Standards deviation

What seems normal now may one day appear peculiar. And many contemporary oddities will become the norm. Yet in the moment we are not very good at predicting which will be which.

Education, and schools in particular, suffer this mallady. For example, about 70 years ago it was generally accepted that there was a natural cap on the proportion of the UK population who had the aptitude for university study. At most, it was believed, 5% of the population were born endowed to reach such academic heights. Today, around 50% of school and college leavers enter higher education, a level that would have been mind blowing to that earlier generation.

What could not be dreamt of then passes by today with little comment.

For some time, I’ve been interested to know how recent our current enthusiasm for school improvement is, and how it came to be. I have a sense that it has become more entrenched in the three decades or so since I left school. I also have a hunch that the beliefs about school improvement which we take for granted today may have been perceived as strange to generations of the distant past.

Why must we strive to keep getting better? Why is ‘the school’ the focus of these efforts? You may think these are ludicrous questions. Of course students are entitled to the best possible education. Of course schools should constantly strive to improve.

But it is the ‘of course’ that piques my interest. Why are these things a matter of course? What made them so? Are these eternal and universal beliefs, or were they once novel? If the latter, then when and how did these beliefs come about?

I found some answers to these questions in ‘The crisis of meritocracy’ by Peter Mendler. In the book, Mendler argues that the widespread interest in ‘school standards’ has gradually emerged alongside widening participation in education since the second World War. It is not that parents of children attending school before then did not care about the quality of education received, more that, for the majority, education offered little in terms of a better future. The rigid class system largely determined your child’s place in society and education was not seen as the route to a ‘better life’. However, as participation in secondary and higher education grew, so did the belief that school and university might offer access to opportunities that had previously been out of reach, so the ‘quality’ of what was offered began to matter to more than an elite few.

What was the scale of change in participation?

A story of three generations

The 1944 Butler Act is seen as the birth of mass education in the UK. It mandated secondary education for all. Secondary education until this point had been the preserve of an elite who accessed grammar schools, the route to prestigious universities and professional occupations. Before WWII, only 4% of the population stayed in education beyond the age of 16, and fewer than 1% studied at university.

For my parents’ generation (born shortly after the war), participation rates were better, but not much. In 1962, 15% stayed on at 16 and by the mid-60s around 8% entered higher education. It was no wonder my Dad left his secondary modern school at 14 for an apprenticeship. My Mum, who had, unusually for her background, passed the 11+ and secured a grammar school place, had no aspirations for academia and left to study ballet. (It was not until mid-life that she secured her degree and she was retired before completing a PhD)

For me, one of the last cohort to take O Levels and CSEs in 1987, the goalposts had moved considerably. That year, 50% of 16 year olds stayed on to study at Sixth Form of college. I scraped across the threshold and was allowed to take two A Levels. By the time I had finished college in 1989, still only 15% entered university. I did not jump that hurdle and ended up instead in an FE college, for lack of the imagination or motivation to do anything else.

At this time, participation rates for higher education were about to accelerate rapidly. By the time I had finished my HND and spent a couple of years on the dole or working in dead-end jobs, university participation had doubled (to 30% in 1993). It was at this point that I found my mojo and (fortunately with the help of affluent parents) joined up to secure a ‘top up’ degree with teacher training.

For my children (aged 16 and 18 at the time of writing) the landscape has been transformed. The vast majority stay on post-16, most to do level 3 qualifications. Around 50% progress to university.

In three generations, staying on at 16 has moved from being an expectation for a tiny minority to a significant majority, and participation in higher education has shifted from 8% to 50%. The signs are that participation will continue to rise.

And with this transformation in participation has also come a change in the way we perceive education. Where once secondary and higher education was a birthright for an elite, it has become a basic right of citizenship. Moreover, it has become an accepted feature of modern life – a right of passage. For my eldest daughter starting university this year, higher education offers not just a degree but a bridge from childhood to adulthood. For many, it has become the place where they learn their independence and lay the foundation for adult life. And so the schooling which came before it is an access route to more education.

