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Education for exploitation

Gove’s reactionary policy for schools means… Education for exploitation, argues James Copley

The Tories are making free gifts of local comprehensive schools to groups of well-off parents, businesses disguised as charities and faith communities. Their “free school” programme, building on Labour’s academies, is aimed at completing the privatisation of the state education system by 2017.

“Free” in this policy means free from any trace of democratic control by parliament or local authorities, free to privilege their founders’ children, free to set their own curriculums, free to employ unqualified staff and free to ignore nationally agreed pay and working conditions. “Free” also accurately describes the gift of school property, paid for over generations by working class (and middle class) taxpayers, to outfits that should not be allowed within a mile of a school.

Education Secretary Michael Gove intends to carry through a real Thatcherite counter-revolution, abolishing GCSE exams in favour of a return to ‘O’ levels and using the English Baccalaureate, or Ebac, as a filter to prevent a large part of the working class reaching ‘A’ levels.

Gove’s aim is to abolish what’s left of the liberal reforms of the 1940s and 1970s, which led to the comprehensive system – always detested by the Tory public school elite. Gove wants to introduce a system that openly fosters class privilege, social inequality and pro-capitalist and imperialist ideology.

The Tories’ strategy is to create separate education pathways for the different classes, allowing the ruling class to cherry-pick a few “gifted children” from the working and lower middle classes and giving the rest only a training that will prepare them for their role as wage slaves – if they are lucky enough to get a job.

Schools for profit
The Forum of Private Business charmingly describes what it wants: “work-ready employees who can write a properly punctuated sentence free from spelling mistakes, and mentally able to work out a simple maths problem”. This was exactly what the old public – grammar – secondary triad of schools achieved and what the comprehensive system undermined, although Labour never dared abolish public schools like Eton whose haughty products now stuff the cabinet.

Their education project is of a piece with their other “reforms”. In the NHS, these will destroy any possibility of rational planning in favour of a free market in which GPs make decisions on the basis of cost and profitability. Similarly, they intend to transform the jobs market into the allocation of temporary, part-time work by private agencies. Their objectives are economic, channelling state funding direct to the private sector; ideological, the eradication of any notion of entitlement to public services; and political, to weaken and break up public sector unions.

To make sure the employers get what they want, Gove plans to keep up the close control of pupils via SATs tests at ages 7, 11 and 14, and equally close control of teachers via the micro-management by OFSTED. The re-introduction, by whatever name, of ‘O’ levels, i.e. memory-based, end-of-course exams, is intended to suppress creativity, critical thinking (and rebelliousness) in favour of a return to rote learning and respect for authority. They will focus heavily on those subjects deemed necessary for work.

These changes only apply to state schools, however. The academies, private schools and free schools can choose their own curriculum and hire teachers with or without qualifications. This will ensure the creation of a two tier academic system in which the working class can either learn to work in a “McSchool” or church, or take their chances at an inadequate state school. Meanwhile, the children of the rich will receive a much higher quality of education in private schools charging fees only they can afford.

Clearly, the Tories fear an educated workforce. We saw in Tunisia how jobless graduates became catalysts for a revolution. Throughout the Arab Spring, we have seen students and young workers rising against oppressive social conditions and inequalities. This is not a situation that the Tories want here so they seek to restrict the education system to fit their vision of work.

These changes to the education system, which ruthlessly ignore the views of teachers and students, will result in worse education for the working class. This is on top of the massive attacks on the university system, which have seen huge reductions in the funding of humanities and social sciences, precisely the subjects that are vital to fostering creative expression and development as critical, socially active citizens.

Socialism and education
Gove’s goal is an individualistic, capitalist, exam-based model, which sees the student as an “empty vessel” to be filled with the knowledge necessary for work, and education as a means of disciplining children to become automatic cogs in the profit-making machine. Socialists understand that education is a lifelong process that enables the young not only to become skilled in the techniques of production but also able to creatively develop and take control of it.

Work and education should be integrated, not by training children as cheap labour drilled into obedience, but as fellow workers and co-learners who can criticise what they are doing, invent better ways to do it and save time from mind-numbing tasks for more creative work, saving a threatened environment and, first and foremost, fighting collectively against oppression and exploitation.

Education is not, and cannot be something, which only occurs in schools and universities. Socialists believe that education is a constant dialogue between those who are knowledgeable and those who seek to learn. This is because, as individuals, we can come to only a partial understanding of the world but, through debate with others, we can critically evaluate ideas and reach a higher level of understanding and practice.

By a constant exchange of our own experiences of the world in which we live, its history and the relationships found within it, we can foster a critical understanding of it. Only if we understand the laws, both natural and social, that govern society will we be able to change it.

The comprehensive system introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, was basically a liberal education system but, nevertheless, it was forced to draw heavily on Marxists, anarchists and populists who had criticised typical capitalist education for the masses in the twentieth century.

This led to GCSEs being based less on exams and more upon coursework, which fosters dialogue between teacher and student, and between students themselves. Long-term learning, over time, fosters a much greater engagement with a subject than spitting out facts from memory in an exam. Gove’s counter-reforms aim to shatter decades of such educational advances for working class young people. They must be stopped.

But they will not be stopped by an uprising of youth alone. Despite a courageous struggle by students against the abolition of the EMA and the massive university fees hike, they were still introduced. It is also unlikely that protest strikes by the National Union of Teachers, could prevent the introduction of these backward reforms.

To win requires unity between school and college students, working class parents, school staff and teachers. It requires a political campaign to challenge Gove’s whole ideology, as well as his wrecking plans. That means winning all these forces to a positive idea and proposals as to how education must be reorganised to meet the needs of working class students and the labour movement.

Such a fightback against Gove must also be an integral part of the wider struggle against the Tory austerity programme that is trying to use the current crisis of capitalism to break and fragment the working class. Only through the struggle for a political general strike and a socialist revolution will the oppressed begin the liberation of education.

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