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Education Policies in the Brown Years (1997-2010) : Objectives and Outcomes

Anne Beauvallet
p. 137-151


Although Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007 only, he played a key role in New Labour education policies from the start with his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Prime Minister he brought little change, with the exception of testing for 14-year-olds which was phased out in 2009. Several key issues are analysed here, such as standards, private sector intervention, social mobility with an emphasis on access to higher education, basic skills of school-leavers, apprenticeships and vocational diplomas. Progress is undeniable regarding apprenticeship schemes and standards although the latter are still contentious, as are the basic skills of school leavers and diplomas. Further research  is needed on private sector intervention and it seems New Labour efforts on social mobility have so far had limited effects.

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1In June 2007, when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, he immediately quoted his school motto (“I will do my utmost”), thereby showing his commitment to education. This was one of the key policies of New Labour governments and can be more systematically analysed as the Brown years are now over. We will thus explore education policies in England from 1997 to 2010, laying the emphasis on Gordon Brown’s role in his successive positions. His commitment to education was apparent in setting funding levels as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but also in March 2007, when he announced the school leaving age would be raised, and as Prime Minister, with the decision to split the Department for Education and Skills in June 2007. We will first focus on New Labour’s education policy from 1997 to 2010, particularly on the continuity in its tenets and on government funding. We will then analyse specific elements such as standards, the intervention of the private sector, social mobility and efforts to improve the employability of English youths.

New Labour’s Education Policies from 1997 to 2010

2Everyone will remember the famous New Labour slogan “Education, education, education.” When he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown carried this commitment further, by splitting the education department. The remit of the Department for Children, Schools and Families was broadened beyond its traditional role but such institutional reform attained its limits in June 2009, when the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was merged into a bigger department under Lord Mandelson who became Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

  • 1  Curtis, P., 2008.

3From 2007 on, education policies were characterised by continuity with New Labour tenets, particularly on issues like parental choice in an education market. This also implied diversification in education providers with the creation of new schools (e.g. specialist schools, Academies) and the growing intervention of the private sector. Also central in Labour education policies, from 1997 to 2010, were interventionism in the name of excellence and focusing on the rights and responsibilities of education protagonists such as teachers, parents and graduates. Testing was one of the cornerstones of reforms implemented since the 1980s but one significant change occurred in 2008. After Educational Testing Service Europe in charge of test marking caused a “fiasco”, Children’s Secretary Ed Balls announced the end of testing at 14. The Guardian described such a decision as “historic”1,but its impact must not be overstated as the government rejected calls for a global assessment of testing in education and the very idea of dropping tests altogether.

Education Funding

  • 2  Elliott, L., 2001.
  • 3  The Guardian, 2006.
  • 4  BBC News Online, 2009 (b).

4Before dealing with some New Labour policies in greater detail, we wish to turn to their sinews, that is funding. Although the 1997 manifesto promised to “increase the share of national income spent on education,” prudence was rather the norm in the early years as spending remained within the limits set by the Conservatives in the last years before 19972. From 2001 on however, education budgets rose markedly with their proportion of GDP going from 4.9% in 1997/98 to 5.5% in 2003/043 and 5.9% in 2006, slightly below the OECD average4.

  • 5  Curtis, P., 2009 (g); Curtis, P., 2009 (f).

5Because of the current recession, such a trend could not go on unchecked. In September 2009, Gordon Brown pledged education spending would not be cut until 2011, but Children’s Secretary Ed Balls announced that efficiency savings worth £2 billion should be defined by then5.


6One of the key policies was the constant focus on standards with test and exam results as expressed in league tables. Ofsted is also part and parcel of such a policy with its assessment of teaching standards. The Standards Task Force and Standards and Effectiveness Unit were set up in 1997 and a website wholly dedicated to standards shows how central this issue has remained6. This has meant an avalanche of targets and some more were in fact added to the Public Service Agreements (PSAs) released in October 2007, for example “narrow[ing] the gap in educational achievement between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers” by 20117.

Private Sector Intervention

  • 8  Plomin, J., 2001.
  • 9  Webster, P., 2007.
  • 10  Wintour, P., 2008.

7At first, New Labour was rhetorically cautious regarding the intervention of the private sector in education, but in June 2001 Education Secretary Estelle Morris asserted there were “‘no ideological bars’ to any solutions that could help schools.”8 Such a stance was reiterated by Gordon Brown in December 2007: “The role of the private sector in this area is expanding and [...] will be a lot bigger in the next few years than it is now.”9 In September 2008, Children’s Secretary Ed Balls urged community groups to create co-operative schools10.

