ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, March 1997


Colin Sparks

The Tories, Labour and the Education Crisis


From International Socialism 2:74, March 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



Every day the papers carry some new story about the crisis in education: children are excluded from class; a school is closed for falling standards; Ofsted claims reading levels are too low; the Tories attack teachers and promise more selection; Labour agrees with the Tories; Tony Blair says kids should have homework at seven years old. The Tories say they should have it at six. If you believed the papers and the politicians, everything is wrong in the schools and it is all the fault of teachers, aided by irresponsible single parents. Child centred learning and comprehensive education were mad ideas dreamed up by red teachers back in the 1960s. They have totally failed the nation. Schools churn out uneducated and unemployable young people with no values and no sense of discipline.

The remedy is to return to the traditional methods and the traditional content. Silent, attentive classes, all concentrating on the one teacher who drills the obedient pupils in how to do long division without the aid of a calculator, and a good flogging for those who get the wrong answers, will transform Britain. Unemployment will vanish. Social order will be re-established. The shattered family will be restored. The economy will boom. Britain will sink back into that white, peaceful, respectful lost land of content that was the 1950s.

This whole picture is, of course, utter claptrap. The idea that teachers are a seething horde of Bolshevik militants is palpable nonsense. The belief that schools up and down the country are ungovernable hotbeds of disaffection is ridiculous. The claim that more and more young people are leaving schools without any education is simply not true. Even the figures produced in official publications paint a very different picture to that present in newspapers and political speeches.

But if journalists and politicians are making wild and untrue claims for political advantage, it is nevertheless the case that large numbers of people, both teachers and parents, do think that there is something wrong with education in Britain. Indeed, in a capitalist society, especially one experiencing a long period of crisis, it would be very surprising if that were not the case. The political appeal of these scare stories is a good indication that there are real problems and real worries. [1]

The aim of this article is to try to outline what the issues underlying the press hysteria really are, and to show why they have arisen. In fact, as we shall see, although the Tories have made the problems very much worse during their long tenure in government, the origins of the crisis lie in the contradictory demands placed upon education in a capitalist society. Neither the plans of the Tory right nor the slightly less extreme views advanced by the Labour Party come anywhere near addressing the underlying problems. While a socialist solution is the only way that these can be solved, and a decent education for all assured, there are numerous smaller steps, that even a determined reformist government could undertake, which would go some way to improving the quality of education that working class children get.

Crisis? What crisis?

Whether or not there is a crisis in schools, and what its nature is, depends upon how one looks at the system. In a class society, of course, the viewpoints of the different classes give a quite different picture of society. For the ruling class, any crisis in public education is something in which they have no personal stake. While the state of schools may concern them as bosses, it does not worry them as people. Their children go to quite different schools, and face none of the same problems. For workers, on the other hand, any crisis is real and immediate. Working class children are the people who go through state schools, and it is their direct personal experience that is the first and best register of any crisis.

From the point of view of most teachers, and the majority of working class parents, the system is actually performing rather well in the narrow terms permitted it in a capitalist society. It might be shamefully failing to realise the potential of each and every child, and increasingly reduced to providing certificated fodder for the labour market, but it certainly meets those limited goals. That is to say, it is providing a higher level of educational qualifications than it was in the past. If there is a crisis, it is in terms of crumbling buildings, inadequate equipment and bulging classrooms, rather than poor results.

This is such a contentious claim that we need to look at the evidence. There are real difficulties in measuring the performance of any educational system over time, and it is certainly the case that educational outcomes, even in a capitalist society, are much wider than just examination results. Nevertheless, even if we accept the narrowest of definitions of success, official statistics seem to demonstrate that schools are doing a really good job. The crude measure of the number of qualifications gained by students at different levels of the education system show a clear rise, year after year.

It is difficult to measure these precisely, since there have been major changes in the examination system. Taking the situation for England alone, prior to 1988 the examination system in secondary schools was organised around ‘O-levels’ and ‘A-levels’. These were both academic examinations designed to select pupils with the ability to pass examinations in order to ensure a supply of highly qualified entrants to a very restricted university system. A-levels were officially intended for the ‘most able’ 10 percent of students, and O-levels for 20 percent. In 1965 an additional examination was added, the CSE, which was designed for the next 40 percent of less academic pupils. In 1986 the system was reformed for the 16 year old age group. O-levels and CSE were abolished, and replaced by a new unified examination system called the GCSE, which came on stream in 1988. A-levels remained in place and continued to function as a major element in selection for higher education. There is no strict continuity between the two exam systems, but it is possible to compare the number of passes at O-level with the number of passes in the GCSE at Grades A to C and accept them as more or less equivalent measures of achievement.

