Education at the Crossroads

Issue section: 

The coalition government has launched a colossal attack on all aspects of our education system. Terry Wrigley argues that this is an acceleration of previous governments' policies to drive the market into the heart of learning and will deepen a class hierarchy of institutions and students.

A police officer amid the aftermath of students' "Day X3" protest in December. Photo: Geoff Dexter

The banking crisis and the election of a government dedicated to the interests of the mega-rich have brought the education system to an acute crisis. This is especially true in England, where the Con-Dem coalition controls education directly. All education workers feel under threat, and the attack on universities, along with the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), has brought students out on the streets. This article aims not to report in detail on the cuts and resistance to them, but to begin to examine the context and the direction of change.

Education is always a problem for capitalism. It increasingly depends on workers with high levels of knowledge and skill, but doesn't want them to have the wisdom to overthrow this destructive and wasteful system. This is why it makes so many contradictory demands: the CBI calls for a focus on the 19th century basics of "reading, writing and arithmetic" (now renamed "literacy and numeracy") while many larger companies emphasise advanced communication skills.

Many employers would like workers who are confident communicators, but who are subservient enough to labour away in call centres without a grumble. Schools are constantly told they are letting down employers by producing inadequately qualified young people. But, in truth, capitalism doesn't know what to do with the number of highly qualified graduates finishing university.


At the same time, we should remember that education isn't simply the product of capitalism, but is influenced by workers' aspirations for their children, students' interests and expectations, and teachers' visions of what a good education might look like. Changes in education arose out of interplay between government policy, popular expectations and the weight of tradition.

The coalition government doesn't start with a blank slate. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate how much the education system changed during 12 years of New Labour, consolidating and building on the dramatic changes of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in the 1980s and early 1990s, so a brief though very general introduction might be helpful.

Enthusiastic primary and secondary teachers in the 1970s began to make schools a more humane experience and adapt teaching to the interests of the students, though following well-established exam courses in the upper secondary years. They were governed by local education authorities, who helped teachers develop new methods.

By 1980 or so comprehensive schools had replaced a divisive system of grammars and secondary moderns across most of England, and all of Scotland and Wales. These served almost all families in their local area and provided a broad common curriculum with a menu of choices for older pupils.

In the early days of Thatcher's government a common exam, the GCSE, was set up for all 16 year olds, replacing separate exams for grammar and secondary modern schools. Very soon this was eroded by systematically treating anything below a C grade with disdain.

Although Thatcher and Blair proved unable to split up these comprehensive schools into grammar schools and secondary moderns, a "market" system of competition between schools was set up which helped to segregate children from poorer families into "problem schools". This was engineered by mechanisms such as inspection and league tables of exam results, which subsequently labelled these same schools as "failing".

Around 1990, under Thatcher, a national curriculum was implemented which set up a compulsory content from the age of five, policed by tests at ages seven, 11 and 14, and exams at 16. Teaching was placed under even tighter control by the Blair government. This, they claimed, was the best way to raise standards, and many teachers lost the ability to connect with young people.

As a result of employers' demands for higher qualifications, but also the aspirations of young people and their families, education beyond age 16 expanded massively throughout this period, until about two thirds of 16 to 18 year olds stayed on into school sixth forms or went to a further education college. In some places these were merged to form a sixth form or tertiary college. However, apprenticeships largely disappeared as employers took less and less responsibility for training skilled workers, and about a third of 17 year olds - shameful by the standard of many European countries - do no full or part-time education or training. These are overwhelmingly the children of less skilled manual workers or the unemployed.

Those of us who qualified for university in the 1960s and 1970s continued our education free of charge. Better off parents had to make a contribution, but many of us received a grant sufficient to cover all our living costs, as well as buying books, during university terms. Most students could focus on their studies and only needed to find jobs during the holidays. Since then many new universities were set up - though without adequate funding. The number of students doubled in 20 years, but many now end up with large debts, despite part-time jobs.

Now students in England and Wales have to pay fees of over £3,000 a year and take out huge loans for their living costs, even though many also have part-time jobs throughout the term. The standard of university teaching probably also declined: most students are struggling to balance study with part-time employment, teaching hours have been cut back on many courses and classes are often taught by more advanced students rather than qualified and experienced lecturers.

More young children attend a nursery, often because both parents have to work nowadays to pay the bills. The Labour government gave all three and four year olds a voucher for a free place, but only for two and a half hours a day. Working parents also often have to pay a large chunk of their wages to top up the tax credit to extend this to full days.

At the start of this period many local councils had realised that education is broader than schools and colleges, and complemented these with adult education, youth workers and community centres. All of this was eroded through successive budget cuts, so that thriving "community education" has become as rare as an orchid in Rotherham.