  • 11  Curtis, P., 2009 (e).

8We will however deal only with private companies in education as the voluntary sector is not yet a key player in this field. Private firms manage Local Authorities and schools which were considered to be failing. Their investment into schools created under New Labour governments has also given them some say in managing academies, specialist and trust schools, as they are free from Local Authority control. Special offers were advertised to attract private sponsors, like in September 2009, when it was decided they would no longer have to pay £2 million in advance, but rather establish their will and capacity to manage an Academy11.

  • 12  Revill, J., 2008.

9Private companies have also been in charge of educational services like marking Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) and exams. Some have been given the right to award higher education degrees like BPP College in September 2007, or to offer work experience which could be part of A-levels or vocational diplomas12. Private firms have also been active in the development of vocational diplomas. Finally, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) which was inaugurated in the early 1990s experienced dramatic growth with New Labour which based its school-building programme (Building Schools for the Future) largely on PFI.

Social Mobility

  • 13  Ward, L., White, M., 2000.
  • 14  Mulholland, H., 2010.

10Equality of opportunity also featured in the 1997 White Paper Excellence in Schools saying: “Policies will be designed to benefit the many, not just the few.” However, little was achieved or even promised in this respect in the early years, even if Gordon Brown, in 2000, used the rejection of Laura Spence’s application by Oxford to claim bright state school pupils were shut out from the top universities13. The 2001 Labour manifesto stated that “our ten-year goal is 50 per cent of young adults entering higher education.” Once in office, Gordon Brown seemed to focus on this issue with the publication, in January 2009, of a social mobility White Paper entitled New Opportunities. The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions issued its report in July 2009, Unleashing Aspiration, and the government presented new measures14.

  • 15  The Guardian, 2004.
  • 16  MacLeod, D., 2008; Lipsett, A., 2008 (b).

11Generous as such steps may seem, they hardly constitute a comprehensive strategy to make British society more meritocratic as New Labour’s approach seems rather based on specific targets. We have chosen two elements to illustrate our point: the proportion of university students from poor backgrounds and access to higher education with the 50% target set in 2001. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was established under the 2004 Higher Education Act to counteract the introduction of variable fees. It collaborates with universities, setting access agreements including bursary schemes. From the start, its director, Martin Harris, rejected “quotas,” forcing universities to accept more poor students15. Gordon Brown did not fundamentally change such a pattern. In April 2008, Universities Secretary John Denham declared more “transparent” admissions were required, but in September the same year, he denied that the government would “start meddling” with the way universities selected their students16.

Efforts to Improve the Employability of English Youths

  • 17  DfES, 2003, p. 11.
  • 18  DCSF, 2008, p. 6.

12It took some time for the issue of youngsters’ employability to emerge as a consistent policy for New Labour governments. There were initiatives and the 2003 White Paper 21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential Individuals, Employers, Nation was released as a “Skills Strategy”17. Only did the 2008 document Delivering 14 to 19 Reforms: Next Steps offer an insight into the government’s approach, signalling “four routes” leading to qualifications: Apprenticeships, Foundation Learning Tier, General Qualifications (General Certificates of Secondary Education – GCSEs - and A-levels), and Diplomas18. We will focus on three items of the government’s strategy to improve the employability of English youngsters, i.e. the emphasis on basic skills (announced in the 2005 White Paper 14 to 19 Education and Skills), apprenticeships and the introduction of vocational diplomas.

  • 19  Lipsett, A., 2009.
  • 20  Curtis,  P., 2009 (b).

13By basic skills, we mean literacy and numeracy which were also a key goal of Conservative governments in the 1990s. New Labour initiated the National Literacy Strategy in September 1998, and the National Numeracy Strategy in September 1999, and they were followed by the Primary and Secondary National Strategies. Gordon Brown did not really alter such policies, except in two instances. After the Tomlinson report, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly vowed, in 2005, that no one could get GCSEs without mastering basic literacy and numeracy. However, the promised test in functional skills was made optional in April 200919. In June the same year, Ed Balls announced that the government would no longer issue centralised strategies in literacy and numeracy, but that schools would be free to choose the latter among various providers20 to keep fostering “excellence”.

  • 21  Kingston, P., 2009.
  • 22  BBC News Online, 2010 (b).

