Challenges of 21st century education: Past and present reforms

The last two weeks of Exeter University’s FutureLearn open course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education were devoted to key changes that have taken place in the field of education over the last 20 or so years. These changes were discussed mostly in the context of the UK and Europe, but participants were encouraged to add their knowledge and perspectives from their own cultures and countries.

The 20th century in the UK saw the creation of universal education, through the growth of state funded education and the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 16. Following the Education Act in 1944 state-funded secondary education was organised into three type of schools; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to these schools depended on children’s performance in the 11+ exam. Between 1944 and 1965 this tripartite system came to be increasingly criticised for being divisive and leading to educational inequalities. In response to these concerns in 1965 the Labour Government introduced comprehensive schools for secondary aged children, with the aim of providing an entitlement curriculum for all, without selection through financial considerations or attainment. I was at University at this time and remember having long discussions with people of my parents’ generation who were appalled that good grammar schools were being replaced by comprehensive schools. I myself, in my youth, was ‘fired up’ by the thought that comprehensive schools would ensure that any and every child would have an equal opportunity for a good education. Ultimately comprehensive schools were also discredited with comparisons being made between comprehensive and independent schools.

In the FutureLearn course this was illustrated through two YouTube videos – one of Radley College – an independent boys school, and the other of Faraday High School, a state comprehensive.

Radley College

Faraday High School

Personally, I did not think this was a fair comparison to make. My first teaching experience was in an inner city comprehensive and it was nothing like Faraday High School. Faraday High School would be a ‘bad’ school in any circumstances. Evidence from the video suggests that it had incompetent teachers and poor leadership. Nevertheless comprehensives like Faraday High School did exist such that the system failed and led to increasing concern with educational inequalities related to social class and ethnicity, which still exists today, together with additional equality and diversity concerns, such as gender and disability.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, much educational reform in the UK has focussed on a response to these equality and diversity concerns, raising research questions such as:

  • Do schools favour girls?
  • Do schools make the rich richer?
  • Does social class still matter?
  • Is the school system failing black children?

Whilst there are many research articles that deal with these questions separately, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of intersectionality, i.e. that the wide range of different inequalities intersect. For example, a student’s educational experience will not be affected by gender alone, but also by social class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on.

Another question that was asked in these last two weeks of the course was:

    • Is the purpose of school reform to improve international economic competitiveness?

Surprisingly, to me, when course participants were asked this question 54% answered ‘Yes’. I myself had no hesitation in answering ‘No’. For me the first concern of education should always be the learners/students. We should ask ‘how can the system support each individual in realising his/her full potential?’ If this could be achieved then perhaps international economic competitiveness would follow or, better still, lead to educated thinking adults who would question whether international economic competitiveness should be the purpose of education. Some in the course considered my view unrealistic and utopian, since they argued that education is simply a means to an end.

So it seems that my view is not the majority view and certainly the UK’s approach to educational reform in recent years has been based on a belief in the importance of education for international economic competitiveness. Thus some recent key reforms, which are easy to recognise, have focussed on:

  • Accountability and performance management. This has led to increased testing and school inspections, performance based pay and funding, and increasing focus on management. This system rewards success and punishes failure.
  • Competition and markets – league tables, choice for parents, and the marginalisation of collaboration and collective effort. This approach to reform can already be seen to be leading to hierarchies and differences between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students. For example, some middle class parents are prepared to move house to ensure that they are in the catchment area for schools high in the league tables.
  • Increased control over schools and universities – inspections, audits, reviews and evaluations to measure educational performance, all supported by increased capacity to collect and store data. This necessarily neglects aspects of education that cannot be measured.

Most of these educational reforms are being adopted worldwide, and led to Pasi Salhlberg coining the term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Of this acronym-as-analogy, Fuller and Stevenson (2018) write that it:

worked perfectly to describe a phenomenon that Sahlberg identified as both spreading and destructive, behaving “like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus” (Sahlberg, 2012, no page).

and that:

Sahlberg has identified the principal features of the GERM as increased standardisation, a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on core subjects/knowledge, the growth of high stakes accountability and the use of corporate management practices as the key features of the new orthodoxy.

In writing about how Finland views educational reform differently, Pasi Sahlberg questions whether this global education reform movement (GERM) is counter-productive.

In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing. Derek Gillard (2018) in the conclusion to his report writes:

This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England’s children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.

But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:

Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.


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Equality and Human Rights Commission – Is Britain Fairer? (2018)

Fuller, K. and Stevenson, H. (2019) Global education reform: understanding the movement, Educational Review, 71:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718

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