Education: 1. Structure and Organisation

The structure of any institution, such as education, refers to the general relationship between its constituent parts – such as, in this instance, teachers and pupils – and how they are organised to achieve certain aims, such as providing children and young adults with some form of socially-approved, sanctioned and certificated form of education.

Old School (circa 1905)

Organisation, therefore, refers to the objectives an institution must fulfil in order to meet its structural aims: it may, for example:

  • develop some way for teachers and pupils to formally interact (such as a classroom – real or virtual).
  • create status hierarchies involving both adults and pupils so that both are externally (from each other) and internally (within particular groups) differentiated. Teachers, for example, are a group externally differentiated from their pupils, while pupils may be internally differentiated on the basis of things like age (different year groups) and measured ability (through techniques like streaming, setting or banding).
  • There are, of course, potentially many different and varied ways to both structure and organise education. The recent (2020) coronavirus pandemic, for example, saw a temporary mass organisational change in UK schooling, away from traditional forms of face-to-face real-world classroom interaction towards virtual forms of interaction such as video-conferencing. This suggests, therefore, that such concepts always reflect ideological beliefs about things like:

  • what education means: is it, for example, the simple memorisation and appropriate regurgitation of “facts” or does it involve a more-holistic approach to both understanding and personal well-being?
  • how it should be organised: in terms of things like schools, age-defined classes, online teaching, off-line teaching, child-centred learning, teacher-led learning.
  • what it is designed to achieve: such as the development of well-rounded individuals and citizens or differentiated individuals designed to meet the needs of business corporations.
  • We can start to understand these questions by looking briefly at the historical development of education in Britain. This will help to establish the relationship between structure, organisation and beliefs that can be used to illustrate and inform our understanding of contemporary educational developments to be considered in more detail later in the chapter.


    Education in Britain has a long history.

    The oldest university, Oxford, was founded around the 12th century, Public schools (originally founded to meet the needs of the poor, but which have evolved into private, fee-paying, institutions designed mainly to meet the educational needs of the wealthy) like Winchester and Eton developed in the 14th and 15th centuries and grammar schools flourished in the 17th century. This early history was shaped by a range of exclusionary beliefs relating to concepts like:

  • social class: education as primarily the reserve of the middle and upper classes.
  • gender: formal education was mainly for boys.
  • ethnicity: Christian religious groups were instrumental in founding schools and colleges.
  • The first concerted attempt by the British government to introduce “education for the masses” began with the Forster Education Act (1870), a development that reflected the need for basic numeracy and literacy in the emerging industrial male workforce, but it wasn’t until the 1944 Education Act that mass education became a reality. This Act established the foundations for our understanding of the structure and organisation of contemporary education by specifying ideas about universal schooling – free, compulsory, education for all – and the structural reform of education around two principles:

    Firstly, different tiers of education for different age groups: primary, secondary and tertiary (post-16).

    Secondly, secondary education was split into three different types of school – a tripartite system with grammar schools providing an academic education; secondary modern schools providing a mix of vocational (work-related) and academic education and secondary technical schools providing a work-related technical / vocational education (although this section was never clearly established). This structure reflected a new set of beliefs based around knowledge as:

  • age-related – primary (5 – 10 year-old) pupils were taught different things to secondary (11+) pupils.
  • cumulative – secondary schooling built on basic ideas learnt in primary schooling.
  • typed – different types of pupil, based on ability, attended different types of school.
  • The tripartite structure reflected the concept of ‘separate abilities’ underpinned, as McCulloch (1988) notes, by notions about intelligence developed by psychologists such as Burt in the 1930s. His work, although dogged by an unresolved controversy over whether he falsified his original research data, developed the idea intelligence was innate, relatively fixed by the age of 10 and could be reliably measured, using an intelligence (IQ) test (the so-called 11+ test still used in some areas of England).

    Comprehensive schooling was a further important structural development. As Bell (2004) notes, the 1944 Act didn’t actually specify a tripartite educational structure and in London, for example, 8 Comprehensive schools were built by 1949, although a Comprehensive structure to replace the tripartite system wasn’t generally established throughout England and Wales until the 1970s (and even then remnants of the grammar – secondary modern school system persisted in some areas of the country. Public schools were similarly exempt from the need to become Comprehensivised and remained as private, fee-paying, institutions).

    The Comprehensive structure was based on the meritocratic belief all children should be given the same opportunities within the education system (although, as we’ve just noted, this “ideal” was somewhat watered-down by the fact private, fee-paying, schools were still allowed to operate, as were around 160 grammar schools).

    Comprehensives broadly rejected the notion of “fixed academic abilities” that could not be substantially changed and substituted the idea of different aptitudes that could be fostered and developed in the education system. The concept of a fixed academic ability had been attacked both methodologically – questioning the assumption “intelligence” can be easily defined and objectively measured – and culturally: grammar schools attracted a much higher proportion of middle class pupils and this did not fit easily with meritocratic ideas.

