Tories out to destroy comprehensive education

All across the country teachers, school staff and pupils are looking forward to the start of the new academic year. Alex Kenny, an executive member of the National Union of Teachers, looks the Tories’ ideologically driven plans for education and sets out how we need to fight them.

The education industry represents the largest market opportunity for private sector involvement…. In the USA spending on 5-12 education is as large as the domestic auto industry. It is the largest segment of the education and the one almost entirely in the public sector. Clearly education offers new and lucrative opportunities…”

Merrill Lynch Annual Report – 1999

We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities so that society can cope with the output of education… We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest… But if we have a highly educated and idle population, we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place.”

Unnamed Tory education minister – 1985

The coalition government has wasted no time in pushing ahead with their plans for the dissolution of state education. Using parliamentary procedures usually reserved for times of national crisis the Education Act, allowing all schools to become academies and the establishment of “free schools, received Royal Assent and passed into legislation on July 27th.

The Education Act has correctly been described as, “Thatcher’s unfinished business” on the education service. The plans crystallise Tory party ideology in a number of ways:

· It’s an attack on a section of workers with high union density – 750,000 teachers represent the largest single collection of workers after nurses; if they were in one union it would be the third biggest union in this country;

· It shows their hatred for local government, that they have carried with them for years and completes the circle they started with the introduction of Local Management of Schools;

· It highlights their burning ambition to get money that is trapped in town halls out of there into private pockets, to privatise further the education service.

But above all these considerations it is a class issue and what lies hidden, but not very well, beneath this is an attempt by the Tories to protect their own, and dampen down the expectations of the rest as we enter a period of cutbacks.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the big divide in education is still social class and in considering the latest government policy I think it is worth taking a step sideways and looking at their agenda from a class perspective and in that respect to place it firmly within the context of the development of education in this country but also what is happening in the economy, the attacks on public spending, benefits and so on.

For many decades education around the world has been of public concern and a site of struggle. That is because education under capital is set up to replicate class divisions, to mirror society, but it is also riddled with contradictions and it is these contradictions that enable our side to push back and to fight for reforms.

The great struggles have been around the right to education and to challenge the way education was used to establish and maintain privileges.

The right to free education, the abolition of child labour, the fight for comprehensive education, the raising of the school leaving age and so on have pushed back the restrictions placed particularly on working class children.

But the fact that private schools continue to exist and that in 2010 there are more children sitting entrance exams of one form or another for secondary school than there were in 1997 confirm that class privilege is still embedded deep within education in this country.

Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, drew this conclusion in 2000, “education policy since 1944 is a triumph for class politics, for the power of the middle class to corner what is best for its children, much of it disguised as parental choice.”

Michael Gove’s stated intentions are to empower parents and to provide them with more choice. However, parental choice is a fallacy that has nothing to do with the government’s plans. I think Michael Gove’s aim is to recreate the stratified, differentiated education system of the 1950s and to drive this down into primary education.

They dare not say they want to do this; but I want to argue that this is a deliberate policy to increase the differences between schools and so widen the gap between successful schools and the rest.

Gove is also lying when he talks about raising standards and closing the attainment gap – the gap in achievement between the highest and lowest achievers. All research shows that this gap actually widens as children move through the school years. Some research suggests that this gap narrowed in the heyday of comprehensive education but has widened again in the time it has been under attack and undermined.

For all the previous Labour government’s talk about raising standards the attainment gap between highest and lowest achievers has remained the same in the last thirteen years.

Gove’s free schools and academies will exacerbate these differences and create division, inequality, and failure. They will neither raise standards nor close the achievement gap.

All the evidence from Sweden, the principal model for Gove’s free schools, points to this; the evidence is the exact opposite of politicians’ claims.

Sweden now has more than 1,000 free schools, introduced by a right-wing government in the 1990s, and the country has slipped down the international league table for pupil performance in the period since. Evidence also shows that the introduction of ‘free’ schools has led to increased social segregation.

The director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education recently, “The students in the new schools have, in general, better standards, but it has to do with their parents and backgrounds. They come from well-educated families. We have had increasing segregation and decreasing results, so we can’t say that increasing competition between schools has led to better results”.

Michael Gove is not stupid, he has read the same research as us, so there must be something more to these plans, it can’t be an accident that they are pursuing polices that will do this.

