The Education Reform Act (ERA) 1988 celebrates 30th birthday

17 Aug

I        What precisely is ERA?

The Education Reform Act 1988 (ERA) is regarded by many as the most important piece of legislation since the Education Act 1994. The ERA – known as the Butler Act – celebrated 30 years of being on the statute books in July 2018.   It firmly placed education in the marketplace, a process that began in the early 1980s under Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s government. Her Education Secretary at that time was Kenneth (now Lord) Baker.   The Act transferred most powers and responsibilities from local educational authorities (LEAs) to school governing boards at one end of the educational spectrum and to the Secretary of State at the other end.

In its incubation in Parliament, it was known as the GERBIL, the Great Educational Reform Bill.

For the first time, the country had a national curriculum (NC). The NC set out attainment targets, programmes of study and arrangements for assessment. The NC consisted of three core subjects (English, Mathematics and Science) and six foundation subjects (History, Geography, Technology, Art and Physical Education) together with a foreign language.   In Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, schools were also required to teach Welsh.

The National Curriculum Council (NCC) and the School Examination and Assessment Council (SEAC) were established.  Both are now defunct.  Their functions were to review all aspects of the curriculum and examinations and testing.     Four Key Stages in pupils’ education were established, where pupils were tested (in the first three Key Stages) and sat examinations at Key Stage 4 – i.e. GCSEs.

Attached to tests and examinations were league tables introduced by the government.   These made some headteachers and governors spare with worry while others gamed the system.

Religious Education was not a core of foundation subject but continued to be a fundamental teaching requirement in line with Section 25 of the Education Act 1944 – the Butler Act. In faith schools, the RE curriculum followed had to be approved by its parental religious body.  In non-faith schools (the majority), the RE curriculum was the Agreed Syllabus codified by the LEA.  This is the case till today.  Also, all schools had to have a daily act of worship, the majority of which had to be of a Christian character, unless the school obtained a dispensation from the Standard Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE).

The Act required all schools to be open for (at least) 190 days a year and all teachers to have training for an additional five days annually, which came to be known as the “Baker days” – after its creator.

The Act ushered in grant-maintained (GM) schools, the precursors to foundation schools and later – i.e. academies.   GM schools received their funding directly from government with those sums deducted from the budgets of the local authorities in which they were sited.

ERA heralded the end of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), the stamping ground of Ken Livingstone, who had reigned supreme at the Greater London Council (GLC). ILEA was broken up into 13 smaller authorities – the City of London, Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster.

To shake up the school system even more, the government directed that every LEA delegate the bulk of school budgets to schools to manage their own finances. This became known as the local management of schools (LMS).   The governing board now had responsibility for its school expenditure – not the local authority.  The headteacher managed the school budget on a day-to-day basis and was answerable to the board.

Fifteen City Technology Colleges (CTCs) – state-funded, all-ability secondary schools, free to the pupils but independent of local educational authorities – were created.  They were overseen by the Department for Education (DfE). Private business sponsors came up with 20% of the capital costs for establishing a CTC with the rest from the government.   CTCs had to teach the national curriculum but specialised in subjects such as technology, science and mathematics.  They forged close links with business and industry through their sponsors from where they drew directors and governors.

Of the 15, only three remain (the others having converted to academies). The three are

  • the British School for the Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon;
  • Emmanuel College in Gateshead; and
  • Thomas Telford School in Shropshire sponsored by the Mercers Company and Tarmac Holdings Limited.

CTCs spawned University Technology Colleges (UTCs), the brainchild of Lord Baker.   The 50th UTC – North East Futures – opened on 1 September 2018. Two more are waiting approval from Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State.

ERA also ushered in much more parental choice of schools/academies, albeit many barriers remain, not least, a shortage of places in what parents consider to be “good” schools and academies.  Finally, ERA, scrapped academic tenure for university lecturers and professors.

II       Reflections of Lord Kenneth Baker, architect of ERA

Writing in The Times Educational Supplement on 13 July 2018, Lord Baker mentioned that following the 1987 general elections, which the Conservatives won, Prime Minister Thatcher told him to go away for four weeks and return with some clear ideas of how he wished to fashion the education system in the country, given that many schools had been severely shattered by teachers’ industrial action for more pay in the mid-1980s and some local authorities were ruling the roost to the detriment of children’s futures.

Writing in The Times Educational Supplement on Friday, 13 July 2018, Lord Baker said that at that time, he set himself four tasks (additional to settling the 18-month teachers’ strike).

(a)        The first was dissolving the ILEA, which he considered was dominated by “extreme left-wing teachers”.  Allied to this was the creation of grant-maintained schools based on parental ballots.

(b)        Second, he wanted to ensure that every school included computing and digital training in its curriculum.    He thought that this could be spread by establishing City Technologies – “the first independent state schools” – whose education would focus on computing.   While Lord Baker averred that 16 were established, only 15 were.

(c)        Third, he was keen to create a “national curriculum, since good schools had a good curriculum and poor schools had a commensurate curriculum – some even teaching peace studies instead of history”.

Linked to the national curriculum were tests to which pupils were to be subjected at the end of key stages – i.e. aged 7, 11, 14 and at the end of the fourth key stage aged 16, when pupils would sit GCSEs.  “The publication of results would then lead to league tables,” he wrote. “My goal was for parents to know more about the performance of their children’s schools – that was revolutionary in 1988.”   This was at the heart of his policy to place education in the marketplace.

