On 13 March, the Blairites, with the aid of the Tories but in the teeth of opposition from a significant minority of Labour MPs, pushed the second reading of the Education Bill through the House of Commons.
The purpose of this bill, which is controversial even in bourgeois circles, is explained by Ben Hall in the Financial Times as follows:
“The school reforms outlined in a white paper in October are intended to do in primary and secondary education what the government is already doing in health: separate the commissioning of services (in this case by local education authorities) from their supply with competition between a diversity of providers to drive up standards.
“The centrepiece of the white paper is a new breed of ‘trust’ schools giving headteachers more control of their assets, staff and admissions policy, subject to a national admissions code. Like business-sponsored city academies, the trust schools would be expected to form partnerships with local companies, universities, community groups or other bodies.
“The aim is to encourage all schools to acquire their own culture and identity, and, with the help of outside partners, forge a stronger educational ethos to improve performance.” (‘Blair’s education reform plans’, 14 March 2006)
What the bill really represents is a rather cautious but nevertheless determined step in the direction of privatisation of state education, made at a time when people’s confidence in privatisation has been blown apart by the disasters following rail privatisation, as well as the lacklustre performance of other privatised services.
In education, the steps towards privatisation are already well advanced, to the extent that some think the Education Bill now before parliament is actually unnecessary. Many schools – the foundation schools and city academies – have already been prised away from local authority control and receive a degree of private funding. These schools ‘compete’ with local authority schools, and the losers are closed down. It is claimed that, because of these innovations, standards have risen, the implication being that schools and teachers will not give their best unless they are threatened with closure and job loss.
It is apparently true that standards have been rising, at least insofar as this can be gauged by the testing regime that this government has introduced. According to Jon Boone in the Financial Times, “Mr Blair’s opponent can point to evidence of steady improvements in standards since 1997. The number of 11-year olds passing their English key stage two tests, for example, rose from 57 percent in 1995-96 to 77 percent in 2003-4.
“More people are getting better GCSEs. In 1995-96, 44.5 percent achieved five or more A*-C grades; in 2005 the figure was 55.7 percent.
“There is a similar story with A-levels: the number getting A-C at A-level has risen from 46.4 percent in 1992-93 to 69.9 percent in 2004-05.” (‘Cadbury in talks on school partnerships’, 7 March 2006)
However, it seems that it is not testing and competition between schools that lie behind these improved results but one very straightforward remedy for the ills of our education service: increased funding.
“At the same time there has been a huge increase in public spending. Education and training expenditure was 4.9 percent of gross domestic product in 1997-98, and rose to 5.5 percent in 2003-04. In real terms after inflation, spending on education has increased 36 percent under this government. ” (Ibid)
If results are still not good enough (and they aren’t – last year only 44 percent of children, fewer than half, achieved 5 A-C grades at GCSE that included Maths and English), it has to be realised that expenditure on education is still nowhere near what it should be. In his recent budget, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, undertook over the next few years to increase spending on state school pupils to the level spent in the private sector, ie, from about £5,000 a head to about £7,000. When one considers that nearly all private school pupils are middle-class children with good educational support at home – parents who can help with homework, who can and do buy textbooks and even tutoring if necessary – one can only wonder at the dedication of teachers that has enabled as many children as they have to secure good results despite gross inadequacy of funding.
If the Labourites are now taking an unexpected interest in improving educational facilities in state schools one can only assume that this is motivated by a desire to supply to their private sector friends attractive investments in the future – but more on this anon.
Despite there being absolutely no evidence that measures taken in the direction of privatisation of state schools have improved pupils’ results in the slightest, the media have been going into a frenzy of vituperation against comprehensive schools and the local governments that control them. Naturally, that control has to be wrested away if state schools are to be privatised, and so the bourgeois press has all been mobilised to help prepare public opinion for this exercise. The Daily Mail refers to the “dead hand” of Labour local authorities in relation to schools, and the “failed idea of comprehensive education” (see, for example, ‘Will yesterday go down as the day new Labour died?’ by Stephen Glover, 16 March 2006), while Henry Porter in The Observer asks:
“Do we want schools which can only hope to turn out a homogenised product while being policed by the unimaginative boobies of the local education authorities, or a system that encourages the best and the brightest as well as teaching middling students how to think and be as original and individualistic as their talent allows.” (‘Teachers must be allowed to teach’, 12 February 2006) Note that there is no mention of ‘weak’ pupils – ie, the pupils who need the greatest support. Mr Porter obviously considers it a waste of resources to aim for these students too to find themselves, through good teaching, among the “best and the brightest”.
