The British education system has gone through vast changes within my lifetime, from the introduction of smartboards under the Blair government, to attempts by the Coalition Government to increase the value of GCSE qualifications through the English Baccalaureate. However the recent U-turns in education reform by the Cameron and May governments suggests that something clearly is not right. Forced academisation and grammar schools are not a way to increase social mobility, and we need a practical and pragmatic solution where all children have access to outstanding education.
Labour’s landslide success in the 1997 General Election gave the first Tony Blair Government a huge mandate to enact a sweeping wave of “Education, Education, and Education” reforms from the heart of their manifesto, following a promise to put classrooms at the top of the political agenda. Between 1997 and 2007, there was a rise in funding of 48% per child, and an average spending of £1.2bn on education every week. Technological developments during this period played an essential role in transforming the learning environment, as increased popularity of a 24-hour Internet revolutionised the way information could be accessed. These advances in technology allowed teachers to diversify learning through the use of smartboards and widespread use of computers, which was particularly useful for children who struggled with concentration and had learning disabilities. Education reforms under New Labour were inclusive and aimed to develop a ‘life-long interest in learning’ and included programmes such as SEAL to encourage development of a wide range of behavioural, emotional and social skills. Yet even with the vast range of reforms and increased participation in higher education (16-18), it could be suggested that with the introduction of tuition fees, Labour has ultimately failed young people.
However the coalition government education reforms, implemented by Michael Gove, hit the worst off the hardest as funding per child dropped by 26%, stretching state schools to their limits. Even though there was a focus on achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs (including English and Maths), which could be argued as a good thing for students that are more academically inclined, students who could not apply themselves in academic environment struggled to achieve the standard. The coalition government aimed to make ‘GCSEs and A levels more rigorous’ to ‘prepare students properly for life after school’, but with a lack of funding and resources for teachers questions are raised over how we can prepare our children for life after education. Between 2010 and 2013, there were £6.9 billion worth of cuts to the education systems, which saved an estimated £13.3 billion. As education is a right and not a privilege, children deserve the highest quality of education regardless of background, something the coalition government only made increasingly difficult. With no more GCSE modules, students are now forced to take their exams at the end of one year and fewer vocational courses were offered, leading to higher stress levels and increased failure, and between 2010-2015 66% of young people failed to achieve a D grade in GCSE Mathematics, showing that the reforms put young people at breaking point.
We need to think critically about education reforms. Theresa May’s plan to introduce more grammar schools to ‘increase social mobility’ has caused uproar not only from backbench Tory MPs but also the public. If we were to reform education to increase social mobility, another way to do this would be through the removal of tuition fees and investment in universal education, as well as investing in apprenticeships and vocational skills. While the government has made several attempts to centralise education, what is clear from this is that the government is not thinking about the individuals who will need more funding and who struggle to follow traditional academic teaching. With the closing of several units for children with learning disabilities, we are forced to question if the centralisation of schools is an attempt to ‘drive up standards’ or to save money.