Education Actslegislation enacted in Parliament which has resulted in significant changes to the organization of the public education system, either as a whole or in certain sections of it. Such Acts have tended to follow, or sometimes herald, major changes in welfare or social policy. Thus, the 1870 Act provided school accommodation ‘for all the children for whose elementary education efficient and suitable provision is not otherwise made’, and followed other social reform legislation. The 1902 Act introduced a secular framework for the education system by placing it under the control of local education authorities, with some exceptions, which allowed for the existence of sectarian, Christian schools under specified conditions.
Probably the most important Act was passed in 1944, which laid the foundation of the contemporary education system. Its major contribution was to attempt to put into effect the notion of EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY through the provision of free secondary education for all, together with other support measures.
During the 1950s and 1960s, dissatisfaction with the tripartite secondary system grew significantly. The election of a Labour government in 1964 brought commitment to universal COMPREHENSIVE EDUCATION which was consolidated into the 1976 Act. This Act was repealed in 1979 on the election of the Conservative government.
Education Acts introduced during the 1980s continued to emphasize the extent to which they represented instruments of social policy and reflected contrasting political philosophies. These Acts quite specifically abandoned the principles of equality of opportunity and universal comprehensive education. Thus, the 1980 Education Act strengthened the provision of private schooling by introducing an Assisted Places Scheme which would reimburse fees for independent schools, but there is little evidence that poorer families benefit from it.
The 1980 Act extended the ‘market economy’ principle, the cornerstone of Thatcherite conservatism, in the system. The Act allows parents to send their children to schools of their choice. Critics argue that this will lead to the creation of a two-tier system of education in which the poorer classes will suffer. The 1988 Education Act, apart from introducing a National Curriculum, extended the ‘market’ philosophy by allowing schools to apply to become state, grant-aided schools by opting out of local authority control. see also SOCIOLOGY OF EDUCATION.