In the Sunday Times of 19 March, Mary Coughlin goes into paroxysms of middle-class indignation as she bewails the fate of Liv, a “lovely little girl” condemned to attend the local comprehensive because her mother can’t afford a private school: “I fear for Liv’s safety, let alone her education, in a school which recently scored a ‘high’ of around 40 percent A-C passes at GCSE and whose pupils instil fear in fellow passengers as they stream onto the local buses, chewing and swearing, at the end of the school day.” The clear implication is that the end of Liv’s loveliness is nigh, mixing with awful children with working-class accents and vocabulary. The school in question is, however, perfectly capable of teaching children well enough for them to secure decent GCSE passes, so there is no reason to suppose Liv will not be able to take advantage of this.
However impoverished Liv’s mother, she will, as an educated person herself – Ms Coughlin informs us she is a trained midwife – be well able to support her daughter educationally, and so her daughter is more than likely to succeed even if her bog standard comprehensive were classified as ‘failing’ – which this one clearly is not. It is the working-class children who suffer when expenditure on education is slashed, for they on average do not have the same facilities at home.
This is why the gap between working-class and middle-class children would tend to widen as the adequacy of school funding falls. With sufficient funding, the school itself would be able to provide the support mechanism that all children need. Without that, middle-class children fall back on home resources, while working-class children tend to sink. As Johann Hari points out in the Independent of 16 March 2006, “What about the children of the poor?, The children of the rich and middle classes are educated in broadly successful schools that select by mortgage price [or fees, one might add]. The children of the poor, by contrast, are ring-fenced away in warehouse schools, where they mostly falter and fail.” His remedy is to make the “broadly successful” schools available to the poor – which misses the point: the “broadly successful” schools are so because they have a high proportion of middle-class children who, with extensive home support, do well even when funding is poor, while the “warehouse” schools do less well because a very high proportion of their intake consists of children who cannot thrive without the resources that proper funding would supply.
The merits of the ‘bog standard’ comprehensive
Were it not for underfunding, the ‘bog standard’ comprehensives would be perfectly capable not only of providing a decent education to all but also of catering for variety and choice. If comprehensives turn out a ‘homogenised’ product, to use the contemptuous expression of The Observer, it is because underfunding has forced them to withdraw choice from the curriculum in order to concentrate on bare essentials. The whole point of the comprehensives when they were first introduced was supposed to be to have been wider choices, which were only viable in a larger school. In the event, those wider choices, if they materialised at all, did not tend to last long in the face of funding cutbacks. What little funding there was tended to be used disproportionately to support the children who were easiest to teach, overwhelmingly the middle-class ones, so that the majority of working-class children in comprehensives found themselves little better off than they had previously been in the scandalously underfunded Secondary Moderns. At least, however, they were in schools where there were facilities for greater achievement for individuals who belatedly managed to overcome difficulties that had previously held them back, even if this remained exceptional.
When one analyses the attacks on comprehensive schools, one realises that, notwithstanding the claims of most of the attackers to be espousing a better deal for the poor, in actual fact the purpose of such attacks is to lay the ground for establishing better schools for the privileged at the expense of the poor. The Daily Mail condemns those “who forced Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, to chop provisions which would have allowed the new trust schools to interview parents and pupils.
“Their fear was of a two-tier system, with the best schools attracting the best pupils.
