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International Socialism, April 1977


Richard Noss

The Great Education Debate

A Socialist View


From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, pp.7-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Labour government has launched a debate of what it calls the problem of falling standards in education at a time when its contribution to solving the problem is to cut back massively on public spending. In this article Richard Noss explains why the issue is being raised now by placing it in the context of the role education plays under capitalism today.

FOR 25 years after the Second World War, education was a growth industry. The unprecedented boom in British capitalism produced a climate in which educational experiment could flourish. During the 1950s and 1960s the education of working-class children advanced rapidly, and the necessity for a coherent theory of the role of education seemed to evaporate. Many of those on the left who saw the need for such a theory produced ideas whose assumptions mirrored those of the system itself.

Now the boom has gone bust, and the climate has changed. The ideas which were the preserve of the wild men of the right have become the conventional wisdom of today. Many working-class parents, confused and disillusioned as they see their children leaving school to join the dole queue, are turning to those right-wing ideas. And the left, which such a short time ago was wallowing in the euphoria of the ‘progressive’ years, has been disarmed. It is time for us to fight back.

Most of the education theory developed during the boom went as follows. Capitalism is booming. Science and technology have become more and more important, requiring an increase in the level of skill of most workers. The system, therefore, needs greater and greater doses of education for young workers. These facts account for the growth of comprehensive schools, ‘progressive education’, and the abolition of the 11-plus.

A writer in Marxism Today could say in 1973:

‘The role of, the need for, man as muscle power, as physical force, as routine (including intellectual routine) is diminishing. What production increasingly demands from man is his creative capacity; that is to say, the maximum development of personality and the abilities of man are becoming a necessity of production, an economic necessity.’ [1]

Three problems present themselves. First, is the theory true? Is it really the case that the production line at Fords or Leyland increasingly demands ‘the maximum development of personality’? Second, the theory implies that capitalism is becoming more, not less, progressive. If the capitalist system is demanding more and more of the changes usually associated only with a socialist society, the need to overthrow that system is considerably lessened. Third, the theory goes no way towards analysing the changes that have taken place in the last two or three years. It cannot explain why the ruling class has chosen to launch a vicious attack on falling standards at a time when the level of skills and techniques acquired by most schoolleavers has never been greater. If we are to provide an alternative to the theories of the right, we must first be clear about the changing priorities of the ruling class.

Education and capitalism

IN A capitalist society, education for working-class children serves one basic class role: the socialisation of new generations of workers. This socialisation can be looked at in two ways. First, the acquisition of certain basic skills such as literacy and numeracy is a prerequisite to maintaining a controllable workforce. The ability to read the papers, understand written instructions, and fill in forms is vital to the needs of modern capitalism. Second, the education system is one vehicle for the transmission of bourgeois ideas and culture. It is important to be clear that both these functions are related to, but distinct from, the simple acquisition of skills necessary to perform as a worker.

The distinction is important. Modern industry requires certain skills and technical abilities from its workforce, and demands that these skills are generally acquired. [2] In this, the capitalist system requires no more nor less than a socialist society. But capitalism demands more than this. For the maintenance of class society it is necessary not only that new generations of workers possess these skills, but also that they are prepared to put them at the disposal of the bosses. It is not sufficient for the ruling class to have at its disposal a labour force equipped to operate the means of production – it is also necessary that the vast majority of that workforce accept the current organisation of society as inevitable.

In order to examine the changes that have taken place in education in the last 30 years, we must look at the ways in which the system itself has developed. Certainly there has been a massive increase in the application of science to the labour process, and the development and introduction of new technology has accelerated.

But what has been the effect on the labour process itself? Many of the most crucial consequences were anticipated by Marx over a century ago when he analysed a capitalist system which had undergone tremendous changes with the introduction of machinery and modern industry at the end of the 18th century.

Marx distinguishes between the effect of modern industrial organisation on society as a whole, the social division of labour ‘in general’, and its effect on the workplace, the social division of labour ‘in detail’. [3] On the one hand, the introduction of machinery liberates the worker from the necessity of a working life endlessly repeating one tiny manual detail operation. On the other hand, the boss does not introduce machinery in order to decrease the monotony of work. He introduces it in order to make labour more productive – to increase profit. Its effect is to reproduce the former drudgery in an even worse form, which turns workers into mere adjuncts of the machine:

‘Modern Industry ... sweeps away by technical means the manufacturing division of labour, under which each man is bound hand and foot for life to a single detail-operation. At the same time, the capitalistic form of that industry reproduces this same division of labour in a still more monstrous shape in the factory proper, by converting the workman into a living appendage of the machine.’ [4]

This contradiction between the social potential of technology and its actual social results under capitalism expresses itself in another way. In modern capitalism the existing machines, tools and techniques of production are in a state of continual development and change. The drive for greater and greater profit causes constant ‘changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of work-people from one branch of production to another.’ [5] This is the basis for the mythology of increased skill and ‘development of the personality’.

