Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

Education in class society

London teacher MARTIN POWELL-DAVIES looks at the education philosophy behind New Labour’s school ‘reforms’ while, on page 27, HUGO PIERRE, an inner-London council education department worker, examines the arguments around the ‘faith schools’ issue.

CHILDREN’S IDEAS ARE shaped from their early experiences, from their family, from the TV and so on, but it is in schools where planned and systematic learning takes place. However, like every other aspect of life under capitalism, schools are part of class society. The history of education, of what and how ideas are taught, is also part of the history of struggle between classes.

Calls for educational reform have formed an important part of the demands of working-class movements. As Britain industrialised and the labour movement grew, workers formed education groups to educate themselves and their workmates. They wanted to read about the literature, science and art that their class had been kept in ignorance from. In the words of the Chartist leader, William Lovett, they also wanted the skills to be able to organise their ‘pursuit of bread, knowledge and freedom’.

The Chartist movement in the 1840s included in their demands the call for a national, universal, free and compulsory education system. They also challenged the rigid rote-learning methods carried out in the existing elementary schools, wanting the classroom to become a place of ‘lively and interesting enjoyments’.

While workers’ pressure helped to win educational reforms, ruling-class concessions were driven by their own class interests. The increasing complexity of industrial production demanded a workforce with at least some rudimentary general education as well as particular vocational skills. As today, politicians warned of the need for a workforce that could successfully compete with ‘foreign rivals’.

But schooling and ‘facts’ can never be separated from ideology. Both the curriculum and teaching methods were consciously designed to make sure young workers were taught their place in society as well as the discipline and routine the bosses needed from them in their working lives. Robert Lowe MP, responsible for introducing ‘payment by results’ into Victorian schools, spelt it out: "The lower classes ought to be educated to discharge the duties cast upon them. They should also be educated that they may appreciate and defer to a higher cultivation when they meet it". (Robert Lowe, Primary and Classical Education)

How much has fundamentally changed today? Few politicians would risk voicing such clear class prejudice. Few parents or teachers would accept it either. Yet, despite the gains of the post-war comprehensive education reforms, British education is still riven by class divisions. Through the schools inspectorate OFSTED, the national curriculum, and now the national literacy and numeracy strategies, Tory and Labour governments have increased central control of what, and increasingly how, children are taught. Although concealed, the different class interests are as clear as ever.

Comprehensive education

AS IN OTHER spheres, the threat from a radicalised working-class at the end of the second world war forced educational concessions. The 1944 Education Act established free, universal secondary education but on the divided lines suited to the needs of capitalism.

Secondary education was divided between the grammar schools (to turn out administrative workers), technical schools (skilled workers) and secondary moderns (manual workers). Churches retained control of ‘voluntary’ schools and these, along with fee-paying ‘public’ schools for the sons and daughters of the ruling class, have remained in place to the present day .

Against the background of the post-war economic upswing, further reform took place. Rigid selection through the ‘eleven-plus’ exam was replaced in most areas by the introduction of what were, on paper at least, non-selective ‘comprehensive’ schools. Funding was increased and class sizes fell. ‘Child-centred’ and mixed ability learning were promoted.

Of course, under capitalism, comprehensive reforms could only have limited success. Without the necessary educational resources and opportunities both inside and outside school, working-class under-achievement remained a fact. The examination system continued to play its role of restricting passage into higher education and better-paid careers. Nevertheless, comprehensive education has proved itself both in increasing exam success, as well as through the broader social gains that come from children from different backgrounds learning alongside each other. It has also resulted in a general narrowing of the gap between working- and middle-class exam performance.

In 1970, 47% of students left secondary school with no qualifications whatsoever; by 2000 this had fallen to 5.4%. Even using the narrow statistic of the proportion of 16 year-olds getting five or more GCSE passes at grades A* to C, this stood at 49.2% in 2000, compared to just 16% getting equivalent ‘top’ grades in 1962-63 (see Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty, Thirty Years On, Is Comprehensive Education Alive and Well or Struggling to Survive?, Penguin, 1997).

Research has confirmed that where selection has continued, overall progress has not been as great. In the 15 English Local Education Authorities (LEAs) where the eleven-plus has remained, pupils left in the secondary moderns - disproportionately working-class and black pupils - do badly and examination results overall are depressed (see for example, David Jesson and David Gillborn in the National Union of Teachers’ Education Review, Autumn 2001).

From the mid-1970s, with the end of the boom, progress towards more equality in education was checked. As one senior civil servant explained in private, "There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which increasingly society cannot match... When young people cannot find work at all... or work which meets their abilities or expectations... then we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences... people must be educated once more to know their place" (quoted by Benn and Chitty).

