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The Impact of the Secretaries of State for Education - Part 1

Who is the most influential person in the English education system? Is it Sir Martyn Oliver? Is it Jack Worth? Is it the Prime Minister? Or is it Daniel Kebede?  It would be fair to argue that it is, in fact, the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan. The Secretary of State (SOS) is responsible for overseeing the entire state education system and it is often their vision, aims and interests which set the direction of travel for the system.  

As there have been no fewer than seven in the last five years, we thought it would be worth exploring the impact the different Secretaries of State for Education have made to the educational landscape and how they have shaped the current system.  

This blog will be split into two parts, with the aim of exploring some of the historical contexts which underpin the education system in England and the changes implemented by various Secretaries of State for Education. Due to the scope of these blogs, it would not be possible to cover the legacy of every SOS for Education, so we will cover some landmark policies, acts and themes which have shaped the education sector in England, then look at the individual secretaries.   

Landmark Education Acts  

The Education Act  1902, also known as the Balfour Act, gave local councils the responsibility for the provision and management of education (Male, 2019). Here we see the precursor to the Local Education Authority (LEA). The Act allowed funds for a denominal religious instruction, here we see the seeds of the mixed religious and secular educational provision we have today (Male, 2019).     

The Education Act 1944, also known as the Bulter Act, sought to address the social and educational needs of the nation after the Second World War. The Act raised the school leaving age to 15 and funded compulsory secondary education.  LEAs, of which there are now 152,  were responsible for providing and overseeing state education, including religious denominated schools (Male, 2019).   

The 1988 Education Reform Act facilitated a seismic shift to the way schools were run. The Act introduced the National Curriculum, standardised tests (SATs), and gave head teachers greater autonomy over their staffing and budgets. Following this we see the ‘marketisation’ of the education system, with parental choice “incentivising competition between schools” (Greany, 2022, p. 249). Governing bodies were established to support accountability measures. Soon after the Act, Ofsted was introduced, in 1992. This “architecture of compliance” (Rayner, 2014) leads Hughes (2020) to argue that the Act fundamentally changed the role of headship, from that of a lead teacher to a more corporate identity. Finally, the ’88 Reform Act sought to devolve power, and thus responsibility, away from the LEA and transfer it the headteacher. The Act saw the rise in the prevailing ideologies of accountability, performativity and autonomy within English education.  The following Education Act (1993) introduced Grant Maintained Schools, the precursor to Academy Trusts.  

Education, Education, Education : New Labour 1997- 2010 

1998 School Standards and Framework Act, introduced by David Blunkett, limited infant class sizes to 30 pupils and banned corporal punishment in all schools.    

2002 The Learning and Skills Act, created City Academies; these were to be sponsored by business partners and used the template of the City Technology College. The term ‘City’ was later dropped allowing more schools to convert to academy status. The model of the academy, with devolved powers and greater autonomy, informed the development of the Charter Schools in the US (Thompson et al., 2021).  

New Labour also introduced the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, these were to have a long-lasting impact on the practice of primary practitioners.  

The role of the ‘quango’ should not be ignored in during this period, surmised by Whitty and Wisby (2016, p. 318), “A notable feature of this policy landscape was the way in which New Labour worked through a number of existing and new ‘quangos’ to take forward its policies, including the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, Training and Development Agency for Schools, and the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency.” Whilst the term ‘quango’ is used less, arms- length and sector bodies are a prominent feature of the landscape today.   

Now that some of the significant Education Acts have been addressed, we will delve into the legacy of each of the following Secretaries of State for Education in Part Two of the blog, which you can read here.

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