Issue 198 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: Education:Turning the tables (1)

Jane Elderton

The education system is in crisis. The chaos caused by government imposed tests, league tables, opting out of local authority control and an explosion of exclusions has led to demoralisation and confusion amongst teachers and parents. Even head teachers are now threatening to refuse to publish test results in defiance of the government.

Central to what is going on in education are the tests (SATs) for seven, 11 and 14 year olds and the league tables that the Tories have introduced. Teachers knew the tests would be used to cream off pupils to go to the better resourced schools. That is why they fought so hard against the SATs. By taking action themselves they eventually pushed their union leaders into backing the boycott.

Everyone should remember just how successful that boycott was. The Tories were on the ropes over education, with their policies rapidly grinding to a halt. John Patten, the Tories' education secretary disappeared, 'sick', in the summer of 1993. Gillian Shephard replaced Patten and she adopted a very different style while the government brought in ex Post Office boss Sir Ron Dearing to try to reach a compromise with teachers. Teachers' union leaders called off the boycott, but more could have been won.

NASUWT union leader Nigel de Gruchy argued that all teachers were concerned about was cutting their workload. But socialists, and many teachers, argued that opposition to the tests was much more about the destructive effect they would have on children's education.

As these warnings about the consequences of the tests and league tables were ignored, many teachers now feel nothing but despair. Two tier schools are back and teachers last month had to force pupils to sit tests that many disagree with.

The ATL teaching union's recent survey found 72 percent of teachers of seven year olds thought that educationally the tests were 'not at all worthwhile'. But the tests are having a massive impact on the way children are taught.

As Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty point out in their book Thirty Years On, schools are being pushed to concentrate on the most able pupils:

'Schools praised by Ofsted for improvement were often those that had given priority to the "highest ability pupils" with the implication that the work of the rest was rather less important.'

Teachers who are committed to true comprehensive education have found little support from the Labour leadership. Instead David Blunkett attacks inner city comprehensives, mixed ability teaching and failing teachers. Labour plans to keep in place the Tories' tests, league tables and funding arrangements. And, to add insult to injury, Blair and Harman send their children to a grammar school and a selective, opted out school which does not even recognise the teaching unions.

As the well established Campaign for State Education (CASE) rightly states, Labour's policies will inevitably mean a return to selection. They complain Labour's plans are 'divisive'. Yet the leaders of the NUT, the largest teaching union in England and Wales, is determined to keep in step with Tony Blair's New Labour and has accepted some of the Labour leadership's policies.

Special needs provision has already been decimated and the attacks continue, often pushed through by Labour councils. In Liverpool special needs teachers, who work in mainstream classes with children who need extra help, had to push hard from below to get the go ahead for a strike ballot against massive cuts.

One Liverpool teacher explained:

'More children with special needs are now in mainstream schools, but the provision is being cut all the time. The schools are already stretched and they have had more budget cuts this year. Given the huge size of classes, unsupported, without any resources, the pressure on mainstream teachers would be horrendous.'

The cuts mean 10,000 teachers were sacked last year and up to another 8,000 jobs are set to go this year. Class sizes are now bigger than at any time since 1979. Over 1 million primary school pupils are now taught in classes of more than 30 and the number being taught in classes of more than 40 has risen by a third to 18,000. Buildings are crumbling and in need of at least 3 billion of repairs.

On top of this the teachers' workload is massive. The introduction of the national curriculum means they have no room to manoeuvre in terms of what they teach. In the past if pupils were alienated from school, staff could use their experience to try to capture their interest. That is no longer the case. Now teachers just have to push ahead to cover the Tories' curriculum for the tests.

All this means the pressure on teachers is immense. At the heart of all this you have Tory placeman Chris Woodhead on the warpath. It is clear that Ofsted, the privatised schools inspectorate, is being used as a political weapon to force through Tory attacks and undermine comprehensive education. Teachers' jobs and the fate of schools can be determined by an Ofsted inspector spending as little as 20 minutes in two different lessons.

So any child who has greater needs and demands more attention can start to be seen as a problem. Instead of starting with that child's needs the Tory system can push teachers to simply see children as a management problem.

Again Labour refuses to speak out against these attacks. It is left to ex-Ofsted inspectors and teachers to point to the way Woodhead is twisting reports and manipulating statistics for his own political ends. In some areas Labour seems to be trying to out-do Woodhead rather than expose him. So Blunkett called for failing teachers to be sacked.