14Apprenticeship is one of the potential “routes” for those staying on and New Labour from the start expanded to 82,000 the number of places for Modern Apprenticeships (introduced in 1994). This was raised further to reach 250,000 in 2007. In 2009 the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act defined apprenticeships. According to Lorna Unwin, professor of vocational education at London University, “It is significant that apprenticeships have been put on a statutory basis. We haven't had this in this country since 1815”21. Those measures also signalled the growing intervention of the public sector as a provider of apprenticeships22.

15Vocational diplomas were also developed as one of the “four routes” defined by the 2008 document Delivering 14 to 19 Reforms: Next Steps. The objective was to offer skills in a particular field with work experience, maths and English lessons. They officially started in September 2008 and more fields were available in September 2009.

New Labour’s Education Policy Record: Standards

  • 23  Docking, J., 2000, p. 54-5.
  • 24  Docking, J., 2000, p. 51.

16After considering several education policies from 1997 to 2010, we will analyse New Labour’s record on those issues and begin with standards. The first question to ask in this respect is the reliability of league tables as such. Indeed, as Derek Shaw argued in 2000, the use of test and exam results provides a narrow picture of a school’s achievement and the “contextual value added” framework has proved limited23. Figures themselves may not convey the actual results as a report published by the Statistics Commission in February 2005 showed: “the improvement in KS2 test scores between 1995 and 2000 substantially overstates the improvement in standards in English primary schools over that period.” Targets also play a major role in the presentation of the system and its perception by the public. Hitting targets can prove difficult as they may change one way or the other like in 1999 when “the qualifying mark for Level 4 in the Key Stage 2 English test had been secretly lowered”24.

17We are now going to consider the overall evolution of standards in primary and secondary schools through two main items: the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching Level 4 at the end of Key Stage 2 (Year 6) in English and maths and that of students getting five grades A* to C at GCSEs. There has been an improvement in the number of 11-year-olds reaching Level 4 in English from 63% in 1997 to 81% in 200825. There has been also progress in maths as 62% reached Level 4 in 1997 and 78% did so in 2008. A 1999 target was that 50% of 16-year-olds would obtain 5 GCSEs at grade C or better. It was the case for 45% in 1997 and this rose to 62.4% in 2005. This large rise was overshadowed by the percentage achieving 5 or more grades A* to C at GCSEs including English and mathematics, a statistic which was first given in 2003-4. In 2005, 44% did so and this figure increased to reach 50.7% in 200926.

  • 27  BBC News Online, 2007 (a).

18The continuing increase in exam results contributed to a confidence crisis in standards which was borne out by the creation, in September 2007, of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), a watchdog independent from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Ed Balls thus justified the move: “I want parents, universities, employers and young people themselves to be confident that exam standards are being maintained”27. However, questions might be raised about Ofqual’s independence as its first head was appointed by Children's Secretary Ed Balls before Members of Parliament had the opportunity to interview Kathleen Tattersall.

  • 28  BBC News Online, 2007 (c).
  • 29  Curtis, P., 2009 (a).

19In 2007, criticism was voiced on standards in science28. In March 2009, Ofqual corroborated these fears regarding GCSEs29. The main problem about test and exam results in England today is that it has become a national obsession. The constant rise in exam results has seemed too good to be true and any fall, however limited, is bound to hit the headlines. Considering how essential league tables have been to education policies since the 1980s, restoring trust in standards could prove extremely difficult. It may even be argued that mistrust has been part and parcel of these reforms as league tables were designed to monitor and improve an inefficient education system.

Private Sector Intervention

  • 30  Evanno, J.-N., 2005, pp. 92-3.
  • 31  Ofsted, 2005, p.25.

20Private sector intervention has also been considered as a solution and in 2004, Jean-Noël Evanno delivered a mixed verdict on this process30. No comprehensive study on the impact of private firms on the English education system has been published since then, except on PFI. Private sector involvement is briefly referred to by Ofsted in Specialist Schools: A Second Evaluation released in 2005, only to mention that such schools find it difficult to establish lasting links with companies31.

  • 32  Hencke, D., 2009.

21More studies are available on PFI. Reservations were expressed by the Audit Commission in 2003 and by the National Audit Office in 2008 on building quality and maintenance costs. In March 2009 the government announced that £2 billion would be lent to PFI companies in order to preserve school and environmental projects during the recession32. The Building Schools for the Future programme, based on PFI, was behind schedule at the time of the 2010 elections. Thorough assessment of private sector intervention in education is clearly necessary.

