Brookings Institution's promotion of education vouchers. He notes Diane Ravitch's changed views on charter schools.
In Australia too, comprehensivisation is an 'unfinished project' (p.161), with private schools creaming off 'talented' and 'motivated' students and the state sector left providing for 'a disproportionately large number of children with poor language skills, fragmented family backgrounds, and a general lack of ambition'. This 'chronic situation', he argues, has been exacerbated by 'successive governments' fondness for market solutions to public problems in general and for discriminatory funding policies in particular' (p.162).
In New Zealand, following the 1988 Picot report, all schools were transformed into 'autonomous, self-managing units, competing for their students in an economic marketplace characterised by consumer choice' (p.163). He notes, however, that the Picot reforms 'have been subverted by successive governments' (p.164).
In Scandinavia, governments have been less inclined to succumb to 'neo-liberal, market-driven ideologies'. He argues that 'the key to understanding the successful development of state comprehensive systems in Scandinavian countries is to be found in the strength of social democratic political parties and in the genuine alliances they have been able to form with liberal groups' (p.164).
In 2004, Andy Green and Susanne Wiborg conducted an international inquiry into the effects of different school systems on educational inequality and concluded that what the 'more equal' countries had in common were 'the structures and processes typically associated with the radical versions of comprehensive education'. Chitty concludes that, while such findings are heartening for educational reformers, 'they do not seem to have prevented a number of countries from introducing policies leading in quite the opposite direction' (p.166).
In a brief final chapter, he draws together some of his conclusions. He points out that, while there were undoubtedly some 'blatant continuities' in education policy-making between the Tory and Labour governments of the past thirty years, it is important to note that in some areas New Labour made changes for the benefit of all pupils - including increased funding, new and refurbished buildings, investment in technology, more support staff and the Every Child Matters strategy. The 2004 Children Act 'came to have an impact on the way secondary schools viewed their students' (p.167) by specifying five outcomes for all children and young people: 'be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution to society, and achieve economic well-being' (p.168).
He concludes, however, that for the most part, New Labour was 'prepared, and indeed happy, to pursue an education agenda set by its Conservative predecessors', so that education was still viewed as being about 'preparing youngsters for the position they would come to hold in the jobs market'. Worse, it was about accepting the notion that children had widely differing 'abilities' and 'talents', and would therefore 'benefit from being educated in different types of schools offering various specialisms' (p.168).
And finally, the increasing privatisation of the education system means that 'we are well on the road to viewing education, like other public services, as a commodity to be bought or sold in the market-place, like all other commodities' (p.168).
Chitty's comment that 'the writing of all history is as much about explanation as it is about judgment' is the key to the quality of his book: it is clear, factual and authoritative. It is also a thoroughly enjoyable read. He has managed to cram an enormous amount into its 168 pages without once giving the reader literary indigestion. There are no wasted words: the narrative is supported by fascinating snippets of information and quotes from original sources - letters, news items etc - all of which add colour and authenticity to the unfolding story. The organisation of the book works well, too.
As to judgment, the conclusions Chitty draws from the history are always considered and fair: the book is no polemic. Indeed, there are times when one feels he might have expressed his opinion more forcefully. Perhaps the most delicious understatement is his comment that, in piloting the 2006 Education and Inspections Bill through the Commons, Ruth Kelly 'found it difficult to mount a coherent defence of the government's broad agenda'. If I'd been writing the book, the words 'inept' and 'incompetent' might have crept in at this point!
The most crucial judgement - the one on which the whole book hangs - concerns the extent to which Labour's educational philosophy and policies changed with the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994, which he describes as 'a defining moment in the history of the Labour Party' (p.63). Some things certainly did change, though 'the precise nature and significance of the reform programme rolled out between 1994 and 1997, and then implemented with all manner of modifications between 1997 and 2010, is still a matter of dispute' (p.63). Was it, he asks, 'a cynical abandonment of the party's "social democratic" values for reasons of electoral expediency', or was it 'a principled and necessary response to the changing needs of a changing society?' (p.63)
However, the view that 1994 marked a complete change in Labour policy is, he argues, simplistic. The party had had disagreements about education right from the start. As early as 1896, Keir Hardie had advocated an education 'free at all stages and open to everyone, without any tests of prior attainment at any age - in effect, a comprehensive "broad highway" that all could travel, regardless of their circumstances' (p.32). Others - notably Sydney Webb - favoured 'specialised and differentiated schooling at the secondary stage' (p.32). This latter view became party policy in 1922 with the publication of R. H. Tawney's Secondary Education for All: A Policy for Labour; it was still prevalent in the post-war Attlee government (hence Ellen Wilkinson's unwillingness to support comprehensivisation); and the ambivalence continued into the 1960s and 70s, resulting in the Wilson governments' failure to create a fully comprehensive school system.
Chitty's book, then, is not a polemic; neither is it a piece of Labour party propaganda. Far from it. He concludes that it was the Labour Party's 'conspicuous failure' over many years to embrace the 'total concept' of comprehensive education which made it 'comparatively easy to dismantle the whole structure once disillusionment set in' (p.168).
New Labour and Secondary Education is, as you would expect, well written and well organised, thoughtful and thought provoking, informative and enjoyable. It is an excellent book which will be of interest to all those who care about education in this country and invaluable to students of educational history and politics. It deserves to be widely read.
It is therefore very sad that Clyde and his readers have been so poorly served by the publisher.
There are various problems. First, and most obviously, there is the use of American spellings. This is a book about English education, by an English author, in a literary style which is clearly English. It is therefore somewhat jarring, to say the least, to come across words like favor, rigor, program, labor, centered, favorable, labeled, colored, skeptical, modeled, defense and councilors.
Who did this and why? Did someone at Palgrave Macmillan believe that American educationists were so stupid that they would be unable to understand favour, rigour, programme etc? Did they believe that, somehow, by changing a few spellings, they were translating the book into American English? This is absurd - an insult to the author and an irritation to readers.
A second peculiarity is the removal of many hyphens, producing strange words like semiautonomous, cosponsors, nonessential, nonselective, nongovernmental, preeminent etc.
Thirdly, there are many inconsistencies in the text. For example, the 'Academies Programme' is always presented with its English spelling, but the term 'Learning Support Centers' (p. 93) has been Americanised. And although American spellings are not used in quotations, there are some inexplicable exceptions:
Other inconsistencies throughout the book include the use of hyphens in the phrase describing the age of pupils, so that we find, for example, 'four year-olds' but 'seven-year-olds' (both on p. 81); and the positioning of quotation marks randomly before or after full stops and commas.
There are also numerous errors, including:
This is shoddy work. If Palgrave Macmillan want first-rate authors like Clyde Chitty to write for them, and expect the public to fork out £50 for the privilege of reading their books, they should at least be prepared to do a decent job of presenting the text.