'Education, education, education': the successes and failures of British schooling

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Abacus in a Victorian schoolroom.  Photo © Green Lane, via Wikimedia Commons.
Abacus in a Victorian schoolroom. Photo © Green Lane, via Wikimedia Commons.

The British state has been involved in the provision of formal education since at least 1870. Indeed, governments throughout the twentieth century have tried to improve the quality of state education as a means to enhance individual life chances and Britain’s economic competitiveness. This fervour for education, perhaps, reached its apogee in Tony Blair’s commitment to ‘education, education, education’ as a mechanism to challenge social exclusion and promote social justice (Taylor and Steele 2011: 135).

In this course, we will take a fresh look at the historical development of primary, secondary and post-compulsory education in Britain since 1870. In particular, we will consider the extent to which the provision of state-funded education has been successful in achieving its declared aims. For example, the 1944 Education Act (that created the tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools) sought to promote varieties of education appropriate to each child’s aptitudes and abilities. Nevertheless, the results of this provision were substantial social class inequalities in educational attainment and access to the universities, which hindered the life chances of many working-class people and the availability of skilled and educated labour to the whole economy. Similarly, the introduction of comprehensive schools (1965), the national curriculum (1988) and the GCSE (1988) have also been associated with notable successes and failures which we will review..

Weekly sessions

  • 15 April: Origins: The historical development of compulsory education in England and Wales (pre-1944 'Butler' Education Act) (Dr Samantha Williams)
  • 22 April: Selective versus comprehensive education: the 1944 Education Act, social class and educational inequality (Dr Nigel Kettley)
  • 29 April: Education and social justice: Measuring success and failure since 1988 (Dr Nigel Kettley)
  • 13 May: Education and social reproduction: Explaining the success and failures of compulsory schooling (Dr Nigel Kettley)
  • 20 May: Lifelong learning and the future of education in Britain

Online support

This course will be supported by our e-learning centre, ICE Online. You will be able to download course material, contact your tutor and talk to fellow students via the web at a time and place that’s convenient to you.

Visit the ICE Online introductory website to find out more.


pdf Application form

pdf Syllabus and reading resource list


Unless otherwise stated, teaching and assessment for ICE courses are in English. Students whose first language is not English should refer to the Competence in the English Language Policy for further guidance.

Printable versions of our brochures are available to download from the Institute Publications page.

Pre-enrolment information

Information about studying with ICE

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Admissions Team
Madingley Hall
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

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01223 746262

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Course details

Start date

15 April 2013 (14:00)

End date

20 May 2013 (16:00)

Course code



5 weeks


Institute of Continuing Education
University of Cambridge
Madingley Hall, Madingley
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

Teaching sessions

Meetings: 5

Qualifications / Credits


Course director