Education and the Working Class

The growth of state education was once called “the silent social revolution”. Few phrases ring less true. Silent it is not: loud discord is its characteristic. If a revolution, it has ended in chaos with the strategies all gone wrong and a popular feeling that those responsible deserve the worst.

The thirty-one years since the war have seen the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, which produced a tripartite system of secondary schools, followed by the demolition of that system in favour of comprehensive schools. Under the 1944 Act the school-leaving age was raised from 14 to 15, and in the last two years it has been extended to 16. Each change has been advocated as a reform containing great advantages for “the nation” and the working class, and each in due course has produced despair.

The fruits of the present system can be summarized as follows. 15 per cent, of school leavers are illiterate, according to research carried out by the Cadmean Trust (Guardian Education correspondence, 9th April 1974). It is estimated that half a million school- children in Greater London and another half-million elsewhere do not attend school at all; a high proportion of them are in the “extra year” age group between 15 and 16. “Equality of opportunity”, which was the professed aim of the reorganizations of secondary education, has never materialized. Numbers of schools are bear-gardens and teachers themselves are truants, afraid to face a daily losing battle.

To understand how and why this situation exists it is necessary to go back to the beginning of state education in 1870. At that stage in capitalism its need to systematize the existing partial facilities and have the working class educated to a basic standard had become clear. Philanthropists and radicals had agitated for education to be provided, but the motives for reform are practical ones. In particular, technical change—the petrol engine, the small electric motor, typewriter, telephone, linotype machine, cash register, tramcar, fountain pen and many other new inventions entered industry and commerce in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The process, extended by further Education Acts in 1902 and 1918, ensured the capitalist class a supply of clerks, mechanics and shop assistants who could add figures and had been taught obedience. It also provided a means of creaming-off more proficient children to be trained for more skilled work and even to enter the universities and professions. From the nineteen-twenties onward, the established grammar schools were encouraged by financial incentives to admit increasing numbers of “scholarship” boys and girls who were likely to do well. Investment in education remained restricted, however. The 1918 Act empowered and recommended local authorities to raise the school-leaving age to 15, but between the wars there did not seem much point in providing additional education for employment when unemployment was chronic.

The 1939-45 war emphasized capitalism’s need to comb the working class for the abilities it wanted, and this turned to the special demand for technically-trained people in the nineteen-fifties. It was held that the post-1944 three types of school, based on selection at 11 years old, was inefficient in this respect: neither America nor Russia had a system of early selection, and both produced more science graduates than Britain. It seems to be wilfully forgotten now that this was one of the major arguments for comprehensive schools. Defending them in a recent television discussion Fred Mulley, the Minister for Education, said he was opposed to selection in any form. Yet the statement which committed the Labour Party to introducing comprehensive schools, Learning to Live (1958) opened with a section called “True Selection”. It claimed that selection at 11 was unsatisfactory, and that its plan would mean “real and continuing selection”.

Selection means rejection. As in the adult world for which it is the preparation (the school day is modelled on the working day), in the education system communalty and lofty motives are preached while divisiveness and mercenary aims are practised. In 1964, in a book called English for the Rejected, David Holbrook estimated that three-eighths of the secondary schools’ population formed the residue from the selection procedures, and were treated as “lesser beings” in the education system. Of this large section he wrote: “Who shall blame them for becoming a resentful group expressing their contempt for a society which treated them as ‘dim dregs’, by taking to forms of delinquency and violence, or by other forms of unsocial behaviour?”

The answer to the question is, of course: Nearly everybody. The London crime figures for 1975 showed a continuing increase in crime by young persons; 37 per cent, of thefts of and from cars were committed by children between 10 and 16. In connection with this and other figures a police official said London is “heading for the most violent period in its history” (The Times, 11th March 1976). This misrepresents the situation insofar as, throughout the history of capitalism, parts of big cities have always been infested with delinquents. The writer Jack London in his youth in the early eighteen-nineties ran with gangs of hooligans and took part in muggings. The sentiment today is that it is specially deplorable after so much social reform, in education particularly.
However, the fact is that the capitalist class — abetted, and whether consciously or not does not matter, by reformists—has gone too far. In its anxiety for profit it has demanded the perfection of a method for grading and separating prospective workers. The outcome is a youthful mass who are labelled “low-grade” but kept in the education system which has no use for them. In the 1914-18 war the capitalists found likewise that their greed had rebounded on them: large numbers of the working class, starved and deprived, hardly had the strength to fight for capitalism.
Similar observations can be made about illiteracy. Its true extent is never ascertainable because illiterate people themselves and schools both seek to conceal it. On 3rd March 1976 The Times reported that the government was giving money to the Adult Literacy Resource Agency “for the campaign to teach more than two million illiterate adults to read and write”. In 1850 it was estimated that eight million, or just under a third of the population of Britain, could neither read nor write. If it is assumed that the Cadmean Trust’s figure of 15 per cent, is an underestimate, after more than a century of compulsory education illiteracy has been halved.
This looks like the failure of the education system, but it is not. The system carries out what is required of it by capitalism. Its apparent problems are problems of the capitalist organization of society, that it is mistakenly expected to solve. On 19th December 1972 The Guardian’s Education Notebook, referring to a discussion in New Society on the proposition “education is our main hope for social change”, said:

. . . the compelling evidence is that readers of New Society have got it wrong. In the last few months four separate studies have been published, and they have iterated a single message: that there is little, perhaps nothing, that the education system in isolation can do to alter the pattern of our society.

What it reflects overwhelmingly is the position of the working class, and the futility of hopes of “equality of opportunity”—or of “learning to live” in such a system.
Socialists have an interest in education of another kind: workers must learn about capitalism and what to do to get rid of it. We are often asked what prospects there are of this, in view of the lack of success in getting large numbers to learn in school. It is an educational commonplace that people, including school failures, learn swiftly when they want or need to. Backward boys become wizards of mental arithmetic if they take to buying and selling goods, and people “pick up” foreign languages they would never have learned at school. If Socialism were no more than an idea, the task would indeed be hopeless. But that is not the case. The drive to understand it comes from the pressure of the class division in society, and the compulsion for workers to know and pursue their interests.
We are asked, too, about education in Socialist society. The fact that Socialism is based on common ownership means that, for the first time, education will be for the purposes only pretended today—the benefit of the community and its individual members, not for an exploiting class. As regards literacy, the fact is that any literate adult can teach a child to read (many children teach themselves) and, with social disabilities removed, it would cease to be an achievement for some but not for others. The study of numbers may well acquire a different status, since its chief elementary function today is dealing with money.
Beyond the basic things, there will be choice in place of compulsion. As teachers know, people learn little or nothing at all of what they are not interested in. In any case, the amount learned of any subject in the school-lesson system over several years is pitifully small, aiming only at a general minimum. The purpose of true education is not to stuff knowledge into others, but to develop the desire and show the way for each one to obtain it for himself. Once it exists, the desire is not extinguished at 16 or when an examination is over. In a sane society, education would be available at every time in life.
Robert Barltrop