1990s >> 1998 >> no-1128-august-1998

Instruction, instruction, instruction

Why has education become the centre of Labour reformist politics? The Labour government believes that in a free-trade world dominated by vast multinational corporations a well-skilled economy has a better chance of attracting investment and business. It is adapting the education system to this end.

The Labour Party swept to power last year on the back of the tedious and mindless repetition of simple meaningless slogans, designed to appeal to all and sundry as the obvious thing to do. Behaving in the way of all leaders and treating the people with obvious contempt. The Blair hammered home his point “Education, Education, Education”, even to the extent of going to Russia and inflicting it on the workers there. The question arises, however, what exactly does this pointless piece of redundant sloganising really mean? Even The Blair does not know, calling forth committees to advise him on what the “Third Way” really is. Perhaps he needs some instruction from socialists to let him know what he’s up to.

The history of education is a long and tortuous one, of different classes struggling to define the ~goods” of society’s intellectual wealth and who should have access to them. The problem was twofold, what to teach people (within the parameters of training for social roles, inculcation of specific cultural values, and regulating and controlling behaviour) and how to teach them (the practical implementation of these values). A singular example of this can be seen in the late 19th century when vocational skills were added to the curriculum of some schools for working types. Our masters chose to call that “instruction” rather than “education”, so as to exclude from the hallowed halls of education anything so dirty as the practical ability to work.

The wanna-be masters in the Labour Party conspicuously fail to address the first point, what to teach, going around talking about education as a simple matter of deciding how to best teach children an obvious and unquestioned curriculum, without looking too closely into it. The rhetoric of the Labour government is about how to “allocate resources” more effectively, to achieve more efficiency, to improve standards” of teaching. In short, all their bluster is about how they are going to teach, and not what they are going to teach. Content stays quietly on the side lines.

Central state control
To achieve this efficiency”, the Labour government has begun to implement what has been called a “central planning” system for education. Their Education Bill contained a host of Henry VIII clauses (parts of a bill that give direct discretionary executive authority to a Minister), giving the Secretary of State an enormous degree of control over the education system, and more than any predecessor, in what had previously been mostly a system of co-operation between central government and local educators. OFSTED (inherited from the Tory years, like most of the Labour plans— the government is the government is the government) continues to terrorise its way through schools, its panoptic gaze set to frighten the teachers into “improving’ their “standards”, a terror backed up by “naming and shaming” and the whole rhetoric of “failing schools” and “incompetent teachers”.

School league tables are meant to indicate how well a school is “performing”, but in fact help to instil “market discipline” as schools compete for pupils (and therefore funding: this factor is also strongly felt in the further education sector where cutbacks, bullying management and a mad scramble for pupils is wracking those who work there). The encouraged relationship of parents to schools is that of the marketplace. with parents as consumers, entering into a contract with the school that is itself (if it opts out) a self-run business. Here, quietly, the values of the market have been adopted, but Labour would just call it being “pragmatic”, and attack any opposition as ideologues or dogmatists.

Alongside this come the “Education Action Zones”, locally based cooperation between businesses and Local Education Authorities and the schools themselves. This produced the response of Don’t Let Labour Privatise Our Schools” from the Trotskyists of the “Marxist Party”, as usual for such types, missing the point entirely. EAZs are not about private companies trying to make a profit from schools; indeed, these will try and pass their participation off as largess. EAZs will provide more funding, to supposedly help kick-start schools in deprived areas, and improve their “standards” of teaching.They will be allowed to change the length of terms (in Middlesbrough, for example, it is proposed to change from a three to a four term system, and thus lose the long, and “socially disruptive”, summer holiday, in favour of a more spread-out system). Schools will get extra staff, be freed from national pay agreements (so that they can apply “flexible” salaries and conditions) and the national curriculum (so that they can concentrate on Literacy and Numeracy skills—the three Rs by a different name).

The EAZs represent a way for our masters to assert a more direct control, by-passing any awkward elected and potentially Bolshy local authorities, not for their own immediate profit, but so that the education system remains secure and run well by their standards and interests.

The content of the lessons is also of interest. Blunkett has already allowed all schools to cut time set aside for History, Geography and Art in their class rooms, in favour of a literacy hour. Added to the provisions for EAZs, this could mean that humanities and other more “ephemeral” subjects suffer, turning schools into places that simply churn out literate and useful workers, but who aren’t trained to think for themselves. Given that the action zones will occur in poor areas, this policy will reproduce a division in social role: the children of professional and better-paid workers will have access to a cultural and intellectual store that will be denied to poorer children, thus maintaining and reproducing a certain division of labour for the marketplace.

Naturally, the inculcation of social values will not be ignored, Labour ministers are discussing “Lessons in Citizenship” to replace the blatantly failing religious elements of the system. It doesn’t take much insight to see that the aim of such lessons will be to get people to accept the status quo and not to criticise the system (having undergone such lessons myself at school, as well as the whole Catholic rigmarole, I can testify to this). Here again, Labour’s rhetoric assumes an unchallenged system of ideas that merely need implementation.

Market driven
To achieve their marketplace system, Labour have had to retain, and in some cases implement themselves, ways of measuring the schools—teachers assessed, children tested regularly—all of them under tremendous pressure to achieve good results and pass the benchmark. This sort of thing has been tried before, the revised Standard Code for Education of 1862 for the Three Rs tests. Of course the obvious happened, and teachers simply began to coach the children to pass the exam, without bothering about them being able to think for themselves or understand the principles involved.

The whole process is openly driven by the employers’ need for a transparent benchmark of skill. The “continuing education” or training that the Labourites trumpet amounts to being able to engage in National Vocational Qualifications, which is a boring, unfulfilling, and at times patronising experience, which does not help the people undergoing it, and serves only to frustrate and punish those on the welfare forced to do such courses.

The marketplace drive for correctly skilled workers can be discerned in Labour’s approach to higher education, with tuition fees and the end of the grant.The Tories throughout their term of office “oversubscribed” to the higher education system, wanting to placate their “middle class” (salaried working class) constituency by assuring them that their children could go on to get a degree, but they tried to do this without increasing the funding for the system significantly (and by the dodge of simply renaming Polytechnics Universities).Whilst this was electorally necessary for the Tories, it produced a system that was turning out more workers of a particular sort than the market could bear, It also produced concerns over the loss of an “academic elite”, and a general lowering of standards. Such concerns came, of course, from the employers.The Labour Party had to do something to save the system, and their choice was tuition fees.

Today I read in New Statesman some idiot claiming to be a socialist and saying that it was the proper socialist thing to do to introduce tuition fees and stop subsidising middle class children going to university. This is typical of the hypocritical way in which New Labour is dealing with this issue, behind a smokescreen of deceit. Their tuition fees are meant to reduce intake, to streamline it, so that it fits better with the market’s needs (makes one so glad to be a desired commodity). Last October, when the Bill was launched, the mouthpiece of New Labour, the ever-wheedling and lick-spittle Guardian, announced how businesses were considering offering “golden handshakes” to graduates with the skills they need, by paying off their debts for them, thus guaranteeing that unless you have money, you can only get a degree if your qualifications fit market requirements. As with schools, universities must reflect the needs of the division of labour within capitalist society.

This is yet another example, if one be needed, of the way in which the marketplace frustrates rather than promotes self-improvement for the vast majority of people. The market is incompatible with any equitable sharing of society’s wealth of knowledge and culture. As it stands, what is called education merely reflects the society in which it exists, divisive, demanding, pressurising, merely an alienating system, a vast factory, for turning out workers tuned to our masters’ requirements.


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