Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
I often think that a useful way to view the education system is to see it as a sieve. The capitalist economy and the bureaucracy that supervises and tries to control it (and us!) need different kinds of people to do different kinds of job. So an education system develops which ends up feeding its school children and students into society at different levels. They're sieved into society. But just as Marx pointed out that when workers are brought together into production they combine with each other to defend their living conditions, so in education school children, students, teachers and lecturers combine and revolt at what the 'sieve' tries to do--whether it be fighting cuts, fighting being labelled a loser, fighting exams and tests that control and limit human potential, or whatever.
When I come to look at my own education I can see how I'm someone who was allotted his place in the sieve as a middle to high ranking success. But because of (a) my family's tradition and culture of socialism, and (b) the wonderful explosion of rebellion around just when I was at university in the late 1960s, I didn't turn out quite as the sieve intended.
I was brought up in the London suburbs by parents who were working class Jewish Communists from East London. This meant I came from a highly educated family, full of books, argument, discussion and ideas. It meant that I would have had to have been either genetically or psychologically damaged for me to fail in the education system. All my home skills fitted the kind of skills the school system asked of me--I was literate, numerate, supported by books, trips to museums, visits to France and Germany and parents who discussed what I was doing at school. My knowledge was what school rated.
My friend Brian Harrison (who I admired) was the son of a builder and he was an expert on making things, materials, gardening and pets. Guess what? He failed the 11-plus exam. I passed. He went to a secondary modern school. I went to a grammar school. He was someone who I saw virtually every day of my life from when we were eight or nine until we were 11. After we went to the two different schools I saw him about three or four times before he was 16. We moved out of the area and 30 years later I found out he had died of a brain tumour, aged 17. His skills weren't rated by the education system. He was sieved out for being working class. I wasn't allowed by the system to mix with him.
A lot of grammar school education in the 1950s in England was narrow, dull, irrelevant, and, in purely capitalist terms, backward. An enormous amount of emphasis was put on the old Protestant virtues of being dull, hard working, moderate, well behaved, conformist and abiding by a load of pathetic rituals that taught docility and obedience. I played the system, succeeded with exams but pissed around something shocking, made teachers' lives a misery and occasionally had the nous to be a bit more constructive and collective in my rebellions.
I ended up first at a medical school (because I fancied being 'useful' to society as a doctor). I panicked and managed to swing it to transfer to Oxford where I knew I could change course. At Oxford 1966, 67 and 68 were a big deal. It was a place geared up to produce the top bureaucrats of the country-judges, top civil servants, top managers, top academics--but at the same time a place full of petty privileges, punishments, medieval customs and a chummy upper class male network. But there lay the contradiction: if you want to produce your top lights, the future governors, then your old traditional medieval crap better not get in the way of intelligent modern thinkers of a liberal or humanistic outlook. The world wind change hit Oxford and there were demos and sit-ins and punch ups like everywhere else, involving some people who've stuck to those hopes for a better future and others who haven't.
The problem (if it can be called that) that the likes of me face is how to do all this at the same time: use our talents, lead productive lives, support ourselves and our families, stick to our principles and hopes. Being at Oxford places us at enormous advantages in the rat race. Those advantages are very seductive because they offer power and money. Accept all of them and you can find yourself talking Thatcherite or Blairite blather in a matter of moments. Friends of mine who ended up with me on the floor of Savile Row police station after the Grosvenor Square demo against the Vietnam War now beam out of my television set talking establishment shite. There's education for you.
Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector for Schools, has claimed in his annual report that standards of achievement are inadequate in half of all primary schools and two fifths of all secondaries as a result of poor teaching. His damning assessment concludes with the demand that 15,000 'bad teachers' should be sacked. In a further attempt to undermine the principle of comprehensive education for all, the report lists 200 'top schools', the majority of which are voluntary aided or grammar, and thus able to select their pupils.
The report came in the immediate aftermath of the Harriet Harman controversy which helped to fuel the moral panic about standards of teaching in comprehensive schools. Woodhead's blast is only the most recent in a long line of attempts by government ministers or government agencies to scapegoat teachers for the real problems of education.
How do we respond? The problem is that the centre of gravity of the debate about education has shifted dramatically to the right and there is a remarkable level of political consensus about 'failing' schools and teachers. Labour's spokesperson, David Blunkett, far from challenging the basis of Woodhead's claims, simply uses them to blame the Tories for failing to raise standards. New Labour's solution is a tacit acceptance of selection and an endorsement of divisive practices like streaming.
Even left Labour MPs are singing the same song. Intervening in the Harman debate, Bernie Grant called for a return to traditional teaching methods and old fashioned discipline. He supported her right to exercise her choice as a parent when he knows full well that the vast majority of parents don't have the same choice. It's ironic that it's been left to an old right winger, Roy Hattersley, to remind Labour that the policies the party is now espousing were the very ones that had failed in the past and that comprehensive education was a response to that failure. It was based on the simple principle that all children had the right to equality of opportunity in education, not just the privileged few. The direction that the debate has taken makes it more difficult to focus on the very real deficiencies in our school system.
The root cause of the problem lies in the grossly divisive and inequitable way in which schools are organised and funded. Successive measures enacted by the Tories during the last ten years since the Education Reform Act of 1986 have ruthlessly widened the divide between the educational haves and have nots. Michael Rosen (New Statesman and Society, 26 January 1996) has pinpointed no less than 11 different kinds of school, each of them reflecting varying degrees of privilege or lack of it. Leaving aside the existence of fee paying private schools, the funding of schools by the state is increasingly marked by disparity and inequality. The introduction of grant maintained status offered schools bribes to opt out of local authority control and the cost of the bribe was met by a reduction in the funding of the remaining schools. Covert methods of selection were encouraged in order to weed out children who might be considered a 'problem' or who came from families not judged compatible with the ethos of the school. Unselective local authority schools which cater for the vast majority of working class children have found themselves at the bottom of the funding heap.
