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Making schools work for the economy : education discourse and policies from David Cameron to Theresa May

Françoise Granoulhac
p. 235-253

Résumé

Since the 1970s, a globalised discourse on education has emphasised the link between high levels of education and skills and success in the ‘knowledge economy’. Education policies in the UK, as in other major economies, have become more closely aligned with objectives of economic growth and increased competitiveness. This article looks at the ways in which these global trends have been played out in England since the election of a Conservative-led Coalition government in 2010. A rhetoric of crisis, unfolding in a context of austerity, has justified the need for reforms of the school system and of further education. Two main developments are analysed here : the establishment of a cost-effective school system, and the central role assigned to improved post-16 technical and vocational provision in the pursuit of both economic growth and social mobility. The article discusses the social implications of the reforms, especially as regards Theresa May’s commitment to social justice and social mobility, and their political implications, as the UK prepares to leave the European Union and diverging education discourses and policies in the four nations present a new challenge.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 Garratt, D., Forrester, G., 2012, p. 117. See also Ball, S.J., 2013, pp.23-28.
  • 2 Brown, G., 1997, quoted in Tomlinson, S., 2005, p. 202.
  • 3 Blair, T., in The Learning Age - a renaissance for a new Britain, Department for Education and Empl (...)

1 The relationship between educational success and economic growth is a long-running theme in the education debate. Since the mid-1970s, after decades of growth in mass schooling and education participation, it has been viewed from an increasingly instrumental angle. Several factors have played a part in aligning educational objectives with the requirements of the economy : first the emergence, from the 1990s onwards, of employability policies based on training and skills acquisition, and the development of a knowledge economy which was expected to replace the old industrial economy. Such policies can be traced to human capital theory, which based the creation of new knowledge, skills and innovation on the added value brought by human beings, rather than machinery1. This had several implications : first that global standards of education had to be raised, that there had to be a better fit between qualifications and he job market, and that schools had to become more efficient in preparing young people for the jobs of the future. Both the New Right and New Labour governments endorsed this view, which Gordon Brown justified in the following terms : ‘We cannot run a first-rate economy on the basis of a second rate education system’2, echoing Tony Blair’s claim that ‘education is the best economic policy we have’3. Another driving force has been the work of supra-national organisations such as the OECD in shaping policies in member states through their analysis of educational issues and the publication of international surveys. In that respect PISA assessments have become an international benchmark used by governments to compare performance and legitimise reforms.

  • 4 See Lingard B., Sellar, S., Savage, G.C., 2014, p. 717. The phrase ‘education for economic growth’ (...)
  • 5 Greening, J., Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 4 October 2016.
  • 6 Greening, J., ‘Education at the core of social mobility’ Department for Education, 19 January 2017.
  • 7 This included free school meals and a Pupil Premium, representing extra funding allocated to school (...)

2 David Cameron’s Progressive Conservatism endorsed the ‘education for economic growth discourse’ and embraced the ‘neo-social vision’ promoted by the OECD, which made equity in education central to economic prosperity4. For the Coalition partners social justice and economic responsibility could no longer be seen as antagonistic, a view which tied in with the wider project of a Big Society. The message that working towards social justice is morally right, and makes economic sense has been taken up by Theresa May and Education Secretary Justine Greening. Not only is social mobility ‘the right thing to do’, has the Education Secretary argued, but it is also something ‘absolutely essential if we’re to be a success in today’s world’5, adding a few months later that ‘greater levels of social mobility could boost our economy by a staggering £ 140 billion a year’6. This objective was to be achieved through ‘corrective policies’ targeted at disadvantaged children7, and through reforms of the school system.

  • 8 Wolf, A., 2004, pp.315-316.
  • 9 Garratt, D. and Forrester, G., 2012, pp.10-11.

