Evidence, rhetoric and collateral damage: the problematic pursuit of "world class" standards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Drawing initially on evidence assembled by the Cambridge Primary Review, and acknowledging Maurice Galton's trenchant critiques of recent educational policy, this paper tracks the rise and decline of the flagship standards agenda which was launched by the Blair government in 1997 and came to dominate the work of England's primary schools during the next 13 years. The official claims about educational standards are assessed against the evidence, as are contingent claims about the regime's efficacy. The analysis finds both positive and negative outcomes from Labour's reforms, but also methodological problems, collateral damage, a suspect definition of "standards" and a corrosive political discourse that has frustrated the proper pursuit and application of evidence. England's experience is then placed in an international context: first, by reference to the increasing use of high stakes testing in the United States and elsewhere; second, through the quest for "world class" standards and schooling to which, prompted by the international surveys of student achievement, more and more governments are signing up, often copying each other's policies in the hope of outperforming them. Not only is the phrase "world class" almost meaningless in practice but it is also informed by a supremacist mindset which is at odds with twenty-first century global imperatives and sensibilities, and by international comparisons which make indefensibly selective use of such evidence as is available to explain why some countries outperform others. Although the initial focus is on the period 1997-2010, the paper ends by warning that the conditions exposed here are unlikely to be unique to the government that was defeated in the 2010 general election.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)265-286
Number of pages22
JournalCambridge Journal of Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2011


  • Foreign Countries, Educational Policy, Political Attitudes, Persuasive Discourse, Academic Standards, Global Approach, Evidence, Rhetoric, Academic Achievement, High Stakes Tests, Educational Trends, Politics of Education, Educational Change, Time Perspective

Cite this