A Wet Old Season: Kicking against the Education System

Fifteen years ago the answer to all the deficiencies in working-class education was to have comprehensive schools. This was to be the mid-century’s great reform, comparable with the Welfare State in its hoped-for transforming and equalizing effect. So comprehensive schools were established, and a steep-stepped gradation among them sprang up immediately. Some became the Etons and Gordonstouns of this plastic brave new world; others produced associations of well-heeled parents fighting to keep their children out of them. Inside the schools all the inequalities of the old system were repeated and all the problems recurred. What change?

Without relish, we can say that we told you so. Our 1959 pamphlet Schools Today predicted precisely those outcomes from making State education “comprehensive”. Reformers are painfully slow to learn, however. That is why we are out of sympathy for the agonized cries of Christopher Searle’s book This New Season (Calder & Boyars, £2.60). Alternating presentations of children’s poems with his own bitter attacks on the education system, the writer calls for “rank and file control of the schools” and “democratizing the schools as a fundamental part of society”. Yet we have just been watching a reorganization with those claims and supported by the entire Left fall flat on its face, demonstrating that within capitalism schools are what they have to be.

Contradictory Anger
Christopher Searle’s account of what they are is a wide-eyed one, full of astonished indignation at discoveries that the teacher is a wage-slave, that “the child is . . . raw material to fill up the functions for making profit”, that the education system is “divided and hierarchical”. The reactions are those of the student who has believed in the idealism of training-college discussions, then gone to his first teaching post and been told to forget that nonsense and get on with the job as it really is (which is what most young teachers are told as soon as they start). Of course the statements are true, but the truth is not very profound. In all epochs, education aims to fit the young to live in and maintain their society — not as a rulers’ conspiracy, but as a necessary function. Education in capitalism has no alternative to being education for capitalism.

It has to be said that contradictions and sloppy thinking abound in This New Season. You cannot slate Stepney, where Searle’s school is, as “a decaying, violent neighbourhood”, “claustrophobic”, etc., and then berate teachers for not choosing to live there: on his own evidence, who would? Teachers are “underpaid, confused, frightened”, but also guilty of “cosy, middle-class” existence. The most absurd and prejudicial item in the book is a photograph of the headmaster and the vice-chairman of the Governors, obviously intended to condemn by itself. They look unappetizing, certainly. But would a candid-camera snap of, say, Cliff and Healy be more attractive? And, to turn the thing inside-out, would State education become acceptable if Mrs. Thatcher were a dolly-bird? What nonsense is this !

Blind Alleys
The question is what schools are all about. Searle is correct in saying they exist “to prepare a child for his future employers”, mistaken in thinking this primary function can be stopped as immoral and a worthier one substituted under capitalism. The example given of an alternative is the Scotland Road Free School where it is said “The whole of Liverpool is our classroom”. No doubt the Free School is an enjoyable place, but the truth is that it is as irrelevant as A. S. Neill’s Summerhill. On one hand, its material is children in a social section the State can afford, at least up to a point, not to bother about. On the other, most educational innovations are picked up from experimental and minority schools, and their methods put to use for “the enemy culture”. The poacher finds he was only a trainee gamekeeper, after all.

Beyond reiterating the value of poetry as a liberating activity, and the importance of the English teacher, the book has nothing whatever about the content of education. Searle says:

“. . . we need more schools, more teachers, more books, more facilities for our working-class children, more concentration to develop their frustrated and insulted potential. The more economic and educational demands we make for our class, the more we threaten the prevailing standards peddled in the schools.”

It might be remarked that this has happened. Since the 1944 Education Act there have been more schools, books, teachers, etc., and “the prevailing standards” have apparently been reinforced not threatened by them. But what is the desired “more” to consist of? Only hints are given when Searle talks of “the wastage”, lack of “any social opportunity”, “an inequitable and divided society”. One has to infer that he believes there is a superior kind of education given to the well-to-do that should be shared equally by working-class children.

Marketing Goods
There are dreadful fallacies here. To give the most handsome schooling to every child would not alter anything in economic life. An adolescent’s poem in the book asks:

Now will a college be my fate?
Or National Assistance?

The answer is: quite likely, both. Not long ago attention was drawn to the number of science graduates — chemistry in particular — who could not get jobs.