This has been the ideology behind the counter-reforms that have followed. Under the banner of ‘choice and diversity’, Thatcher’s Tory government aimed to undermine comprehensive education with the growth of separate categories of schools such as grant-maintained schools and City Technology Colleges. They also introduced LMS, ‘Local Management of Schools’, where schools had to manage their own budgets with funding dependent on the number of pupils on roll.

LMS forced school governors to take on the burden of managing the cuts in public spending inflicted by the Tories. It also encouraged schools to carry out both overt and covert selection of pupils to make themselves more attractive to local parents and to maintain their position in the new school league tables of exam results. Many church schools, for example, have abused their right to hold interviews - supposedly to clarify ‘religious conviction’ - to select their intake.

Of course, for every ‘winner’ in this education marketplace, there have also been ‘losers’. The result has been a further polarisation between schools at the top and bottom of the league tables, largely at the expense of working-class children.

The Tories also imposed the national curriculum, with children assessed at seven, eleven and 14 through national SATs tests. With the increasing use of ‘optional’ tests in the intervening years, pupils in England are now "the most over-tested in the world" (Times Educational Supplement, 27 April, 2001).

This testing regime sifts and grades English schoolchildren on the education production-line until they leave school. For too many, education means underfunded schools and a dull test-driven curriculum that ‘fails’ them from an early age. All this, together with the effects of poverty and the increasing alienation of youth, means that pupil disaffection is inevitably increasing. School students themselves need to organise to challenge the kind of education that they are offered.

New Labour’s education policy

NEW LABOUR HAS essentially maintained the thrust of Tory education policy. LMS and underfunding have continued. In 1998 and 1999 spending on education fell to just 4.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) – the lowest proportion for 40 years! (Guardian, 4 September, 2001).

They have embraced the national curriculum, insisting schools meet tough targets for SATs, GCSEs, numeracy and literacy scores. This policy is seriously distorting what is taught in schools with teachers concentrating their efforts on ‘teaching to the test’. Even the government’s own adviser on the numeracy and literacy strategies warned that, while most schools see their benefits, "the danger in the high political profile for the 2002 national targets may skew efforts in the direction of activities to increase one highly publicised score, possibly narrowing the curriculum that is taught" (Times Educational Supplement, 2 November, 2001).

The government 2001 White Paper for education in England, Schools Achieving Success, makes much of the need for ‘autonomy and diversity’, mirroring the old Tory policy. Even more categories of schools are to be developed, including the expansion of specialist schools, beacon schools and privately-sponsored city academies. ‘Successful’ schools will be allowed to expand - at the expense of others - while more church and faith schools will also be encouraged. This will further fragment and polarise secondary education and undermine the idea of genuinely comprehensive schools.

Under the new education secretary, Estelle Morris, some of the blunter proposals to extend privatisation have been dropped, such as the idea that private companies could be given a majority of places on a school governing body. Nevertheless, the private sector is strengthening its grip on the lucrative schools’ market through private finance initiative (PFI) contracts, the outsourcing of LEA services and the private management of certain schools like Kings’ in Surrey.

Some of the most blatant profiteering is being carried by the private teacher supply agencies who charge schools to provide a teacher who they will then pay at well below national rates. These agencies have mushroomed as the staffing crisis has grown with many schools struggling to fill vacancies or find suitable cover for absent staff.

Years of underfunding have left teachers in England working 50-60 hours a week or more, even by official figures. High workload, a barrage of centrally-driven reforms and inadequate pay, combined with a curriculum that alienates staff and pupils alike, have driven many out of teaching. Last summer, Mike Tomlinson, the head of the school inspectorate, OFSTED, revealed that up to 40% of teachers have left teaching after their third year in the job (Guardian, 28 August, 2001).

Belatedly recognising the disastrous effect that government policies have had on teacher morale, Estelle Morris now talks of teachers and schools staff as being ‘a national asset of priceless value’! But the hyperbole won’t wash when she goes on to confirm that her vision is "to increase diversity, promote innovation and strip away regulatory burdens" (‘Professionalism and Trust’, speech on 12 November, 2001).

‘Diversity’ won’t just be between the various categories of different schools, but within them too. The White Paper emphasises the benefits of streaming by ability, even though this is questioned by research which suggests setting is really about helping teachers manage large classes rather than benefiting pupils (Times Educational Supplement, 7 September, 2001). Experience also consistently shows that streaming produces bottom groups that are overwhelmingly made up of working-class and black pupils (Gillborn, Education Review, Autumn 2001).