3 A remarkable continuity can thus be noted in the ’education for economic growth’ discourse articulated by policy-makers across the political spectrum. However the power of education to support productivity and growth in the knowledge economy is not as straightforward as it seems. According to Wolf, the connection appears to be simplistic, and there is no overwhelming evidence that high levels of education automatically lead to improved competitiveness or better productivity8. As other researchers have pointed out, the workforce may hold higher qualifications but not necessarily improved skills. There can also be a mismatch between the jobs available and the level of education of young graduates. This tends to show how discourse, understood here as referring not only to rhetoric, but also to the unspoken, to assumptions often taken for granted, can be a powerful force in setting the agenda9.

4 This article starts from this contextual background to look at the way concerns over productivity, growth and competitiveness, fed by a rhetoric of crisis, have gradually risen in prominence and influenced policy developments in England, underpinning reforms of the school system and of further education. It first considers the rationale for the development of a cost-effective school system and for an industry-driven education and skills policy, before turning to policy implementation issues, especially as regards social justice and Theresa May’s commitment to make schools ‘work for everyone’. How compatible, in terms of practical policies, are the two dimensions of the Conservative project ? In the last section those issues are considered from a UK-wide perspective, in a post-Brexit context : is there any scope for a UK-wide politics of education ?

The crisis of the education system : myth or reality ?

  • 10 Francis, B, 2015, p. 442.
  • 11 House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, 2016, p. 27.

5 In the UK, but more particularly in England, the discourse on education and skills has often been associated with a rhetoric of crisis and a fear of economic decline. This was the case in the 1970s, and also in the late 1990s, when education became a high-profile electoral issue. According to Becky Francis, the positioning of the UK as a country lagging behind its international competitors, already a widely-shared assumption, took on a new dimension under the Coalition, leading to a ‘moral panic’10. Converging voices in government and business circles exposed what they saw as major weaknesses in the education system, which could put the country’s competitiveness at risk : low basic skills, a shortage of STEM skills, low-value vocational qualifications, and a widening North-South divide. Ofsted’s annual reports repeatedly drew attention to ’the most troubling weakness in [our] education system’, the low performance of children from low-income families, and to the deficiencies of the learning and skills sector. In 2013 the LSE Growth Commission Report entitled ’Investing for Prosperity’, devoted a large part of its chapter on Human Capital to an assessment of the problems of education in the UK : the mediocre performance of British schools in international surveys, and the persistent under-achievement of disadvantaged children which was regarded as ‘a waste of human resources on a grand scale’, and was believed to be ‘detrimental to growth’ Similar observations were made, notably by the British Chambers of Commerce and by employers’ organisations, who underlined a deficit in literacy and numeracy, digital and communication skills, but also in ‘personal effectiveness skills’ such as attitudes to work, problem-solving or team-working11. The word ’troubling’ recurred in a number of government publications and in the media to describe the shortcomings of the system, suggesting that little improvement could be noted in spite of the policies followed so far.

  • 12 Lupton, R., and Thomson, S., 2015, p.8 and Wolf, A., 2016, p. 9
  • 13 In the 2015 PISA study for example, the UK obtained scores in Science and Reading which were slight (...)
  • 14 Brinkley, I., Crowley, E., 2017, pp.12-13.

6How much evidence is there of a real crisis ? According to different studies, the idea of decline has been overstated12 : the scores of the UK in the latest rounds of international assessments are roughly comparable with the scores of its European neighbours in terms of absolute attainment. Evidence of ‘the UK lagging behind’ in maths, science and reading is in fact relative13. As for regional discrepancies, although league tables do reveal a North-South divide, the pattern of achievement is more complex, since intra-regional gaps also need to be taken into account, and no such divide can be noted at primary school level. While the notion of a growing crisis rests on a generalization, it can’t be denied that there are causes for concern in some areas. The persistence of high rates of under-achievement among disadvantaged pupils, even before they reach secondary school, as well as the low basic skills of young adults (16-25 year olds) whose levels of numeracy and literacy are no better than 55-64 year olds, do raise questions on the effectiveness of policies pursued, in spite of levels of investment exceeding the OECD average14. Likewise, employers’ observations can’t easily be dismissed, although those deficiencies may not all be attributed to the education and training received at school.

