Issue 199 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review


Just a number

Jane Elderton's article 'What's gone wrong with education?' (June SR) only scratches the surface.

When I started teaching 20 years ago the notion of education was wider than equipping pupils with the means to pass tests.

Many teachers saw education as a means of encouraging self expression and self liberation. Teaching today is more like being on an educational assembly line. I teach 239 pupils a week, all of whom have to be assessed and given individual targets.

In school we no longer have colleagues but teachers and managers. The latter do little teaching but supervise those who spend five or six hours per day in the company of pupils. The terminology used in school administration is more appropriate to a car factory. If classroom teachers have problems they are to refer to their line manager.

Nowadays it seems everyone is an expert on education apart from teachers. What we teach and how we record progress are decided for us by politicians. Teachers' levels of pay have fallen to such an extent that well meaning pupils will sometimes ask their teachers why they don't get a proper job.

League tables and glossy brochures now mean that some grant maintained schools spend £25,000 plus on press and publicity.

Schools in Brentwood every day now bus in hundreds of pupils from adjoining boroughs. Free state education hardly exists when parents are paying £12 per child per week in bus fares.

Until recently one would have thought that the Labour Party would have been opposed to the characteristics outlined above. Apparently not.

Terry Ward Brentwood (disillusioned Labour candidate, Upminster 1992)

The needs of teachers

The current debate on education illustrates the need to consider every matter in all aspects. The positive statements made by the SWP have been welcome and encouraging and would be supported by most teachers.

The SWP is quite correct to raise the demand for increased resources. It is also correct when it points out the need for structures, both within schools and within the education service generally, which enable the needs of pupils to be met, and enable teachers to fulfil their duties, responsibilities, and their personal desire to teach all the children placed under their care.

What the party has failed to do is to give an answer to the particular individual problem that, unfortunately, can and does arise when the necessary procedures are not in position. In a situation of breakdown, where an individual teacher, unable to deal with a particular pupil, is told by an outside school body that the child must be accepted back into the class, whatever the consequences and without any support, who then do we support?

The responsibility for our educational system does not rest simply and solely on individual teachers. It is a joint responsibility. That is why we not only demand improved resources, but are also engaged in the battle to maintain and extend local authority (community) control over schools; why we oppose selection and all forms of preferential treatment; why we recognise a need for extra help in cases of extra special need; why we call for specialist help to be brought in to integrate those pupils for whom school is a problem.

We argue, demand and fight for these things. But by and large we have not got them. The battle goes on against these inadequacies, whilst for the main part, teachers and pupils work together (consciously or not) to succeed at a much higher level than was true, say, 30 years ago. However, on occasions there are breakdowns and failures. Sometimes the failure is clearly down to a lack of control by a teacher, who must then be removed from the situation and given a fresh start. There are occasions when it is the pupil who needs to be placed in a new situation.

There is plenty of evidence to show that an enlightened education system can cope with these problems without assigning blame to either pupil or teacher. However, situations have arisen which also show that conflict can arise, where teachers are placed in impossible situations.

The art of teaching depends upon a whole range of variables and is a delicate balance in which the personal confidence of the teacher and the feelings of respect held by the pupils within the whole school towards that teacher are of supreme importance.

To use the words 'discipline' and 'authority' is to invite criticism and condemnation because such words have been taken over by right wing fanatics who distort what is being said in order to impose their own agenda.

A revolutionary organisation, above all others, must understand what is correctly meant by authority and discipline. Authority depends upon knowledge, experience, and correct practice and application. Discipline is not blind obedience to dogmatic 'authority', but a reasoned response to justified authority.

One of the great criticisms of the Tory government is that it has consistently and determinedly undermined professional authority in every field. In education, by its policy on school structures and internal management, on the curriculum, methods of teaching, and class control and relations, it has undermined the role of the class teacher and imposed dogmatic decisions of people who have never experienced the life in our schools and have no concern for our children.

