1980s >> 1987 >> no-999-november-1987

Editorial: Cost-effective Schooling

The “new realism of the enterprise culture”, that fashionable phrase from capitalism’s shabby intellectual boutique, has been fairly slow to catch on among the nation’s professional educators, who are presently suffering a collective hangover from the excessively optimistic and surreal Sixties, when comprehensive schooling, egalitarianism and “letting it all hang out” were in vogue. The incompatibility of these ideals with the needs of modern capitalism has ensured that it has all been stuffed firmly back in again with a vengeance. Not content with cutting educational budgets to the bone, or amputating whole limbs infected with pink irritants like sociology, the government is now adroitly laying at the teacher’s door some of society’s uglier manifestations, from glue sniffing to granny bashing. And since the natural remedy for such ills is an injection of healthy competition, that nice Mr Baker stayed behind after school one day and wrote a curriculum designed to produce an endless chain of midget entrepreneurs, all constantly tested for quality and equally at hone with isosceles triangles, mating habits of sticklebacks, Shakespeare’s sonnets . . . For good measure, parental “choice” is to be extended by fostering greater competition between schools that no self-respecting member of the ruling class would let his char ladies near, let alone any offspring.

The liberal intelligentsia has responded to these measures with indignant shouts of “philistine”. Backs against the wall and hands on heads, they argue that the disinterested pursuit of knowledge has long-term economic as well as social benefits for capitalism, that the withdrawal of funds from non-vocational courses is a short-sighted policy and an attack on the traditional values for which higher education, in particular, has always stood. It is a variant on the defence employed by what is called the “arts community”, who complain vehemently about cuts in their funding and maintain that investment in “culture” is good for Britain and a boon to the Exchequer, as well as the stamp of a civilised society. Pleading their case in capitalism’s terms is unlikely to move those who hold the purse-strings, however, since adjectives such as lean, utilitarian and cheap represent the quintessence of realism in what we are daily reminded is a fiercely competitive world.

In one sense, then, logic is on the side of those who now wield the knife. The main and self-evident function of schooling (“education” is a blatant misnomer) is the sorting out of the young into the social slots they will occupy in adult life. The schooling system is required to become more and more a super-streaming system, constantly shifting its students into channels where their past performance suggests they belong, treating people and knowledge in the way capitalism’s technological world treats everything: as if it could be processed. The big lie is that opportunities are equal, that everyone gets on by dependence on their own abilities and will to succeed. If the products of public schools brush shoulders in the City with sons of East End lorry drivers, it is still likely to be as one opens a car door for the other. The best that’s wanted for little Johnny or Tracy is a world and class away from the privileged life of the elite who, when they hear the word “culture”, simply reach for their cheque books.

What we are not suggesting is that changes in the organisation of schooling in a class society can bring no benefits for the majority, or that the dominant ideology is consciously imposed from above on all social institutions. The ethos and values of capitalism permeate all aspects of our waking lives and a complex network of factors determine whether they are digested whole, chewed over or rejected altogether. An individual teacher may well be concerned with what children learn, but he or she is one face in a world of “right-thinking” people and school systems record only the marks children get. Individuals will differ in their ability, talent and determination in any society, but it is equally obvious that social background and schooling determine whether and how much they will be paid for the sale of their physical or intellectual powers, which in turn will largely determine where they can live, with whom they associate, and the rest of their life style. Exceptions merely confirm the rule.

The selective function of schools implies losers as well as winners and, increasingly, selection is for life; attempts to disguise this reality are destined to failure (comprehensive schools did their poor best and need not try harder). What employers are demanding are precisely the qualities that today’s public schools are inculcating – a more technically qualified and disciplined workforce; which is why we are seeing attempts to force state schools to follow in their footsteps, to remove the distinction between education and training, and accept that schooling needs to operate on a more cost-effective basis. All this may not be new, but the difference this time is that the government appears willing to give them more of what they want.

What is not new and cannot change is the essential nature of capitalism. Schools take into compulsory custody millions of innocent children, dull their imaginations as best they can, force them to suck up quantities of second-hand information, qualify some for entry into other institutions, and commit the rest to a lifetime of servitude and hard labour. In a conveyor belt world dominated by competition  they can operate in no other way.