Table 1:


5 or more passes
(O-level equivalent)

1 or more passes
(O-level equivalent)

(All school leavers)



(All school leavers)



1988/89 (Pupils aged 15
at start of school year)



1994/95 (Pupils aged 15
at start of school year)



Despite the fact that the different methods of collection mean that the figures for the first two periods are relatively higher than they would be on a uniform measure, the evidence demonstrates very clearly that there has been a consistent and substantial rise in the number of students gaining some qualifications from their time in compulsory schooling. [2]

Although it remains an elitist examination, a similar picture emerges for A-levels, with more students doing better in these exams year after year. This trend shows every sign of continuing. In 1992–93, 30 percent of the age group had one or more A-levels and 19.2 percent had three or more. Two years later, in 1994–95, these figures had risen to 34 percent and 22.3 percent respectively. [3]

One of the objections put forward by Tories to a reliance on such figures as indicators of the fact that the education system is working quite well is the claim that numbers of qualifications have risen because examination standards have fallen. In the case of A-levels, there is no convincing evidence either to support or deny this charge over the long term. Both sides are reduced to swapping anecdotes based on comparing isolated examination questions and making claims for each as being more difficult than the other. [4] What we can say is that, while nothing certain can be known about the long term tendency, the fact that this trend is consistent even over the very short term of one year to the next, during which period there is very unlikely to have been any substantial change in the material taught, the quality of the teaching staff, the resources available, the preparation of the candidates, or the expectations of the examiners, suggests very strongly indeed that the rise in standards is a real one.

In fact, there was a recent scandal in which it was revealed that the A-level English candidates for one examination board, the Oxford and Cambridge, who were overwhelmingly from private schools, were systematically overmarked, because the examiners took more notice of the names of the schools than the answers actually produced. This, however, is likely to have been an exception, and the onus is on those who believe that there has in fact been a fall in standards to demonstrate how and when it took place, and how on earth it was kept secret. A plan to defraud the government and the public, involving thousands of teachers and hundreds of examiners working for different competing examination boards, agreeing clandestinely to relax examination standards little by little each year, would be a conspiracy of such scope as to make The X-Files and Dark Skies look like wholly believable documentaries.

All of these factors apply even more strongly in the case of the GCSE examinations, which have only been in place for a decade. Since, during that period, central control over what is taught and how it is assessed has in fact increased very considerably, without the government making any claim themselves to have relaxed standards, the probablity must be that the criteria have remained more or less the same, or even become more strict. It would require very strong evidence, rather than Tory prejudices, to establish that increasing examination success was the result of lower standards rather than increased achievement.

The rising rate of exam success, however, is only part of the story. Even when 40 percent of children leave school with good qualifications, there remain 60 percent who leave with little and 10 percent who have nothing in the way of certificates to show for their time in school. These young people, overwhelmingly working class males, seem to have been let down even by an ostensibly egalitarian comprehensive system and an inclusive, rather than selective, examination system. It is on the experiences of this group that a great deal of the professional and political discussion over a crisis in education focuses. One expert, who is both an Ofsted hitman and an adviser to Tony Blair, commented that:

While [standards] are rising for the many, they are low for perhaps 40 percent and perhaps falling for a significant minority of this group. In this failing group white working class males are predominant. It should be pointed out that, while standards have risen for advantaged, average and disadvantaged young people, they have risen faster for the already advantaged, while the rate of improvement amongst the disadvantaged is markedly slower. [5]

The perception is that the effect of the current educational system is to recruit a substantial minority of working class males into an unskilled and effectively unemployable underclass which is the source of all sorts of undersirable and threatening social problems.

It is from this group of young people that those children excluded from school are mostly drawn, and that issue has focused very sharply popular concern with the education system. In fact, while the rate of exclusions from schools has risen sharply and, if the number of short term exclusions is counted as well, has reached a significant level, it remains a marginal problem for most schools. Even Ofsted, always determined to find the worst in schools, was forced to admit that when it went looking for trouble it found:

This survey … does not support the view that schools in general are degenerating into chaos. Most of the behaviour observed, even in poorly taught classes in inner urban schools, was at least satisfactory. Outside classrooms, an adult presence was usually all that was required to prevent serious misbehaviour. Most teachers dealt skilfully with potentially challenging pupils. What appears to be happening is a degree of polarisation between the great majority of children who remain orderly and well-disposed and a small minority who are becoming increasingly intractable. [6]

The worry that confronts the more aspirational working class parent, who sees the education of their son or daughter as a golden bridge out of the working class, is that their child will find themselves in a school that has a large proportion of unsuccessful and potentially disruptive pupils, who will make it that much harder for their own child to do well. Since this group of aspirant workers is identified by pollsters as the crucial swing voters who make the key difference in elections, their worries and concerns are also the worries and concerns of politicians whose own children are assured of a very different educational experience.

Another group of working class parents have a different worry about the same phenomenon. Young Afro-Caribbean males are much over-represented amongst both those failing to achieve qualifications and those excluded from schools. In 1993-1994, for example, black Caribbean young people experienced ‘almost six times the rate of exclusion for whites’. [7] The root of these grotesquely discriminatory outcomes is clearly the endemic racism of British society, although the precise mechanisms by which it operates remain much debated. [8] Despite this, however, these results can be seen as an extreme version of a much more common experience, shared by many white working class parents, particularly those in areas of high unemployment and social crisis. [9] They are evidence that the public education system is displaying increasing internal differentiation, with some schools giving up on some pupils, and some local authorities giving up on some schools.

