Educational Inequalities in the United Kingdom: A Critical Analysis of the Discourses and Policies of New Labour

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This paper explores the intentions and attempts of the New Labour government in the United Kingdom (UK) to challenge educational inequalities. It begins with an overview of Third Way philosophy and New Labour s commitment to social justice and social inclusion, then moves on to examine three policy themes in some detail: the economising of education; support for ability setting and selection; and policy related to widening participation in higher education. The paper highlights the contradictions in New Labour educational policies and pronouncements, and concludes that current policy developments are likely to reinforce rather than ameliorate educational inequalities.

Introduction

The education system in Britain has long been seen both to reflect and reproduce inequalities. Campaigns by the trade union, socialist and women's movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries drew attention to the exclusivity of secondary and higher education, and on-going concerns about the educational opportunities and achievements of working-class children and young people were reflected in a range of government policy initiatives during the last century. The provision of secondary education for all, the introduction of comprehensive schools (1), and the raising of the school leaving age could all be seen as policies aimed to reduce inequalities and widen opportunities for working-class young people.

The story is not, however, one of linear progress towards greater educational equality. Almost two decades of Conservative role from 1979 to 1997, the prominence of the `New Right' and the valorisation of the market contributed to an increasing individualisation of society and renewed threats to equality (Hutton, 1996). A Treasury report published in 1999 noted: `Over the last twenty years not only has the gap between the richest and the poorest increased, but the amount of movement between income groups has been limited. What is more, damaged life chances perpetuate across the generations' (HM Treasury, 1999, p.5, cited in Ball, Maguire, & Macrae, 2000). Educational inequalities not only persist, but in some cases have increased. Economic disadvantage is linked with low levels of achievement (Kennedy, 1997), and `since the late 1980s the attainment gap between the highest and lowest social classes has widened' (Gillborn & Mirza, 2000, p. 18). Educational opportunities and achievements reflect not only class, but also ethnicity and gender inequalities with, for example, African-Caribbean boys, and Pakistani and Bangladeshi gifts and boys doing less well overall than their white counterparts.

New Labour--new priorities: Discourses of social justice and social inclusion

New Labour came to power in 1997 in a dramatic victory over the previous Tory administration, bringing with it new commitments to education, social justice and inclusion. Soon after gaining office, the Social Exclusion Unit was formed, which reported directly to the Prime Minister through the Cabinet Office, with the explicit aim of formulating policy to cut across the traditional boundaries of government departments and contribute to `joined up thinking' about social issues. In a review of New Labour educational policies, Fielding (1999) noted that, among the reviewers, `there is genuinely felt goodwill and substantial admiration for the degree of commitment and tenacity shown by the new administration: this is a government that clearly cares about a positive, challenging educational experience for all students' (p. 179).

This was not, however, simply a continuation of previous Labour administrations' policies. Tony Blair (1998), leader of the party, was concerned to articulate a `Third Way' for `the new politics `which the progressive centre-left is forging in Britain and beyond' (p. 1). It is a politics which sets out to move beyond both the old Left and New Right:

 
   It is about traditional values in a changed world. …