‘Modern Industry ... imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes.’ [6] But this is only half the story. Marx’s point is that this development of varied aptitudes is incapable of being carried through under capitalism. The introduction of machinery demands increased skill and adaptability in society as a whole, but involves less and less skill from each individual worker, as the machine comes to dominate the labour-process more and more.

What does this mean in practice? The rapid changes in technology which are the logic of modern capitalism, (and never more so than in the last three decades), create all sorts of new jobs, new skills and new layers of workers. There has been an increase in the average skill required by capitalism to operate the production process. But, to quote the American Marxist Harry Braverman:

‘To say that the ‘average’ skill has been raised is to adopt the logic of the statistician who, with one foot in the fire and the other in ice water, will tell you that ‘on the average’ he is perfectly comfortable.’ [7]

What has occurred is a polarisation in the workforce between the highly skilled and the unskilled. For most workers, the introduction of computers, and full automation has meant that less skill is necessary in the job, that the labour process has become more degraded. The production line, the shift system, piecework and abject subservience to the machine are the legacy of massive technological development under capitalism. For a small section of the workforce, however, those actually involved in developing and maintaining the new technology, new levels of skill have indeed become necessary.

Education since the war

HOW HAS this development affected the education system itself? Let us look at the most significant educational innovation since the war – the comprehensive school.

It is traditional to attribute the impetus for the introduction of comprehensive schools to the Labour Party, backed up by the trade union movement. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The early years after the war saw a steady stream of resolutions to NUT conferences from the rank and file (mainly in London) urging the introduction of comprehensive schools. The NUT leadership, as responsive then to the wishes of its members as it is today, vetoed all such proposals. In 1948, for example, the London association put an amendment to an Executive resolution, describing the ‘tripartite system of education at the secondary stage’ as an impediment to parity of esteem in secondary schools. It was heavily attacked by the NUT Executive and subsequently thrown out.

The Labour Party leadership showed the same reluctance to challenge the tripartite system of secondary schools set up under the 1944 Education Act. The first pamphlet issued by the post-war Labour Ministry of Education makes it clear that the secondary modern school must be maintained for working-class children ‘whose future employment will not demand any measure of skill or knowledge’. [8] Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of Education in the 1945 Labour government said in 1946:

‘People have said that in talking of three types of school we are promulgating a wrong social philosophy. I do not agree ... Not everyone wants an academic education. After all, coal has to be mined and fields ploughed.’ [9]

From Labour and Tory leaders alike the recurring theme was one of opposition to comprehensives and the need to preserve grammar schools. The introduction of comprehensives began only after the defeat of the Labour government in 1951. By 1954 the Tory Minister of Education, Florence Holsburgh, was able to tell the House of Commons that 32 out of 36 proposals from local authorities to set up comprehensive schools had been approved. [10] It is true that there were many idealists among the rank and file of the labour movement who heralded the comprehensives as the dawning of socialism. But the real priorities were elsewhere.

Certain sections of the left intelligentsia were convinced in the 1950s that the maintenance of the class structure depended on the education system. The ruling class has never been taken in by this idea. The criterion for admission to the bourgeoisie is not a good, or even a public school, education. It is the ownership of capital, and this cannot be obtained at any school. The problem for our rulers in the 1950s and 1960s was simply to provide schooling for the sons and daughters of the working class born in the post war ‘bulge’ (the baby boom). As long as the public schools remained intact, the grammar schools not too seriously threatened, and the other schools performed their basic function of socialising the next generation, the type of schooling they received was not of paramount importance.

Comprehensive schools fulfilled what was required of them by the ruling class in three main ways. First, it was necessary to expand the state education system drastically in order to cope with the population boom. In many areas there were not even the facilties to teach people how to read and write and do arithmetic. This was especially true of rural areas and new towns, where the introduction of one large comprehensive was seen as a cheap alternative to three separate schools. The main speaker at the annual meeting of the Incorporated Association of Headmasters in 1954 admitted (despite the IAHM’s consistent opposition to comprehensives):

‘The comprehensive school is probably the best way of providing education in rural areas, and has been a success in such areas as Scotland.’ [11]

Second, the introduction of some comprehensives was seen by local and national government as a necessary part of appeasing increased working-class aspirations, expressed through the local ballot boxes and the rank and file of the trade union movement. The vote-hungry Labour leadership used the opposition to the 11-plus to deflect moves against the public schools:

‘Mr and Mrs Brown, the ordinary parents of this country, do not feel aggrieved because their Tommy goes to a council school while little Lord Pantalduke goes to Eton but what does grieve them is that Jimmy Jones over the road has a scholarship to the Grammar School while their Tommy has to stay in the modern school’. [12]

Third and most fundamental, changes in the structure of British capitalism brought about by the post-war boom in technology have required an increase in skill for a small fraction of workers. These skills have become more and more highly specialised, and are acquired almost exclusively through the institutes of higher education. To take the United States as an example:

‘Taken together, the technical engineers, chemists, scientists, architects, draughtsmen, designers and technicians represented not much more than 3 per cent of the total labour force in 1970.’ [13]

Despite the large relative increase in the number of technologists in Britain since the beginning of the 1960s, it is safe to assume that the same small percentage of the workforce is involved.

