The politics of differentiation reforms in secondary education

LLAKES Research Seminar

The politics of differentiation reforms in secondary education 

Speakers: Professor Jane Gingrich and Dr Anja Giudici
Date: Tuesday 15th June 2021
Time: 13:00-14:15


The massification of secondary schooling constitutes the key educational project of the first post-war period. However, while all advanced economies expanded secondary education between 1945 and 1980, the resulting educational structures differed widely in terms of their structural differentiation, which we conceptualize as a combination of stratification (number and selectivity of tracks) and standardization (homogeneity of tracks).

This paper explores the political dynamics behind these varying reform outcomes. We show that parties on both left and right took a variety of stances. Whereas left-wing parties, as prior literature has already shown, typically supported de-stratified and standardized models of secondary education, their commitment to this issue varied significantly. On the opposite side of the spectrum, center-right parties, despite having historically opposed educational expansion, played an active role de-stratifying secondary schooling in several countries.

We argue that understanding these choices, and the resulting reforms, requires theorizing center-right coalition building in both distributive and productive spheres. Parties’ position depends, on the one hand, on the coalition of voters they represent. Center-right parties typically opposed standardized models of de-stratification because their distributive strategy rested on a coalition between the middle classes, rural voters, and their traditional elite base. The left supported these models because they benefitted less privileged voters. On the other hand, however, parties’ stances also varied depending on their relationships with educational producers, and, more specifically, the Church and teacher unions.

Theoretically, the analysis suggests that, common partisan distributive aims can materialize as highly varied public service reforms, due to how they intersect with the productive environment. This paper shows these outcomes by systematizing and tracing reform processes in 17 advanced democracies (1945-80).

About the speakers:

Jane Gingrich is a professor of comparative political economy at the University of Oxford and a tutorial fellow at Magdalen college. She is PI of the ERC funded Schoolpol project.

Anja Giudici is a postdoctoral research fellow on the Schoolpol project ( at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Oxford.

Watch the seminar