Universal education

Providing some context: the history of Universal education

The current British education system is the product of over a hundred years of development and therefore, progress is slow and impended by the ability of some groups in society to make the best of any changes in Education policy. Universal education therefore always benefits the rich before the poor.

Originally universal education was opposed because it was expensive and undesirable to the ruling classes who wanted to keep a cheap labour force and were worried that education may “be prejudicial to their [the laboring classes] morals and happiness; it would lead them to despise their lot in life instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments…it would render them fractious and refractory… it would lead them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors.” (David Giddy, in a Common’s debate on ‘Whitbread’s [education] bill, 1807) This fear of social revolution was extremely worrying to the upper classes who had witnessed the effects of the French revolution on the ruling classes of France.

Eventually universal education was provided, helped by Jeremy Bentham’s argument that educating the poor was

surely cheaper than housing them in prison. Morality therefore played a large role in early education and basic early education is often referred to as the 4 R’s [Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Religion].

Radical changes in education – 1960s

There have been differing trends in British education, the most radical change following the Plowden Report of 1967 which had a much more “child-centred” take on education but its influence was officially short lived. The report suggested such controversial measures as an end to physical punishments in primary schools and teachers having contact with parents. It lead to children being seen as individuals with individual learning needs but is said to have been badly implemented and to have left children without a structured education.

The rhetoric used against this type of education is still used by politicians now, on all sides of British politics, for instance, when David Milliband was Tony Blair’s schools standards minister in 2004, he was incredibly careful to draw a division between Tony Blair’s “personalised learning” policy and “child-centred” policies which though not as far reaching, in principle, although not in practice, where incredible similar. He declared personalized-learning to be “…not a return to child-centred theories; it is not about separating children to learn on their own; it is not the abandonment of a national curriculum; and it is not a license to let children coast at their own pace” (Milliband, 2004). In 1976, Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan put an end to child-centred learning summarizing that “There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they do not have the skills.” (Callaghan, 1976) This speech marked a change in attitude and the purpose of British education became to meet the needs of the economy, rather than to meet the needs of the children. This has been the case ever since, with adjustments being made to fit the changing labour demands of the economy.

In March 2014 the head of regulating authority, OFSTED reinforced these  negative views of child-centred learning stating that any of his inspectors who favoured ‘lefty’ education practices would not work for him for very long. 

Radical Changes in education – 1980s

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher’s government, obsessed with centralizing power formerly held by county and borough councils, centralized the education system. In order to keep standards up, elements of the market began to be used in education, as schools were forced to compete against each other and parents were given the power of choice on which local school to send their children to. In order for parents to make fair decisions about school achievement, the education system was standardized and a national curriculum designed to allow all schools to be comparable and to standardize the level of education that all children were provided with. Later as league tables were introduced testing became more and more important to schools and politicians who need to quantify achievements to prove that they are doing their jobs effectively.

League Tables have proved to be a major change in terms of the accountability of teachers and management staff, but also because of the way that funding is allocated to schools. Since parental choice became a major factor in education, getting funding, which is allocated per child on the roll at the school, is reliant on schools being able to attract more children. This means that being high in the league tables is of paramount importance in attracting new pupils to the school. The problem with this is that schools who already have a low standing in the league tables find it difficult to be upwardly mobile when they have difficulty attracting the funding. This means that they are less likely to be able to add to their arsenal of facilities which can make a massive difference to the attracting power of the school. League tables were initially criticizing for allowing the better schools to improve while the struggling schools were trapped into a downward spiral. Nick Davies wrote and illuminating book on ‘Failing Schools’ in 2000, documenting the everyday issues of schools in areas of social deprivation who find it very difficult to continue on a daily basis due to the problems they face without sufficient recourses. The issues caused by poverty which schools in these areas have to cope with mean that the children are more expensive to educate as well as the extra pastoral care which can be necessary to school whose intake is of a low socio-economic standing. These schools usually have less resources than schools in richer areas or who are able to attract children who are, frankly, less expensive to educate.

The critique of the fairness of this system is that as schools attract more parents, they are more in demand and problem with giving the parents this power to pick better schools is that the autonomy isn’t distributed fairly. More affluent families are much better placed to exercise their power as they have access to better resources to allow them to move to areas with better schools, or to gain access to better performing schools or the infamous cases of parents baptizing their children or attending church to gain access to a local faith school which are better performing in league tables. 