Nevertheless, the Robbins report was published in 1963. It argued for a massive expansion of university education in order to train the new generation of scientists so badly needed by the British economy as it lagged behind its international competitors. But the increased access to the institutions of further and higher education implied by the report had a profound education on the school system. Harold Wilson told the 1963 Labour Party conference:

‘To train the scientists we are going to need will mean a revolution in our attitude to education, not only higher education but at every level ... it means that as a nation we can no longer afford to force segregation on our children at the 11-plus stage.’

This is the same Harold Wilson who once said that they ‘would abolish the grammar schools over my dead body’! Why the change of heart?

‘We cannot afford to cut off three-quarters of our children from virtually any chance of higher education. The Russians do not, the Germans do not, the Amercians do not, and the Japanese do not, and we cannot afford to either.’ [14]

The need for comprehensive schooling was not because the schools had to produce the technologies of tomorrow themselves. The relationship was more indirect. Comprehensives were seen as providing the best available means for enlarging the reservoir of children who were capable of going on to higher education.

The introduction of comprehensive schools, and the raising of the selection age from 11 to 16, have been imposed in order that a small minority should be provided with extremely high levels of skill through the universities and colleges. But its effects have been more far-reaching.

For example, the so-called ‘Modern Mathematics’ was introduced as part of the spread of ‘progressive education’. In 1961 a conference of academics decided that university mathematics departments wanted their future pupils to be grounded in the sort of maths they would have to use at university. The impetus for the introduction of the now almost universal method of maths teaching came not from the schools but from the universities.

What effect did this have on the vast majority of children not destined to become mathematicians? Among others, it meant that increasing numbers of children were taught the concepts of mathematics – concepts which they would never have to use in later life.

What was true in maths was true in other subjects. In a situation where the process of production was demanding less and less skills from most workers, society’s future workers were being treated to more and more education, and given heightened aspirations as a result.

The ruling class was quite happy with this state of affairs. In a period of boom, bosses could ensure a docile and malleable workforce by buying it off. The increasingly confident working class of the 1950s and 1960s won hundreds of small concessions from employers who preferred to, and could afford to, pay up rather than risk costly strikes. [15] It was the adaptability of the workforce that mattered – the positive side of the contradiction between the division of labour in society as a whole and the division of labour in the workplace.

From boom to bust

ALL THAT has changed now. The priority now is for a disciplined workforce, content to honour the Social Contract and content to accept that two million of its brothers and sisters are on the dole. The negative side of the contradiction has emerged. The inescapable logic of capitalism is analysed by Marx:

‘We have seen ... how this antagonism (between progressive and degrading aspects of machinery – RN) vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; the incessant human sacrifices from among the working class, in most reckless squandering of labour-power, and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.’ [16]

But the picture is not so simple. The crucial function of education under capitalism is not the acquisition of skills but socialisation. The continuing development of technology demands higher and higher levels of socialisation. The system demands of workers the ability not only to change jobs, but also to cope with its increasingly complex social demands. The more education working-class children receive, the more that education must be geared to the needs of the system. Now that most workers can read, it is important that they read the right things. Now that most people have a rudimentary understanding of history and geography, it is important that what they learn does not conflict with the assumptions of capitalist society.

The Education Act of 1870 was justified in the House of Commons in these words:

‘To its honour, Parliament has lately decided that England shall in future be governed by popular government ... now that we have given them the power we must not wait any longer to give them the education.’ [17]

The problem for the ruling class today is merely an aggravated form of the problem which Parliament faced then.

It is often pointed out that over the last’decade the ideas of the extreme right-wing lunatic fringe in education have shifted to the centre of educational thinking. While this is certainly true, we should not underestimate the differences between the Black Papers of the late 1960s and the Callaghans and Williamses of today.

The recurring theme of the Black Papers (written between 1968 and 1970) can be summed up like this. The moral fibre of the nation is rotting. Our traditional culture is threatened. The grammar schools, which are responsible for ensuring the continued existence, of the academic and cultured elite (i.e., us), are under attack. We must save the elite.

