A Race to the Bottom? No Country Is Pursuing Education Reform with Such Speed and Breadth as England. Is This Because of Stagnant Achievement or Politics?

By Mansell, Warwick | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2012 | Go to article overview

A Race to the Bottom? No Country Is Pursuing Education Reform with Such Speed and Breadth as England. Is This Because of Stagnant Achievement or Politics?


Mansell, Warwick, Phi Delta Kappan


Education policy making in England is a whirligig--a constantly spinning plaything for politicians where the only thing that stays the same is the sense of change. I wonder, in fact, if any country is reforming on as many fronts simultaneously, at such a pace, as we are.

Consider the following. Two-and-a-half years into the current government (i.e. halfway through), England is now midway into a review of the national curriculum, the government framework that regulates what millions of five- to 16-year-old students are taught. This is likely to lead to serious change, with primary school pupils in particular being taught more demanding topics in mathematics earlier in their school careers, although it's still unclear how teachers will be trained for this.

National politicians are also changing the main school exam for 16-year-olds, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Two major reforms to the GCSE announced last year call for more emphasis on spelling and grammar (multiple choice papers are still a relative rarity here) and scaling back dramatically students' ability to retake tests in order to improve their GCSE scores.

Then, this summer news leaked that ministers wanted to go further and replace the entire current GCSE system beginning in 2014 with something that appeared to herald the return of a two-tier system, replaced in England in the 1980s, in which more "academic" students took one set of exams and less academically oriented teenagers took another.

Since then, the start date for these latest exam changes has been delayed until 2015, but this still seems to leave little time to test the exams in depth before implementation. The political timetable may be influencing the scheduling of this major initiative since the next general election is likely to be in 2015, and the current Conservative-led administration isn't doing well in opinion polls.

Meanwhile, this reform also seems poised to end what's existed in England since World War II: A range of competing private or charitable organizations, called exam boards, have offered tests from which schools are free to choose. Under a new arrangement, each exam board will have to submit plans to the government to run tests in a range of subjects to schools across England beginning in 2015. The Secretary of State will decide which board runs the exam in each subject, so only one board will offer exams in each subject.

Race to the bottom?

The idea behind this switch is what's tartly referred to as a "race to the bottom" where, the current government claims, the boards have been competing for schools' business by making their exams easier to pass.

Ministers are also reforming exams for 18-year-olds (A-levels), drastically tightening school accountability, encouraging and in some cases forcing schools to move toward a form of governance called academy status (similar to charter schools), with academies operating outside the influence of local authorities. Since the 2010 election, more than 2,000 schools have converted to academy status, drawn in part by the seemingly better public funding for academies, so that about half of secondary schools and 5% of primaries are now academies. The government also wants to encourage parents and private education providers to create new schools as part of a "free school" reform modelled after similar policy reforms in Sweden. Ministers want fewer teachers to be trained in universities, too, so they're encouraging school-based teacher education.

The government also has scrapped a requirement that teachers in academies have undergone teacher training or be enrolled in a course to enable them to gain qualified teacher status. The government argues that these schools need the flexibility to hire experts from industry, for example, who might not be qualified as teachers.

And, in case you missed it, in perhaps the largest shake-up of university education ever to take place in England, the government allowed universities to nearly triple student fees to [pounds sterling]9,000 ($14,412) a year beginning with this school year, a move that brought violent protests to London's streets when the policy was announced. …

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