Raising standards, cutting costs

7 Reversing the ‘trend of decline’ had to be achieved against a backdrop of spending cuts and public service reform which were part of the deficit reduction programme after 2010. It had been made clear in the 2010 Spending Review, that school budgets would be protected, but that education, like other public services, would have to contribute to the national savings and fiscal consolidation plans which were a pre-condition for a return to growth. What was at stake was public sector productivity, presented in the Spending Review and in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto as ’a drag on growth’. Reforming the education sector so that it could deliver higher standards at a lower cost became a priority, and the basis for the expansion of the academies programme.

  • 15 As of September 2017, academies accounted for 63,75% of secondary schools and 25,65% of primary sch (...)

8Originally a New Labour policy, academies are state schools which are not administered by local authorities and can be run by a diversity of actors from the state, voluntary and private not-for-profit sectors. Like parent-promoted Free schools, they are expected to drive up standards through innovation and a culture of high aspirations and success. They enjoy a number of ‘freedoms’ as regards the curriculum, the recruitment and conditions of employment of teachers. Incremental steps have been made, through the 2010 Academies Act and the 2011 Education Act, to facilitate the conversion of all schools, including primary and special schools, to the new status, and to make it mandatory for any new school to be an academy or a Free school. Under the 2016 Education and Adoption Act conversion has become the only option for all schools judged inadequate. As a consequence, although academies currently co-exist with local authority schools, this independent state sector is intended to become the mainstream mode of state schooling, thus completing the dismantlement of a ‘national system, locally administered’15. The economic benefits of a massive conversion of schools to academy status are self-evident : while the schools themselves remain state-funded, removing the local authority layer for the provision of educational services diminishes the requirement for state funding. Academies - and increasingly other state schools - can purchase services such as IT management, school improvement, careers advice or financial management from voluntary and private providers operating on an open market. The marketization of educational services, which had taken off in the late 1990s, has now become widespread. It has also opened up a valuable sector of the economy to private investment and profit, thus helping to boost private sector-led recovery, as sought by the Treasury.

  • 16 For a discussion of free markets and government control over educational objectives see Goodwin, M. (...)
  • 17 The role of a sponsor is to support an underperforming academy. A sponsor sets up an academy trusts (...)
  • 18 Department for Education, 2016, p. 59.

9 As profit-making had not been ruled out under the Coalition, one could have expected a move towards a fully privatised system, with for-profit edu-business firms taking over state schools, as has been experimented in Sweden and parts of the United States. This is however not the direction followed by Theresa May, arguably because it carried a number of risks : the substantial risk of financial failure and a more general concern with a loss of control over the outcomes, which is ultimately the rise in standards16. The government has instead chosen to further increase diversity within the state system, by giving faith schools and grammar schools freedom to expand, on the grounds that those schools are usually high-performing. Likewise, universities, but also independent schools, have been invited to support state schools in different ways : by sponsoring academies17 or setting up a new Free school, or in the case of independent schools, by offering bursaries to children from state schools. In return for their involvement, those institutions can expect to retain their advantages, for example, for universities, the ability to charge higher fees. So after two decades of increasing private participation, priority has been given to a new form of cost-effective and risk-proof provision, with a government ’stepping in’ to regulate the quasi-market. The development of a school-led, self-improving system based on school partnerships within Multi-Academy Trusts follows the same logic. MATs, which are clusters of academies grouped under different institutional arrangements, have received government support, not only because they foster cooperation between schools, but primarily because they help secure better value for money through economies of scale and reduced overheads. In that sense MATs, whose aim is to ‘deliver better outcomes from resources available’18, can be considered as the cornerstone of a cost-effective school system.

  • 19 The GCSE benchmark targets of A-C Grades in five GCSE subjects including English and Maths were rai (...)