The new Education Bill makes clear that some of Morris’ proposed ‘innovation’ will be to allow some schools more ‘flexibility’ in paying teachers, and a further extension of demoralising performance-related pay. But the most fundamental change is the plan to ‘remodel teaching’ by allowing unqualified teacher assistants to supervise classes and cover for teacher absence. This plan amounts to Labour giving up on finding the resources required to recruit and retain sufficient teachers to fully staff all schools. Morris’ friend, Lord Puttnam, chair of the General Teaching Council, has floated the idea that overall teacher numbers should be cut "from 450,000 to 250,000 better-paid ‘super-teachers’, backed by an army of assistants".

Other plans to cope without sufficient teachers proposed in Morris’ November 2001 speech included using computers to support pupils. While ICT can play an important role, Morris’ idea that "ICT could prove to be for teaching what the great scientific discoveries - antibiotics, DNA - have been for medicine" is, to say the least, rather overblown! She also floats "larger classes led by a single teacher, supported by assistants as appropriate".

Behind this illusion of 21st century innovation, these proposals look remarkably like a step back 150 years to reintroduce elements of the monitorial schools, so hated by the Chartists, where one teacher held sway over huge classes through the use of older pupil ‘monitors’ who helped teach and keep strict discipline. Today, expecting poorly-paid unqualified staff to effectively ‘child-mind’ is not only objectionable, it would be unworkable too. As in Victorian schools, it also implies reducing education to a narrow ‘Gradgrind’ curriculum of easily-taught facts, if now with lessons downloaded from the Department for Education and Skills’ website!

Even before a recession bites into public spending, British capitalism is already showing that it is unable to provide the properly staffed, creative and rounded education that working people have always striven for. The need for a socialist education policy has never been greater.

New Labour’s curriculum

THE NEW LABOUR government represents a capitalist class that wants to consciously shape education for its own interests. The White Paper states that "to prosper in the 21st century competitive global economy, Britain must transform the knowledge and skills of its population. Every child, whatever their circumstances, requires an education that equips them for work and prepares them to succeed in the wider economy and society".

In practice this means two new developments. Firstly, getting children to ‘specialise’ - in reality pigeonholing them to their particular role, and secondly, ‘modernising’ the curriculum - emphasising the role of business and concentrating on what that child needs to become a useful worker.

‘Citizenship’ will become a statutory part of the secondary curriculum. This is meant to "promote political literacy" and "understanding of the democratic process". Secondary education will also see "a new era of engagement with the worlds of enterprise, higher education and civic responsibility". Of course, the reality of working-class experience may not match with what New Labour wants teachers to teach!

New Labour’s plans to introduce "a coherent phase of 14-19 education" could lead to a further twist to the class divide in education. The White Paper states that from 14 "the purely academic route will still of course be very important for some" but "there will also be the opportunity for a predominantly vocational programme" that "might include a significant element of work-related learning from 14".

While such an approach might seem attractive to some youth alienated by the present curriculum, it means reinstituting the academic/vocational divide of the pre-comprehensive era. The White Paper talks of breaking down "the traditional prejudice against vocational education" but these ‘prejudices’ stem from the very different career opportunities available to school leavers who follow either academic or vocational routes. Once again, they reproduce the division between mental and manual labour that is rooted in the division of labour in capitalist society.

A socialist education policy must oppose the creation of different vocational and academic ‘pathways’ at 14. We stand for a broad ‘polytechnical education’ for all children, an idea raised by Karl Marx himself.

Marx and Education

THE PLACE OF ‘vocational education’ in the curriculum has played an important part in Marxist educational thinking. Marx himself looked on the involvement of young people in production as "a progressive, sound and legitimate tendency, although under capital it was distorted into an abomination". (‘Geneva Resolution’ of the First International, 1866).

In other words, while capitalism meant the exploitation of child labour, what Marx described as ‘polytechnical education’, linking schooling with the real world of production, could give real relevance to education and help overcome the division between those that ‘laboured’ and those that ‘thought’. As Marx wrote (Capital, Vol.I, Chap.XIII), "the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of one specialised social function, must be replaced by the totally developed individual".

Marx commented that the schools developed by the socialist Robert Owen in his New Lanark textile mills were "the germ of the education of the future... this education will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings". (Capital, Vol.I, Chap.XIII)

These ideas were developed after the Russian Revolution by the first Soviet government, particularly by Lenin, his wife Krupskaya who was a teacher, and Lunacharsky, Commissar for Education. Within days of the revolution, the introduction of free, compulsory education was announced. A year later, the ‘Principles for School Work’ called for all schools to be transformed into ‘unified labour schools’ where ‘productive work is to be the basis of school life’. The new schools were to be open seven days a week so that children could go there to pursue interests, not just for lessons.