(d)       Finally, he wanted schools to be in charge of their own budgets.  The scheme had been successfully trialled in Cambridgeshire.   He wanted to extend it to the rest of the country’s schools.

While the Labour Party became extremely vocal in negative criticisms of the GERBIL (later the ERA), the fact of the matter was that when it came to power in 1997, Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, and David Blunkett, his Educational Secretary, accepted the changes – almost in their entirety.  They abolished grant-maintained schools but introduced foundation schools – where the governors became the employers of staff, owned the properties on which the schools were sited, framed their own admissions policies and managed the practice.

One part of the policy Lord Baker regrets.  He wrote in the TES: “If I was fashioning a national curriculum today, I would stop it at age 14 and then provide a series of specialist colleges for ages 14-18 covering academic studies, science, engineering, digital, creative industries, health, business studies, logistics, agriculture and hospitality. This is what happens in Austria, which has the lowest number of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) in Europe.

The other “sin of omission” he admitted was not having “improved technical education further, which has always been the Cinderella of our system. I am trying to make up for that with University Technical Colleges”.  Also, he would have liked to have lengthened the teaching day by one period. However, this would have involved lengthy negotiations with the teacher unions at a time when he had just settled the teachers’ strike.  He did not feel at that time it was a battle worth fighting.

III     Reactions of Fred Jarvis, NUT Leader from 1975 – 1989

Unsurprisingly, the former leader of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), who was also given a verbal platform in the TES to vent his fury, savaged the ERA.  He wrote: “When a piece of legislation is described as a ‘Reform Act’, one expects that it will deal either with a long-awaited change of practice, repair a major deficiency in provision or create new practice generally recognised as beneficial. The ‘Baker Act’ satisfied none of those criteria.”

He said that the Act failed to address the low participation of working class children in higher education and was deficient in providing universal nursery education.   He could not understand why Lord Baker rued having failed to recognise that technical and vocational education was as important as the academic, given that 15 CTCs in which technical education featured prominently, were established.

While he wrote that the Act did nothing to put an end to the lack of trust, the government and parents considered that the teachers had behaved (with their strike action closing schools down) in a way that did not merit government’s trust.

Jarvis resented the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s unprecedented entry into the “secret garden of education”.   However, if education was being funded by the tax payer, the government, one can argue, had every right to ensure that schools were producing educational quality for the citizens who were funding it.  Besides, the nation was tiring of striking teachers to the detriment of the children.    Additionally, there were wide disparities in the quality of the education being delivered not just across the country but also within an area and even in a school: hence the announcement in ERA of a national curriculum.

Jarvis was possibly justified in expressing reservations about the Secretary of State taking “more powers under the Bill than any other member of the Cabinet, more than my right honourable friends the chancellor of the exchequer, the secretary of state for defence and the secretary of state for social services”.  The Secretary of State has over 2,000 powers in his control of the education system today. Sir Tim Brighouse, the former Educational Director of Birmingham and the leader of the London Challenge, said in a recent lecture that “the Secretary of State defines in detail what shall be taught, how it should be taught and when it should be taught – something never attempted by Napoleon, Hitler and other continental dictators, and, interestingly, by no other western developed country – at least to the same extent as that enacted in England”.

Jarvis wonders how Lord Baker could establish the national curriculum when, today, free schools and academies are not required toe the national curriculum line.   But was Michael Gove and not Lord Baker who created academies and free schools in 2010.

Jarvis points to Finland as an exemplar of what should have been in the UK.   Finland is one of the countries at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  He quoted Pasi Sahlberg, former Chief Inspector of Finland’s schools, as saying: “We trusted teachers,” when asked for one factor that accounted for the country’s educational success.   However, Jarvis fails to take account of the fact that the culture of Finland is different to that of the UK.  In Finland, education is highly valued by the country’s population more than it is over here – particularly among the white working-class population.

It is best left to Dame Joan McVittie, former Headteacher of Woodside High School in Tottenham (the London Borough of Haringey), to have the final words on the matter of the national curriculum and testing.

She said that when she was a teacher in the 1980s, she thought that “there was greater mobility of families across the country and it made sense to me that all schools would teach the same content to each year group. So pupils arriving, for example, in Cumbria from Essex or other areas were able to quickly settle down with their studies as all schools were supposed to teach the same content.

“Many pupils in weaker schools were allowed to drift until preparation for GCEs and CSEs began. Suddenly we had league tables, which were published publicly, showing pupils’ attainment at the end of Year 9 and Year 11, and the stakes were raised for all schools and teachers.

“There were many other aspects to the 1988 Act, but for those teaching in most schools, the new accountability measures probably had the greatest impact. I believe that they helped to drive school improvement. Prior to the Act, I had worked in a school (not in London) where the technology department spent two years building a boat in the middle of the school quad. While I have no doubt that it was a marvellous experience for the teachers, I wonder how much technology the pupils learned. Lots of practical woodwork for some, but not much else. With the national curriculum and the accountability measures, teachers were held to account for what they taught their pupils.”

Fred Jarvis would be hard pushed to get the support of headteachers, teachers and governors to go back to the halcyon days which are as dead as dodos.


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