Standardization and Assessment

Sugata Mitra studied alternative methods of educating children, argues that standardization first came about as a result of the pre-universal education need to create identical cogs for the bureaucratic machine of the British Empire and was carried into universal education by the need to provide value for money. During the days of Empire, it was appropriate and desirable to only grudgingly provide a very basic education to the children of the poor as Robert Lowe, a whig politician and vice president of the council on education said in 1862 “if it not cheap it must be efficient, and if it is not efficient it must be cheap”.

In recent years, Standardisation has been a major theme in education as it is seen as the only way to create a fair education system whereby all children can be measured against each other and ranked on academic ability which is thought to be necessary.

However, it is not only children who need to be ranked and judged, schools also need to compete against each other and so we have standardized testing in order for schools to prove to potential customers (parents) that they provide the best education.

This obsession with quantifying achievement has a number of negative side effects, including;

teaching to the test; the accusation that teachers are not teaching children what will benefit them, but what will allow them to pass the standardized tests. This affects children’s understanding and their perception of education.

And children’s mental health problems; standardized testing is causing stress and anxiety in children who feel under huge pressure to perform well in arbitrary standardized tests from the age of about 10 onwards.

Subject Heirarchies

In British education we value Literacy and Mathematics above all subjects for a number of reasons. One of them being that they are the most easily quantifiable, even in literacy, we evaluate children’s ability in quantifiable areas such as their ability in spelling or grammar, rather than their imagination or their artistic flare, which may be appreciated by the teacher, but not numerically scored and compared to others. Howard Gardner has outlined 8 separate intelligences which different people can excel in and which he argues should receive equal parity of esteem. Only regarding 2 of these intelligences (verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical) as important is extremely limiting and unfair to many children who are gifted in other areas. Sir Tim Robinson sees the hierarchy of subjects as detrimental to children’s creativity as children are forced to confine their learning and exploration to the rigid way that schools encourage learning.


Citizenship is mentioned in The UN convention on Human Rights as subsection 2 of article 26 states that education shall be directed “…to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

It is included as a theme in this explanation of British Education because of the argument about Education acting as a tool of indoctrination in societies. Where education began as a way to influence children’s moral up-bringing as well as their employability.

Citizenship was brought in to the British curriculum in 2001 as part of the secondary school curriculum in response to the Crick report (1998) which claimed that British children’s political apathy was ‘inexcusably and damagingly bad’. The origins of taught citizenship were therefore targeted on influencing young adults experience and engagement of the state. Crick recommended that citizenship lessons should ‘centre on discussion of real issues and not … bore pupils by expecting them to learn constitutional or legal rules by heart’ (Crick, quoted in Cunningham & Lavalette, 2004). 2 years later in 2003 students across the country protested against the Iraq war with a one day strike. Despite many children’s articulate explanations of their thoughts and actions, they were branded “irresponsible truants” by the government and media. Those school children who took part in protests where patronizingly accused of being uninformed and denied the democratic agency that citizenship had aimed to provide because they had chosen to exercise opposition to the state.

A few years later, the same generation of people occupied their universities in a nationwide protest against the tuition fee rises in 2010 and again, were patronizingly accused of being uninformed and had their cause and efforts discredited.

Although citizenship lessons may explain the extreme political reactions of this generation they were not credited as such because the aim of citizenship was to help combat apathy, and encourage engagement with the political system through the approved channels by teaching children the importance of our democratic system, and of voting and knowing about the local MP, the parties involved in the system, and how to contact an MP/minister etc…. The result of citizenship (if there is a link between the political actions described and citizenship) has been less desirable to politicians and so it comes as no surprise that citizenship is being phased out by current Education Minister, Michael Gove.

Further reading: see: Cunningham and Lavelette, ‘Active citizens’ or ‘irresponsible truants’? School student strikes against the war (2004), Critical Social Policy, 24(2) 255-269


As more emphasis is put onto standards and achievement, accountability has become a major theme in education which is currently being emphasized in reaction to the PISA world league tables (see below for more detail in this area) as we try to learn lessons from better performing countries.

