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Exam reforms are a con

‘Time to tackle the dumbing down’ is the new slogan of the Tory education ‘reforms’ which aim to make school serve the needs of the market, not the students.

At their heart these counter-reforms aim to segregate students by class, limiting working class students to basic literacy and numeracy skills or, at best, technical, vocational courses, while middle class parents are guaranteed their kids get academic qualifications.

The introduction of English Baccalaureate (EBacc) to replace GSCE subjects is only the latest reform to undermine the principle of universal education. It follows the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in January 2010, increasing the financial burden of education for working class students and their families.

The rigging of GSCE results this summer was a cynical attempt to look tough on so-called ‘grade inflation’. Sixty thousand students were penalised, missing out on college places. Given the government’s catastrophic interference over this year’s exam results, you’d think introducing a new exam system would be subject to rigorous study and pilot schemes. The exam regulator, Ofqual, even promised that all major exam reforms would be piloted in advance.

Not a chance.

The EBacc will be rolled out from 2015 with no conventional pre-trials. This means there’s no useful understanding of its flaws or consequences. An Ofqual spokesman simply said: “Due to concerns that pilots can stifle innovation and the length of time required for meaningful pilots to be undertaken, [the piloting principles] were not taken forward.” In other words, the Tories couldn’t wait until the next election to ram through their proposals. This decision reveals the government’s total contempt for the future of millions of young people.

Education for sale

By introducing the profit motive into education, schools will have to compete for students, teachers and resources. Non-essential costs like disabled support services will be scrapped. A small minority can shop around for decent schools. The vast majority of people have no choice but their local school.

The private education ‘providers’ (i.e. multinational companies) understand this, and know the new ‘free’ schools give them free reign to fleece working class families. The new exam will seriously disadvantage students with learning difficulties. Modular courses and multiple exams have boosted their success rates, and therefore their chances of finding secure work or getting a university education. Coursework and modular exams will be scrapped – making a single end-of-year exam a make-or-break test for students.

The Tories have made no bones that it will mean many thousands will leave school with no qualifications, and disadvantaged teenagers will be channelled into non-academic courses from the age of 14. The new exam is a step backwards to a two-tier system – a step that needs to be vigorously opposed.

Schools run for profit are schools with bigger class sizes, fewer support services and a focus on competition to drive down costs. This won’t improve quality, but will reinforce social division as schools with working class and minority ethnic students are starved of the resources needed to overcome the penalties of poverty, unemployment and academic under-achievement.

The Tories are using the economic crisis as an excuse to roll back decades of struggle to win equal access to decent education for all. They want education tailored to suit the needs of employers rather than society or the students themselves. The result of their reforms will be a two-tier system where a small minority benefit from private education, personal tutors and family background, while the majority make do with second-rate qualifications and fake shelf-stacking ‘apprenticeships’. It is intended to re-introduce grammar schools for the middle classes and secondary moderns for the working class, the very system our parents fought to abolish.

Schools for students – not for profit

Education is one of the last areas of the economy not run in the interest of private profit. Part of the bosses’ solution to the crisis is to open new markets to invest in. This is the other reason why the Tories are desperately rushing through new laws, which give businesses the right to run schools, hospitals and public services.

The introduction of academies and free schools gives bosses the ‘right’ and incentive to profit from providing education. Privatisation, new exams, higher fees; all have the aim of gradually eroding the ability of state schools to function outside of the market. Directly by buying schools, or indirectly by influencing government policy in smoky backrooms, employers will gain extensive powers to dictate the kind of education they want working people to have.

Reform of education is a permanent task of any society. But if ‘reform’ means ‘improvement’ then that can only come with greater investment. This investment should be under the control of education workers and communities – those who know best what their educational needs are.

We have to be clear that these reforms are not about providing real apprenticeships, giving young people secure futures, but transforming the school system into another tool to discipline the working class. The bosses’ vision for education is one which imposes flexibility, insecurity and division as facts of life, which future generations will learn from their first day in school.

But the biggest barrier to this is the students, their parents and carers, and the staff themselves – those who will be funnelled through a superficial, stripped-back education industry and those who are expected to work in it. That is the alliance we now need to build.

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