The Bolsheviks were trying to develop a genuinely comprehensive system for all children with an all-rounded curriculum rooted in real life and production. Lenin sketched out how work around electricity could be linked to visits to power stations. Krupskaya encouraged teachers to take local production and daily life as the starting-point for project work, drawing on the experiences of local workers and farmers, so all adults become educators. Some schools developed their own workshops but Lunacharsky stressed that the important product was not to be any goods that were manufactured but the knowledge and skills the children had learnt.

Other measures introduced in 1918 included the taking over of all private and church schools by the state and the abolition of hierarchical distinctions among teachers with equal pay for all. Open access to universities without examination was decreed. While, in reality, few workers or peasants had the education needed to follow the courses, it showed that a socialist society which really offered equality of opportunity might allow individuals to choose the life options that they felt best suited for rather than leaving it to exams to artificially ration what was on offer.

The ‘Principles for School Work’ stated that "the old form of discipline, which restricts school life and hinders the free development of children’s personalities, can have no place in the work school" (quoted in The Education of the Future, Castles and Wustenburg, Pluto Press, 1979, which should be read for a more detailed account of education in Russia in this period). Punishments and compulsory homework were prohibited; uniforms, grading and examinations abolished. Schools were to be run by school boards where pupils were to be given a real part in decision-making along with the whole of the teaching and non-teaching staff and wider community and political representatives.

Education was a major priority for the Bolsheviks. Lenin recognised that socialism could not be built unless workers and peasants had the skills to participate in running society so that "all may become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a ‘bureaucrat’." Unfortunately, they were attempting to develop these initiatives in a backward country where only around a fifth of children had any kind of schooling before the revolution.

In the civil war that followed, the immediate priority was to care for orphaned and homeless children. It was hard to introduce even the first five-year stage of the unitary school. The second stage, intended for children from thirteen to seventeen, was available for only 9% of this age group in 1919. Although progress was made, by 1923 still only 50% of Russian children were receiving any kind of schooling at all.

The dire economic situation meant that pressure grew to concentrate on vocational training to produce the specialists that were so badly needed. Krupskaya insisted that "vocational training must not mentally cripple a person, by forcing him into narrow specialisation from an early age... [it] must not educate a worker who only carries out instructions, who works mechanically. It must train the worker to be the master of production".

The Stalinist bureaucracy, however, developing in strength as the revolution remained isolated in backward Russia, had no wish for such critical workers. By 1932 exams, strict discipline and control of curricula, had been reintroduced. Collective management of schools was replaced by control by a headmaster. Genuine ‘polytechnical education’ was replaced by vocational training.

A socialist education programme

THIS ANALYSIS OF the history of education, including the contribution of Marxist educationalists, can help outline the main elements of a socialist education programme.

Socialists must stand for free, high quality education for all, from nursery to university. We call for a massive increase in public spending to provide the increased staffing, smaller class sizes, good quality resources and buildings needed to ensure the best education and individual support for every child.

LMS must be abolished and schools funded according to need. To recruit and retain teachers, there should be an immediate end to performance pay, a minimum 20% non-contact time for teachers and significant pay rises for all school staff. There should be a special campaign to recruit greater numbers of black and Asian teachers and to expand mother tongue provision.

Private-sector involvement in running schools and LEAs should be ended. Teachers should be employed through fully democratic LEAs run by elected representatives, subject to recall, including school teachers and non-teaching staff, parents, local trade unionists, community organisations and secondary school students.

Schools should also be run by similar democratic governing committees. Headteachers should be elected and additional staff responsibilities rewarded through the allocation of additional non-teaching time rather than large pay differentials. To allow more working-class parents to become involved, governors should receive paid time-off to attend governors meetings during the day. Adequate time must be allowed for trade union organisation and for school students to develop their own unions.

Selection on any grounds, be it by ability, aptitude or religion, should be abolished. All schools, including church and fee-paying public schools, should be brought under local democratic control. We stand for a democratically planned equitable admissions policy based on genuinely comprehensive, co-educational, neighbourhood schools.

Schools should be a key part of the local community. They should provide adult education, meeting places, computer and leisure facilities for local people. In turn, the community should become an educational resource for pupils.

The present national curriculum must be abolished together with OFSTED inspections and compulsory religious education. A new core curriculum should be developed but with considerable local flexibility where pupil and teacher innovation are encouraged. Pupils of all backgrounds and abilities should experience a lively, relevant, broad and balanced, polytechnical education. It should be based on a class analysis of society, emphasising anti-racist education and working-class struggle. Wherever possible, academic subjects should be based on practical activities. The curriculum should also include experience of a range of different work, local production and community life as well as sport and leisure pursuits and a wide pastoral curriculum, including health and sex education.

Last but not least, we must abolish SATs and school league tables. There will be a role for diagnostic testing and moderated teacher assessment but a socialist education system will be based on learning and attainment rather than exams.


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