The final straw, for some teachers, is when they are instructed to take back into their class a pupil with whom they have clearly failed, who may have struck them, who may appear to them to be a potential source of danger, and who has consistently prevented them from teaching­that is, from employing the skill which for many years may have been the basis of their own self esteem.

Without condemning that child, who is without doubt also a victim of the vicious society in which we live, at the end of the day I must support that teacher. If this means that I have to support a strike in order to remove the immediate flashpoint, then I will do so.

The responsibility for that individual child does not rest simply and solely upon that individual teacher. The child is the responsibility of the whole education service. The immediate first step must come from another teacher, or from a special unit, or from another school, depending upon need.

The ideal solution might well be that after a period of reassessment by all concerned the child and teacher would be reunited, but this will not be possible, after a breakdown situation, unless the particular needs of the teacher are met.

There is no doubt that some teachers are reactionary and do not fully recognise the needs of particular pupils.

There is no doubt that progressive members of unions have to argue within their unions for progressive policies. That battle is not helped by condemnation of actions in support of individual teachers in isolated, extremely difficult circumstances, as reactionary. Such statements prove to be a barrier to getting over the important message: that the way to solve these problems is to prevent them from arising, which means a united battle on all the fronts discussed above using all the means available to us.

Ralph A Tebbutt Gillingham

Children are victims too

I was pleased to read Jane Elderton's article, 'What's gone wrong with education?' (June SR) and agree that socialists should not support strike action that leads to kids being thrown out of school. Instead we need to fight as hard as we can for the resources needed to keep them, as John Lockwood argues, in mainstream education.

With the Tories' introduction of the market into education, it's clear that teachers are stressed and pressurised, which has led to this response to children who are needy and difficult to teach. But these children are also suffering under the attacks, just as we are. They are alienated and disaffected by an irrelevant National Curriculum, lack of space in overcrowded classrooms in poorly resourced schools, competing with each other for the teacher's attention. They feel the effects of an Ofsted inspection as we do and the stress of SATs and how they are labelled as 'successes' or 'failures'. So children are also victims of a system that is brutalising and competitive rather than supportive, which makes them feel angry too.

I do not in any way doubt that the situation is horrendous and that teachers are near breaking point. Nor do I think that teachers should be attacked or threatened by the children they teach. But there must be another way forward for us as teachers.

In a recent Guardian article on school exclusions of black children and the Brixton riots last year the Runnymede Trust not surprisingly stated that 'once these boys have been thrown out of school they have whole days of nothing to do with themselves. They get involved in petty crime and end up in trouble with the police'.

Why, therefore, do teachers argue for strike action against these children who may have also, as John Lockwood points out, experienced physical and or sexual abuse and or extreme poverty. It's the most disadvantaged working class children­and a disproportionate number of them are black children­who are the ones figuring in the recent massive increase in exclusions. These are the most needy children so we should demand and fight for proper resources needed in order to teach them, such as support services, more special needs teachers in schools, reduced class sizes which also take into account the number of special needs pupils in the classroom, nurture groups and tutorial groups.

We've recently seen Liverpool support services vote for strike action against an attempt to axe half their service. This is the kind of action we need to take. Teachers are on the offensive over the proposed publication of SATs results. There's also the campaign against Ofsted­calling for Woodhead's resignation­and the boycotting of Ofsted inspections. And there will be a demonstration in the autumn term.

So let's stop allowing the Tories to push us into attacking the victims of the system. Blair's New Labour and Blunkett also need to see what we stand for and what we intend to fight for.

Carol Archer Camden

Marriage guidance

Every time we get Socialist Review we go straight to the back page to read Pat Stack's excellent and witty comments. We did, though, have some misgivings about the points raised in 'Mixed blessings' (June SR). He asks whether we want the state to give us a licence to live together (ie sanction gay marriages). When put in that way the answer to that question would be 'not particularly'.