10 Last, tackling both the basic skills deficit and the low achievement of disadvantaged children has involved what Stephen J. Ball has termed ‘policies of performativity’. These include the continuation of testing at different key stages, tougher exam requirements19 and more sophisticated measures of school accountability leading to forced academisation for those schools failing to reach the floor targets set for GCSE exams. Diversity of provision, combined with a performative approach and extra funding for disadvantaged children was believed to foster both higher standards and social justice, as ‘good schools’ would become available to all children from disadvantaged or ‘Just about Managing’ families.

11 But improving performance and competitiveness also implied looking beyond school reform at post-16 education and training, which had long been ‘the poor relation’ of higher education and was also increasingly regarded as under-performing in comparison with other advanced economies’ training systems.

‘A skills revolution for Brexit Britain’20

  • 20 Greening, J., 6 July 2017.
  • 21 Education Policy Institute, 2017, p.49. The term ‘skills gap’ refers to the mismatch between the sk (...)

12 It is clear that even before the referendum on Brexit, responding to the needs of a changing economy and tackling the ‘skills shortfalls’ ranked high on the educational agenda. A number of steps had already been taken to review vocational training and the apprenticeship system, with a landmark report published in 2011, the ‘Wolf Review of vocational education’, followed a year later by the ‘Richard Review of Apprenticeships’ and by the ‘Sainsbury Report on Technical and Further Education’ in 2016. Analysis of policy texts published over the period reveals a continuing and, after June 2016, a heightened sense of urgency and crisis. Concerns over specialised skills shortages became more acute in the wake of the referendum, as it was felt that the UK would have to develop its self-sufficiency. According to an education think tank, the Education Policy Institute, tackling the ‘skills gap’ was ‘set to be one of the greater tasks awaiting the government’21. Anxiety over present and future skills gaps was compounded by uncertainty about the future of the UK’s economy, in a context of high public debt, stagnating wages and rising inflation, and by the prospect of falling numbers of migrant workers. While the outcome of the referendum on Brexit did not have the direct and immediate impact it had on higher education, it nonetheless shifted the focus of policy more firmly towards post-16 education and training.

  • 22 Greening, J,, ‘Education at the core of social mobility’, op.cit.
  • 23 Greening, J., Speech to the Conservative Party Conference, op.cit..

13 Referring to the future of the UK, both Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond mentioned training for employment as a high stake priority, a capital requirement to support economic growth and, once again, social mobility, since poor skills were associated to low-paid jobs and lower living standards. This dual commitment was repeated in the Department for Education’s ‘Post-16 Plan’ published in July 2016 and was encapsulated in Justine Greening’s statement, ‘better technical education is vital in Brexit Britain. We make a success of our country when we help people make a success of themselves’22. There were moral overtones in the government’s discourse on social justice and social mobility – the latter gradually displacing the former in rhetoric – with references to the ‘duty to intervene’. But social mobility was conceptualized first and foremost as an individual process based on meritocracy, a view reflected in the numerous occurrences of the term ‘opportunity’ in the Education Secretary’s speeches and in such buzzwords as ‘Opportunity Britain’ or ’The Great Meritocracy’. Business was called upon to play a central role as the ‘ultimate opportunity giver’, spotting ‘the talent of the new generation, the rough diamonds’23, especially the children in disadvantaged areas, in those ‘mobility cold spots’ identified by the Social Mobility Commission.

14 In policy terms the overhaul of technical and vocational qualifications, including apprenticeships, should also be viewed as part of a more global shift in government economic policy towards industry and manufacturing, which is itself linked to the perspective of the UK leaving the European Union. Awareness of the importance of technical and professional training could be seen in the central place held by skills in the Industrial Strategy, launched in January 2017 to boost productivity, develop key sectors of the economy and address regional disparities in income, skills and productivity. Improving skills ranked second among the ten ‘pillars’ supporting the strategy, with an emphasis on numeracy and literacy, STEM learning and improved technical qualifications. Upskilling the future workforce was also a key feature of other regional initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse, and, for the CBI, constituted the main factor in improving regional productivity.

