Battle in Print: A measure of success? Explaining public perceptions of education

Toby Marshall, 5 November 2009

This essay was inspired by a presentation delivered to the Cabinet Office by Ben Page, Chair of the research institute Ipsos MORI (Page, 2008). In this presentation Page noted a very interesting fact. This is that in spite of significant increases in expenditure, and some examples of improved delivery, the public remains stubbornly dissatisfied with overall quality of state services. Further, members of the public will somewhat paradoxically express satisfaction with their own experiences and dissatisfaction with provision nationally.

Page’s observation is most clearly illustrated in relation to the National Health Service (NHS). Here recent surveys have recorded remarkably high levels of patient satisfaction. 87% are satisfied with their GPs, 86% with their outpatient experience, 79% with inpatient treatment and 74% with Accident and Emergency provision. Yet only 65% of the public is satisfied with the NHS overall and 56% perceive it to be in crisis. For the public the NHS appears to be significantly less than the sum of its parts. In education a similar pattern applies. Statistics arguably demonstrate some improvements in delivery and surprisingly high levels of parental satisfaction, combined with inconsistent support from the general public.

For New Labour this presents a real problem, as they are clearly failing to accrue political capital from the state service that they claimed as their first political priority. In 1997 Blair promised to deliver on ‘education, education, education’ but all Brown has inherited is ‘crisis, crisis, crisis’.

This tells us is that in spite of all its furious spending, government has failed to invest education, and its institutions, with a sense of purpose that resonates with the wider public. Teachers plough on, many parents seem surprisingly satisfied, but in the absence of a positive narrative of social progress and enlightenment, schools have not become institutions to which public attaches consistent support. Sadly, perceptions of this sort have a real impact, not least on teachers’ sense of themselves and ability project authority in the classroom.

Some statistical evidence

Statistics, no doubt, are open to manipulation, and governments will naturally attempt to be selective in their presentation. What is interesting about the current juncture however, is that parents can record surprisingly positive experiences of education, and the government can provide statistics to support this, but the wider public will simply not believe that education is improving.

Between 1997 and 2008 education spending increased as a proportion of GDP from 4.44% to 5.31%, or from the equivalent of £47 billion to £75 billion (inflation adjusted, Houses of Parliament, 2009a). The number of students reaching the expected level of literacy by the end of primary education also improved, from 63% to 80% (DCFS, 2009a). Similarly 70% of students now get 5 A*-C grades in their GCSEs, up 25% from 1997 (DCFS, 2009b). Greater numbers are also participating in education post-16, with 64% of 16-18 year olds in full time education, compared to 56% in 1997 (Houses of Parliament, 2009b).

Now, statistics such as these can of course be questioned on a number of levels. Extra classes can be put on for students on the borderline of any statistical measure and teachers can teach to the test. Equally, schools can abandon non-measured but important aspects of the curriculum, in order to concentrate on those parts that are examined. In relation to this, the Cambridge academic Robin Alexander has pointed out that primaries now effectively run two parallel curriculums, one which is measured and taken seriously – Maths and English – and the rest, or the ‘trimmings’, which are the subject of platitudes, but little else.

But perhaps the most significant charge that can be levelled against New Labour’s statistics is that they don’t actually measure what should be valued; that whilst it may be true that more students are participating and achieving, the actual content of their studies is of diminishing cultural value.

Generally, there is a lot of truth to this charge, but it is far from clear that that the public’s general dissatisfaction with education can be explained in these terms. To put this point more concretely, few are demanding more history in the curriculum – something that is no longer a requirement for 14 year olds - or raising serious objections the current dilution of the science curriculum. Rather, the public has a more generalised sense that the purpose and effectiveness of schools is uncertain. 

A national crisis of education

A recent report published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families summarised interviews with a representative sample of 1016 parents (DCFS, 2009c). Amongst other questions, they were asked how they rated all sectors of education in terms their ability to ‘achieve world class standards of education’. Generally, all sectors, from preschool through to higher education, were rated as good, with rates varying at between 87%-95%. Secondary schools, were, however, a notable exception of this, scoring by far the lowest satisfaction rate of 80%.

A companion study of broader public perceptions noted a similar trend, based on a 1000 interviews conducted between June and July 2008. Again secondary schools were rated the lowest, with 56% rating secondary schools as good and 15% very good - a figure that excluded the 15% odd percent who felt unable to give any opinion (DCFS, 2009d).

These figures would suggest broad public support for schools, but strikingly different findings were then gathered by another study conducted by ComRes for the BBC’s Newsnight in August 2009 (BBC, 2009). This asked 850 respondents about New Labour’s contribution to education and found that more than half believed government had failed to improve the quality of education since coming to power, with 47% saying that it had actually got worse.

Studies such as these suggest that levels of support for education, like the NHS, are highest where people have direct experiences and are lower where they don’t. It seems that government has failed in the project of convincing the wider electorate that schools are systematically improving.

This presents New Labour with a serious problem in the forthcoming general election campaign, but it also undermines the work of all educators. Parents may be broadly supportive, but if teachers feel that wider society doesn’t consistently recognise the value of their work, then all but the very strongest individuals will always be on the back-foot in the classroom. So how is the crisis of education to be explained?


One common explanation of the crisis in public services is the idea that the introduction of a free market has undermined the ethos and commitment of those who work in the system. In education it is certainly true that many aspects of school provision, such as catering, are now provided by commercial contractors. Equally, government has encouraged a variety of social entrepreneurs, including business leaders, to set up independently run Academies. Further, teachers pay progression is increasingly performance related. But whilst there are many criticisms that can be made of these initiatives, the overall charge of marketisation doesn’t quite hold true, as schools remain state funded institutions.