Under Blair and Brown, it is indisputable that spending on education rose and more people reached higher levels of qualification. It is important to look at the ideology behind this expansion.

Like many politicians of his time, Blair argued that (capitalist) globalisation made it impossible for national governments to intervene in the economy - all they could do was make their country attractive to international investment. As well as keeping wages low and controlling trade unions, the key instrument was education. This was at the heart of his famous announcement that his three major priorities were "Education, education, education".

"Education is our best economic policy," said Blair in a speech in Sedgefield in November 2005. "This country will succeed or fail on the basis of how it changes itself and gears up to this new economy, based on knowledge. Education therefore is now the centre of economic policy making for the future."

There is all manner of confusion here. Firstly, some of the most successful countries with expanding economies, particularly China, were driving this through government planning mechanisms and direct state investment. Secondly, while knowledge-based employment was growing, the demand for industrial products was expanding globally and the number of workers in Britain and across Europe in routine "service" jobs was rising. Thirdly, there was no close correlation between educational levels and investment, and it is arguable that economic development in an age of rapid technological change can better be served by a broadly based education than early specialisation for a particular kind of work.

What this brought about was a neglect of all aspects of education which did not seem to serve the needs of employers. As Professor Stephen Ball put it in his book The Education Debate, "Within policy, education is now regarded primarily from an economy point of view. The social and economic purposes of education have been collapsed into a single, overriding emphasis on policy making for economic competitiveness and an increasing neglect or sidelining (other than in rhetoric) of the social purposes of education."

Even the expansion of nursery schools was explained in economic terms, and guidance for nursery education was framed in terms of "preparation for school" rather than child development. The broadly based primary curriculum was reduced largely to literacy, numeracy and elementary science. Secondary schools were increasingly required to orientate their curriculum to the needs of the "world of work".

The comprehensive school ideal began to creak under the strain. Schools were expected to work together to provide a range of 14 specialist diplomas.

The Schools and Inspection Act in 2006 decreed that from the age of 14 pupils were entitled either to a broad academic curriculum or to specialised preparation for work. If they chose the latter, they had no entitlement to history or geography, music or drama, art or media studies, a foreign language or a branch of design and technology. Even English, which had provided opportunities for critical thinking, debate and self-expression, as well as reading for enjoyment, could be replaced by a basic skills literacy qualification.

Colleges of further education had always been geared to economic needs, but increasingly university students were conscious of the need to maximise their employment prospects and universities steered towards short-term fulfilment of employers' requirements. New policies on "lifelong learning", loaded with the rhetoric of "flexibility" and "a knowledge economy", meant funding for a wider adult education disappeared. This even led, despite other government policies which stigmatised immigrants for "not trying hard enough" to learn English, to the removal of funding for English as a second language. A major victory was won against these cuts by UCU members, working with students and local communities, at Tower Hamlets College in east London.

It is inconceivable that education in any present or future society would cease to concern itself with preparing young people for valuable economic activity. However, the almost exclusive concentration on employers' needs leads to the marginalisation of the other important aims of education such as the development of critical understanding, theoretical knowledge, preparation for active citizenship, parenthood, creativity and leisure.

Along with draconian cuts in many other public services, the coalition has singled out universities by completely removing government funds from non-science subjects. This has resulted in the trebling of the fees students will have to pay, which will leave many with debts of nearly £30,000 plus accumulating interest even before paying back their accommodation and living costs.

The government's argument that graduates should pay more since they will earn more is double jeopardy: they already do pay more, namely as income tax. It neglects the vital contributions their acquired skills make to capitalism. The government's claim that it is "progressive" means only that there will be a bigger difference between what richer and poorer students will pay back. Even the poorest students will have to pay back a lot more than now, a fact which will frighten away many students from poorer and average earning families.

Whether or not this is intentional is beside the point, but the simultaneous abolition of the EMA for 16 to 18 year olds from poorer families means it goes beyond a government cash crisis - objectively it is a class attack. One conclusion may be that, at a time when capitalism is scaling down the British economy and taking it into recession, it can afford to be choosy about whose children get an education. It is a return to the Victorian value that "one mustn't educate the working class above their station in life". The impact will be particularly strong on newer universities which take most of their students from lower-income backgrounds, and many of these will close. This will satisfy old Tory prejudices that universities are just for their own sort.


This has brought an unprecedented revolt by students. The slogans explain why it has brought such revulsion: "Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes." It is seen as robbery; the removal of life chances.