    Ideas aboutaptitudes reflected changing beliefs about ability and merit in the sense that while children develop different interests and have different talents – for drama rather than mathematics for example – they all need to be given the opportunity to develop these talents into different abilities.


    The 1988 Education Reform Act is a key marker of further educational change – Chitty (2009) argues it “made the decisive break with the principles which had underpinned the education service since the Education Act of 1944” – that introduced a National Curriculum and school Performance Indicators (such as Key Stage testing – children were to be tested at a number of “stages” in their educational career (such as at ages 7 and 11) and their individual performance ranked against “national standards” or achievement targets. While the original intention was to test children in all subjects, this eventually devolved to testing in the “Key Subjects” of English, Maths and Science – once again we can note a strong ideological impetus here for the State to define knowledge that was considered key or important).

    Alongside subsequent educational changes, its impact was mainly organisational: the general structure of a Comprehensive state-maintained education system has remained largely untouched (with certain caveats such as the piecemeal introduction of “Free Schools” exempted, like their Public School counterparts, from following the National Curriculum) into the early 21st century, something we can illustrate in terms of organisational changes to funding and school management.


    For much of the post-war period most state-maintained schools were funded through Local Education Authorities (LEA’s), with central government making a contribution to capital costs (such as buildings) and running costs (such as teacher salaries) to even-out regional funding discrepancies. This organisational structure gave Local Government a significant level of power and control over schools and, by extension, the development of the education system as a whole.

    Since 1988 this situation gradually changed, for a range of ideological reasons involving concepts like marketisation and parentocratic educational policies (the original justification, for example, for the subsequent introduction of both Academies by a Labour government in 2002 and, more-specifically, Free Schools under the Conservative – Liberal Coalition government in the 2010’s). Successive governments have developed an increasingly centralised funding process that has marginalised LEAs by devolving power over school budgets to individual schools (Headteachers, governing bodies and, increasingly, Educational Trusts that are private, non-profit, institutions).

    School management

    Significant organisational changes have occurred at the level of individual schools, facilitated by the funding changes we’ve just noted and justified by the notion of institutional freedom – “freeing” schools from the “bureaucracy” of Local Government control. Boyd (1991) argues changes to school management – giving more power to Headteachers and taking power away from local politicians – were heavily influenced by New Right thinking in terms of ideas like deregulation.

    The relationship between local authorities and schools was changed by the Local Management of Schools (LMS) initiative that initially gave Headteachers and governing bodies direct control over how they spent their school budget. The role of LEAs was de-emphasised in the sense they became a supplier of goods and services rather than controllers of school policy. The 1988 Act also paved the way for greater organisational decentralisation by establishing grant-maintained schools, directly funded by government – although very few schools actually took-on this new status. However, these changes were part a long-term process of disestablishment – the uncoupling of school management from local government control as part of a “choice agenda” that aimed to empower school management and increase parental choice.

    West London Free School:
    a “state-funded independent school”
    (Latin not optional)

    City Technology Colleges for example – new schools specialising in the application of Information Technology – represented an initial step towards allowing private business, charity and community group involvement in the ownership and control of schools; free schools are the latest organisational development of this general policy. Anyone – subject to the approval of the Education Secretary – can apply to set-up and run their own taxpayer funded, non-selective school that must not be run for profit. Free schools are exempt from some of the statutory responsibilities of other schools – they do not, for example, have to employ qualified teachers or, as we’ve noted, follow to the National Curriculum (although it should be noted that almost all do).

    The general ideological thrust of organisational changes over the past 25 years, therefore, has been towards a diminution of the role of the state, with greater private industry involvement in the funding, owning and running of schools. The apotheosis of this trend in the early 21st century has been the Academisation programme that began in 2002 under the Blair Labour government and which has been substantially expanded over the past few years under successive Coalition and Conservative governments.

    Academisation, in this respect refers to the process whereby responsibility for the funding, operation and oversight of primary and secondary education has been progressively removed from Local Education Authorities (LEA’s) run by democratically-elected local councils and placed in the hands of (charitable) Academy Trusts.

    Although Trusts were originally responsible for single schools, a gradual process of conglomeration has resulted in the development of Multi-Academy Trusts that are responsible for groups of primary and / or secondary schools in a region. Although the process of academisation has slowed in recent years, Department for Education (2022) figures show that Academy and Free Schools in England now constitute:

    • 77% of secondary schools (roughly 2.75 million pupils).
    • 35% of primary schools (roughly 1.5 million pupils).

    Next: Education 2: Schools, Marketisation and Parentocracy

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