Since winning the 1997 general election the Labour government has placed great faith in the use of area based intervention policies in order to address the persistent educational underachievement of children growing up in England’s poorest communities. This underachievement is a symptom of deeper structural inequalities. Diane Reay has effectively summed up both the class-based nature of the problem and the apparent failure of education policy to find a solution thus far:
Against a policy backdrop of continuous change and endless new initiatives it appears that in relation to social class the more things change the more they stay the same. Social class remains the one educational problem that comes back to haunt English education again and again and again; the area of educational inequality on which education policy has had virtually no impact.
Reay’s repetition of the word ‘again’ indicates the seemingly intractable nature of the problem. New Labour’s education policy, at least the elements concerned here, represent a return to the use of area based policy innovations to challenge the glaring inequalities of both opportunity and outcome inherent within the English education system. Education policy has changed its priorities over the last decade but targeted attacks on the causes of underachievement have been consistently present, from Education Action Zones (EAZs) to Children’s Centres. The ministerial foreword to the Children’s Plan 2007 acknowledges the government’s intention to strive for improved educational outcomes for children in these deprived areas. Ed Balls called for
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a new role for schools at the centre of their communities, and more effective links between schools, the NHS and other children’s services so that together they can engage parents and tackle all the barriers to the learning, health and happiness of every child.
It remains to be seen whether this policy is successful. However, it is recognition that, as an educative force, the home and community are hugely important, and engaging parents using typical practices is not enough to enable them to maximize the positive impact they can have on their childrens’ educational performance. Government policy, in part, has been an attempt to generate new partnerships between schools and their community. Research suggests EAZs failed to have any impact on the problems identified because they were premised on ‘inadequate understanding’ of the complex processes of social injustice’. The new partnerships did not enhance democratic participation in ‘governance of the zones’ and failed to ‘influence in any significant way the content and organization of education provision in the zones.
EAZs represented Labour’s ideological commitment to social justice, equality and the reversal of social exclusion. Prime Minister Tony Blair declared a belief in meritocracy that obligated government to develop the full potential of all children. However, as Sally Tomlinson observed, the pursuit of ‘competitive policies in education’ alongside a ‘commitment to social justice [has] created major ongoing problems’. Labour ‘preached inclusiveness . . . and developed palliative strategies to mitigate disadvantage’ yet, at the same time, ‘market and selective forces were demonstrably excluding large sections of the working and non-working classes’. Whether this policy can be considered ‘palliative’ is an important question. Can an approach aimed at empowering individuals, families and communities ‘enable them to move out of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion’ through a, ‘combination of individual responsibility, education, social support and welfare to work initiatives?’ This policy framework appears to demand a reconfiguration of the role of the State, ‘as partner, enabler and provider of frameworks’ in order to generate ‘opportunities for improved outcomes,’ via a regeneration of social capital. It also represents a view that schools could be agents for social change, if driven in the right way, and as part of a broader social and economic reform. Secretary of State Ed Balls declared that
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more than ever before families will be at the centre of excellent integrated services that put their needs first, regardless of traditional institutional and professional structures. This means a new role for schools at the centre of their communities.
This multi-agency approach merits in-depth investigation since it represents the creation of a new institution, operationalising different relationships and (possibly) practices. Does the government’s chosen strategy, criticized for being ‘compensatory’ and driven by a ‘deficit’ view of the poor, represent policy turning full circle?
At the time of writing, in early 2009, an economic recession is unfolding. There have been recessions before, always resulting in an increase in poverty, and if poverty is cyclical can the same be said of government policy? For example, as an economic crisis unfolded in 1973 a raft of area-based, innovative education policies implemented in the 1960s began to see their funding allocations dwindle. Billions of pounds have been invested since 1997: does it follow that this trend will continue during the economic slowdown or might we again see a period of retrenchment? Carpentier suggests the ‘history of educational policy-making may be better understood if we locate policy dilemmas, past and present, in a context that recognizes prevailing economic conditions’ since global economic pressures can advantage and disadvantage educational expenditure accordingly.
New Labour is not the first government to place the link between educational underachievement and poverty at the centre of the policy agenda. The present government, without mentioning the pioneering work of the 1960s, has revived a policy approach associated with the Plowden Report in 1967. Recent policy represents the continuation of a much longer battle to secure greater levels of educational equality and, to use a relatively modern term, ‘social justice’.