Social democratic perspectives on education

Social democrats believe that governments should invest heavily in education and use education as a means to improve equality of opportunity, which in turn is the best way to ensure that education also contributes to economic growth.

Social Democratic perspectives exercised a strong influence on British educational policies in the 1960s and 70s. Their views are mainly associated with the Labour Party during these decades.

Social Democrats criticized the Functionalist idea that that the British education system (the Tripartite system) of the 1950s and 60s provided equality of opportunity and promoted economic growth. They argued that the tripartite system needed to change to a comprehensive system in order to do both of these things more effectively.

Equality of Opportunity

Writing in the 1960s Halsey et al argued that the Tripartite system of education failed to deliver genuine equality of opportunity to all students: the majority of children who attended secondary modern schools failed to develop their potentials and thus did not have the same opportunities as those who attended either grammar or technical schools. Halsey et al also noted that opportunities were broadly divided along class lines, with mainly the working classes attending secondary moderns while the middle class attended grammar schools.

From the social democratic point of view, the tripartite system was not only failing to provide equality of opportunity, it was also failing to develop the potential of individuals, with working class talent being wasted in secondary modern schools which offered only a very poor standard of education.

For this reason, the Labour government abolished the Tripartite system in the 1960s, closing down grammar and secondary modern schools and replacing them with comprehensive schools, or one type of school for all pupils – in theory this provided greater equality of opportunity and outcome because working and middle class children were now being educated in the same school and every child now received the same type of education and had the same amount of money spent on them. In theory, at least, this was more likely to increase inter-generational social mobility and reduce class divisions.

Other measures introduced to combat working class disadvantage were compensatory education and Education Priority Areas – both of which involved providing more resources for children in deprived areas.

The Social Democratic ideal of the government spending significantly more money on the education of socially disadvantaged children continued on under the New Labour government in the form of Education Action Zones and Sure Start.

Economic Growth

Social democrats also argued that a truly meritocratic education system would contribute to economic growth, because it would enable each individual to maximise their potential and thus contribute maximally to the economic development of the country.

Theodore W. Schultz was a proponent of this idea, arguing that skills and knowledge were forms of capital – increasing spending on education represented an investment in people and the more governments spent on education, the more skilled the workforce would become, and the more productive they should be.

British government policy from WW2 to the early 1980s broadly followed social democratic lines – expenditure on education was gradually increased throughout these decades, the school leaving age was increased, and further and higher education expanded enormously.