One 15 year old girl's homemade placard, "So I'll be a stripper then!" says it all. This is the generation who have been pressured to work harder and harder at school, who have endured an education regime which treats learning exploitatively as "human resource development", who now feel the rug has been pulled from under their feet. They see themselves as "the lost generation" whose futures are being stolen.

A consolation prize for the Lib Dems, as the price for acting as cover for Tory cuts, was additional funding for teaching pupils on free school meals. Their spokesperson, Sarah Teather, said emphatically in parliament that this was additional money, over and above safeguarding current levels of school budgets. Within days it became clear that this was untrue. There has been some redistribution of funds, but overall school budgets are smaller when you take into account the rising school population.

The greatest threat is to the system of public education as a whole. Education secretary Michael Gove has full coalition support, it seems, in his intention to convert all schools as rapidly as possible into academies or "free schools" outside the control of local councils. Local councils and school governing bodies are a very imperfect form of local democracy, but the new system removes any control other than that of business and other "sponsors". This could particularly affect students with special needs, whose parents will no longer be able to appeal to local councils for help. Fortunately, there is no great rush from schools as yet to respond to Gove's call to become academies.

The so-called "free schools" open up the possibility of an even more segregated pattern of primary and secondary schools. Notoriously, the well-publicised initiative by Toby Young is for a "comprehensive grammar school" which will be open to all - provided they study Latin for five years. It is hard to imagine a more devious form of social selection. Research from the US and Sweden, as well as England, shows that privatised school management does not raise achievement, once you take into account standard expectations for pupils of particular backgrounds.

Every aspect of common public schooling is at risk in England, where Gove has direct control of schools. Even in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland budget cuts from Westminster will put schools under enormous pressure. The government's first announcements include the attempt to break unions' power to resist by enabling schools to individualise pay awards.

A new national curriculum is promised which will emphasise traditional content and values. Teacher education is to be cut back, replaced as far as possible by on the job apprenticeships - but we are told that soldiers will make ideal teachers because they are good at "leading" and imposing discipline. Head teachers will be given more power to expel "difficult" pupils, with rights of appeal abolished. New Labour's school building programme - which, it must be admitted, also lined the pockets of construction companies - has been wiped out, condemning many demoralised pupils and teachers to years of leaky roofs and run-down buildings. Oversight of a replacement programme of school building has been given to Topshop's tax-dodging owner Sir Philip Green.

It is not yet clear what the coalition has in store for schools, but the real purchasing power of school budgets will decline; there will be increased social segregation, and a more authoritarian emphasis on social control and obedience. This would be in line not only with an old-fashioned Tory ideology but with capitalism's recognition that, despite the rhetoric of a "knowledge economy", it only needs some to be "knowledge workers" while others will do the McJobs. Education for the "routine" end of the labour force can return to the days of cheap and nasty.

Social control

Even though the last government emphasised the functionality of schooling within the economy - a neoliberal emphasis - this has to be balanced out with social control, which in the past 20 years has taken a neoconservative turn. This becomes even more necessary when a government is desperate to prevent resistance and political activism (though it is probably illusory to believe that teaching 14 year olds a Tory version of British history is likely to quell revolt). The government's room for manoeuvre is, however, also limited by international judgments. The three-yearly Pisa tests, which compare educational standards internationally, have recently shown Britain to be merely average.

This is despite 20 years of policies designed to boost test results - the national curriculum, regular testing, league tables comparing schools one with another, performance pay for teachers which is partly based on results, a tough inspection regime and, not least, closure for underperforming schools. Clearly the Conservatives are not going to follow high-scoring Finland, which uses none of these, and introduce a regime which trusts teachers more. True to their ideologies, they are more likely to increase divisions and focus only on the more advantaged and on potential high achievers.

The pressure which Thatcher's and Blair's governments put on schools to raise results misses the most important factor: the scandalous level of child poverty, currently 3 million children, one of the highest in the developed world apart from the US.

The Department for Education has known for years that although some schools are able to make a difference and reduce the impact of poverty on children's futures, in general terms material and social circumstances have the greatest effect on children's engagement and achievement in school. But it's much easier for politicians to blame the teachers. Although New Labour took a number of school-based initiatives focused on poverty in its final years, far too slow a pace was set to reduce child poverty. Blair promised in 1999 to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020. There was some progress for a few years, then nothing more.

Instead the government embarked on a programme of privatising inner-city schools as academies, which resulted in bringing in children from better-off homes rather than improving the results of the very poor. Alongside this the government continued the very policies which had damaged schools in poorer neighbourhoods, including "naming and shaming" many more inner-city and council estate schools for their low GCSE results. The Con-Dem coalition has set out to continue this.

