Education Reform in Britain

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While President Bush's education summit and school reform in general have been in the news in the United States, Britain has launched its own massive, national program of school improvement. These reforms, affecting England and Wales, are the most radical since World War II and may well redefine the nature and organization of British schools for decades to come.

Compared with current efforts in the United States, the British movement is more unified, more extensive, and further along, though both nations are seeking to change schools in similar ways. The new policies in Britain in fact appear to be setting in motion two very different and conflicting programs--one toward privatization and the other toward nationalization of schools. One might even argue that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has legislated school improvements from both ends of the political spectrum, attempting to deregulate and decentralize schools on the one hand while reregulating and recentralizing them on the other.

If these contradictions sound confusing, imagine how some educators and parents must feel as they try to respond to both types of programs at once. Privatization probably holds the greatest promise for long-term reform, but the governing bodies involved seem loath to let go and allow schools and families to operate more independently.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 and several earlier laws in Britain sought to decentralize and privatize education, introducing free enterprise, competition, and initiative into the provision of school services--goals not unlike those of Presidents Reagan and Bush. Privatization has been a keystone of the government's economic program since 1979, when Mrs. Thatcher took office and began selling or denationalizing such institutions as British Airways, public housing, British Telecom, and most recently, the public water company. Infusing "market forces'' and business values into schooling, the government believed, would broaden parental choice and improve the quality of schools.

The results have been dramatic. Today, parents can select from a wide range of schools without regard to location. For example, in one education authority (school district), the borough of Brent, some 30 percent of families elected to transfer their children to schools in other authorities--and thus sent local schools a strong message to improve and win back their patrons. Parents have also gained the majority vote on the governing boards of all primary and secondary schools in Britain--much as is happening in Chicago, which, as part of its own reform effort, recently elected local school councils with parent majorities.

Authority is increasingly being given to schools and taken away from central bureaucracies. For instance, Britain's largest education authority, the Inner London district, will be dissolved in April 1990 to form 13 separate and smaller borough units, a shift that will likely result in more control for school-site leaders and less for district bureaucrats. In fact, all British schools are now experimenting with "local management of schools," a strategy that devolves decision-making authority to local staffs and governors. Moreover, the Education Reform Act requires that 75 percent of all local education funds be spent in schools, thus cutting resources for the central offices. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett advocated just such a move to reduce the so-called "blob" and provide additional funds for schools.

Privatization has created a new category of schools that are publicly funded but independently governed. In addition to American-style magnet schools, run by local education authorities, the Conservative government has also helped start "city technology colleges." These high-tech secondary schools for inner-city students are launched with resources from industry and government, managed by an independent board of directors, and funded by the national government. But most radical of all, perhaps, are the new "grant maintained" schools--those allowed to "opt out" of the state sector and become autonomously operated, nationally funded institutions. Sixteen such schools have already left the system this year; 30 more are set for 1990, and others are likely to follow.

The creation of the city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools is based on the assumption that privatization and self-governance are preferable to a sheltered life in a local school bureaucracy; that going private--a kind of leveraged buyout in education--offers a better chance to meet students' needs and parental preferences than does state-controlled education.

At the same time, however, the government has taken measures to nationalize schools. Some centralization of power was to be expected, for how else could a national system of schools be changed? But the government appears to have gone further than merely legislating strong policies and has placed the national bureaucracy squarely in the British schoolhouse. It has nationalized and privatized simultaneously.

For example, reform legislation mandates a comprehensive national curriculum, including 11 "foundation subjects": mathematics, English, science, history, geography, art, music, physical education, modern language, technology, and religious education. This curriculum is buttressed by testing in these areas for all children at ages 7, 9, 11, and 13; students already have tests at ages 16 and 18.

The effects of nationalizing the curriculum may be twofold. First, bureaucratic requirements could overwhelm the much-publicized local management of schools, forcing governors, headteachers (principals), and teachers to fill out oceans of forms and consuming time and energy that might better be spent on education. Second, and more seriously, a prescribed curriculum is likely to standardize programs, monopolizing as much as 80 percent of children's time in school and severely restricting the very choices that privatization was designed to offer.

While some beefing up of the curriculum in many schools is probably useful, the government may be undercutting its own efforts to privatize. If all schools suddenly offer the same program, what good are parental choice and local management of schools? How diverse can magnet schools and specialized technology colleges be when all students must study the same curriculum, whatever their interests, talents, and needs? By comparison, American magnet schools, though in most cases adhering to state curricular requirements, reserve up to 45 percent of their time for study of special subjects of interest to students.

One headteacher described what it is like to be on the line during school reform in Britain. His school, he said, was smothered by a "blizzard of paper" sent out by the national government requesting information about the procedures for testing children under the new curriculum, the teaching targets that teachers would use in implementing it, the training needs of teachers, and the headteacher's plan for local management.

In addition, the headteacher explained that the school's board of governors and many parents were interested in "opting out," mainly because the local education authority wanted to close the school and the parents hoped to keep it open. He had to prepare more reports for the government explaining the case for grant-maintained status--a long and arduous process--while still working amicably with officials of the local authority, just in case the request to opt out was denied.

When his school's request for grant-maintained status was accepted, he suddenly found himself running on his own a school that for years had been operated by the local authority. Now local leadership took on new meaning: The school worked or failed by the skill of its head and governors.

Educators are learning that change requires a willingness to work long days and nights, an ability to handle ambiguity and contradictions, and the savvy to respond to diverse constituencies.

The opportunities for improvement are there, but so are hazards--the confusion of a government trying to grant authority to schools and hold on to it, too. Bureaucrats will be bureaucrats: They manage somehow to centralize even the most radical forms of decentralization, controlling while appearing to devolve authority.

Perhaps Britain might take a cue from the approach now favored in the United States and set national performance standards and goals--with testing and other performance indicators and results made public--but not attempt a national curriculum, with all its attendant paperwork, regulation, and control. At the same time, we can learn from Britain as that nation attempts the most radical privatization yet seen in education.

Vol. 09, Issue 10, Page 32

Published in Print: November 8, 1989, as Education Reform in Britain
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