Laws & Policies

From necessity to diversity: Education legislation and policies

We will focus primarily on the development of England’s education system, because the reforms and divergences here have been far greater than elsewhere in the UK. It is important to understand the historical and social contexts that have resulted in the current education landscape with its diverse schools structure and governance policies.

1870-1902: Introducing mass education

There was no ‘education system’ in the UK throughout most of the 19th Century; just those institutions or makeshift classes run by churches and other charitable organisations. As was the case with a great deal of British society at the time, industry and international competitiveness were the driving forces and Parliament was spurred to enact the first of nine Elementary Education Acts in 1870. Scotland had introduced its first Education Act in 1496, but the 1870 Act was the first to provide education for 5 to 12 year olds in England and Wales. This first Elementary Education Act, or ‘Forster Act’ (after William Forster MP), left enforcement of this mandatory tutelage in the hands of locally-elected school boards. Although these boards paid school fees for poor children, universal free education was still a long way off. In fact, in some parts of the country, mass education was seen as the antithesis of what an industrial Britain needed, as it would lead to the disestablishment of social classes.

Almost 20,000 schools were established over the following three decades, with the church running almost three-quarters of them (called ‘voluntary schools’). To standardise and streamline the sprawling school system, Balfour’s Education Act of 1902 replaced the church boards and local school boards with just over 300 Local Education Authorities to administer all schools. Following previous proposals and opposition to formalise secondary education, these new LEAs were also granted the power to create schools for children after they left elementary schools aged 12. The Education Act of 1902 had long reaching effects on the education system and can still be seen today in the likes of Voluntary Controlled schools, where a charitable trust owns the buildings and land, but the local authority employs the staff and manages the admissions process.

The Inter War Years: Introducing infant and junior phases

After the Great War many educationalists began to look beyond the fundamental provision of education and turned their attention to the developmental needs of the children in these schools. The Board of Education – today’s Department for Education – established a consultative committee chaired by Sir William Henry Hadow (the Hadow Committee), which published a series of reports in the late-1920s and early-1930s that revolutionised teaching. The committee’s key proposals promoted the advantages of class sizes not exceeding 30 pupils and saw a distinction made between learning programmes taught to 5-7 year olds (infants) and 7-11 year olds (juniors).

1944: Universal free education

The Butler Act 1944 was the most significant education legislation for 40 years, and would remain as such for another 40. Rab Butler’s education reforms established a tripartite secondary schools system consisting of selective grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools (with comprehensive schools offering a blending of these tiers); As a result, the 11-Plus exam was introduced. The Board of Education became the Ministry of Education and funding for this government department was increased, allowing for genuine free universal education, as well as the introduction of free milk to all schoolchildren under 18. This third-of-a-pint of milk remained until it was withdrawn from secondary schools in 1968 and primary schools in 1971.

1980s: From education sector to education marketplace

Vocational education and training was expanded in the early-1980s through the likes of the Youth Opportunities Programme, Youth Training Scheme and the introduction of National Vocational Qualifications. However, it was the Education Reform Act 1988 that completely changed the face of schooling in England. The National Curriculum, four Key Stages and Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) were introduced, along with league tables. Schools were now competing with each other directly, especially with new funding formulae that included per-pupil elements. The Conservative Government also introduced grant maintained schools that opted-out of (possibly non-Conservative) local authority control and received funding direct from Margaret Thatcher’s education department.

1997: Education, education, education

Tony Blair’s New Labour Government policy has been likened to Conservative ideology and a fair amount of Tory legislation was maintained or built upon. However, grant maintained schools were abolished and either became Foundation Schools or were returned to Local Authority control. New legislation prohibited the establishment of new grammar schools. Amongst a raft of funding and teaching initiatives, New Labour also introduced academies, whereby a sponsor would take over a failing school and receive funds direct from government. The legacy of this new type of school has grown beyond all original intentions.

2010 onwards: The privatisation of education

A little over 100 years after the Balfour Act brought all schools under state control, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat  coalition vigorously promotes the academies programme, encouraging schools to seize upon the governance and financial freedoms offered. Today’s academies come in two forms – converters and sponsor-led, where the former simply chose to become an academy and the latter are typically failing schools taken over by a business or community sponsor. However, these are not the only new type of school. We have also seen the emergence of Free Schools (a variant of academies), Studio Schools and University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Business and higher education institutions are taking a far greater interest in school-age education as a skills shortage is increasingly apparent as the UK competes in the world market.

The extension of compulsory education in England
Forster Act 1870 – compulsory to age 12
Fisher Act 1918 – compulsory to age 14
Butler Act 1944 – compulsory to age 15
RoSLA 1964 – compulsory to age 16
Education & Skills Act 2008 – compulsory to age 17 (by 2013) and 18 (by 2015)

Schools administration

Of course, no public body is safe from paperwork and, depending on the type of school they are, England’s state and independent schools must hold up to 23 readily-available policy documents. For example, maintained schools must publish and regularly update each of the policies listed below. Academies (including Free Schools) are required to have 17 of these and even independent schools must maintain 9 of them.

Statutory Policies Required by Education Legislation

  • Charging & Remissions
  • Performance Management
  • School Behaviour
  • Sex Education
  • Special Educational Needs
  • Teachers Pay

Statutory Policies Required by Other Legislation

  • Data Protection
  • Health & Safety

Other Statutory Documents

  • Admissions Arrangements
  • Accessibility Plan
  • Central Record of Recruitment & Vetting Checks
  • Complaints Procedure
  • Freedom of Information
  • Governors’ Allowances (schemes for paying)
  • Governors’ Annual Report to Parents
  • Home-School Agreement
  • Instrument of Government
  • Minutes of (& Papers Considered at) Governing Body Meetings
  • Premises Management
  • Publication of Equality Information & Objectives
  • Register of Business Interests (of Headteacher & Governors)
  • Register of Pupils
  • Staff Conduct, Discipline & Grievances