The following sample essay on “British Education Policy” highlights the up-to-date issues and questions of British Education Policy. This sample provides just some ideas on how this topic can be analyzed and discussed.
British society is one of the most stratified in terms of social class. In contrast to the United States, where politicians at least pay lip-serve to the notion of a class-less society, class divisions are woven into the fabric of the nation’s social, political and economic institutions.
Barring occasional rhetoric from Labour benches, Realpolitik considerations often stifle any attempts toward diminishing class privilege. This is as true with respect to our education system as it is in other opportunities for social mobility.
A survey of government education policies of the last century indicates two persistent tendencies in the system. Firstly, the divisions between the ruling and working classes are maintained through entry restrictions to quality higher education. Secondly, the content of the syllabus and curricula relegates class discourse to the margins of academic thought.
(Ball, 2003, p.147) For example,
“Although education has often been portrayed in terms of its positive and liberatory potential, not least within more recent widening participation and lifelong learning rhetoric, there is also a long history of sociological theorization that has been critical of the ways in which education reproduces and reinforces class inequalities. It can be argued that higher education has a particular potential for reinforcing inequalities because, by definition, it is not open to all and is non-compulsory.” (Archer, et. Al, 2003, p.
A brief survey of published literature on the subject shows its deep-rooted class bias. Author Peter Wilby neatly sums up the situation when he says that the 20th century education system was tribalistic. Other scholars have made similar claims about the English education system: “R.H. Tawney called it ‘the hereditary curse upon English education’, Anthony Crosland ‘the strongest remaining bastion of class privilege’, Neil Kinnock ‘the very cement in the wall that divides British society’.” (Wilby, 1997, p.139) A reflection of the biased education policies of the last century is discerned from the role played by Britain’s public schools. For example,
“Over forty years after the legislation that opened secondary education to all, the public schools account for seven out of nine of the army’s top generals, twothirds of the external directors of the Bank of England, thirty-three of the thirty-nine top English judges, all the ambassadors in the fifteen most important overseas missions, seventy-eight of the Queen’s eighty-four lord lieutenants and the majority of the bishops in the Church of England. Even the bold, thrusting entrepreneurs who have become such folk heroes have failed to cast aside old money: of the two hundred richest people in Britain, thirty-five were educated at a single school, Eton. Reports of the death of the class system have been greatly exaggerated.” (Jeremy Paxman, as quoted in Wilby, 1997, p.139)
Depressing as the above set of statistics are, there is room for optimism. It is a sign of progress, though, that the precentage of Tory Mps who came from Eton reduced to 11 percent in 1990, from 25 percent in 1945. similarly, by 1990, the proportion of senior civil servants who had been privately educated had halved from what the figure was in 1960. These statistics show that coming from an aristocratic background and studying in an old school is no longer the only route to high office in the country. (Archer, et. Al, 2003, p.1)
Moreover, today there are a greater array of jobs on offer than these traditional ones. Britain’s gradual shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy and its participation in the neo-liberal globalization process, has meant that new opportunities are created for the working classes. While maintaining status quo is in the interest of the ruling class, members of which also dominate policy circles, emerging economic forces are redrawing education policy framework. In order to compete in the globalized economy, the UK needs to step up its efforts to increase and diversify student intakes for higher education programs.
The UK government has already set its goals to widen access to higher education to 50 percent of 18-30 year-olds by the end of this year. But in order to achieve this goal students from minority groups (who are largely working class) will also have to be enrolled. (Ball, 2003, p.147) Today, while quality higher education is within the reach of middle classes, the same cannot be said of the working class groups. Hence in order for the government to meet its education goals, it has to include more students from working class families into higher education programs. While higher education used to be non-compulsory in previous eras, in the new knowledge economy, it has become mandatory.
Some education policy initiatives under the leadership of Tony Blair has been constructive, there are also worrying trends. What is worrying is that class inequalities in the UK have risen during the last fifty years. The way our education system is set up had a part to play. As the old adage goes, money be-gets money. And those born into economically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to get an impoverished education, which would determine their career paths and monetary success. And the education system in the UK has been an accomplice in this vicious cycle of class privilege, which plays itself out over and again.
“The findings come in a series of studies, for a charity called the Sutton Trust, by Jo Blanden of the London School of Economics, Stephen Machin of University College London and Paul Gregg of Bristol University. They found that, on average, a boy born to a well-to-do family in 1958 earned 17.5 per cent more than a boy born to a family on half the income of the rich boy’s parents. If the equivalent Mr and Mrs Moneybags produced a son in 1970, he would grow up to earn 25 per cent more than his contemporary from the wrong side of the tracks. In other words, far from decreasing, class advantage grew as the 20th century progressed.” (Cohen, 2005, p.31)
The late 1970s and early 1980s were an important period in this respect. It was during this time that Britain joined other major economies and kick-started the process of financial globalization. The internal dynamics of the British economy underwent a key change during this period, as London assumed its new role as a key European financial hub. While the GDP figures got bolstered and the per-capita incomes of the population rose consequently, the distribution of wealth was highly skewered. Some aspects of this metamorphosing was documented by famous novelist Martin Amis in his novel Money. (Archer, et. Al, 2003, p.1)
Far from being a society that merits talent, the UK turned into an ever more polarized society. And the education system as well as education policies of both the Tories and the Labour parties during this time have only strengthened ruling class privilege. For example, whichever method statisticians employ to measure class, they inevitably come to the conclusion that the substantial university expansion since the 1980s has benefited the ruling class more than the working class. The gap between “the higher-education participation rates of the working and middle classes is now wider than ever. All the effort that new Labour has put into increasing the chances of the poor–all the Sure Start schemes and all Gordon Brown’s measures to redistribute wealth–have merely slowed the march of inequality.” (Cohen, 2005, p.31)
The abolishing of grammar schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s was seen as exacerbating inequalities in opportunity for education as well as social mobility. Although there is some rationale behind this move, its results have been very disappointing. One could only conclude that Conservatives’ accusation that grammar schools helped in ‘entrenching privilege’ is quite ludicrous, for the opposite is the truth. Moreover, various governments in the past have tried to coerce universities into perpetrating inequality of opportunity. Comprehensive schools too have failed to deliver on the promise. (Suarez-Orozco, 2004, p.125) For example, after the abolition of grammar schools, comprehensive schools were touted by both the Tories and the Labour M.P.s with the belief that under a veneer of equality, it would actually strengthen class privilege.
“If you combine a comprehensive state system with a selective private system–as Britain and America do–you have the rich parents’ dream. If their children are bright, they go to a good private school. Competition for places is fierce, but limited by the parents’ ability to pay. If their children are clots, their wealth can still be decisive because they can afford to move into the catchment areas of the best comprehensives. Either way, money talks, and poor but talented children are confined to the worst schools. (Cohen, 2005, p.31)
When Tony Blair ran for Prime-Minister’s office in 1997, it was under a campaign that trumpeted the need and promise of education for all demographic groups. The common buzz phrases at the time were ‘Investment in learning’, ‘standards not structures’, ‘excellence at the top’, etc. While in nominal terms some of this promise has been kept, in real terms class privilege has continued to increase. His successor Gordon Brown made no significant changes to the policy framework and so too David Cameron. It seems that class privilege in Britain is to continue unchallenged for the foreseeable future at least. (Suarez-Orozco, 2004, p.125)