For my parents, secondary school was an extension of education: a preparation for work, not further study. For me it was a happy accident of my middle class upbringing. For my children, it is an entitlement, not a privilege.

Mass education has become normalised. But what is the mechanism by which this normalisation creates such a thirst for standards and, ergo, school improvement?

Is education an investment good or a consumption good?

For participation to reach the levels it has reached there must be a demand for secondary and higher education, but there must also be an ability to meet this demand. Which drove this expansion? Was there a rising or unmet demand which was increasingly met with education opportunity or did the provision of education create an interest and desire for the nation’s children to stay in education for longer?

If you want a nuanced and detailed answer to these questions, I suggest you read Mendler’s book. But the short answer, as you might expect, is ‘a bit of both’.

To understand the forces which led to such fundamental changes in participation it helps to understand two ways that education may be viewed economically. The first is to see it as an investment good. This view suggests that spending on education today will lead to more economic growth in the future. This belief is sometimes referred to as ‘human capital theory’. It has been a mainstay of economic thought for some time.

Human capital theory has driven governments to increase the compulsory age of participation over time and to promote staying on at 16 and 18. As the structure of the UK economy changed in the decades after WWII, the ‘need’ for the future workforce to be more educated and skilled to service emerging office-based occupations was almost universally recognised. This ‘meeting of need’ flipped in the late 1950s such that education became seen as a driver of structural economic reform and prosperity, not the servant of it.

However, human capital theory is not without its critics. For the causal claim that education leads to economic growth to fully stack up it would be necessary to show that the knowledge and skills acquired through education contribute to productivity gains in industry. In some cases this is demonstrably the case – a degree in computer programming may indeed, if it leads to a career in programming, offer a great deal of value to the economy. However, how often do degrees and future careers match this closely? For example, a friend of mine appears to make little use of his history degree in running his cleaning company!

At the radical end of this argument is Brian Caplan who, in his book ‘The Case Against Education’, convincingly argues that education is little more than a sorting mechanism to allocate people to jobs, but that the overall level of education for the population adds very little aside from basic literacy and numeracy and some specific technical occupations. Caplan’s claim is that the increasing levels of participation in higher education offer very few economic benefits at all and that higher participation is a consequence of rising incomes, not a cause of them. In other words, education is not an investment good at all but a consumption good! The wealthier we get, the more education we wish to consume.

Mendler makes a similar argument by examining the evidence for rising participation as being the result of rising demand by individuals in an increasingly consumerist society. But why would parents demand to ‘consume’ more education (or at least for their children to do so)?

First, as new employment opportunities opened up, parents became aware of the opportunity for upward mobility – for their children to exceed their own social status and income level. The entitlement to secondary education legislated in 1944 and, later, the idealism brought about by the creation of a comprehensive education system arguably fueled a meritocratic expectation in the population. There was a ladder to climb!

Second, as mass participation in secondary education became normalised, the benefits of consumption became considered as a right of citizenship: the experience of learning, the opportunity to socialise and be socialised, and the privilege of avoiding the workplace. Over time, secondary education, and then higher education, increasingly became a part of growing up.

Third, as access to higher education grew there was a reason to ‘achieve’ at school as places at university were competitive, but not out of reach for many, particularly the middle classes (whose numbers grew steadily alongside economic prosperity).

Fourth, as one generation benefitted from more education than their parents, so the next expected at least as much.

And so these two forces of supply and demand fed off each other. On the one hand, government funded and legislated for increasing places, keen to achieve economic growth in an increasingly competitive global economy, whilst demand among the population to consume more education could hardly be satiated. Aside from a period of stagnant growth in the 1970s and 80s, the move towards mass education seemed, and still seems, unstoppable.

The ‘standards’ discourse

Throughout the period from the second World War to today, the ‘standards’ discourse has become steadily louder.

