Post-14 education: what next after 13 years New Labour?

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

BERA social justice seminar  Birmingham City University 10/06/10

Despite the continued administrative separation of schools under the resurrected Department of Education from post-compulsory provision (17+ in 2013 and 18+ after 2015) with F&HE plus adult and training still funded from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, English education and training still has to be analysed as a whole. This is our approach in presenting the situation of the so-called Lost Generation? (Ainley and Allen 2010) of students, trainees and young unemployed and it is our approach in this paper. Post-14 remains the critical phase in the articulation of this ‘system’.

Post-14 education and training remained a central component of New Labour policy throughout its 13 years of office.  The ‘Curriculum 2000’ reforms tried to make A-levels more accessible and to reduce, if not remove, the differences in status between academic and vocational routes by bringing them into a common framework – the latter being redefined as ‘applied’ learning. As part of a commitment to ‘lifelong learning’, New Labour also sought to create new levels of participation in higher education.

Increasing the rate of participation and performance was seen by the former-government as essential for economic survival. In the new globalised economy, Keynesian ‘demand side’ management had to give way to a concentration on the supply side (Ainley and Allen 2010, 30) and so education continued to substitute for economic policy, as in fact it had since 1987 (Ainley 2001). Only now, obsessional targeting aimed at increasing the supply of ‘skills’ certified by qualifications.

Education was also presented as the engine of social mobility. New economic conditions offered more opportunities for those with high level qualifications at the expense of those without, as the number of low skilled jobs was predicted to dwindle. Compared to the post-war period, as Gordon Brown argued in his first speech on education as Prime Minister at Greenwich University on 1/11/07, the 21st century economy had ‘more room at the top’.

If judged in terms of its own criteria, then in many respects New Labour policy was successful. Pass rates at both GCSE and A-level rose to levels that would have been previously considered unimaginable, the number of students obtaining 5 GCSEs at A-C grade reaching 67% in 2009 – a 20% increase since 1997. As staying on became the norm, A-level entries approached 840,000 with pass rates of 97%. Finally, 44.5% of 18-30 year-olds (47% of women, 42% of men) now participate in higher education with many graduates obtaining the once rare first class degree and over half obtaining upper-seconds. Whether any of this has increased ‘quality’ is doubtful and it certainly does not represent a new found enthusiasm for learning amongst ‘overschooled but undereducated’ youth who are ‘studying more but learning less’. (See section on ‘Alienated learning’ in Ainley and Allen o.c. 97-8.)

Elsewhere, despite a huge financial outlay, parts of New Labour post-14 policy did not fare so well. The specialist diplomas were an expensive disaster, while whole areas like FE were largely ignored. As is the case in all sectors of education, teachers and lecturers were plagued by a culture of targeting and performance management and their professional autonomy severely curtailed. If it raised participation and ‘standards’, New Labour has not reduced inequalities within education while post-compulsory education has been largely marketised. Neither was New Labour able to use education as the agent for the social mobility it suggested. As we argue below, declining rates of mobility are consequent upon changes in the occupational structure rather than changes in the education system.

Widening participation to HE exemplifies this. Although its target of 50% of 18-30 year olds was nearly met for women at least and it proved popular with parents who saw their children being given ‘chances’ they did not have, as an authoritative summary of the results of this initiative declares, ‘systemic and systematic forms of inequality for individuals and institutions across subjects and levels of education have increased since 2000’ (David 2009, 150 with original emphasis). Indeed, the entrenched tertiary tripartism between Russell, Campus and New universities reflects exactly the polarising divisions in society, so that the phase of widening participation now drawing to a close, far from ‘professionalising the proletariat’ as it promised, may only have served to soften up the system for a free-market in fees differentiated by subject and institution.

Conservative Priorities

Compared to when Labour was in opposition, the Tories published little about their policies for schools and even less about F&HE. Michael Gove’s speech to the Centre for Policy Studies (06/11/09) is probably the most detailed of his contributions forming the basis of his ‘comprehensive programme for education’ ( While Tory proposals for ‘free schools’ and a ‘pupil premium’ have received most attention, Gove has a longer term project for reshaping the post-14 curriculum and for widening the academic and vocational divide so that giving schools more ‘freedoms’ could be seen as a precondition for these more general priorities for teaching and learning.