This kind of accountability has been criticized because of the strain it puts teachers under particularly those who work in more difficult schools with a more difficult catchment area. Politicians want to hold head teachers to account for children’s learning and charge them to hold teachers to account, to the extent that teachers now receive performance related pay rises based on children’s performances. This accountability holds great political capital for politicians who use it to justify their own positions of authority in education. The importance of this political capital can be seen in that Free Schools and Academies are directly accountable to the education secretary and not to the Local Education Authority as normal state schools are.

Child protection

In recent years, there have been a number of scandals in child protection which have had a vast impact on education as well as social work, pediatric medicine and other areas of pastoral care for childhood. These events tend to be well publicized, played out in the public eye and highly emotive.

The Criminal Records Bureau Enhanced Disclosure is a document that anyone working with children through the public sector needs to have. It is certification that the person has undergone a thorough criminal records check which would flag up any event in the persons past which may suggest that the person may be a risk to children. This follows the ‘Soham murders’ of two 10 year old girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman who murdered by an employee of the school they attended in 2002. The murderer, Ian Huntley, was known to police as a potential risk to children but the school were not aware of this. The idea of the CRB is to share information between departments which might be pertinent to  their employment with children.

Every Child Matters was a New Labour policy similar to the No Child Left Behind policy in America. The policy was aimed at making sure that every child was safe and happy no matter what their background. There are 5 aims of ECM which are that every child has the right to (and thus should be helped to) stay safe, healthy, enjoy and achieve, economic well-being and to make a positive contribution. This policy caused the birth of SureStart centres across the country which helped to support mothers with new born babies to ensure the best start to life possible. ECM was launched I 2003 after the Laming report into the neglect and murder of an 8 year old girl called Victoria Climbie in 2000. Victoria of hypothermia as a result of various injuries sustained by a prolonged torture including being burnt by cigarettes, tied up for long periods of time and being beaten with bike chains, hammers and wires. She came into contact with several agencies including the police, GPs, a children’s charity and social services from 4 separate London boroughs, all of whom who noted injuries but did not investigate properly Victoria’s case.

There are fears that Victoria’s legacy is being lost however, as SureStart centres are being curtailed due to government austerity and ContactPoint, a government database to be accessible by organizations concerned with child safety was closed by the government in 2010.


There are well documented trends between the attainment of different groups; gender, ethnicity, class and ability are the areas looked at, however these variations cannot be isolated and analyzed helpfully because statistically, children’s potential is affected by a complex interplay between their gender, ethnicity and class and potentially, any disability they may have.

Officially data is still analysed in this way although it has lead to very little change in the underachievement of minority groups in the UK.


The gender gap is a problem in that it is formed by stereotype and influenced by pseudoscientific evidence which suggests that female brains are stronger in linguistic and emotional intelligence and male brains are stronger in mathematical/logical intelligence. Girls outperforming boys is a long term trend, starting in the 1950’s and getting more pronounced since the 1970’s.

Originally boys outperformed girls but since girls have been given the same opportunities as boys, girls have taken over and shown the more successful results. Despite this, there is a continued trend for “boys subjects” vs “girls subjects” which reinforces gender stereotypes and career choices at all levels, for instance; 94% of students taking GCSE Home Economics are girls and only 35% of those taking Physical Education.

 At A-Level 30% of English Students are boys while 78% of Physics students are boys. Women take 89% of health and social care apprenticeships, 94% of hairdressing apprenticeships and 86% of primary teachers and nursery staff are female. While men take 99% of Construction apprenticeships and 96% of engineering apprenticeships as well as 79% of computer analysts and programmers.

Laura Bates in her Everyday Sexism project found that the stereotypes are reinforced even now, by parents and teachers telling children that some career choices are unrealistic for some genders.

American researchers Adler, Kless & Adler found that children create their own “ idealized images of masculinity and feminity on which they model their behaviour”. This affects children’s attainment in that children react differently to academic success. Boys social status relied upon their athletic ability, “coolness”, toughness, social skills and success in cross-gender relationships. Girls popularity depended upon their parents’ socio-economic status, their own physical appearance, social skills and academic achievement. This may go some of the way to explaining why girls attainment is consistently higher than boys. Another factor may be behaviour; It has been suggested that Teachers are weaker with boys and accept more disruptive behaviour form boys than they would from girls. But as boys are more disruptive than girls in the class room they are more likely to be thrown out of the classroom and will therefore develop gaps in their learning.Teaching has been criticized for being less active and more “feminised” and so more suited to girls.