  • 24 Social Mobility Commission, June 2017, p. 49.
  • 25 Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, 2016, p.22.
  • 26 UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills), 2016, p.4.
  • 27 Musset, P., and Field, S., 2014, p. 42.

15 Last, beyond Brexit-related anxieties, the new emphasis on skills cannot be understood without reference to the structural weaknesses of the labour market in the UK. A long-standing issue was youth unemployment, which had peaked at 22 % in 2012 and currently stands at 12.5 % for the 16-24 age group24. As in many other OECD countries the youth labour market had slumped since the 1980s, resulting in a high structural unemployment rate for the 19-24 age group, and more young people staying on in education for want of a job. A second and well-known problem was workforce productivity : in 2014 there was a 36 point gap between the UK and Germany and a 30 point gap with France and the USA, and the UK’s productivity was 18 points below the G7 average25. In 2015 a UKCES survey noted the growing challenge represented by the level of vacancies due to skills shortages (23 % of all vacancies), which had a direct financial impact on employers26. In some key sectors of the economy like transport or the nuclear industry, the lack of upper technical training led to the reliance of UK employers on migrant labour. Multiple factors were thought to generate low productivity, among which the lack of basic skills and a shortage of technicians in industry, but also gaps in education and training provision. There were too many low-level qualifications on the market and too few upper-level ones. Valuable diplomas such as HNCs and HNDs had been ‘squeezed out’ by the expansion of universities and the integration of longer vocational courses into the university sector27. Here again comparisons of training systems, especially with Germany, Norway or Denmark, suggested that the UK was lagging behind.

  • 28 Vocational education mostly concerns young people aged 14-19. Technical courses usually start at ag (...)
  • 29 Mirza-Davies et al, 2016, p.9.

16 The method adopted by the government was similar for the technical and vocational sectors, which partly overlap28. It was based on building a new streamlined framework of courses and qualifications, involving employers but requiring their financial participation through an apprenticeship levy. The aim was to re-organise an overly complex system, described by former Labour MP Alan Milburn as a ‘jungle’ counting 1,100 public and private, often for-profit providers29, and 13,000 vocational qualifications. The framework set up under the 2017 Technical and Further Education Act included 15 new routes grouping related occupations, placed under the direct responsibility of employers. Training was to be delivered through a two-track system, employment-based (with a target of three million apprenticeships by 2020), and college-based, with two-year degrees leading on to higher level qualifications delivered in Further Education colleges and new Institutes of Technology. Parity of esteem – a rather discredited tag - gave way to parity of value in official discourse, with Tech levels gaining similar status as A levels. Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a funding commitment of £ 500m per year to increase tuition time in his 2017 Budget speech, in addition to some capital funding for regional Institutes of Technology.

17 This is certainly a radical reform programme, mostly because it attempts to set right the historical imbalance between an expanding university sector and an overlooked technical sector, and to improve opportunities for about half of those young people who do not go to university. Many of them had been short-changed by the system of grade equivalences, being directed towards diplomas which in many cases did not lead to valuable employment, but counted alongside academic qualifications in school league tables. But the question remains : can the new reform deliver better results than the previous and ceaseless policy changes which have produced this confusing landscape ? What are the conditions for success ? For example some commentators have pointed out that a significant number of jobs will remain outside the scope of the fifteen routes. Even if policies are successfully implemented, how can cultural prejudices towards technical education be overcome ? Besides, external factors linked to the structure of the labour market should not be overlooked. Among these are the shortage of intermediate level occupations and the lack of businesses in high value-added industrial sectors. Other points, regarding the involvement of employers, and levels of funding, will also be critical, as reluctance towards the apprenticeship levy has suggested.

Delivering economic growth and social justice : some key issues

18 On a more global scale, if one looks at policy implementation, and not only at reform schemes, the direction of policy raises a number of questions as regards Theresa May’s commitment to social justice and meritocracy.

  • 30 Funding per full-time student in further education colleges was £4,400 less for 16-17 year olds in (...)
  • 31 Belfield, C., Crawford, C., Sibieta, L., 2017, p. 20.
  • 32 According to the Social Mobility Commission Time for Change report, 80% of disadvantaged students s (...)