Claiming that centralised control has led to ‘dumbing down’, one of Gove’s main priorities is to restore a more traditional academic curriculum. Denouncing the growth of ‘soft subjects’ at GCSE and A-level as a ‘flight from quality’ (Telegraph 18/11/2008), Gove has continued his attack on the way in which under New Labour  A-levels and GCSEs were deliberately made easier so that targets could be met. As well as schools more independent of LEAs, Gove also wants the upper secondary curriculum to resemble that of private and grammar schools – in this respect he has an enthusiastic follower in ‘free schooler’ Toby Young, who is planning a ‘comprehensive grammar’ in Acton, west London, providing what he refers to as a ‘classical liberal curriculum for all’ (in debate with NUT Deputy Secretary Kevin Courtney, Ealing 23/4/10).

These longer term curriculum objectives will act as a framework for more specific policies, such as increasing the involvement of top universities in the development of exam syllabuses, changing the content of subjects like history and English, encouraging the introduction of alternative qualifications like the Cambridge Pre-U and allowing all schools to teach the International GCE (IGCE) – something included in the first policy document published by Cameron and Clegg on 20th May. Though many elite schools still continue with the standard GCSE and hope that the new A* grades will allow new forms of differentiation between their students and those from the state sector (50% of all A-grades are achieved by students in independent schools), these qualifications constitute the beginnings of a new ‘upper track’ and a direct route into Russell universities.

It is therefore almost inevitable that – urged on by the Russell Group – the Lib-Cons will accept the recommendations of the Browne review and raise fees for 2011 entry variable by course and institution to create a free market in undergraduate HE to match that already existing for postgraduates and overseas students. This is notwithstanding the previous anti-fees policy of the Lib Dems for whom so many students apparently voted. Indeed, with customers queuing to get into HE, it would be irrational from a business point of view not to raise fees as high as possible.

Redefining the ‘vocational’

Gove’s ‘cultural restoration’ is seriously at odds with the utilitarian justifications of New Labour’s ‘standards agenda’ which contracted out education as a franchise with targets to raise levels of performance under a centralised Education Plc (Ball 2007, Green and Ainley 1995) on the new market-state model (Bobbitt 2002). However, claiming to relate education to the economy did not prevent Labour policy becoming the target for attacks by employers with Tesco Chief Executive Timothy Leahy (Daily Mail, 14/10/2009) lambasting schools for not providing ‘the skills that supermarkets need’.

Conservative proposals for reforming vocational learning are relatively under developed, comprising a series of statements on the need to make vocational learning more practical and (even more) specifically related to employer demand. If Tory fondness for traditional academic education was integral to the New Right education of the 1980s, then this ‘hands on tools’ approach towards vocational learning, couldn’t be more different to those of the ‘Conservative modernisers’ (Jones, 1989) who sought to use the Manpower Services Commission to create a ‘new vocationalism’ based around developing a more generic approach to learning – an approach that informed more recent vocational initiatives like GNVQ. Gove has also shown his contempt for vocational qualifications by implying that school league tables should not include them. Even if priority funding is withdrawn, the government are unlikely to abolish the diplomas as in his CPS speech Gove argued that ‘the vocational diplomas might be salvaged’ but the new lines in humanities, languages and sciences – due to start in September 2011 – will be withdrawn. The Tories have also pledged to treble the number of Young Apprenticeships and lift the cap on schools offering ‘this valued course’. The clearest example however, of how vocational education will become a separate and more distinctive activity can be seen in Tory endorsement of Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges – referred to as ‘technical academies’ in the May 20th Cameron/Clegg policy statement as they will be set up through the academies programme but represent a return to 1944 ideas about separate schools for different types of students.

The Tories say little about FE. Despite 16-19 funding being ‘ring fenced’, this sector will continue to experience reduced resources and be forced to reduce staffing levels with continued college mergers and closures. Already becoming ‘tertiary modern’ institutions, FE colleges will remain a dumping ground for increasing numbers of working-class students falling foul of Gove’s new school system. While Gove will likely make it easier for ‘non-academic’ students to transfer to college, schools being given greater powers to suspend and expel students can only intensify the poor relation status of FE as many of these students could also end up there. In the absence of any serious interest from employers, FE will continue to compete with private training providers to run ‘apprenticeships without jobs’ in the cut-back public sector where – as with the 1980s YTS – many young people spend much of their time in college simulations rather than in the workplace. 