Social Mobility

  • 33  For example Blanden, J., Gregg, P., Machin, S., 2005, pp. 13-4.
  • 34  Watt, N., 2008.
  • 35  McFadden, P., 2010.

22Several surveys have argued that social mobility between the 1970s and the late 1990s declined33. A study published by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2008 acknowledged this but insisted social mobility had improved since 200034. However, in January 2010, the government admitted, in the words of Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills Pat McFadden, that “the glass ceiling for social mobility ha[d] been raised but not broken”35.

23Performance Indicators with tables showing “Widening participation of under-represented groups” have recorded only a slight increase from 28.6% of full-time undergraduates in 2002-3 from National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification classes 4, 5, 6 and 7 to 30% in 2007-8. Figures for the two most prestigious universities are much starker with 10.5% and 11% of full-time undergraduates from NS-SEC classes 4, 5, 6 and 7 in 2007-8 at respectively Oxford and Cambridge.

  • 36  Frean, A., 2008.

24Universities have been highly reluctant to accept guidance from the government on their admission policies. In 2008, Cambridge University Vice-chancellor Alison Richard argued that “our purpose is not to be construed as that of handmaidens of industry, implementers of the skills agenda, or indeed engines for promoting social justice”36. The role of the Office for Fair Access has been far from interventionist and the whole series of review and appeal procedures available before going to court has not yet been used.

25Finally, figures on participation in higher education show undeniable progress as 45% of the British aged 17 to 30 now go to university compared to 39% in 1999-200037. Yet, in spite of assurances by the government that the 50% target had not been dropped, Universities Secretary Lord Mandelson was more vocal on another target, that is the number of youths staying on in education, training or apprenticeships (75%)38.

Efforts to Improve the Employability of English Youths

  • 39  Layard, R., McIntosh, S., Vignoles, A., 2002.
  • 40  Curtis, P., 2009 (g).
  • 41  Ofsted, 2010, p. 5.

26The last key New Labour policy we will deal with here lies in the efforts to improve the employability of English youths, first through basic skills. We wish here to refer to the perspective offered by inspectors, academic research and employers. Compared to some studies, funded or commissioned by the government39, the Cambridge Primary Review published in 2009 was more critical40. Regarding basic skills, it claimed they have become too central at the expense of a more balanced curriculum. Criticism was also levelled at New Labour’s strategy on basic skills from Ofsted. In February 2010, a report praised the rise in standards in literacy and numeracy but pointed out that this rise had been limited in the poorest performing schools and more generally because of initiative “overload”41.

  • 42  Finch, J., 2010.
  • 43  Odoi, A., 2007; Lipsett, A., 2008 (a).
  • 44  Ford, L., 2007; Asthana, A., 2008.

27The most damning perspective on the basic skills of pupils and school leavers has come from employers and their representatives. Not a year has gone by without scathing comments on their parts, either through a famous businessman42 or the regular surveys carried out by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)43. Their message is nearly always similar: school-leavers have poor literacy and numeracy skills. In 2007 and 2008, the Association of Graduate Recruiters biannual survey suggested 50% of employers worried about applicants’ numeracy and literacy levels44.

  • 45  Smith, A., 2006; The Guardian, 2009 (b).
  • 46  BBC News Online, 2007 (b).
  • 47  BBC News Online, 2009 (a).

28As we have seen earlier, the number of places for apprentices has been raised since 1997 but this “route” towards a qualified position has been beset with a number of difficulties. Completion rates were fairly low (50% in 2006) and they have slowly improved (70% in 2009)45. Some schemes are so competitive many applicants are turned down, as in the case of British Gas and British Telecom46. In May 2009, the government admitted most apprentices in the public sector were already employed there, which shows that this measure has not benefitted those who had been targeted47.

  • 48  The Guardian, 2009 (b).
  • 49  The Guardian, 2009 (a).
  • 50  Ainley, P., 2010.

29Employers have generally backed apprenticeship policies. Richard Wainer, Head of Education and Skills at the CBI, declared he was “very supportive”48. Such support is not disinterested as “research shows that employers who hire apprentices […] can recoup their investment in as little as 18 months”49. But some academics have argued that this rise in the number of schemes is ill-advised: “Further Education will deliver the apprenticeships all politicians promise, even though most private employers have no need for them, and so they will cater mainly for the pared-down public sector”50.