Feminists have criticized the focus on male underachievement suggesting that if there were female underachievement, it would not be treated with the same urgency. It has also been suggested that girls develop at a faster rate earlier on, when they start school they usually have better linguistic and also motor skills, are able to hold a pen better and that teachers often push those who show early promise.


The UK has a long history of racist education policy and with that a long history of multicultural education. When immigrant children first began to access UK education LEAs implemented a policy of dispersal, that is to limit the number of immigrant children per school to allow them to integrate into British society without the fear of them being able to keep aspects of their own native culture or worse, infective native British children with aspects of their own culture. It was argued that this policy was for the benefit of children who did not speak English as their first language and by separating them from children who could speak to them in their own language their English would improve more quickly and be more fluent in the long term, however, West Indian children whose first language was English were just as much victims of dispersal as children who did not speak English.

Roy Jenkins

Later, immigrant communities began to be celebrated and teachers began to celebrate the culture of other communities. This was described by many as tokenism and nicknamed the ‘steel bands, saris and samosas’ multicultural education. This tokenism, of white teachers trying to teach classrooms of children about cultures which they have very little contact with and understanding of is still being criticized 40 years later as it is argued, teachers, who are mostly white and middle class have control of the racial discourse while having very little understanding of the issues faced by children from ethnic minorities in this country [see Derren Chetty for specific examples].

In 1979 Lord Rampton was commissioned to look into the experience of ethnic minority children in schools. In his interim report, he concluded that teachers are inadvertently discriminating against children in their classes. There was an outcry by teachers and Lord Rampton was removed from the inquiry. Lord Swann was asked to finish the report and found no fault with teachers, although he did find problems faced by children of ethnic minorities. (be more specific)

80s antiracism - And the fight against it

Decades after the Interim Rampton report, David Gillborn still points to teacher prejudice limiting ethnic minority children’s opportunities by being disproportionately overrepresented in lower sets in schools where they receive a more limited curriculum and underrepresented in ‘gifted and talented’ groups where children receive an extended curriculum. Children of ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the best universities because they do not achieve the same exam results as their white counterparts and this problem is being inefficiently combated (see below). In addition to this, the government uses statistics inventively to make the problem seem as if it is going away. In reality children of different ethnic minorities have a less straight forward experience in education than their white counterparts including, but not exclusive to; being caught between two conflicting, or not conflicting cultures, low familial expectation of education, or low familial value on education, racism, institutional racism, racial bullying, poverty (which is statistically more likely), problems with the cultural appropriateness of some curriculum areas (i.e. sex education, PE), coping with a different culture in the classroom to the culture experienced at home (which often causes misunderstandings between child and teacher who interpret the child’s behavior as disruptiveness) and coping with the different culture in the school to the culture experienced at home (for instance, being told off for eating with their fingers which would be normal behavior at home).

[see Ian Grosvenor, David Gillborn, Darren Chetty: http://icpic.cmc-uct.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Chetty%20The%20Elephant%20in%20the%20Room%20%E2%80%93%20Picture-books,%20Philosophy%20for%20Children%20and%20Racism.pdf]


Traditionally, poor children have been unable to reap the benefits of the rich. This is partially because middle class parents have more power and ability to take advantages from education, but there are many other factors at play; the culture of the classroom plays a large part in children’s attitude to education. The language used within the classroom may be different from the language used at home and this can be very difficult for children to adapt to (see Basil Berstein). As what Bernstein refers to ‘elaborated code’ is institutionalized in the classroom, those who are unable to de-code these codes are disadvantaged and it has been found that children who share a dialect with their teacher are able to communicate and thus learn more effectively. Working class children often choose to reject the formality of the school and resent the way that teachers expect them to behave [see David Wood].

This is unsurprising in view of the accusation that “the working class struggle for academic success is not about finding yourself but rather losing yourself in order to find a new, shiny, acceptable, middle-class persona.” [Diane Reay, 2001] This is worrying if you think that it suggests that a ‘working class persona’ is therefore inferior.