Education – a growing crisis of legitimacy?

The new government also faces serious, systemic economic crisis manifested in rising youth unemployment. The purchasing power of qualifications thus continues to decline with a mismatch between what it is assumed a young person with a particular set of qualifications can look forward to and the realities of the labour market. Consequently, as we argue, for many young people, education is like running up a down escalator, where you have to run faster and faster just to stand still (Ainley & Allen 73). The economic downturn has intensified the extent of this ‘underemployment’ but is not the cause of it.

While it cannot be disputed that there has been an increase in white-collar work, the sorts of new managerial and professional opportunities that globalisation was supposed to provide have not materialised. Statistics show that in recent years the opportunities for absolute social mobility have declined (Ainley & Allen 79). Thus, rather than the post-war occupational pyramid being replaced by an expanding ‘middle’ to form a diamond, the middle has hollowed out and the class structure has gone ‘pear shaped’ (81). The supposed shift towards the ‘knowledge worker’ has remained a fantasy with an overestimation of the number of high skilled jobs required. One quarter of all jobs are now paid at less than two thirds of the average wage and since 2005 the richest 10% have enjoyed a 45% increase in the weekly wage while the bottom 10% have experienced a £9 fall (82).

Figures also show 17.9% of the 18-24 year olds classified as ‘economically active’ unable to find a job with over 25% out of work for a year. (For 16/17 year olds the figure is over 30%.) The new government has already signalled its intentions to wind down the ‘jobs fund’ – a scheme where employers, generally in the public and voluntary sectors, received subsidies for offering jobs to young people for six months. As a result, it is quite understandable that young people will continue to queue up in large numbers for higher education as it is still true that graduates earn more than non-graduates and Russell graduates more still. There continues to be debate about just how much of a premium graduates will enjoy however, for while the relative advantages of being a graduate might hold up in a ‘labour queue’ for employment, the ratio between graduate earnings and graduate costs will fall as the balance between well-paid permanent employment and casualised ‘Mcjobs’ continues to tilt.

In response to a 10% rise in UCAS applications New Labour agreed to fund up to 20,000 additional HE places for 2010. The new government has reduced this to 10,000. With the number of applications rumoured to be even higher this year – including those reapplying from last year, thousands of students could be forced to take an unplanned ‘gap year’. With up to a third of graduates considering they are over qualified for their jobs and as graduates move into non-graduate jobs, the incomes of those with lower level qualifications are suppressed still further as they are forced to look for lower paid employment whilst many young people cannot find work at all.

With thousands of young people, including graduates weighed down with student debts, unable to afford to leave their parental home, if not being a ‘lost generation’, many are increasingly aware that they are ‘stuck’. Rather than experiencing a ‘delayed transition’ to adulthood, they may not be able to make a transition at all. Yet young people are unlikely to continue to put up with this state of affairs indefinitely. Rather than driving a ‘learning society’, for more and more young people education – already becoming a largely instrumental affair – in the absence of work is a major means of social control (Mizen 2004). It is in danger of losing its legitimacy and experiencing its own ‘creditability crunch’ (Ainley and Allen, 68 and 163). This provides huge challenges for socialists and radicals, but in particular for organisations like the NUT and UCU. (And the NUS for that matter.) As we argue (160) developing new strategies for youth and education also requires new sorts of working relationships between students and practitioners.


Ainley, P. (2001) ’The New Leviathan in Education and Training in England’ in The Journal of Social Policy, Vol.30, No.3, 2001, pp.457 – 476.

Ainley, P. and Allen, M. (2010) Lost Generation?  New Strategies for Youth and Education, London:  Continuum.

Ball, S. (2007) Education Plc: Understanding private sector participation in public sector education, London: Routledge.

Bobbitt, P. (2002) The Shield of Achilles, War, Peace and the Course of History, London: Allen Lane.

David, M. ed. (2009) Improving learning by widening participation in higher education, London: Routledge.

Green, A. & Ainley, P. (1995) The Implications for Schools and Colleges of Raising the National Target Levels, a report to the National Advisory Council on Education and Training Targets.

Jones, K. (1989) Right Turn, London: Hutchinson.

Mizen, P. (2004) the changing state of youth, Basingstoke: Palgrave.


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