“The best that has been thought and written”: Analysing the representation of high expectations in the White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’


The White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ (DfE, 2016) sets out the policy agenda for the government from the present to 2020. Lumby and Muijs (2014) remind us that in the UK, a government White Paper is intended to set out legislation and to invite response to it. The suggested legislation presented in the 2016 White Paper proposes some controversial initiatives, including a radical reshaping of educational structure in which schools will become academies, directly funded by the secretary of state for education.


Although the structural reform outlined in the White Paper is highly significant, proposed reforms to the curriculum are arguably equally so. Therefore, this research analyses the chapter in the document concerned with curriculum and pedagogy. Chapter 6, entitled ‘High expectations and a world leading curriculum for all’, builds on reforms to the curriculum announced in the document ‘The Importance of Teaching’ (DfE, 2010), in which the previous Coalition government set out its agenda for education reform shortly after it came to power in 2010.

Research question(s):

  • How does the policy document define expectation?
  • Which discourses are revealed within the text?

Research method(s):

In order to deconstruct the discourse of Chapter 6 of the 2016 White Paper, ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’, I intend to use a blended approach of content analysis and discourse analysis to systematically analyse the text. This approach will include quantitative data on the content of the text, and qualitative data on the literary strategies used within it.

Daniel (2011) suggests that content analysis is useful for describing trends, but used with discourse analysis, content analysis facilitates a robust triangulation of key themes within the data set.  Although content analysis and discourse analysis are derived from different philosophical bases, they are both concerned exploring social reality and can be complementary. Lumby and Muijs (2013) combine content and discourse analytic methods, believing that the blending of these methods leads to a more rounded insight into texts, and  to uncovering what a text is aiming to achieve.

Results and discussion:

Please see attached document for a full discussion of the findings. To summarise:

The initial stage of the content analysis suggests that the authors of the White Paper equate high expectations with an ambitious knowledge-based national curriculum, delivered by teachers in the state sector.

Table 1: Word frequency findings

Word Frequency Collocation
Curriculum 20 Juxtaposed with knowledge, national, ambitious
Knowledge 15 Juxtaposed with curriculum 6 times
Teachers 12 N/A
National 7 Juxtaposed with curriculum 7 times
Ambitious 5 Juxtaposed with curriculum 3 times

The second phase of the content analysis utilises the qualitative research software Nvivo to systemically code the text, and uncover the discourses present, as well as to identify the percentage of coverage the White Paper gives to these discourses.

Table 2: Content analysis findings

Discourses % coverage
Support for teachers 20.73
Knowledge-based curriculum 18.82
Autonomy 16.96
Ambition and challenge 11.24
Academic rigour 9.53
Social mobility 8.03
21st Century Britain 5.44
Funding for initiatives 5.14
International competition 1.99

The second stage of the content analysis reveals further themes inherent within the text. References to support for teachers is given coverage of a fifth of the chapter, with references to a knowledge-based curriculum being given marginally less coverage. The third most common discourse is that of teacher autonomy. Additional discourses revealed by this stage of the content analysis are those of social mobility, 21st century Britain, funding and international competition.


‘The New Statesman’ (2015) reports that by 2020, child poverty will have increased by one-third to one in four children. As Apple (2004) explains, school systems are driven by the assumption that putting in place higher standards will somehow solve deep-seated educational and social problems. The state shifts the blame from itself onto individual schools, parents, and children. Wright’s (2012) findings are in agreement that policy entails a shift in responsibility for social problems from the state to individuals. Goldthorpe (2012) compares the political accomplishment of increased social fluidity in Scandinavian societies, and suggests that the political emphasis here has been less on educational policy and more on the reduction of class differences in incomes and levels of living through redistributive fiscal and welfare policies, strong trade unionism and employment protection to maintain the security and stability of incomes, as well as prioritising full employment.

Furthermore, the discourse of social democracy can be seen as defunct in a competitive market environment. In a market-driven school-led system, the privileged will be protected: as Apple (2004) suggests, middle-class parents have become skilled in exploiting market mechanisms in education, and in utilising their social, economic and cultural capital to move their children around the system. It could therefore be suggested that the proposals outlined in Chapter 6 of the White Paper are undemocratic: the reassertion of neoconservative values combined with neoliberal ideology is intended to dismantle the welfare state. The White Paper embeds the notion of education as a private consumption good, to be traded in a market in which class privilege is imposed through market forces, and which reproduces rather than challenges existing inequalities.


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