After 30 years of ‘go compare’, English education is a wild west

boys in science class

When Gary Phillips started his career as a young teacher, the education world was a radically different place. There were no league tables, no Ofsted, no academies or free schools. Parent choice and competition had barely registered on the national consciousness.

All that changed 30 years ago this summer with the introduction of the 1988 Education Reform Act, a huge piece of legislation that introduced the national curriculum and the idea of diversity and a “schools market” in which parents would vote with their feet, in theory encouraging the best schools to expand and the worst to improve or close.

Three decades later, the tools of that market – performance measures and inspection reports – are a fact of life. “Go compare”-style websites ranking local schools are taken for granted. New education providers, in the form of academy trusts, are a reality in most communities.

And Phillips’s school, Lilian Baylis Technology School, in Lambeth, south London, would appear to exemplify the benefits of this approach to public services.

When Phillips took over at Lilian Baylis in the late 1990s, the school was in the doldrums. Barely 10% of its pupils achieved five good GCSEs and attendance was chronically low.

Situated in one of the most deprived parts of the country, it was propelled into the national headlines when the former cabinet minister and local parent Oliver Letwin proclaimed at a Tory party conference fringe meeting that he would rather beg on the streets than send his children to the school closest to where he lived.

Today it is outstanding on every count, oversubscribed and achieving impressive results with a diverse intake. The 1988 reforms played an unambiguous role in that improvement, says Phillips: “They shone a spotlight on schools failing young people like this one.”

He is more guarded about the overall success of the market experiment: “I would give it six out of 10. More accountability provided a great opportunity for my generation of school leaders to prove ourselves and the national curriculum was right because it reduced inequality, even if it has been undermined by academy freedoms.

“But performance measures (such as the new Progress 8) have now become impenetrable to most parents so may not even be helpful for exercising choice.

“The school you go to still depends on where you live – we see parents swapping council houses to come here. Intake and its social class still influences how some parents make their choices and these subtle forces influence selection.”

Gary Phillips and children leaving school
 The head, Gary Phillips, has turned the school around. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

In the past six months I have been researching a new book, The Best For My Child. Did the schools market deliver?, which looks back at the 30 years since the passage of the 1988 act. The unease Phillips voices about the market reforms came through interviews with many of the key players in recent education reform.

The English schools hierarchy is as powerful as ever, with some choices only available to a select group of parents who can afford hefty fees, move to the catchment of a successful school, or pay for costly private tuition to pass high-stakes entrance exams. Popular schools haven’t expanded to accommodate all comers, as pure market advocates predicted, and failing schools have proved hard to close down.

The complex interaction between choice, admissions practices, house price and performance measures has led to segregation typified by schools with radically different profiles from their local communities.

And while many more young people are staying on to higher level qualifications than 30 years ago, and gaps in attainment by social group are starting to narrow, around 11% of 16- 24-year-olds are still not in employment, education or training.

Some parts of the country, recently categorised in 12 new government-designated “opportunity areas”, appear stubbornly resistant to every policy initiative of the past 30 years.