What we do have, however, is something that Micheal Sandel drew our attention to in his recent Reith Lecture, and this is ‘market-mimicking governance’ (Sandel, 2009). Sandel’s point is that Western states have in the recent period attempted to avoid moral contestation in the public sphere and have instead tended to rely on quantitative mechanisms for measuring and incentivising moral behaviour. In doing so, he argues, they have emptied out public discourse and administration of anything that might give it vitality and meaning.

Sandel’s notion of the ‘market-mimicking’ state provides us with a useful way of characterising and explaining why quantitative measures and incentives have come to dominate the lives of professional educators. It isn’t that education has been marketised, but that a morally evasive state has taken to aping the private sector because it feels incapable of articulating a convincing view of what education should be.

Consequently, the whole system has reoriented itself around statistics and figures, rather than values. For this reason the fate of schools, colleges and individual teachers now rests on their capacity to perform in line with national figures. Similarly, students are regularly advised to avoid subjects if they are statistically unlikely to achieve. Whilst discussions between staff and management typically take the form of disputes over numbers, rather than a debate over fundamental educational principles. 

Nonetheless, it is important to point out that there nothing per se wrong with quantification or measurement, and in attempting to challenge the emptying out of educational discourse, we shouldn’t simultaneously reject those mechanisms that enable us objectively and effectively to measure a student’s understanding, such as public examinations. Indeed statistics and targets can be useful, as they can provide a mechanism for focusing the activities of both teachers and students. The point is that quantification dominates education today because the state, and society more broadly, lack a set of ideas that might enable us to offer an adequate qualitative description of our educational aspirations.


Another popular explanation of the crisis in the public sector is the notion of politicisation. Again there is some basis to this charge, as the professional activities of teachers have indeed been disrupted as a consequence of schools coming to occupy a more central position within national political discourse. 

Interestingly, the political class, or at the least the Conservative section of it, now seems to have adopted this critique as a means of furthering its own arguments against ‘big government’. The shadow Secretary of State for Schools Michael Gove, for example, recently gave a lecture at the Royal Society for the Arts on ‘What is Education For?’ (Gove, 2009). In this he suggested that education has been perverted under New Labour, with schools being used as ‘instruments to advance central government’s social agenda’.

On many levels Gove is right, as the curriculum has mistakenly been used to address specific and immediate social problems, such as political disengagement and obesity. Added to this is the frustration caused by the micro management of the daily interactions between teachers and students, which is often justified on the somewhat dubious principle that research evidence can demonstrate that one particular teaching technique will always represent ‘best practice’.

It would be a mistake, however, to understand the problem of politicisation in the terms in which it is frequently presented, as whilst it may be that a true that New Labour’s brand of social engineering has disrupted and distracted educationalists from their core tasks, we shouldn’t therefore assume that politics is necessarily negative force. Ultimately, teachers need operational freedom, and the space to learn from their own experiences, but they also need public support, and require a sense of direction to be provided at the level of the curriculum. Today teachers feel high degrees of alienation from national politics, but these need not be so. Indeed, it is only through politics that the crisis of education might be resolved.

The effects of the crisis

To conclude, it would seem that conventional explanations of the problems of education fail to fully account for its crisis of meaning. Market-mimicking measures are a symptom, not a cause, of the crisis. Likewise, politics is not so much the cause as the solution, as it is through political discussion and contestation that the crisis might be resolved.

New Labour, for its part, has clearly found it difficult to build support for the activities of schools amongst the public. This should come as no surprise as it has never really articulated an optimistic view of the cultural potential of education itself. Rather schools have been viewed in more negative terms, as institutions that can used to address a variety of social problems, for which they are often ill equipped. New Labour’s failure to make the positive case means that the public is inconsistent in its support for education and this discontent has become particularly focussed around its final compulsory phase at secondary level.

At the same time, and for the same reason, government has failed to motivate those who it now employs in public services. Teachers are often the most vocal critics of targets, examinations and the politicisation of education, which testifies to their alienation from the New Labour’s technocratic forms of public service management.

The consequence of the crisis of public support is that teachers themselves are uncertain of their authority. A survey published by the General Teaching Council in 2005 asked teachers to rate their status, and only a small fraction rated teachers as being above mid point, in spite of the fact that for the public more broadly it remains the second most highly regarded profession, after medicine (GTC, 2005). Indeed, a follow up study of 2,500 teachers published last year recorded that only 59% of teachers described themselves as either unlikely or highly unlikely to seek work outside of teaching within five years.

Teachers, government, and the public need to engage in a debate about our educational aspirations. To give this debate meaning and purchase it needs to address fundamental questions, such as what knowledge one requires to be considered an educated person. In doing so, the authority and status of teachers might be restored.


Toby Marshall is Curriculum Manager at Havering College of Further and Higher Education and a member of the IoI Education Forum.


BBC (2009) Poll dismay over Labour education
Department of Children, Families and Schools (2009a) Schools Minister welcomes Key Stage 2 test results which show good overall progress but guards against complacency
Department of Children, Families and Schools (2009b) Substantial rise in maintained schools’ GCSE results
Department of Children, Families and Schools (2009c) Customer Perception Tracking Research - Parents Survey
Department of Children, Families and Schools (2009d) Customer Perception Tracking Research Public Survey
General Teaching Council (2005) Survey of Teachers 2005 Final Report
General Teaching Council (2008) Survey of Teachers 2007 Report One
Gove, M (2009) What is Education For?
House of Parliament (2009a) Education Spending in the UK
House of Parliament (2009b) Participation in education and training: 16-18 year olds
Page, Ben (2008) The Perils of Perception – or why are people so ”ungrateful”?
Sandel, M (2009) Lecture 4: A New Politics of the Common Good

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