19 The first one is about funding. Further education is under-funded, when compared to higher education30. Further education budgets for 16-18 year olds have suffered severe cuts since 2010, and the trend is set to continue until 2020, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Between 2010-2011 and 2019-2020, the fall in 16-18 per-student spending is estimated to reach 13 %31. If one considers social mobility, the financial support available to students in further education colleges has also been cut. The Education Maintenance Allowance, worth £ 560m, was scrapped in 2010 and replaced by a much lower £ 180m Bursary Fund and by maintenance loans to students. If Further Education colleges are to deliver high quality courses to students who overwhelmingly come from families on lower incomes, one would expect funding to be targeted on precisely those institutions and those students32. Parity of funding should reflect parity of value. But further education has remained squeezed between an ever-expanding higher education sector and the schools sector, with the academies and Free schools programmes remaining a spending priority.

  • 33 Social Mobility Commission, 2017, p. 35.

20 This points to another problematic aspect of the Conservative Party’s discourse and policy. In a meritocratic Britain, schools that work for everyone are those any child can access, through their own efforts, regardless of their background. Theresa May’s understanding of social justice is based on the concept of equality of access, as she has herself acknowledged. But access takes place in a highly differentiated, highly segmented school system and is determined either by success at the 11+ (for a grammar school place) or by faith criteria, or by other forms of overt or covert selection. While the Prime Minister has argued that selection based on meritocracy is fairer than the ‘postcode lottery’ of selection on residence, facilitating access to grammar schools implies helping only a minority of children – in short ‘extending privilege’, another leading theme in the Prime Minister’s rhetoric. In fact, research has shown that the return of grammar schools is more likely to entrench social divisions than to help social mobility. By contrast, achieving a real parity of value between post-16 technical/vocational qualifications and academic qualifications would come nearer to providing equality of outcome, which both the Welsh and Scottish governments, as well as the Labour Party, refer to. This however will be a long-term challenge. It will involve reducing the attainment gap at age 16, a necessary condition to prevent the technical route remaining a devalued option. A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission showed that in spite of progress made at primary school level, the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals – a current measure of deprivation – and their wealthier counterparts had not narrowed at GCSE level, which casts some doubts on the effects of the structural reforms carried out since the late 1990s33. The objective of achieving social mobility through reforms of post-compulsory education may well remain elusive.

  • 34 May, T., Speech at the Scottish Conservative Conference, 3 March 2017. The emphasis is mine.

21 Another significant and only recently debated issue has been the increased intervention of central government in education policy in England, and the growing gap with other UK nations. Scotland and Wales, particularly, have retained two of the main foundations of the post-war model of public service state education : comprehensive schooling, and a more prominent role for local authorities. Differences also appear in discourse, with values of cooperation rather than competition, confidence in teachers’ professional judgement, as well as the rejection of selection defining the Welsh and Scottish visions of education. Theresa May had insisted that ’the prosperity of the UK as a whole depends on young people in all parts of the UK having the skills they need to reach their full potential’34. But to what extent can her government set out a UK-wide strategy ? How compatible are the Scottish, Welsh and English education models ?

  • 35 Theresa May attacked ‘the SNP’s neglect and mismanagement of Scottish education’ in a speech at the (...)

22 Politically this could become a contentious issue. Theresa May’s and Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson’s scathing criticism of the SNP’s record on education in March this year is unlikely to foster collaboration between the two leaders35. Considering the tensions over Brexit and pressure from the Scottish Tories, setting UK-wide goals in terms of targets and outcomes carries potential for conflict. It will be interpreted as an attempt by central government in England to interfere with the devolved administrations’ decisions. Attacks on Wales’s performance in the latest PISA assessments have already sparked accusations of Tory colonial attitudes by the Welsh Education Minister.

  • 36 SNP, 2017.
  • 37 OECD, 2015, p. 14.