The 1986 Act also contained measures to ensure that even among local authority schools there would be disparity of funding. The introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS) meant that money for schools had to be devolved directly to the schools themselves primarily on the basis of pupil numbers. This policy prevented the local education authorities from allocating budgets on the basis of pupil need so that children with different needs were caught in a descending spiral of deprivation. LMS was accompanied by open enrolment which introduced the madness of the free market into education by preventing local authorities from attempting to balance the intake of schools. It introduced competition between schools by seeking to force 'popular' schools to recruit to their maximum capacity in response to demand, regardless of the effect on other schools. The publication of league tables of school exam results has become the mechanism for this competition and ensures that some schools remain popular and the rest are labelled as failing. It is the iron law of competition that if you have winners you also have losers.
The real cause of failure is a ruthlessly divisive system and progressive underfunding. The middle classes can, like Harriet Harman, pursue their naked self interest while the rest of us scramble for the scraps. Even Woodhead's own report had to acknowledge that one in seven primary schools and one in five secondaries endured poor buildings and cramped classrooms. He concedes:
In fact the problems with poor buildings and inadequate resources are far worse than he is prepared to accept. But this is not the whole story. The scale of the barrage of distorted information about schools has meant that some of the mud has stuck. Ordinary parents are genuinely confused. In an ICM poll for the Guardian (7 February 1996) a substantial majority believe that all state schools should be comprehensives, but at the same time 50 percent agreed that Harriet Harman should be allowed to exercise her privileged choice to send her son to a selective grammar school. Part of the reason for this confusion lies at the door of the Labour Party. Far from condemning the wreckage inflicted on education by the Tories, Labour accepts their agenda and pursues it even more vigorously. 'Failing' schools and 'poor' teachers must be closed down and rooted out. One of Labour's most prominent advisers, Michael Barber, was one of the Tory appointed commissioners who closed Hackney Downs School and he has subsequently argued that more schools are ripe for enforced closure in the same way.
The existence of this consensus makes it even more important that Woodhead is challenged. Firstly his figures are totally arbitrary. Ofsted inspectors cannot credibly identify 'good' or 'bad' teachers during their lightning raids on schools and there are no criteria for doing so. Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University has spent 20 years studying 'teacher efficiency' and concludes, not surprisingly, that all the characteristics that make up a good teacher will rarely be embodied in a single individual and the ability to put on a good show for an inspector is no measure of effectiveness. And as Ted Wragg has also pointed out, even Woodhead's 15,000 'failures' represent only 4 percent of the total.
The first people you would expect to complain about bad teaching would be parents and students, so the last word should go to Margaret Morrisey of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations: 'We have 11,000 members representing 8 million children and you can count the number of complaints we have had about bad teachers on two hands. It's not something we have had a lot of problems with.' (Observer, 11 February 1996).
The theme of press contributions to this debate from 'liberal' papers like the Observer and the Guardian has been to lament the failure of the comprehensive ideal. If it is an ideal then it is still something worth fighting for; the favoured alternatives pander to the naked self interest of the middle classes and consign the majority of our children to the educational scrap heap.
It is a history and a profile of comprehensive education in Britain today. It looks at the system we have--measured against the comprehensive system we could have if we were serious about continuing it, rather than indulging in antiquated argument about whether or not to return to the discredited practices of the past.
The present panic about selection is nothing new, for a vocal elite minority has always opposed the comprehensive idea. In 1965 it was waging war against a tiny band of schools taking only 10 percent of the secondary age group. Today it is waging war against schools attended by 90 percent of the primary and secondary age group in state education.
With relatively little support from national governments, Britain voted with its feet for comprehensive education in the 1960s and 1970s. It is too late to return to the 11-plus system but it is not too late to try to polarise the lately created comprehensive system. This is what opting out and City Technology Colleges and the acres of legislative controls surrounding admissions since 1979 have been all about. That is why selective methods are being 'talked up' again, along with attacks on 'poor' teachers, 'failing' schools and 'inadequate' parents.
Our research shows the system holding up well. Hundreds and hundreds of schools and colleges are battling against the prevailing 'anti-comprehensive' prejudice (not to mention financial cuts) to maintain their commitment to local populations as well as to their comprehensive purpose. This is seeing what children and young people can do in a system that no longer tries to decide ahead of time who is going to do well and who is going to be left behind.
Organised well, comprehensive education's main appeal is still that it leaves doors open--at 11, 16, and on into adult life--and this frightens the political and social establishment. There are the cost implications were the real talents of the majority ever to be fully developed and there is the threat to cosy social hierarchies were existing alignments of social power and educational opportunity to he disrupted. Added to this there is always the danger that when people are encouraged to practise the skills of critical enquiry, they may come to the conclusions about society and the way the world is run, that are not those fostered from on high.
One of the most interesting quotations in the book is from an anonymous civil servant from the Department of Education (for the record in the late 1980s) commenting that, contrary to the popular 'mythology' (that comprehensives have failed), in fact they have been rather too successful. They encourage too many to want to go too far:
Comprehensive education--properly developed--encourages high expectations and a population that will fight for expectations to be realised and possibly some thinking about whose place is where in the social order. No wonder such a system cannot be left to develop without the agitated attention it is now receiving.
Thirty Years On by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty is published by David Fulton Publishers this month