It is important to argue that education doesn't just happen in schools and colleges. It also occurs in work, social relationships and social movements such as trade unions and climate change protests, as well as through the mass media, the internet and reading books. The informal learning process is strengthened and given direction by our involvement as socialists, as we help others focus on key issues and work towards beneficial conclusions. Channels of semi-formal education - whether community centres, youth theatre or sports centres - will be at risk through council cuts but will be fought for by communities inspired by the student protests. We need to develop new and original modes of political education.

Formal institutions like schools and universities have grown out of popular demands for a right which previously only the rich enjoyed, a struggle which goes back to the Reformation and intensified after the Industrial Revolution with the rise of the labour movement.

As the capitalist class also recognised the value of skilled workers, it grudgingly provided funding for the emergent institutions while seizing hold of them ideologically, for example taking hold of the mechanics institutes and turning them into colleges which taught science and engineering but no history or politics. Schools were set up for working class children on the cheap and were initially restricted to basic literacy and numeracy, and training to be obedient and proud of the British Empire. The movement beyond this is as much due to working class demands as to capitalism's development.

We have an urgent task now to defend the gains made over many decades - free and comprehensive primary and secondary schools, a broad curriculum for all, good levels of help for children with learning difficulties, and so on. This depends on preventing business takeovers of schools and colleges and keeping open channels for public influence, fighting for new forms of democratic control where possible. We particularly need to fight to keep open schools and colleges which are accessible by working class pupils and students.

However, an efficient literacy and numeracy programme which produces obedient Daleks is no use. Consequently, our struggle is as much about the quality and direction of education as its quantity. We need to protect a broad curriculum, to ensure that all school students are able to learn new ways of expressing themselves, whether writing on public issues for wider audiences, or through drama, music, video, and so on.

As Gove and his allies insist on greater priority for "traditional" subjects such as mathematics and history, we need to ensure that a critical mass is built up of teachers who are able to put a radical stamp on these subjects: using maths to learn about poverty and the cost of the war, learning the bloody truth of the British Empire, etc. Socialist and Green teachers need to publicise and encourage engaged learning which connects to real world problems and campaigns. Students marginalised through poverty, sexuality or racism need access to the knowledge to make sense of and fight against the sources of oppression.

Very importantly, we have to get to grips with why the disadvantages caused by poverty are magnified within the education system. Currently, of pupils on free school meals who are achieving well at age 11, only a quarter go on to get five A to C grades at GCSE, and only one in seven reach university. We need to work creatively to find ways of engaging demoralised young people, providing further education which combines vocational preparation with reaching a critical understanding of the world, and offering new ways for those not able to pursue a full-time degree course to continue learning at a high level.

At present roughly a quarter of 25 year olds who for various reasons didn't do well at school are condemned to 40 more years of low paid, often insecure, routine work. Rather than closing down opportunities for advanced learning, there is ample wealth in Britain to extend it to all. But we must not allow the government to blame teachers for inequality in capitalist society or for failing to close the poverty gap through schooling.

There are many exciting practices around the world where governments haven't stopped teachers and students using their creativity. Across Scandinavia classes are smaller so that there can be more dialogue and individual attention. Secondary schools are also smaller and less anonymous (300 to 500 students) so that people know each other. There are fewer option choices below 16, but the pupils in each class have greater influence on the themes they choose to study. There is less lecturing from the teacher and more time for extended research projects and simulations.

In an experiment in Queensland, Australia, exams were replaced by "rich tasks" often involving a combination of subjects, teamwork, and responses to authentic challenges: one example is to study a local environmental problem and present solutions to an invited audience. The schools run by the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, occupying and using rich people's land, are run democratically and combine academic study with engaging with the community's problems.

Even in the US some schools are teaching maths based around spending on armaments, poverty and global warming. In Britain too, where teachers can get away with it, there are excellent projects involving creativity and critical thinking. These show the potential for improving education blocked by New Labour and Tory politicians.

So what would education look like under socialism? The first answer is, while we can build on all the above ideas, we really don't know because socialism is democratic and the people will decide. But there are some broad principles. The first is equality (no private schools, no hierarchy of universities, not everybody doing the same in a class but lots of help for people who need it most).

The second is encouraging independent critical thinking and action, and students learning through involvement in real-world problem solving - new green energy, for example. Finally, we have to open up higher education to all, getting rid of competitive exams that require students to spend enormous amounts of time remembering every detail so that they can get ten A*s, which leaves little time for thinking and creativity.

Of course some courses will always require detailed knowledge, but we always need to remember that's only part of what education is about.

Terry Wrigley's book, Another School is Possible, is available from Bookmarks bookshop, £4.