Social democratic approaches refer to a range of ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state that focus on using various forms of social and economic interventions such as State-maintained schooling, to promote ideas about social justice within a broad capitalist mixed economy (one that combines private and state-owned business and services).

A motor of social change?

In Britain, for example, since 1945 both Labour and Conservative parties and governments have broadly accepted social democratic ideas about a range of issues – schooling in particular – although it’s probably important to qualify this by saying the Labour Party has historically been a “Social Democratic party” while the Conservative Party has embraced some aspects of social democracy while being, at least over the past 40 years, a generally New Right political organisation.

Be that as it may, social democratic discourses on the role and function of education focus, for our purposes, on two processes that emerged in the post-2nd world war period:

1. Technological changes in the workplace involving both a decline in traditional manufacturing and the rise of service industries in areas like finance and, subsequently, computing and information technology.

2. Social changes focused on ideas about equality in areas like gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class. Various UK government Acts, from the legalisation of homosexuality (1967) through the promotion of racial equality (Race Relations Act, 1968) to the banning of gender discrimination in the workplace (Equal Pay Act,1970), used the legal system as a way of “promoting social justice” throughout various areas of society.

For social democrats these two processes converged in the arena of education.

The tripartite system that had evolved into a bipartite grammar / secondary modern system divided along class lines – most grammar school pupils were drawn from the middle classes – was questioned in two ways.

Firstly, that it failed to meet the needs of a society undergoing rapid technological and sociological changes. The tripartite system produced a small percentage of highly-qualified university entrants (around 10% of 18 year olds by the early 1960s) and a large number of poorly-qualified school-leavers, a situation that failed to meet the economic need for a better-qualified service industry workforce that was growing quickly and in more-sophisticated directions.

Secondly, the tripartite system failed to meet the requirements of social fairness because it was based on outmoded notions of fixed ability.

The solution, for social democrats, was Comprehensive schooling designed to address the twin problems of social inequality and technological change.

social inequality

In a British context, selection by IQ test was seen as both educationally and socially divisive because it created a rigid two-tier system of academic (mainly middle class), grammar schools and vocational (largely working class), secondary moderns. In this respect the tripartite system failed to meet the requirements of social fairness because it was based on ideas about intelligence that were increasingly questioned and divided along class lines.

One important justification for Comprehensive Schools – aside from broader notions of equality and social justice – was that the tripartite system wasted the talents of substantial parts of British society by consigning them to lower status, mainly manual and routine service work from an early age. It also effectively allowed the middle-classes a “free ride” into higher-paid, higher status work by effectively removing competition “from below”.

In Comprehensive schools all children, regardless of prior attainment, received the same secondary education in the same school – an idea designed to revitalise the concept of meritocracy. In the UK, for example, their introduction was designed to create a system of contest mobility whose objective, for Turner (1960) was “to give elite status to those who earn it”.

Equality of opportunity – a key idea underpinning the introduction of such schools – was not only seen as socially fair: competition between pupils would produce an expanded pool of better-qualified workers to serve the new technological requirements of a changing economy. In this respect, education is seen as the means through which problems of technological change and social inequality could be addressed and managed. A truly meritocratic system would result in a fairer distribution of economic and social rewards, increased social mobility and a decline in social inequality.

Aside from a mixed-attainment intake, whereby pupils in each school would be drawn from a range of family, social and academic backgrounds, a further key idea was the idea of mixed-attainment teaching. Whereas both grammar and secondary modern schools generally operated a process of “streaming by ability”, the idea of a Comprehensive education was to educate children of differed measured attainments in the same classroom. The rationale, for which there is a wide-range of evidence, was that higher-ability pupils being taught with ostensibly lower-ability pupils would help to raise teaching and learning standards. Crehan (2016), for example, found that mixed-attainment groups were “common in high achieving educational systems such as Finland, Japan and Canada”.

Finally, Comprehensives were also seen as a route towards achieving greater social integration – children of different classes, genders and ethnicities educated in the same school and same classroom. 

technological change

For Social Democrats government plays an interventionist role through its ability to rebalance the education system to meet changing economic and social demands. Technological changes since the 2nd World War saw a rapid decline in manufacturing and an equally rapid rise in non-manual service employment; this not only drew more women into the workforce but led to a greater demand for a much more widely-educated, technologically-competent, workforce. A school system that produced a small, highly-educated elite in independent and grammar schools and a poorly-educated mass in secondary modern schools was not, from a social democratic perspective, fit for purpose.

For Labour politicians like Anthony Crosland (who as Education Secretary in 1965 issued Circular 10/65 that instructed all local education authorities to plan for conversion to a Comprehensive system) and Shirley Williams – largely responsible for overseeing the widespread introduction of Comprehensives in the 1970s – education was the means whereby problems of technological change and social inequality could be addressed and managed. A truly meritocratic system would, it was thought, result in a fairer distribution of economic and social rewards, increased social mobility and a decline in social inequality.

Since 1997, successive Labour governments continued to define the role of education in ways that mirrored the concerns of social democrats – reskilling and refocusing the workforce to address both economic and social changes. As Chitty (2009) notes, New Labour (as the Labour Party temporarily rebranded itself under the leadership of first, Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown), saw “education and training as the means by which Britain would be transformed from a low-skill, low-wage economy into a high-skill, high-wage and technologically advanced economy“.

Different types of school developed within the overall Comprehensive system to address economic changes: Specialist schools, for example, focusing on a particular curriculum area, such as modern languages or information technology, were allowed to select some of their intake by “aptitude”, while Foundation schools were allowed to set their own curriculum to meet the particular needs of their pupil intake..