In order to understand why the Tories might be pursuing an ideologically driven policy, intended to make our system more unfair one has to consider the way in which education under capitalism is riddled with contradictions.

Capital needs an educated workforce but it needs that workforce to know where it will go when it leaves school and to know its place. In times of expansion expectations are raised and in times of contraction they have to be dampened down.

Looked at it in this way the bleak prospect is that in the third millennium, if the forces of reaction are unchecked, the only future is one in which education will worsen – in which education will fuel rather than tackle social differentiation and where education will regiment rather than enlighten.

Of course, they cannot openly say that they want to hold back working-class advancement through education, so they wrap this up in the language of raising standards, tackling underachievement and improving life chances.

But you have to look no further than this quote from a Tory education minister in 1985 to understand what they really think about the purpose of compulsory education – an attitude which could equally apply in 2010.

“There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which society cannot match. In some ways, this points to the success of education, in contrast to the public mythology we’ve created.

When young people drop off the education production-line and cannot find work at all, or work which meets their abilities and expectations, then we are creating frustrations with perhaps disturbing consequences.

He goes on:

We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities so that society can cope with the output of education… We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest… But if we have a highly educated and idle population, we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place.”

And there you have it…. you can see why the growth in the number of working class children attending university has to be slowed – first by tuition fees then by cutting the number of places and perhaps now by further embedding segregation by class within the system. There are too many of us going to university and competing for jobs.

Already a shortage of university places will mean thousands of school leavers will not get a place this year; it is expected that around 200,000 students will fail to get places despite having good qualifications. Reasons given include the twin problems of a rise in applications and a ban on over recruiting. A lack of job opportunities for school leavers has also contributed to the problem; BT has reported that it received 24,000 applications for 211 apprenticeships, up 60% on last year.

This explains the ruling class hatred for comprehensive education, and the demonization of mixed ability teaching, attacks on the development of a curriculum based on race, gender and class, the abolition of the ILEA, the removal of discussions on pedagogy from many training courses.

It also explains why education is now so regulated through testing, league tables, targets, performance pay and Ofsted – all of these reduce parents, teachers, governors to thinking about what is best for my child, my classroom, my school rather than looking at the whole process as part of a collective endeavour – and all of these are being kept in place by the Coalition.

But there are already signs that the government plans could be derailed and that they are showing signs of weakness. To date only 153 schools have applied for academy status, hardly the ‘overwhelming’ response Michael Gove bragged about.

It is less than 10% of the 1,907 schools that ‘expressed an interest’. Given that there are about 24,000 schools in England & Wales, it does not amount to the ‘schools revolution’ that the Tories heralded before the election and which required such a quick passage through parliament.

Coming so soon after the government’s embarrassment over the cuts in the Building Schools for the Future programme, Michael Gove has quickly been placed on the defensive.

In conclusion, we are in a fight for the very soul of comprehensive education, and there are many very good campaigns up and running all over the country.

Urgent campaigning, mobilising the widest possible forces, can stop schools becoming academies. It is interesting to note that a number of Tory councils have come out against the government plans – no doubt wise to the fact that there will be little left for them if they lose responsibility for schools.

In the current situation

· We have to fight rearguard actions – fight every academy, every free school, build alliances with parents, governors etc. that cut against the atomisation of schools, teachers and parents;

· We have to build anti-cuts alliances not just to defend jobs but to defend vital services and benefits;

· We have to be unashamed defenders of local education authorities, no matter how imperfect they may be in our eyes, because of what their existence represents for us;

· We have to build progressive campaigns – for anti-racism, anti sexism and equality using the spaces created within the curriculum; and there are plenty of good examples of this;

· Finally we also have to have a vision of transforming society, so that education truly does become a lifelong experience that can really liberate the full scale of human potential;

The choice ahead of us is summed up very well by Sean Vernell from the UCU in a pamphlet, Don’t Get Young in the Third Millenimum:

The fight we are engaged in now takes place within a bigger picture where two paths for humanity are signposted.

The first, signposted “business as usual” will lead to a worsening of young people’s conditions of life, where millions languish on the dole, further alienated from the potentially liberating experience of education, or be forced into soul-destroying and meaningless jobs.

The other path is one that holds out hope for the whole of humanity, where working people unite across industries and communities to fight against the attacks on their jobs and services and put forward a vision of society based on their collective values.

It is this path that lays the potential for the liberation of the young working class to unleash their creativity and energy to build a more equal and productive society.

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