However, in order to sanction gay marriage, the state would have to accept the existence and validity of gay partnerships in principle. That surely is something all socialists would welcome. Of course that would not banish homophobia, but we should defend such a reform as much as any other legislation against oppression. It would also bring limited but real material benefits, such as the right to be treated as next of kin in the event of the death or illness of one partner.

This is not an abstract discussion. This year the American state of Hawaii may legalise gay marriage. Partnership laws already exist in several Scandinavian countries. When Norway introduced one in 1993 our sister organisation rightly supported it. The only opposition came from religious groups and some Maoists! As socialists we need to clarify our arguments about the nature of state reforms and sexuality. Unfortunately in this case some of Pat Stack's points served to confuse them.

Nick Gill and Öyvind Brendeland Bristol

Degrees of separation

It is worth making a few additions and updates to Chris Nineham's useful analysis of the Italian general election results (June SR).

Following the formation of the new government, the racist Northern League set up its own 'Parliament of the North' in Mantova, which has threatened to secede from the rest of Italy. Inevitably the 'parliament' is made up entirely of the party's own members and is physically defended by the new 'Greenshirts', who have evoked disturbing parallels with Mussolini's Blackshirt movement. Sadly for the League, subsequent local election results in the north went drastically wrong and their so called mandate for a separatist government disappeared.

Of course secession is an unrealistic proposition but serves the purpose of inciting racism against southerners and foreigners and pushing the government to meet some of its demands.

As for the fascists, there have been murmurs inside the National Alliance of a split, especially given the fact that the hardline 'Flame' party did much better than predicted when compared to the Alliance's pretence of electoral respectability. This will signify less rather than more distancing of themselves from the open Nazi thugs who recently used knives to attack half a dozen immigrants in Bologna 'in celebration' of the local football club's success.

Finally the left itself. Communist Refoundation have consistently failed to utilise the potential to fight against the government, the fascists or the League but have wasted no time in proposing the closure of their university branches. Whilst it is true that these opposition groups have been more rhetoric than action, they have at least represented a focal point of opposition to the betrayals of the leadership.

Clearly all socialists should oppose any Blair-like smothering of dissent, but it also means that many of those attracted by Refoundation's left credentials will need to look to a genuine revolutionary party such as the one that Socialismo Internazionale, the SWP's sister organisation in Italy, are presently trying to build.

David Groves Bologna

What a liberty

I was rather disappointed with John Rees's review of Christopher Hill's latest book, Liberty Against the Law (June SR), because it doesn't fully engage with the context of its publication.

Hill is writing a history of the landless ex-peasantry of the 17th century who, he writes, he wishes to rescue not from the condescension of posterity, attacked by Edward Thompson, but from its complete silence. Not surprisingly such an exercise has provoked a political response in the present day. The Sunday Telegraph review of the book underlined that Christopher Hill had once been a Stalinist, so who was he to write about liberty?

Keith Thomas in the Guardian suggested that Hill was repeating many previous themes because his influence in the age of New Labour was less than it was in the 1960s.

On the contrary, the Guardian hardly troubled to notice Hill's books at all until comparatively recently. And many people who will be voting for Blair at the election will also read Hill's book and wish and hope that his vision of ordinary people organising and fighting back could be realised in the late 20th century.

Keith Flett North London

The legal gun runners

I greet you in the spirit of resistance, struggle, revolution and in solidarity!

My name is Ponchai 'Kamau' Wilkerson. I am a 24 year old Afro-Asiatic male born in Houston, Texas. I have been incarcerated here on death row a bit over four and a half years for a case involving the robbery of a jewellery store and murder of its owner.

My crime is that I was a gun dealer. I never denied being a gun dealer (which meant that I illegally sold guns to people nothing more). But that's not what they charged me with. I was charged with crimes that were committed with guns that I was supposed to have sold, guns that were traced back to me. My crime was selling guns­I get the death penalty.

If the government wants to point the finger at me and say that a lot of crimes were committed because I sold guns, then they should point the finger at themselves.

