Changing structure, changing experiences: how policy effects reverberate through secondary‐school students’ life chances
Abstract The 1988 Education Reform Act for England and Wales reshaped relationships between government, local authorities and schools by legislating for national curricula, national assessment and formula funding. What in the 1944 Education Act had been typified as a partnership (albeit an unequal one) between these three corporate bodies??each with a different role??was redefined as a quasi?market of competition and choice within a centralized system of control and accountability. Alongside this went continuing efforts to make education more vocationally relevant. Here we consider how such policy changes reverberate in the lives of secondary?school students. Following a review of shifting policy priorities since the 1960s, we illustrate our case with evidence from a 4?year longitudinal study of around 85 English secondary?school students. Significant in our findings have been our observations of the way each year of secondary schooling constitutes a structured transitional state, each with its respective pattern of differentiation. We adopt the concept of ?life chances?, seen as the differential capacities students bring into schools, to show how these are reflected in and reinforced by the way the 14?year?olds reacted to Standard Assessment Tests and options and the 15?year?olds found work experience. We show how recent changes to GCSE increasingly operate to differentiate between ?winners? and ?losers? at 16+. Dependent upon family as well as school for sources of information and support, individual students navigate their way, develop their personal aspirations and make choices in situations of which they understand little. We conclude that the widening of social divisions which has characterized the last decade or so of social policy is structured into the legislation designed to reform schooling. Whilst the innovations have been typified as a quasi?market, designed to drive up standards through competition, there are also consequences more reminiscent of the counter?productive ?manpower (sic) planning? policies of the mid?century. We call for a national, participative, democratic debate on the kind of education required by citizens of the twenty?first century.