There was no mention of the changes in the schools attended by most workers’ children. The first Black Paper contains not a single attack on the values transmitted by comprehensives or secondary moderns. Even the subsequent Black Papers only attacked comprehensives because they threatened the grammar schools. The attitude was that it was the elite that mattered and the rest could go and rot.

These ideas were crucial because they represented the first step away from ‘progressive’ ideas in education. Rhodes Boyson, the most notorious contributor to the Black Papers, stands a good chance of being the next Minister of Education. And there is a, direct line of descent that can be traced from the Black Papers to the hang-em, flog-em, three Rs brigade of today. But we have to look deeper than the Daily Mail‘s hysterical rantings to understand the nature of the present attack.

James Callaghan’s speech of October 1976, which was supposed to kick off the ‘great debate’ on education, is notable for two things. First, he attempts to shift the blame for his own policies onto the schools:

‘There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society because they do not have the skills.’

This theme has recently been taken up by Shirley Williams.

Second, he says:

‘My remarks are not a clarion call to Black Paper prejudices. We all know those who claim to defend standards but who in reality are seeking to defend old privileges and inequalities.’ [18]

Callaghan is not worried about the elite – they can look after themselves. Unlike the Black Paper writers, he is concerned with the education that working-class children receive. The problem is the content of education in the comprehensives and primary schools. As the Teacher (NUT official weekly) recently reported the chairman of the Schools Council as saying:

‘There was a feeling among educators that the human values to be enhanced through education were at odds with the human values that prevailed in industrial society.’ [19]

Since Callaghan’s speech, millions of words have been spoken or written about education. Most is crudely disguised justification for continued and more vicious attacks on educational provision, or an unsubtle attempt to throw a smokescreen between the culprits and the victims of Labour policies. But not all of it. The changed climate in educational ideas has allowed the owners of capital to reassert their priorities.

For example, the Rubber and Plastics Processing Industry Board has produced School Curricula for a Changing World. This piece of research sums up the thinking of more sophisticated capitalists. Here we find neither the old elitist argument nor the back to basics line which has characterised so much of the debate, but this:

‘We are worried about the tendency of schools to operate in isolation from the world into which their “products” (sic) will move and within which they will find their work. That characteristic has already contributed in particular to the difficulties encountered by the “alienated” school-leavers and by society which receives them.’

The report is particularly concerned that so much talent is automatically channelled into the universities where it becomes isolated from and disaffected with industry.

But the report is not only concerned with the upper end of the scale. The crucial argument is that the schools are increasingly seen by pupils, teachers and employers as irrelevant to the demands of industry. Schools are failing to provide an environment in which future workers can be made technologically literate, that is, conversant with the elementary skills necessary to modern society, and can acquire ‘philosophical/cultural views and values’. In short, schools are not socialising more and more young people. It is this that lies at the root of the debate about falling standards.

The problems in the schools simply reflects the much broader problem in society as a whole. To quote Braverman again:

‘The schools as caretakers of children and young people are indispensible for family functioning, community stability, and social order in general (although they fulfill even these functions badly). In a word, there is no longer any place for the young in this society other than school. Serving to fill a vacuum, schools have themselves become that vacuum, increasingly emptied of content and reduced to little more than their own form. Just as in the labour process, where the more there is to know the less the worker need know, in the school the mass of future workers attend the more there is to team, the less reason there is for teachers to teach and students to learn. In this more than any other factor – the purposelessness, futility, and empty forms of the educational system – we have the source of the growing antagonism between the young and the schools which threatens to tear the schools apart.’ [20]

The ‘great debate’ on education is dominating not only the school staffrooms, but also the newspaper headlines and TV programmes. The issues raised strike at the very heart of the gains won by the British working class over the last three decades. In a climate where socialist politics can once again be raised in the working-class movement, our ability to intervene successfully in this debate will be a test of our ability to build the Socialist Workers Party.



1. M. Azcarete, The Network of Science, Marxism Today, March 1973.

2. The introduction of universal education also cheapened the skills needed by employers.

3. K. Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow edn,. p.351.

4. Ibid., p.484.

5. Quoted in M. Levitas, Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education, p.93.

6. Marx, op. cit., p.488.

7. H. Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital, New York 1974, p.425.

8. Rubinstein and Simon, The Evolution of the Comprehensive School, p.36.

9. Fenwick, The Comprehensive School 1926-1970, p.54.

10. Ibid., p.72.

11. Ibid., p.86.

12. Ibid., p.78.

13. Braverman, op. cit., p.241.

14. Report of the Scarborough Conference of the Labour Party, 1963.

15. Cliff and Barker, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards.

16. Marx, op. cit., p.487.

17. Educational Documents, p.105.

18. Education, October 1976.

19. The Teacher, January 1977.

20. Braverman, op. cit., p.440.

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