  • 51  Curtis, P., 2009 (i).
  • 52  Curtis, P., 2009 (d).
  • 53  Curtis, P., 2009 (c); BBC News Online, 2010 (a).

30The last “route” we will consider as part of the Labour government policy to improve the employability of school-leavers is the establishment of diplomas in 2008. Take-up was low with 12,000 in 2008 and 36,000 in 2009. Employers have taken part in designing vocational diplomas and they are broadly supportive of this move, but director-general of the CBI Richard Lambert called the programme “very, very complicated”51. Teachers and lecturers believe diplomas offer low standards, particularly if students wish to enter university. Out of 19 higher education institutions surveyed in 2009 by Exeter university, 17 insisted that applicants would also need at least one A-level52. Provisional Ofsted inspections and Ofqual assessment criticised teaching standards and low expectations53. The “finessing” diplomas need, according to Ofqual, may not even take place as Conservatives have declared their opposition to them.


31Gordon Brown’s role in New Labour education policies proved central, particularly regarding funding levels. As Prime Minister he brought limited change to these policies, except on the phasing out of tests for 14-year-olds. The Brown years were characterised by progress in apprenticeship schemes and standards in schools. Because of a confidence crisis the latter, however, are still contentious, as are the basic skills of school leavers, the introduction of vocational diplomas and widening participation in higher education. More research is needed regarding social mobility and the intervention of the private sector. Finally, as the policies advocated by the three main parties in the 2010 election campaign have more similarities than differences, England’s education patterns may be fundamentally unaffected by the Lib-Con coalition government, except for funding.

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1  Curtis, P., 2008.

2  Elliott, L., 2001.

3  The Guardian, 2006.

4  BBC News Online, 2009 (b).

5  Curtis, P., 2009 (g); Curtis, P., 2009 (f).

6, retrieved in February 2011.

7  Bowden, A., 2007.

8  Plomin, J., 2001.

9  Webster, P., 2007.

10  Wintour, P., 2008.

11  Curtis, P., 2009 (e).

12  Revill, J., 2008.

13  Ward, L., White, M., 2000.

14  Mulholland, H., 2010.

15  The Guardian, 2004.

16  MacLeod, D., 2008; Lipsett, A., 2008 (b).

17  DfES, 2003, p. 11.

18  DCSF, 2008, p. 6.

19  Lipsett, A., 2009.

20  Curtis,  P., 2009 (b).

21  Kingston, P., 2009.

22  BBC News Online, 2010 (b).

23  Docking, J., 2000, p. 54-5.

24  Docking, J., 2000, p. 51.

25  The Guardian, 2008.

26, retrieved in February 2011.

27  BBC News Online, 2007 (a).

28  BBC News Online, 2007 (c).

29  Curtis, P., 2009 (a).

30  Evanno, J.-N., 2005, pp. 92-3.

31  Ofsted, 2005, p.25.

32  Hencke, D., 2009.

33  For example Blanden, J., Gregg, P., Machin, S., 2005, pp. 13-4.

34  Watt, N., 2008.

35  McFadden, P., 2010.

36  Frean, A., 2008.

37, retrieved in February 2011.

38  Baker, M., 2010.

39  Layard, R., McIntosh, S., Vignoles, A., 2002.

40  Curtis, P., 2009 (g).

41  Ofsted, 2010, p. 5.

42  Finch, J., 2010.

43  Odoi, A., 2007; Lipsett, A., 2008 (a).

44  Ford, L., 2007; Asthana, A., 2008.

45  Smith, A., 2006; The Guardian, 2009 (b).

46  BBC News Online, 2007 (b).

47  BBC News Online, 2009 (a).

48  The Guardian, 2009 (b).

49  The Guardian, 2009 (a).

50  Ainley, P., 2010.

51  Curtis, P., 2009 (i).

52  Curtis, P., 2009 (d).

53  Curtis, P., 2009 (c); BBC News Online, 2010 (a).

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Anne Beauvallet, « Education Policies in the Brown Years (1997-2010) : Objectives and Outcomes »Observatoire de la société britannique, 10 | 2011, 137-151.

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Anne Beauvallet, « Education Policies in the Brown Years (1997-2010) : Objectives and Outcomes »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 10 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2012, consulté le 05 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Beauvallet

Maître de Conférences à l'Université de Toulouse 2

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