Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Class distinction

Education is again at the centre of political debate. With class sizes ever increasing and Major's 'opt out' policy grinding to a halt, Shaun Doherty points to the growing unrest among teachers, parents and pupils and argues that Labour's stance means the two tier system is not being challenged
More than a million children are taught in classes over 30

'Opting out has been a disaster. I can hardly believe the prime minister is taking it up again. It's crackers.' This is the unequivocal assessment of John Major's latest attempt to save the Tory sinking ship by Demitri Coryton, the chair of the Conservative Education Association.

It is shared by the education secretary, Gillian Shephard, in a leaked memo to cabinet colleagues. Using rather more circumspect language, she argues, 'The need to improve standards must not be overshadowed by arguments about the mechanics through which education is delivered.' In an even more revealing comment she goes on to identify the real problem at the heart of the great Tory education disaster: 'Insufficient resources now threaten the provision of education in the state schools sector.'

For many teachers and parents faced with a new school year which has brought a dramatic increase in the number of oversized classes, she is merely stating the obvious, but for John Major she is delivering a humiliating rebuff. More than a third of pupils in state schools (more than 1 million) are now taught in classes of over 30, and more than 500 million has been cut from school budgets this year with a loss of 4,500 jobs.

It is a measure of the blind panic that Major displays that he not only seeks to resurrect one of his least successful and most hated policies, but is now even trying to make it compulsory for all schools. It obviously hasn't occurred to him that forcing schools to 'opt out' is a contradiction in terms.

The failure of the opt out policy is obvious. Of 20,000 schools in England and Wales, only 1,081 (4.5percent) have voted to opt out of local authority control. Indeed, the rate of opt outs is declining rapidly. In 1992-93 some 550 schools opted out, but last year only 50 chose to do so. Even more remarkably, schools are rejecting the massive bribes on offer to sever their links with democratically elected Local Education Authorities (LEAs) despite the level of expenditure cuts in the state sector. In the 1994 financial year schools with Grant Maintained Status (GMS--opted out schools) received 215 capital expenditure per pupil whereas local authority schools received a mere 124.

Major's latest proposals have found an even less receptive audience. He has targeted church schools by suggesting that they could adopt a 'fast track' to GMS by dispensing with the existing regulations that require a ballot of parents. Parental ballots have proved somewhat embarrassing for the Tories because they create a forum for debate about education and enable teachers, parents and governors who are opposed to opting out to argue their case and in many cases win. But both Catholic and Church of England schools have responded to Major's proposals less than enthusiastically. A spokesperson for the Catholic Church rejected the suggestion that ballots should be dispensed with and argued that it was an attack on the rights of parents to be consulted. The Church of England was even more forthright in its opposition to 'a wedge being driven between church and non-church schools'. Only 131 of the Church of England's 4,860 schools have voted to opt out.

Major's other two proposals have been given equally short shrift. The idea that schools should be allowed to borrow money on the open market was put into sharp focus by one of his own (nameless) MPs who made the obvious point that, 'Half my constituents have negative equity. They know what it's like to mortgage yourself up to the neck. Now Major comes along saying they should do the same to schools.' He concluded that he thought Major had gone mad!

The third proposal is the one that exposes the sham at the heart of Tory propaganda about 'parental choice'. Major is planning to relax the regulations on admission policies so that opted out schools can have greater control over the pupils they accept. This is a blatant attempt to legitimise the covert selection practices that are already widespread. It is not parents who will choose schools, but schools who will choose parents and pupils. Preference will be given to the more able and the children of middle class parents. Schools will be able to reject pupils who have been excluded from other schools for 'disruptive behaviour' or other problems that put additional strain on resources. It also means that the class divide in society will be even more starkly replicated in education as working class parents are not only deprived of any choice, but will have to send their children to underfunded local authority schools that cannot adequately meet the needs of their children.

Education cuts face mass opposition

We should not be surprised at the pursuit of naked class interests by the Tories even when they are making a complete mess of it. What should put us more keenly on our guard, however, is the extent to which Blair's Labour Party is openly seeking to emulate them. No education policy would be more universally popular than a pledge to abolish Grant Maintained Status and restore opted out schools to the control of Local Education Authorities, on the basis of equal and adequate funding for all. But Labour is ruthlessly planning to pander to the same middle class interests as the Tories at the expense of everyone else.

It would allow GMS schools to retain their separate status by describing them as 'foundation schools' working 'in partnership' with local authorities. By confirming this separate status, the class divide is perpetuated and no promises have been made to compensate local authorities for the funds that have been siphoned off by the Tories to bribe schools to opt out. Once it is accepted that there will continue to be different kinds of schools, it is inevitable that some will retain a higher status than others. The bad old days of the two tier system will be back with a vengeance.

How has this come about and what insight does it give us into Blair's 'New Labour'? For Blair 'parental choice' means giving middle class parents the opportunity to choose their children's schools and to hell with the rest of us. He chose to send his son to the London Oratory, an opted out school that has already anticipated Major's relaxation of admission regulations by selecting pupils through parental interview. He exercised a choice unavailable to the vast majority of other Islington parents because they would fail the selection interview even if they got that far. The London Oratory is miles away from Islington, where Blair lives. He clearly thinks local schools are not good enough for his child, but is happy for other less privileged children to be educated there.

Other middle class parents adopt different strategies. There is increasingly a white middle class flight from inner city areas like Stoke Newington in Hackney, where there are no opted out schools, to areas where they either exist or where the local authority schools have more desirable catchment areas. Estate agents play on parental concerns for their children by using 'desirable' schools as bait for house sales to particular areas. How many working class parents could afford to uproot themselves in this way, particularly when the proximity of 'popular' schools' may add thousands of pounds to house prices? Many of these 'educational migrants' would have paraded impeccably progressive credentials a few years ago before they became parents themselves. Now they are motivated by crude self interest. They are the first in the queue to rubbish their local comprehensives and espouse what are often covertly racist attitudes towards the social mix of their intakes. These are the same people who have become the champions of 'New Labour'.

So who is going to speak out on behalf of the majority of parents deprived of any choice in education? The NUT, the largest teachers' union, has an unequivocal policy in favour of ending Grant Maintained Status and restoring opted out schools to local authorities. But this policy has been openly repudiated by the general secretary, Doug McAvoy, who has claimed that teachers feel themselves to be better off in grant maintained schools. He based this claim on a survey of teachers already teaching in GMS schools, so the conclusions should come as no surprise. The outcome would have been rather different had all NUT members been surveyed.

McAvoy clearly identifies himself with Blair's 'project' and recognises that education will be a major electoral battleground, hence his vitriolic attacks on those members of his own union who demonstrated their opposition to this systematic erosion of comprehensive education.

There is an alternative. Thousands of parents, teachers and governors are confronting problems of underfunding and oversized classes in local authority schools this autumn. They recognise that the Tories are in disarray but they also realise that Labour has made no commitmerit to establish an education system which can deliver equality of opportunity to all children regardless of their class background.

A grassroots revolt focused around groups like FACE (Fight Against Cuts in Education) can mobilise their anger alongside union groups in schools. Last March there was a magnificent demonstration of over 25,000 parents, pupils, teachers and governors protesting against underfunding. If these initiatives are combined with teachers in schools refusing to teach oversized classes and being prepared to strike for properly funded state education, then there is real hope for the future.

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