“Would that not have been a good thing, a step in the right direction?” (Op cit)
Let it categorically be stated that it is not a good thing for the ‘least bright’ pupils – ie, those children whose education has been held back because they were unable to overcome difficulties in the past and who now most need educational support – to be relegated to the “worst” schools. It is a recipe for ensuring the most children never overcome their disadvantages. Of these, a proportion will repay the middle class who were so willing to allow them to sink by giving vent to their frustration through anti-social behaviour.
We are not against middle-class children doing well. They will continue to do well – and indeed will do even better – in a properly funded system. What we are against is the education of working-class children being neglected in the name of providing for the privileged.
Is there, then, a case for the funding so desperately needed in our schools to be provided by the private sector, when the alternative is to increase our tax burden (or reduce spending on, say, war and armaments so that more can be made available for schools)? After all, the government is hastening to assure us that private funders will not be allowed to make profits from this funding but will be motivated by pure altruism. Yes, well, that’s for now. Capitalist enterprises are never going to part with millions of pounds of good money without expecting some return. If they are lining up in the Prime Minister’s office to show interest, it can only be that they expect to be well placed when open profiteering is admitted some time in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, those who are prepared to put up a mere £2m can determine a school’s ‘ethos’ – what exactly that means in practice remains to be seen! Apparently, Cadbury Schweppes has expressed an interest in being associated with trust schools. If it were to become so, how, for instance, would the campaign for healthier school meals rest with Cadbury Schweppes’ mission to provide unhealthy sugary carbonated drinks to the widest possible section of the public? Perhaps soon, to attract investors, companies will be able to put their logos on school uniforms, much as they do on the football kits of the clubs they sponsor. Perhaps the whole uniform could be designed to look like a crème egg.
The other bodies with the money to sponsor trust schools are religious foundations, and we can expect a proliferation of religious schools teaching divisive religious tenets. The Daily Mail wouldn’t be the Daily Mail if it did not then start gunning for muslim schools and complaining about the religious propaganda that such schools can be expected to churn out. We are bound also to have christian fundamentalists wanting to teach the literal truth of the Bible and opposing the teaching of Darwin. The proliferation of such schools can only hinder the assimilation of children of immigrants into the general community and increase prejudice based on ignorance among the native British community.
Of course, once profiteering starts, anything is ‘legitimate’ in the pursuit of profit. Classes can be cut down at will, difficult students expelled, school hours reduced, perhaps, so as to fit in a double shift for teachers. Above all, one can expect all ‘wasteful’ attempts to teach the more difficult children – most of whom are of working-class origin – to be abandoned altogether. There is already evidence that the semi-privatised ‘academies’ are trying to maintain standards by expelling the difficult children, who are then dumped on the local authorities to place in schools that do not have the resources to deal with them. What will happen when the dreams of this government are fulfilled and local authorities no longer have any schools into which expellees can be dumped? Are they to be deprived of educational facilities altogether?
The bourgeoisie has always been very sparing in the education it was willing to provide to the broad masses of people: not only does the cost of providing education reduce bourgeois profits, but education can be a powerful weapon of the working class in its struggle against capital. Therefore, the bourgeoisie would prefer education not to spread beyond that minority section that can be bought off by being offered a life of minor privilege in return for its loyalty to bourgeois rule. As against that, the bourgeoisie increasingly needs those in work to reach a certain level of educational achievement so that they can do the complex tasks allotted to them in this technical age, and learn new skills at the drop of a hat. Its solution is to provide education, but not for too many.
In a socialist society, priorities are quite different as far as education is concerned, and much higher standards are achieved. Tests on children are conducted not to weed out the ‘bright’ for better opportunities, but to ensure that all children have reached the required standard. The students who attract the most funding are the difficult children who need the most help. For those who would like to see what school is like in a socialist country, we recommend Education in the USSR, published by the Stalin Society. (www.stalinsociety.org.uk)
In the meantime, we demand a proper comprehensive state education for all children, the abolition of all fee-paying schools, with adequate funding and teacher training to ensure a good education to all children and diversity of choice within the schools. The money could easily be raised by raising the taxes paid by the rich; if the ruling class is not prepared to make that ‘sacrifice’, that is just one more reason why imperialism has got to go.