Social inequalities were addressed through concepts of social inclusion and exclusion focused on the education system:

Inclusion involved attempting to improve attainment levels among the lowest achievers, increasing retention rates, preventing and limiting truancy and so forth. The New Start scheme, for example, aimed to target “disaffected or underachieving” 14 -17 year olds by encouraging schools to develop new ways of motivating such pupils and the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), introduced in 2004 for 16 year olds in full-time education, provided payments for students depending on attendance and progress targets being met. This allowance was abolished in 2010 by the Coalition government.

Participation Rates in HE:
18 year olds (2019)

There was also a concerted attempt, particularly by the Blair government (1997-2007), to expand Higher Education and to accept a much higher proportion of the post-school / college population. This involved creating a target of 50% of all 18 year olds entering HE. While the number of 18 year olds entering University, as the following table demonstrates, has significantly expanded, this target wasn’t achieved.

Having said this, where the aim has been expanded to include “all young people going on to higher education…by the age of 30”, this figure currently (2020) stands at 49%.


Social democrats see the role and function of (Comprehensive) education in terms of it being a vehicle through which liberal capitalist societies can reduce wider class inequalities in two main ways:

Firstly, by giving working class children greater opportunities to “compete equally” with their middle-class peers, initially in terms of qualifications and eventually in terms of workplace roles.

Secondly, by “creating more space at the top” through a massive expansion of Higher Education.

in an attempt to tap into a “hidden well” of working-class talent that had been under-utilised in the past. In 1960, for example, around 5% of 18 years attended University, while in 1972, the year Willis’ published his ground-breaking study “Learning to Labour”, the figure was around 15%. Currently, as we’ve seen, the figure is closer to 30% (or higher, depending on how it’s counted).

For both Traditional and Neo-Marxists, in their different ways, this misunderstands institutional relationships in capitalist societies: fundamental economic inequalities are not majorly affected by educational changes. As Bowles and Gintis (2002) argue, the reverse is true: economic inequality drives educational inequality.

While Comprehensive schools were supposed to promote social mixing by ensuring each school drew their intake from different social classes, selection by IQ test has, critics argue, been replaced by an even more unequal process: selection by postcode, whereby middle class children attend middle class schools and working class children attend working class schools. In England, in particular, wealthy parents continue to buy higher status private education, perpetuating the very class divisions Comprehensive education was supposed to remove.

Furthermore, the original intention was for Comprehensive schools to have a mixed-ability intake, taking children from a range of social classes and backgrounds. One way this was to be achieved was through a process of ecological slicing. Rather than simply select pupils from the local area around a school – something that simply perpetuated class-based inequalities – the idea was that a school should select pupils from a range of different areas to ensure a mixed-ability intake from different social classes.

An inner-city school, for example, whose immediate catchment area was working class would also select pupils from suburban, outer-city, areas (slicing) that were much more likely to be middle class. The main problem here – aside from the aversion of middle-class parents to their sons and daughters being educated with “lower ability pupils” – was this meant introducing a system of “bussing”: middle class pupils, in this instance, would have to travel long distances to attend secondary school. While the aim was to populate Comprehensive schools with a mixed-academic intake who would also benefit from mixing with pupils from other social backgrounds and classes – thereby removing the worst aspects of social segregation associated with the tripartite system – bussing was never popular with parents generally and the idea was quietly abandoned in favour of Catchment Area selection. A contemporary variation on this theme, statistical banding, where schools select their intake from a range of “attainment bands” has run into similar resistance from parents.

More-recently, some local councils have experimented with a lottery selection system whereby anyone within a specified area can apply to have their child accepted into a Comprehensive school. The final intake is selected by random allocation (or a lottery if you prefer) in which everyone entered has an equal chance of receiving their chosen school preference, regardless of ability, social background, distance from the school and so forth. The latest available figures, from the Sutton Trust (2014), reported only 42 schools (out of 20,000+) selected their intake in this way.

Neo-Marxists, on the other hand, have argued the focus on the school as a main motor of social change is in error because the ability of teachers to transform the lives of lower-attaining pupils is limited by what such pupils bring into the school. Bourdieu, for example, argues that different levels of cultural capital, combined with differences in economic capital, means that even children taught within the same school start their education from very different points and lower-attainment pupils find it difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the capital disadvantages they experience.

While something like mixed-attainment teaching, among a range of other measures, was designed to limit the effort of cultural inequalities, Taylor (2017) found only a tiny number of schools in England and Wales were using mixed-attainment teaching and concluded:

Schools are rejecting the chance to teach children in “mixed-ability” classes despite evidence that the alternative – pupils being put in ability sets or streams – will have a negative effect on at least some of their charges’ results

As Taylor suggests, even where there is a social mix within a school, selection processes are used to differentiate pupils – replicating, for critics, the tripartite system within a single Comprehensive school. Middle class children, for example, are overwhelmingly found in the higher streams, sets or bands and working-class children in the lower. As Hallam et al (2001) note, while setting has benefits for pupils, such as minimising disruptive behaviour, it also stigmatises lower set pupils as educational failures.

A final criticism of social democratic approaches, therefore, is that their perception of the role and function of schools as not merely agents of learning but also agents of social change is one that

confuses change with equality: the idea changes to education – making schools more meritocratic or compensating working class children for their social disadvantages – would overcome wider social inequalities and economic disadvantages. As Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) argue, despite the massive recent educational changes that have occurred in the UK, changes that have resulted in massively-increased achievement at the lower levels of the education system and a huge expansion in University places, social inequality in the UK is greater now than at any time over the past 50 years.

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