The Education Debate

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Stephen Ball, Policy Press, £12.99

Stephen Ball is a tenacious critic of reactionary education policies. He holds the most prestigious professorship of educational sociology in Britain, writes with enormous knowledge and authority, and his works are known internationally.

The Education Debate is essential reading for anyone wanting an in-depth but readable analysis of New Labour policies. He shows how they have built on Margaret Thatcher's hated education reforms, and in one chapter traces the history back still further, showing a reluctance to provide high quality education for all which goes back to Victorian capitalism.

This new book shows how Tony Blair aimed consistently to make economic competitiveness the sole aim of schooling, "sidelining (other than in rhetoric) the social purposes of education". The many telling quotations show how Blair wove the illusion that his school reforms were a necessary response to globalisation.

Blair's declared aim was to "make the country at ease with globalisation". Schooling had to be transformed by privatisation and by re-writing the aims of education. "We are talking about investing in human capital in an age of knowledge, to compete in the global economy." This transformed not only schools but the state itself, changing it from "the Keynesian national welfare state to a competition state".

Ball exposes very skilfully ambiguous concepts such as "the knowledge economy", "globalisation", "modernisation" and "leadership". He shows how powerful organisations such as the World Bank and the OECD have spread the neoliberal agenda, but also that they can be resisted.

Apparently piecemeal changes build up to make ideas seem necessary and even obvious, which would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. The various strands such as testing, inspection, commercial involvement, competition and choice, which might seem innocent in themselves, are woven together to totally change the nature of schooling.

Thus, under the guise of accountability to parents, teachers are made to feel incompetent and afraid. Ball rightly calls performativity "a culture or a system of terror". It is enormously stressful, requiring not only consistently sound performance from a teacher but also massive energy proving it (emotional pressures, pace intensification, changed social relationships, paperwork, record-keeping, surveillance and hierarchies).

Chapter three describes New Labour policies in detail. It is a careful analysis, demonstrating contradictions and continuities. Every tirade against "failing schools" provides the pretext for some new attack on the education system. The government has to be careful not to get the blame for these failures although they often result from its own policies. The ideology behind the current emphasis on faith schools, parental choice, "partnerships", leadership, and the remodelling of the teaching professional is clearly exposed.

Apparently benign policies such as Every Child Matters and Sure Start are composites. Sure Start is about a "good start" in learning and provides health advice to parents, but it is also disciplinary (making early interventions into "dysfunctional" families) and a form of economic policy (to enable more mothers to return to the workforce).

There is an excellent account of how New Labour deals with "equality", or rather "equality of opportunity" - definitely not equal outcomes. Lip service is paid to race, gender and class, but distorted and marginalised by the drive to economic competitiveness and the ever-increasing inequalities of a neoliberal economy. There are valuable statistics: in 2004, despite a massive increase in higher education, only 1 percent of 18 year olds whose parents were in social class 5 (unskilled) were studying for a degree. Girls now achieve higher, but subject choices remain stereotyped and women's earnings are consistently lower at any qualification level.

This same chapter shows convincingly how race equality policy has been a rarity, and always forced on governments by some kind of crisis (riots or a racist murder) and the consequent protests. Even today "70 percent of newly qualified teachers say they do not feel equipped to teach pupils from different ethnicities".

This book should be read in conjunction with Ball's Education Plc, published last year, which studies current privatisation in great detail. The Education Debate neglects some aspects of recent policy, particularly the curriculum and teaching and learning. Its critique of "performativity" would have been strengthened by including the growing evidence that dramatically rising test scores are often a sham, and that high-stakes testing leads to shallow and tokenistic learning. It does not examine the resistance to government policies, the need for a socially critical curriculum, or alternatives to the economic dominance of the school curriculum. But it is a fine book and a weapon for teachers in trade unions and parents in campaigns.