Searle writes of “a choice” offered to the working-class child: “be consumed, move upwards, away from your origins and join the middle class, or fall back and join the labour market”. This is abysmal rubbish. The “middle class” of professional and managerial people are in the labour market with all the rest. And what emerges is that Searle sees himself, for all the talk about “identity” and “class allegiances”, as coming down from the middle class to give a helping hand to the proles:

“The teacher, society’s agent in the schools, is like the lonely dustman. Dependent on the children for both his raison d’etre and his raw material, he takes them from the dark world of the school to the darker world of the dead-end job or the dole, and yet his liberalism still likes to make him see them as friends . . . The fact is that we are all workers: teachers, children, parents, and children themselves can soon identify with oppressed and exploited adults.”

What needs to be remembered also is that the subject-content of education is itself a collection of marketed products. The “better” the education, the more this applies. A great deal of what is taught in schools, halo-surrounded, is practically worthless either in getting-a-job terms or for personal satisfaction. The biggest educational growth industry of the present time is modern languages — formerly Spanish and German, now Russian, with Chinese on the horizon (in America the upsurge is in Japanese). Not to learn at least one such language is taken as a deprivation, but the fact is that the likelihood of using it for any reason at all is microscopic. The use of mathematics above office-boy or workshop level is so rare as to make its universal teaching absurd. That is not to denigrate any branch of study, but to point out that behind every subject is the sale of books, equipment and buildings. If you don’t believe it, go to an “education exhibition”. Is this the “opportunity” that must be won by struggle?

Searle’s most persistent attack is on the attitudes imparted in schools, summarized by him as “white middle class consciousness”. Its other side is shown by citing a survey made recently by the Medical Research Council’s Social Medicine Unit, where

“it was revealed that in the East End of London, the single most important factor in determining whether a child becomes a ‘delinquent’ and appears before the courts, is the school he attends. Their research completely reversed the majority view very widely and conveniently held in the schools that the home environment and lack of parental control is the determining factor in whether a child becomes a ‘delinquent’.”

That is all true, as far as it goes. The dividing and streaming of schoolchildren is undoubtedly a catalyst to delinquency: those labelled “reject” get the message and, often, react accordingly. The trouble is that different factors are confused here. Basically, the school and a child’s place in it are likely to reflect his family’s income and circumstances. In the days of the eleven-plus it was commonly said among teachers that the scholarships might as well be given in relation to the parents’ income because that was what school prowess at that age amounted to; and this fact of capitalist life has transferred itself to the comprehensive system.

But delinquents, whatever else is said concerning them, have plainly rejected “white middle class consciousness”. (They have also been rejected by it; and in the quotation above it is hard to see any other kind of consciousness at work.) It remains to be shown that attitudes presented in schools do carry and have a decisive effect. A report in The Times on 19th December 1972 summarized four recent studies on whether education can change people or society. All conclude that it cannot. Thus, the Jencks report from the United States:

“To improve schools would not eliminate inequality in cognitive skills or poverty and economic inequalities between adults . . .”

According to the Jencks arguments, schools are at best only marginal institutions.

Prisons and Freedom
To speak of schools as prisons will not do, despite examples to be found. “Factories” would be nearer the mark. However, in any society there is a minimum of skills and knowledge which must be acquired if the individual and the community are not to be at disadvantages: literacy, proficiency with numbers, the use of tools and means of expression and enquiry. Ideally, what happens beyond that is a matter of individual inclination matched to social needs. Nevertheless, it is mistaken to think that all learning must be fun and wherever it is not is a prison. Much learning, at both child and adult levels, has to be unpalatable grind with satisfaction only at later stages. What is wrong with capitalism’s education is that the satisfactions are rarely one’s own and principally realized in profit-making for others; but to seek to trivialize and gift-wrap learning is to underwrite the Woolworth mentality of capitalism.

Schools cannot be treated as if they were separable from society, capable of being re-directed in isolation. It is always possible for a teacher to have his own attitudes reproduced, particularly in writing and art, by the suggestibility of children and be elated by these signs of a new outlook. Unfortunately, the effect does not last because it cannot be based on understanding. Bernard Shaw said in 1914 that the people who became emotionally excited over peace were the same ones who became emotionally excited over war; and he was speaking of adults. Of course it is desirable that education should aim at “control of our own lives”, and “reciprocity, comradeship and shared experience”. But to obtain that, we must first create a society to which such purposes will be functional — not the other way round.

Socialists working for that society have a special interest in everyone’s education. It is ex ducere to bring forth, “educe” to draw out: not the stuffing-in of school education or the parrot-unison of ideologies, but the joining of knowledge to experience from which the conception of and the resolve for a different world must arise.


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