23 While political clashes may recur, it is worth looking at the common ground between the four nations – Northern Ireland retaining strong specificities, but also sharing some characteristics with England, notably the presence of selective schools. Paradoxically, it is with Scotland that converging trends can be identified. The Scottish government, under pressure to perform in international league tables, has moved towards a more prescriptive approach. Providing transparent information about school performance, setting targets to close the attainment gap, introducing national standardised assessments (tests in numeracy and literacy) all featured in the 2015 SNP Manifesto. While comprehensive schooling and a child-centred curriculum remain the norm, more autonomy for headteachers, as well as a closer monitoring of school performance have been put on the agenda. As in England, further education has been re-organised on a regional basis and skills-for-work courses have been integrated in the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, but further education colleges remain public bodies, which is no longer the case in England. The SNP has not given up on its ambitions to work towards equality of outcome and inclusiveness, but the ruling party’s discourse, as exemplified in the last three party manifestos, now acknowledges the need to pursue both economic growth and the reduction of poverty, with education being ‘the best gift we can give our young people’ and ‘the best foundation for a successful, knowledge based economy’36. Scotland seems to have recorded some success in terms of social mobility : a recent OECD review of the Scottish curriculum praised the excellent performance of Scottish schools in terms of inclusion – students from different socio-economic backgrounds attending the same schools - and more equal achievements in maths37. Similar observations were made about Wales, whose performance in the PISA surveys however remains lower than its immediate neighbours’. But while Scotland is moving closer to an English style of governance. Wales has enacted reforms going in the opposite direction to English policies, with an emphasis on children’s well-being, early years education, an integrated curriculum and formative assessments.

24 The debate on Brexit and on the UK’s future position on the global scene has indirectly drawn attention to the UK-wide dimension in education policy, from school to university. But politically the situation is extremely volatile, as Theresa May’s future as Prime Minister is highly uncertain, and a future Labour victory in the next general elections might radically change the direction of policy and give rise to new lines of convergence. If future governments wish to promote the interests of the UK as a whole and ‘strengthen the union of the four countries’, as Theresa May suggested, it may now be time to rise above ideological and political divisions, and open a debate about purposes and policies in education. Most of the social and educational challenges faced in the four nations are similar. There is therefore scope for internal policy assessment and policy borrowing – rather than scrutiny of international league tables - using the large body of evidence available.

Conclusion

25 The education project set out by Theresa May is clearly in line with her Conservative predecessors’ policies. The prevailing model remains anchored in the neo-social vision endorsed by successive governments since the 1990s. Education reforms have been legitimised by a diagnosis of crisis, and underpinned by the need to make public service state education more productive and cost-effective in times of austerity, as well as more responsive to the needs of industry in a post-Brexit world. There are now several challenges lying ahead : first, while the attempt to re-balance post-16 education and training towards technical qualifications and apprenticeships has been generally welcomed, this will require long-term funding and the involvement of all the stakeholders. Second, there is obviously a case for raising basic skills levels and providing young people with valuable qualifications which will help them achieve better standards of living and will benefit the economy. However, reducing educational inequalities will require much more than targeted funding and structural reforms based on notions of equality of access which eventually strengthen differentiation and social segmentation. Last, the choices made since 2010 have also driven England further apart from Scotland and Wales, where discourse and policy have consistently promoted a more inclusive, emancipatory, less instrumental vision of education and where education has remained a ‘public good’. This may present another challenge for future governments wishing to strengthen the Union. But if, as Theresa May has argued, this is a time ‘to step back and ask ourselves what sort of country we want to be’, then it is also an opportunity to reflect upon the educational future of the UK, beyond its economic interests.

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Notes

1 Garratt, D., Forrester, G., 2012, p. 117. See also Ball, S.J., 2013, pp.23-28.

2 Brown, G., 1997, quoted in Tomlinson, S., 2005, p. 202.

3 Blair, T., in The Learning Age - a renaissance for a new Britain, Department for Education and Employment, 1998, p. 9.

4 See Lingard B., Sellar, S., Savage, G.C., 2014, p. 717. The phrase ‘education for economic growth’ is used by Garratt, D., and Forrester, G., op.cit.

