In the engine room

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In his short, fascinating and hugely influential book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher talks, amongst a great many other things, about education. He says, “Education, far from being in some ivory tower safely inured from the ‘real world’, is the engine room of the reproduction of social reality, directly confronting the inconsistencies of the capitalist social field.”
Fisher makes a distinction between the real and what he terms “realism”, like the capitalist realism of the title of his book. This “realism” is ideologically driven, a thick fog enveloping the troubling facts of the Real. These ideas came to mind as I helped put together this month’s Socialist Review, with its central feature on post-lockdown education. In this historical moment we are witness to the struggle of the real of education workers, their unions and the many communities of parents, against the realism of the political class.
For Boris Johnson it would amount to a “moral” outrage should not all schools open regardless of concerns and potential health and social consequences in September. Johnson’s government has turned its back on Association of School and College Leaders’ (ASCL) proposals for a “week on week off” approach, one actually previously modeled by the government’s own advisors. Education unions’ demands for a Plan B in the eventually — thought highly probable by a great many — of a mass return to schools igniting a second, and potentially more lethal phase of the coronavirus, have similarly been ignored.
Instead, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will be putting his and the governments faith — and education workers and our children’s fates — in teaching in “bubbles” and ensuring that assemblies and “singing in large groups” is avoided. Should virus break-outs be identified, official guidance says mobile units can be dispatched to test anyone who might have been in contact with those infected in what has been described as a “whack-a-mole” approach to pandemic control.
This inhumane, life threatening, almost surreal set of non-measures is presented as a strategy. National Education Union (NEU) joint leader Kevin Courtney says it won’t address health and safety concerns. Geoff Barton of the ASCL points out that, “The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.”
As somebody once said, you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the government’s approach and that of the Labour Party. As new Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green put it, Labour are fully focused on “helping to ensure we get our children back in school as soon as possible”. Having distanced themselves from the hugely effective lockdown campaigns of the NEU with the sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey, formerly shadow secretary and close ally of the NEU, Labour has thrown its lot in with Johnson’s “back at all costs” realism, trashing concerns for the safety of workers and children in the interests of British capital.
Set this against the real of how schools and colleges have functioned, learning has been supported and lives have been protected by the collective actions and innovations of thousands of education workers and community-based groups of parents since April.
The accounts and analysis the Socialist Review details here, is testimony to the collective, creative power of our class. We cover every educational phase from primary to Higher Education, assessing how the efforts of education workers over the last few months can be built on to shape the future of education, to frustrate the efforts of our political masters to reformulate and reimpose their ideas of dominance, and to take control of the “engine room” for good.