Teachers know they, and their teaching methods, are being blamed for problems which are caused by the Tories' market, selection and massive education cuts. This is the context in which the recent strike threats by teachers wanting to exclude children have taken place.

So should socialists support teachers striking to throw children out of school?

The answer has to be no. Despite the tabloid headlines, there is no evidence that a rapid decline in pupils' behaviour is to blame for the massive rise in permanent exclusions from schools.

The leadership of the NASUWT, the teaching union behind recent strike threats, argues that 'violent' pupils are the greatest problem teachers now face. They claim the number of cases where teachers have refused to teach certain pupils due to 'violence and disruption' reached an 'all time high' last year. Yet the 51 cases they recorded last year is only one more than the number in 1987. But pupil exclusions have rocketed. The latest government figures point to an increase from 2,910 in 1990-91 to 11,181 in 1993-94. Despite the lack of any more recent figures there is no doubt that expulsions have continued to rise and could now be as high as 14,000 or 15,000 pupils being thrown out of school every year.

Many of these children, who are overwhelmingly working class and often black, never return to mainstream classes. Teachers are wrong to focus on these pupils as the enemy. They are the greatest victims of a system that is pushing teachers to the edge. Such strikes are not even in teachers' own interests because they will do nothing to address the root of their problems.

Yet many expect socialists to automatically support any strike. Generally this is true, but not always. It is always important to look at a wider picture.

Take the example of BSE. It is not enough simply to focus on the rights of 'workers in the meat industry'. As socialists we have far more to say about how the Tories are prepared to risk the lives of all workers who are eating beef without being told about the deadly risks, never mind the way capitalism always puts profits before providing healthy food.

In all such cases it is essential that socialists put the interests of the whole working class first. This is not a new problem. The Russian revolutionary Lenin, writing in What is to be Done in 1902, addressed this same issue. His comments provide a useful guide for socialists today;

[The revolutionary socialist's] 'ideal should not be a trade union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; he must be able to generalise all these manifestations to produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; he must be able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to explain his socialistic convictions and his democratic demands to all.'

Trade unions exist within the system and as such they reflect the interests of different sections of the working class rather than uniting all workers.

Socialists need to show how apparently unconnected issues are all linked and derive from the same system. It is not enough for teachers to simply react as trade unionists. They have to look beyond their own classroom or school for a solution.

The role of teachers in capitalist society is contradictory. On the one hand, teachers are motivated to do the job by the desire to realise each child's potential. On the other, the Tories and the ruling class have their own interests in education.

When teachers fight against the Tory SATs, league tables and cuts they are fighting for pupils' rights for a decent education. Then teachers can win massive support from both parents and pupils.

For then they are fighting the real cause of both teachers' and pupils' problems - the Tories' market in schools. That, combined with massive funding cuts, has seen a return to selection and two tiers of schools. John Major has said he wants to see a return to a grammar school in every town.

But schools are already selecting pupils. Some, like specialist schools, are openly selective. Others are simply oversubscribed, which still means they can pick the most academically able children.

The Tories' funding arrangements, which mean resources are based on pupil numbers, means these schools have the most resources. Equally the schools with falling numbers have the least resources but are left with those children with the greatest needs. So it is important to knock on the head the myth that only the schools with the most 'difficult' pupils are excluding. Some schools are throwing out pupils they know will damage their position in the league tables of exam results.

One new study of permanently excluded primary children found these children are 'needy rather than simply naughty'.

But crumbling schools facing year after year of cuts lack the resources to meet those children's needs. Now classes are bigger, teachers are under greater pressure and special needs teachers who could take the time needed with these children have seen their jobs axed.

Schools are increasingly seeing those children with the greatest needs as a problem. Teachers are being forced onto the retreat by the failure of their union leaders to lead a fight and Labour massively shifting to the right and adopting the Tories' rhetoric over education.

However, there is no short cut to challenging the logic of both the Tories and the Labour Party and demanding more resources and an end to the market. While teachers are threatening to strike unless children are removed, Labour run education authorities are increasingly taking parents to court over issues like truancy.

For Labour's leadership it is far easier to blame teachers, pupils and parents for any problems, rather than the Tories' introduction of the market in schools. It also means for Labour's leadership the solution is not to spend more on education.

Nobody should forget that Blunkett promises nothing 'overnight'. He says schools will have to wait for 'a minimum of two parliaments to begin to implement all that needs to be done.' And what Blunkett defines as 'what needs to be done' is vague and very limited.

But an end to the market in schools and more resources remain the only solution for the problems faced by both teachers and the excluded pupils who are the real victims.

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