Education Reform 1

The reform of the modern education system began early in the 19th Century. What eventually became known as the Education Reform Movement dates back to the latter part of the century in Europe and North America. In Massachuetts, Horace Mann, the state’s Secretary of Education, sought to improve the educational opportunities of ordinary children. His reforms included lengthening the school year and calling for taxation to pay for the training of teachers in the expanding public school system. Until the advent of mass ‘free’, compulsory education, there was no coherent concept of education reform. What is the picture in education currently?

Today a seemingly relentless global reform movement is underway. Titled the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) after Pasi Sahlberg, the renowned Swedish educator. Anyone wishing to gain an insight into why every aspect of English education today looks and behaves as it does, needs to explore the work of Sahlberg.

Since the 1980’s, western governments in particular have been intent on transforming public education on almost an industrial scale. The main objective has been to create an education market, dominated by a sharp focus on the relationship between inputs and outputs and based on delivering a centrally agreed curriculum monitored through rigorous testing and assessment. Markets thrive on competition, and an education market, according to its devotees, should behave no differently from any other. However, competition invariably throws out winners and losers as part of the normal expectation of any effective market. Therefore, the role played by choice in any marketised systems is vital. It is the mechanism that ensures quality and value for money are kept high. Driven increasingly by huge amounts of data, markets are able to adapt and grow, ensuring the margin of profit is healthy.

Today, education is run on this same model. Parents, it is deemed, will act as the final arbiters, choosing to shun ‘bad schools’ and reward ‘good’ ones, thus driving up and maintaining high standards. Traditional roles and practices have morphed in response to this silent revolution. Without consulting the people, especially parents, successive governments have sought to exploit the ‘benefits’ of the education market in a deliberate and systematic drive to privatise the system as a way of improving it. The claim that these common sense reforms are either necessary or appropriate goes largely unchallenged, most worryingly by professional educators.

But how exactly does it operate in practice?

Does it really work for the benefit of all?

Do we get value for money?

Are students better prepared for the future?

In England, the belief of political ideologues about education since Thatcher has been that marketisation works well and for the benefit of all. It is perceived to deliver value for money and guarantees a better and consistently improving service. Having concluded thus and largely in the absence of any concerted effort to challenge this orthodoxy, more of the same is inevitable. Our society is at a crossroads where sufficient time has passed to be able to assess the impact of this market on children and schools; so what evidence is there to uncover how well it is performing?


A recent journal from Educational Review published at Taylor and Francis Online offers a range of different perspectives from various authors/researchers commenting on the Global Education Reform Movement.  

Volume 71, 2019 – Issue 1: The Global Education Reform Movement: contemporary developments and future trajectories.

For those seeking information about the GERM, this volume offers analysis of quality and depth to challenge the heady rhetoric of successive Ministers and the Department for Education promoting marketisation, spanning almost forty years.

Like all other infections, the GERM requires certain optimum conditions to enable it to spread. Identifying these and understanding their impact on people and processes is key to fighting the disease that is threatening to destroy public education. The stakes are truly that high.

Commentators are quick to recognise that in the global spread of marketisation, not all countries exhibit identical characteristics. In some domains not all the factors listed here will be present, depending on the existing culture and the political will to marketise. In others, like England and the USA most will be exercised to the fullest extent. This list includes characteristics that may ultimately contribute to the emergence of an education market – not in any order.

  • The emasculation of professionals.
  • Narrowing of the curriculum to emphasise core knowledge in the ‘basics’.
  • The creation of clear standards producing outputs that are easy to digitise.
  • The generation of vast amounts of summative ‘evidence’ for comparative purposes.
  • A tendency for competition to out-muscle collaborative networking.
  • The application of new technologies to ‘supplement’ teaching and monitor learning.
  • High levels of accountability, verified through rigorous external auditing.
  • The introduction of extreme behaviourism typified by ‘zero-tolerance’ policies.
  • Employment of corporate structures with strong top-down management.
  • Privatisation, with many services being contracted out.
  • Cost cutting, especially on salaries and wages of non-executive staff.

Local Schools Network is a very reliable source of current information about all things to do with change in education. Other sites offering a perspective on school reform for parents include, More Than a Score, Reclaiming Schools and Learning Matters by a retired secondary headteacher/author, Roger Titcombe.

In Education Reform 2, coming soon, more evidence will be presented explaining the extent and seriousness of the impact of the GERM on English Education.


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