Attempts to combat inequality in British Education

The government strategy for looking at ethnic achievement is ineffective bordering on eugenical. Different ethnic groups are classed unhelpfully, basically by colour (see http://edgycationalist.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/is-the-government-being-deceptive-about-ethnic-minority-access-to-higher-education/) in a way which doesn’t help us to diagnose problems within those communities.

While the differences in attainment of different ethnic groups is lamentable, looking at the outcomes and not the causes will never be helpful. As an example, children of Turkish backgrounds in the Finsbury Park area of Islington are achieving higher results then white children in that area, however, Turkish girls are achieving much lower results than Turkish boys. The underachievement of these girls is hidden within the Turkish statistics and within the gender statistics. When we look at the class of different children of either gender and different ethnicities we see that middle class children always achieve better results than working class children. Poverty is the greatest decider of a child’s potential due to the different factors associated with poverty, such as, being much less likely to have access to reading materials at home (much less have someone to read with them); much less safety, security and stability at home, being much more likely to be in contact with people suffering from drug or alcohol addiction and all of the unhappiness that comes with that, they are less likely to come to school looking smart (affecting teachers impression of them and their own attitude to themselves) and having eaten nutritious food. Poverty is a massive barrier to education and the gap between rich and poor in Britain is one of the largest in the developed world. As long as politicians continue to look at statistics, and ignoring child poverty, inequality will not end.

[see Nick Davies, The school report, 2000]

A formulaic view of education

Because there is a spectrum of school performance, outstanding to failing, there is also a belief in a formula for successful schools. And therefore if a school is failing it is because the staff are at fault for not following the formula. This is why bad schools are paired with good schools who can mentor them out of being so bad. The best schools of course are the great public schools of Britain and so there is currently an emphasis of going ‘back to basics’ to teach hard facts with the teacher as a discipline giver. These schools are not only selective, they are also fee paying, so they only admit those whose parents have personally invested thousands of pounds in their educations and who have high expectations for their children in addition to having very few disadvantaged children.


PISA allows comparisons of attainment scores in literacy and numeracy amongst developed countries. Some countries, The UK and Germany have taken the view that there is some value in leading the world league tables however South East Asian countries generally dominate the tables, with Scandinavian countries also doing well. We therefore aim to emulate those high performing countries which not only have high test scores, but high suicide rates amongst students who don’t perform to their families high standards to them. This also encourages a formulaic view of education as we try to emulate parts of the education system of other countries.

(Further reading - http://edgycationalist.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/why-this-blog-and-anything-else-written-about-or-any-policy-based-on-pisa-is-a-complete-waste-of-effort/)

The groups’ key recommendations


The group recommends that education ought to be child-centred and organised with adults as facilitators. That there should be a greater degree of self taught and collaboratively taught lessons with an emphasis on kinaesthetic learning, this is "hands on" learning where children are able to explore how things work. Ideas should be taken from alternative educators such as Steiner, Montessori, Pestalozzi, Froebel and more contemporary researchers such as Sugata Mitra.

The group rejects the current rigid and uncompromising system of education used in the UK which we believe is detrimental to childrens learning and wellbeing and has been shown to impede children’s creativity as thy progress through education. In addition to this we believe it disengages children from learning.

Ownership of Education

In his Ruskin College speech, James Callaghan cited RH Tawney as saying “the endowment of our children is the most precious of the natural resources of this community.” Continuing, “So I do not hesitate to discuss how these endowments should be nurtured.” The view of education as being something that happens to children is getting to be dangerous. Children need to understand that they are educating themselves in ways that are beneficial and interesting to themselves or they will disengage from education. Education therefore needs to allow children to pursue their own interests and curiosities. The current curriculum and standardization is so prescriptive that children have to be discouraged from following their own learning inclinations.

Going forward

While the group have put substantial work into unpicking British Education and agreed on future recommendations, there are some flaws in our recommendations and a lot of scope for re-visiting this topic at a future date. For instance, SEN education was barely touched upon and so it remains to be seen if our model of education would be fully inclusive. Constructive education theories where not touched upon (Vygotsky, 1979) and so we have not discussed to what extent learning would be need to be structured. We did touch upon the problem of evidence based legislation during discussion, and the difficulty of making prevision based on evidence. However as our recommendations are to remove the current exam system it leaves problems with how we evaluate progress, both of individual children but also of the entire system. Whether this would be necessary at all should be subject to future discussion.