Flow of Ideas
The 'Standards' Language-game for Schools in England Today

Glenn Rikowski, London, 26th March 2007

Wittgenstein Bamboozled?

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein (2001, 23, p.10e) argued that 'the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life'. However, the particular language-game played by New Labour regarding 'standards' in schools is hard to fathom though it could be argued that the New Labour regime, through its actions, does constitute a particular 'form of life'. Perhaps Wittgenstein might have been bamboozled by New Labour's 'standards language-game', and I certainly find it puzzling. Let's try to unravel it here.

Standards Not Structures?

This was the slogan when New Labour, with David Blunkett as Education Secretary, shot to power in the 1997 General Election. 'Standards', rather than challenging school structures that divided people into various educational strata, was to be painted on New Labour's education flag. However, even the 1998 Standards and Framework Act enabled Education Action Zones which was a form of dabbling in 'structures' and an experience from which the New Labour government learnt heavily from. By the time David Blunkett was forced out of his job as Education Secretary in 2001, New Labour had done much work on 'structures': expanding massively the specialist school programme, bringing in academies, starting a programme of outsourcing of local education authorities, introducing a plethora of new types of schools (foundation, beacon and community variations and others) and opening the door ever wider to charitable (especially religious) foundations and private sector operators. With Education Act 2002, possibilities for federations of schools and school companies were enabled, and with the Education and Inspections Act of 2006, Trust schools were floated. Although issues surrounding 'standards' were addressed in New Labour' education legislation, and the establishment of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours were key initiatives regarding raising education 'standards' (though their efficacy has been contested), it was still more a case of 'standards and structures'. The structural changes yielded greater fragmentation of the system, infusions of the interests of organised religions, dragging charitable organisations into the schools arena and appealing to the social drives of the private sector and the ambitions and desires of private schools.

Standards on the Slide?

Yet all through the New Labour government since 1997, there has been continual debate on 'standards' in schools. This debate waxes and wanes, but tends to reach high points after the GSCE and A-level results are released in the summer. These appear to be set on an upward trend that raises suspicions about whether examinations are getting easier. A recent report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) suggests that there is some evidence that this might be so (in Radnedge, 2007). The QCA discovered:

"Declining standards in English, despite a high-profile Government campaign to improve literacy, was one of the biggest concerns" (Ibid.).

The QCA report was based on data gathered from researching exam papers going back to 1980. The QCA also found that standards had fallen in music and psychology. Apparently:

"The questions were predictable and pupils were allowed to gain better grades while doing less work the [QCA] claimed" (Ibid.).

The fact that candidates could re-take units, with their highest grade counting in official statistics, tended to inflate recorded final grades.

Falling Standards Good?

With New Labour's commitment to getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education by 2010 a cynic might see the merit in letting educational standards float downwards. The target becomes more attainable. Furthermore, students, parents and teachers can also take greater delight in rising exam results, and this creates a feelgood factor for the schools system apart from when various bubble prickers call the results into question. It is possible in these ways to see how falling standards might be superficially desirable.

On the other hand, employers want some guarantee that the standards of young people they are getting are rising objectively. As far back as anyone can check employers in the UK have always moaned about the standard of youth labour power (see Rikowski, 2006). Schools are implicated in the 'social production of labour power' in capitalism (for more, see Rikowski, 2005). Employers want sound quality control on this process. Yet qualification grade inflation is not the same as a rising standard of youth labour power, as employers are particularly interested in labour power attributes such as work attitudes and personality traits. But they take exams grades as a rough, proxy measure of these.

Another consideration is that New Labour views education as significant for producing the future workers for its projected 'knowledge economy'. In addition, the education system including the schools system is part of this knowledge economy in the sense of generating educational exports. At present, the schools system constitutes a very small part of the UK educational services export drive. However, New Labour has promoted the UK not just as desirable destination for overseas higher education students but has also started to nurture a market in overseas students studying in state-run schools in the UK. In this context, the QCA's report about falling standards is not helpful: why should parents in Malaysia or whatever spend thousands on sending their children to study in a state school in England when standards are apparently on the slide?

Finally, there are also arguments about the devaluation of examination results (mainly from elite universities who want to spot the really 'top' candidates). If too many people are getting top grades then poor university admissions tutors in top universities become befuddled and perplexed, it seems. The government response here has been to refine and tinker with the higher grade divisions.


If New Labour were to tighten up on education standards then its 50 per target regarding higher education entry would have even less chance of being met not that the chances were ever high. The current Green Paper and consultation on increasing the age of compulsory education and training to 18 is a desperate attempt to dragoon more reluctant learners into higher education. Furthermore, tightening standards would put New Labour's widening participation strategy at risk; making exams harder would de-motivate some, perhaps.

Yet the devaluation of standards and exam scores might put the frighteners on the parents of overseas students from studying here, including in the private sector where GCSEand A-level exams are still the norm, but also those contemplating the pioneering step of sending their children to state schools in England. Of course, parents of such students might decide that a devalued qualification from the UK still carries sufficient cultural cache to be worth the cost. Qualification devaluation also alarms universities, not just the elite ones who want the 'star' candidates, but also the rest and especially the degree teaching factories that have to try to cope with the situation.

One solution to this contradiction is to let standards fall whilst, through cloak and mirror statistical and presentational methods, make it seem as if they on the up. The QCA's findings suggest that this is what the government is doing anyway.


Radnedge, A. (2007) Official: Exams are too simple, London Metro, 16th March, p.1.

Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx's Social Universe, A paper prepared for the Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, 14th February: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Distillation

Rikowski, G. (2006) The Long Moan of History: Employers on School-Leavers, 28th August, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Employers%20and%20School%20Leavers

Wittgenstein, L. (2001) Philosophical Investigations The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, Third Edition, Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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