Education: Control, Inequality and Innovation

Michel Foucault

1979 is a key date in the development of education in England and Wales because it was in that year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and began a process of modernising conservatism, under both Conservative and Labour governments, that still, nearly 50 years later, exerts a vice-like grip on primary, secondary and, increasingly tertiary (University), education.

This period, for example, has seen the introduction of a wide range of policies that reflect what Foucault (1977) characterised as indicative of how the modern state tries to exert social control through institutions such as education. These include:

  • A National curriculum (1988) that set out the subjects to be taught in all state schools with a special emphasis on English, Maths and Science (a recurrent theme in subsequent reforms).
  • Key Stage testing began in 1991 at ages 7, 11 and 14 and set attainment targets in English and maths for all pupils.
  • Literacy and numeracy hours were introduced into primary schools in 1998.
  • The “English Baccalaureate” (EBacc) was introduced in 2010 to specify the “core subjects” students should study to GCSE – with, again, a particular emphasis on English and Maths.
  • The compulsory teaching of Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) was introduced in 2013.

Alongside these developments we could also cite a wide range of reforms, from the Academisation programme that started under the Blair Labour government and increased rapidly in pace under subsequent Conservative governments to changes in the way students are assessed, such as the removal of a coursework element in GCSE and A-level assessments in favour of written exams.

In other words, the education system in England and Wales has, over the past 50 years, been subjected to increasingly centralised control.

With one key exception.

Public or Independent Schools (i.e. private businesses or charities who charge fees for educating students).

These schools are exempt from the reforms governing State schools and while many may follow some, or all, of the rules and regulations governing schools in the State sector – particularly in relation to things like examinations – the key concept here is choice. Private Schools can pick-and-choose which rules they follow. State schools can’t.

This is something of a roundabout way of introducing the idea that when it comes to education there are – and have been for over 100 years – many different types of “alternative education” in our society. Among the more well-known are schools like Summerhill, founded in 1922 by AS Neill, that has a rich history of “alternative education” and Steiner Waldorf Schools based around the educational philosophies of Rudolf Steiner.

Among the less well-known – but nevertheless instructive – are schools like Burgess Hill who persued what one might charitably term an esoteric system of teaching and learning…

You can add a further dimension to the discussion about the relationship between education, control and economic inequality by introducing the example of Risinghill, one of the first Comprehensive State-maintained schools in England. Although it’s existence pre-dated the educational reforms of the 1980s its experience might well be considered indicative of how challenges to the educational status quo that originate within the State system are handled compared to how challenges that originate in the Private sphere are considered.

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