Early on, the promise of secondary education for all prompted a protectionist instinct for supporters of the elite grammar school system. There was a fear that ‘more means worse’. By the 1960s, the ‘working class boys’ who allegedly brought indiscipline to the new comprehensive schools were rounded upon and used by those calling for a return to grammar school expansion. A call for ‘standards’ was a call for a return to elitism, and today it sometimes still is.

Once mass education became the expectation, parents, now accustomed to the ‘right’ to send their children to school for longer, now demanded that this education be of a particular standard. This demand is a natural progression in a consumerist society. When we are hungry, we demand to be fed. Once we are fed, we want that food to taste better and be better for us. This call was recognised by Callaghan in the 1970s who echoed the dictum: ‘What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children’.

In society, the past deference to authority that had been a feature of British society gradually gave way to individualism. Parents increasingly wanted their children to access economic rewards and the way to achieve this was to achieve well in the national examinations at 16 and 18. Schools were increasingly expected to serve this need. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, parents were given a voice in their child’s education through PTAs and places on governing boards, then access to privileged information about standards through the publication of previously confidential inspection reports and league tables of exam results. By the late 80s, parents were even given choice over which school to send their children to, but what parents wanted more than choice was for their local school to be good enough.

It is arguably the forces unleashed through consumerism which have driven the standards discourse more than a government drive for improved human capital. In increasing the supply of education, successive governments have unleashed a desire which can only be satisfied through more and better education. But as Caplan points out, there are only so many places at the top. Education remains a selection mechanism for societal privilege. Even if we educate the population until they are 25 or 30 years old, and even if we make every school and university exceptional, there will be winners and losers. Infinite demand cannot be satisfied where societal rewards are scarce.

The standards rhetoric has yet to peak. But what has changed is that prosperity is no longer growing. Since 2008, the economy has stagnated and with it the promise of more space at the top. This has led to a frustration in the discourse as parents realise that to access rewards their children must scramble ahead of their peers. Government have responded by being increasingly ‘tough on standards’ and flirting once again with selection in the hope that middle class parents may be distracted by choice; a rhetoric which once again has fallen flat.

In the last decade, policy has shifted quietly away from ‘closing attainment gaps’. Without rising prosperity, social climbing is only possible at the cost of the downward mobility of someone else. Once mobility becomes a zero-sum game, it is not a politically expedient message. Instead, the messaging has been that a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’; in other words even louder calls for improved standards.

‘School improvement’ – the term coined to exemplify the standards agenda in recent years – has never been as much of ‘a thing’ as it is now. The term is convenient as a shorthand for the expectation that schools will somehow solve wider social problems: insatiable parental demand, the myth of meritocracy, and the stagnation of the economy. The citizen’s right to consume a full, rounded and uplifting educational experience is embedded in the imagination. And it is the institution of ‘the school’ which this terminology ensures is front and centre in meeting these demands – not government, parents or industry. We place a great deal of faith in what schools can deliver as if the ‘outstanding’ institution is the silver bullet for society’s ills.

When an idealistic society in the wake of a devastating war called for all its citizens to be schooled for longer they could not possibly have imagined where that wish would lead. The insatiable desire for more and better education has been unleashed. It determines what we expect of our schools, it shapes the experience of the children who attend them, and it drives huge financial resources in a never-ending quest for betterment.

We cannot turn back the clock and neither should we wish to. Mass education will not diminish and the standards discourse will not fade. Instead, we should ensure this discourse is informed and realistic. Schools can provide many things for society but they are not the solution to wider problems, at least not in isolation. We should continue to be the best we can be. However, school improvement is an immature art and we have much to learn about its mechanisms and limits. What seems normal now now one day appear peculiar. I suspect that the way we currently think about school improvement is one of these things, but we can only dream of what might come to be.


Full credit to Peter Mandler’s excellent book, The Crisis of Meritocracy, published by Oxford University Press in 2020, for the inspiration and information in this post. Credit also to Bryan Caplan for his challenging book, The Case Against Education, published by Princeton University Press in 2018. I commend both to you.

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