5 Greening, J., Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 4 October 2016.

6 Greening, J., ‘Education at the core of social mobility’ Department for Education, 19 January 2017.

7 This included free school meals and a Pupil Premium, representing extra funding allocated to schools in proportion to the number of disadvantaged pupils on the school rolls. It was intended to be used at the discretion of headteachers to provide additional support for those children (for example one-to-one teaching sessions, cultural activities).

8 Wolf, A., 2004, pp.315-316.

9 Garratt, D. and Forrester, G., 2012, pp.10-11.

10 Francis, B, 2015, p. 442.

11 House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, 2016, p. 27.

12 Lupton, R., and Thomson, S., 2015, p.8 and Wolf, A., 2016, p. 9

13 In the 2015 PISA study for example, the UK obtained scores in Science and Reading which were slightly above many of its European neighbours, although they were lower in Mathematics, but still within the OECD’s average.

14 Brinkley, I., Crowley, E., 2017, pp.12-13.

15 As of September 2017, academies accounted for 63,75% of secondary schools and 25,65% of primary schools. Department for Education, Open academies and academy projects in development, September 2017.

16 For a discussion of free markets and government control over educational objectives see Goodwin, M., 2011.

17 The role of a sponsor is to support an underperforming academy. A sponsor sets up an academy trusts, appoints the headteacher and governors, oversees the performance and finances of the trust and reports about performance. Successful schools, universities, businesses, charities, faith groups can become sponsors.

18 Department for Education, 2016, p. 59.

19 The GCSE benchmark targets of A-C Grades in five GCSE subjects including English and Maths were raised to 35% in 2011, 40% in 2013, 60% in 2015. Those targets were replaced in 2016 with more refined measures of progress and attainments.

20 Greening, J., 6 July 2017.

21 Education Policy Institute, 2017, p.49. The term ‘skills gap’ refers to the mismatch between the skills actually held by employees and those required by employers.

22 Greening, J,, ‘Education at the core of social mobility’, op.cit.

23 Greening, J., Speech to the Conservative Party Conference, op.cit..

24 Social Mobility Commission, June 2017, p. 49.

25 Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, 2016, p.22.

26 UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills), 2016, p.4.

27 Musset, P., and Field, S., 2014, p. 42.

28 Vocational education mostly concerns young people aged 14-19. Technical courses usually start at age 16 and can be provided beyond age 19. FE courses are funded by the Education Funding Agency (for 16-18 provision), by the Skills Funding Agency (for adult provision)

29 Mirza-Davies et al, 2016, p.9.

30 Funding per full-time student in further education colleges was £4,400 less for 16-17 year olds in FE colleges, £5,000 less for 18-19 year olds than funding for students in higher education courses at university. For 19-24 year olds, the difference was estimated to reach £6,000. House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, 8 April 2016, pp. 58-59.

31 Belfield, C., Crawford, C., Sibieta, L., 2017, p. 20.

32 According to the Social Mobility Commission Time for Change report, 80% of disadvantaged students study in a FE college before the age of 24, p. 59.

33 Social Mobility Commission, 2017, p. 35.

34 May, T., Speech at the Scottish Conservative Conference, 3 March 2017. The emphasis is mine.

35 Theresa May attacked ‘the SNP’s neglect and mismanagement of Scottish education’ in a speech at the Scottish Conservative conference, while Ruth Davidson accused the SNP of neglecting education and health. Dickie, M., 3 March 2017.

36 SNP, 2017.

37 OECD, 2015, p. 14.

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Françoise Granoulhac, « Making schools work for the economy : education discourse and policies from David Cameron to Theresa May », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 235-253.

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Françoise Granoulhac, « Making schools work for the economy : education discourse and policies from David Cameron to Theresa May », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 15 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/2322 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.2322

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Françoise Granoulhac

Maître de Conférences en Civilisation britannique à l'Université de Grenoble

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