Examining equality in Education.

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Created by Michael Kell

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A major issue within the sociology of education is that of equality, particularly why working class families generally attain less educationally than their middle class peers.  The British government has been trying to make the education system of this country a meritocracy since around the start of industrialisation.  However, research shows that each new policy introduced has failed families of the lower classes in some way.  My aim in this essay is to discuss what extent the education system of this country is a meritocracy.  The way I have decided to structure this essay is firstly to look at the history of education in Britain, then to examine attempts to make educational attainment equally achievable for each and every individual, regardless of gender, race or class.  I will then look at some of the problems faced by families of the lower classes and also give some possible reasons for the failure of each new policy and finally to conclude with some criticisms aimed at the education system as a whole.

In 1870, the Forster Education Act made the state responsible for elementary education and in 1880 schooling became compulsory for all children up to the age of 10.  Prior to this, the only type of education available was private and so came at a cost.  This was usually only affordable by the upper and middle classes.  There were many factors contributing to the introduction of compulsory education, one of which being with industrialisation sweeping through Britain at this time, more and more parents were finding themselves in paid employment in factories and workshops away from the home.  This meant that safe, suitable establishments were necessary to care for the children of working class families.  Other factors included the development of our armies and providing educated young men to defend our country as well as developing a skilled workforce for the new industrialised Britain that was emerging, and developing educated young women to make better wives and mothers, to name but a few.  In 1893, the school leaving age was raised to 11 and again in 1899 it was raised to 12.  By the end of the Second World War, the school leaving age had been raised to 14 and following the introduction of the Butler Act (1944), the school leaving age was raised to 15 in 1947.  The Butler Act aimed to introduce secondary education for all and abolish class inequalities within the education system.  Until now, not only had the girls been taught separately from boys but they were also taught a different curriculum.  The Butler Act aimed to ensure all children received adequate education, regardless of gender or class and a ‘tripartite system’ was set up, so called because of its three stages of education.  By the 1950’s, it was widely accepted that the tripartite system had failed in its aims and what followed was the 1965 Comprehensive Debate.  The Labour government, elected in 1964, issued ‘Circular 10.65’ inviting those local authorities who had not already done so, to draw up schemes for a comprehensive system of schooling.  In 1972, the school leaving age was raised to 16, forcing all pupils to take exams and by the end of 1978, over 80% of state secondary education was organised alongside comprehensive lines.  ie.  a system of schooling open to all children of the right age and within a particular catchment area, regardless of ability, gender, class or race.  Throughout the 1980’s, the policies of the Conservative government were characterised with emphasis on preparing young people for work and Youth Training Schemes (or YTS) were introduced for those between the ages of 16 and 19 who wanted to leave full time education.  Also, the ‘assisted places scheme’ was introduced which gave children of working class families an opportunity to attend public schools, for free, if they passed the entry examinations.  The next and final major change in the education system of this country so far, and regarded as the most important piece of legislation since the Butler Act of 1944, was the 1988 Education Reform Act.  This saw the expansion of the assisted places scheme and parents were now given a choice of school so long as the chosen school wasn’t physically full.  Schools now have the incentive to compete for pupils as unpopular schools will decline and eventually close.  

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As we have seen, the first attempt at making education in this country available to all children was a very important Act of Parliament, in 1870.  At the time, W.E. Forster was vice president for the Department of Education and this act was the start of the modern education system we have today.  This act was made to enable people to provide schools where the National Society had not been able.  ‘School Boards’ were set up to take over some National Schools, which didn’t have enough money to keep going.  The School Boards were committees of people elected by ...

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