Since 1950, Washington has legally exported over $300 billion in weapons to other countries. This is aside from the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons US forces have expended killing people from Korea to Panama, from Vietnam to Iraq.

Just last December, President Bill Clinton informed Congress that he was authorising the sale of 120 ballistic missiles with cluster bomb warheads to Turkey. There is only one target for these horrible weapons: the oppressed Kurdish people in the southeastern region of Turkey. How many of these gun dealers above will you ever find on death row?

At present I am being rushed through the system. Already I am in the 5th Circuit Courts after only a mere four years here on death row. If things fail for me there also then I have only one more court to appeal to­the Supreme Court.

Without a hired attorney, and with the way things are going for me, I conclude that it would be luck for me to be living one and a half to two more years.

Though I am gravely concerned about my case, its status, the death penalty and issues surrounding it, I know and understand clearly that our problems as a people are much broader than individual cases and the death penalty issue.

We at Panthers United for Revolutionary Education (PURE), which has been founded by black men on death row in Texas, are committed to promoting this revolutionary consciousness.

As revolutionary socialists, included among our agenda is advocating democracy and human rights, and denouncing sexism, racism and classism. Instead of contributing to the destruction of our communities, we must begin to build, maintain and, most importantly, defend our community, as Malcom X states, 'by any means necessary'.

We must stop teaching our brothers and sisters to turn their anger inward. We must stop faulting ourselves! Too much of this 'blaming the victim' is being promoted. Instead we must begin to redirect that already existing anger that has for too long been displaced. This does not mean we shall condone criminal activity. This simply means that we must understand what crime is about, where it begins, why it exists, and how to begin bringing it to an end, thus focusing on the cause and not just the effect. Too often we persecute the so called 'bad apples' when it is the root we must examine.

Ponchai Wilkerson #999011 Ellis One Unit­J21, Huntsville, Texas 77343, US

Donations may be sent to: Trechell Wilkerson, PO Box 541851, Houston, Texas 77254-1851, US

Your money or your life

Gayland Bradford is a young black man who has been on death row for six years.

He was convicted on the anonymous evidence of a caller to the Crime Stoppers TV show. Three eyewitnesses to the crime testified that Gayland was not the killer. The murder weapon had fingerprints on it that were not Gayland's.

One of the main reasons why it is so easy for a poor person to end up on death row is the inadequate legal representation that they receive. Gayland has been tried twice, both times he had state appointed lawyers acting for him. These people can be anybody­tax lawyers, lawyers who have never been in a criminal court, or young lawyers at the beginning of their careers. Gayland is trying to raise money for his own lawyer as his case has reached the federal courts.

Gayland writes, 'America is a divided nation, divided between rich and poor, meaning having money in great sums can save your life and having a limited amount can destroy it.'

Send letters of support to: Gayland C Bradford #966, Ellis One Unit J-23-3-19, Huntsville, Texas 77343, US

Dave Gilchrist Holloway

Making ends meet

Dirk Boeckx writes 'Peter Morgan argues that intensive farming would enable us to produce cheap meat for all' (June SR).

Peter Morgan actually states that capitalism now has the ability to provide food for all. This is not a vision of a future socialist society. Further he points out that the results of intensive farming due to the drive for profits mean that all sorts of unnecessary practices are maintained, such as 'feeding animals dead carcasses or contaminated meat.' Worse still, market principles mean there is a horrific distortion of distribution which leaves millions to starve in the midst of plenty.

Health food shops and greengrocers alike are in the business of making profits. Therefore they must exploit their workers and enter into competition like any other business. To suggest we favour small capitalists over large capitalists is no answer.

Many working class people do not agree with the way food is produced. Preaching individual choice, which in reality does not exist, will not win people to change society. Supporting and fighting alongside workers in struggle against the system can really win people to fight for a socialist society.

For the working class the solution cannot lie in individual choice but in collective action. It is only when the working class are in the saddle that we will have any control over resources. Then we will seriously be able to prioritise pollution control and use the world's resources in some rational way.

Fiona Prior Ilford

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