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Education Policy Debates

How does social class impact in education? How pronounced is the gender inequality between test results for boys and girls? Read more about the key issues and debates and gain a deeper insight into the future of education.


Private schools have always been selective in that they choose their students on the basis of a combination of a student’s ability and their parents’ willingness to pay.

In the state sector, the 1944 Education Act made secondary education available to all. It created a system of secondary education in the UK that was both selective and based on the principle of equality of opportunity. Known as the tripartite system, it involved all students in state schools taking an exam at 11 (the 11 plus) and being placed in one of three types of school according to their result. Those with high scores went to grammar schools, those with the lowest to secondary modern schools and those with some practical aptitudes to technical schools (although few of these ever existed).

In practice the tripartite system reproduced social inequality. Grammar schools were packed with middle class students and secondary moderns with working class. Growing discontent with this situation led the Labour Government of the time to introduce a new type of school which was not selective on the basis of ability. These were comprehensive schools and their numbers grew rapidly after 1965.

However, comprehensive schools have attracted their own criticisms. The use of setting and streaming in comprehensive schools has been criticised by sociologists such as Ball for having a similar effect to the class divide caused by the tripartite system – with middle classes over-represented in the higher sets. Since the 1980s the comprehensive system has come under attack from the New Right for failing to offer genuine choice to parents and using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. As a result new types of secondary school have been introduced such as specialist schools, academies and free schools. These are free from local authority control and some have an element of control over who they admit – with selection possible in some cases.

The principle of a non-selective state secondary system is still in place in the UK but recent Conservative and Coalition policies have chipped away at this, while grammar schools continue to exist in some areas, keeping alive the principle of selection.

Compensatory education and marketisation

Despite many alterations to the education system the link between social class and educational achievement has proved very difficult to address. Many thousands of students from poorer backgrounds continue to underachieve and so fail to realise their potential, thus damaging both their own prospects and the future wellbeing of society.

Over the last 50 years there have been many attempts by various governments to deal with this issue. They are sometimes referred to as compensatory education because they all divert more educational resources to the less privileged in order to ‘compensate’ for their social disadvantage. Compensatory education policies have usually been introduced by Labour governments. In the 1960s Educational Priority Areas were set up; the Labour government 1997-2010 introduced the Sure Start programme aimed at pre-school children and their families, Education Action Zones and the Excellence in Cities programme. They also introduced the original Academies, schools sponsored by individuals, charitable organisations or businesses to replace poorly performing schools in inner cities. The Coalition government of 2010-15 provided extra funding to schools for every pupil receiving free school meals in the form of the ‘Pupil Premium’.

Beyond compulsory education, schemes such as the short-lived Educational Maintenance Allowances attempted to encourage 16-18 year olds to stay in education while Maintenance Grants and other financial support are available to help less affluent students attend university.

Although these compensatory education policies have met with some limited success, inequalities in educational achievement remain stubbornly present. As a result of political pressures, many compensatory education policies have simply not been given enough time to develop. Perhaps Basil Bernstein was right in 1971 when he suggested that ‘education cannot compensate for society’.


State education is funded from public money (taxation) and most schools are run by local councils. Conservative governments influenced by the New Right have taken the view that this can lead to complacency and inefficiency. If schools were more like businesses and had to compete for students in the same way that businesses compete for customers then educational standards would be driven up. Policies that aim to develop competition between educational providers like schools and colleges have become known as the marketisation of education.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 set up key processes in the marketisation of education. Schools were allowed to compete for students with popular schools able to expand and unpopular schools forced to improve or close. In order for parents to make informed choices, league tables of schools’ test scores and exam results were introduced to allow comparisons between schools and a national curriculum introduced so that all pupils would learn the same content.

A key problem of marketisation is the way in which the process benefits the middle classes at the expense of less privileged groups. Research by Ball et al showed how more affluent parents were able to visit different schools, interpret league tables, write letters, impress at interviews and use the system to their advantage. In essence, middle class parents were able to get their sons and daughters into the best schools through the use of their cultural capital. Schools too, found themselves forced to spend significant amounts of their funding on publicity material and marketing, rather than on improving the education of their students.

Despite these criticisms, marketisation has developed further during the period of the Coalition government with the introduction of more choice for parents in the form of free schools (schools that can be set up by individuals or organisations) and the expansion of the academies programme.