The working class experience of education is thus contradictory. On the one hand, those students who get on all right at school, and who go to a school that manages to keep its head above water, have a good chance of at least moderate success. On the other hand, those who find school uncomfortable, or who find themselves in a school with problems, can face the prospect of having no qualifications in an increasingly certificated world.

The resulting worries about education can best be understood by analogy with the fear of violent crime. It is well known that the people who are most frightened of violent street crime, elderly people, are those least likely to suffer it, while groups like young males, who are much more likely victims, are very sanguine about it. Elderly people are more worried because they rightly perceive that they will be losers in any physical encounter, that the consequences of any injury will be much more serious and perhaps fatal, and that the loss of a purse or wallet will have a very great effect on their life. Young men, on the other hand, think, rightly or wrongly, that they can look after themselves, believe they are immortal, and that something will turn up to pay the bills.

In the case of education, most working class children will go through school without serious incident and leave with some qualifications. But the working class child who has difficulties is very likely to be discarded by the system and face a bleak future, and the working class community that sees its schools collapsing foresees a mass of consequent social problems. Even those working class people whose own experience of the system has been reasonably good know very well how fine a margin there is between success and failure, and how few of the resources of money and contacts that the middle and upper classes can call upon to help them overcome educational problems are available to them.

The politicians and upper educational servants of the ruling class have a different set of concerns altogether. They are worried about the relationship of the public educational system to the economy as a whole, and in particular the extent to which it is producing the right sort of labour power. For them, education is seen entirely in terms of providing ‘opportunities on the labour market’. [10] Comparative educational research has identified some shortcomings in the achievements of British school students. Increasingly trapped in their own rhetoric of globalisation, politicians of all parties are worried by evidence that seems to suggest that other countries have education systems that produce better qualified young people. Agitation about this is focused on the mathematical and scientific abilities of school students, partly because this area, unlike the other key battleground of English, is one that lends itself much better to international comparisons, and partly because mathematical proficiency is identified, quite rightly, as the foundation of a range of skills needed in everything from banking to engineering. As the Chair of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority put it, they are:

… acutely aware of the importance of mathematics in the school curriculum. Its role in preparing young people for the world of work is crucial in securing this country’s competitive edge. We recognise that an increasing number of students are progressing to higher education, and that mathematical competence is required for them to benefit from many courses. And, at a basic level, participating in a complex, commercial and technological society calls on a range of mathematical skills. For all these reasons there is a need to improve the mathematical performance of all young people. Our country’s position in international comparative performance tables leaves absolutely no room for complacency. [11]

In the view of the people running it, the overriding purpose of the education system, to which everything else must be subordinated, is international economic competition. [12] There is a pressing need radically to alter the way in which teaching takes place in British schools, in order to ensure that British capitalists can compete better on the world market. Again the evidence is patchy and subject to a number of caveats, but a recent survey covering comparisons between England and the rest of the world suggested that:

One of the key pieces of evidence adduced to support these views is the results of two sets of tests carried out on children in a wide range of countries. The first of these (First International Maths Study, or FIMS) was carried out in 1964, the second (Second International Maths Study, SIMS) was carried out in 1982. Students were tested at 13 and immediately before university entrance (in the UK usually 18). The first group was the general student population. The second was made up of mathematics specialists. The results for ten countries were compared amongst 13 year olds, and eight countries for the pre-university students. [14]

Table 2:


Age 13

Age 13

Age 18

Age 18











Given that these scores are based on answers to the same set of questions at each point in time, they would appear to suggest both an absolute decline and a relative decline, at both age levels. Further evidence that this decline has continued since 1982 was found from the results of another comparative test (IAEPM2) carried out in 1990. This found that UK school students averaged 61 percent correct answers in a maths test, compared to 80 percent in China, 73 percent in Korea, and 73 percent in Taiwan. These figures are believed to lead to one obvious conclusion: that the high rates of economic growth in these Pacific Rim countries are a consequence of this mathematical achievement.

Anyone reaching this conclusion demonstrates an ignorance of social scientific methodology that should disqualify them permanently from serious discussion. They do not constitute evidence that there is any precise correlation between rates of economic growth and levels of mathematical achievement. They do not take into account the fact that the US, with lower scores than the UK on all measures, can be argued to have had higher growth rates. They do not demonstrate any kind of causal relationship between the two variables: there could be any number of other factors that explained the differences. [15] Indeed, they do not even demonstrate which way round the influence, if any, is. [16] On this evidence, one could as well claim that high rates of economic growth caused high mathematical achievement. [17] All the scores prove is that English (and in this instance, Scottish) students did less well in particular kind of maths tests than did those from a number of other countries, notably on the Pacific Rim, but also including Hungary and Switzerland.

What is more, this imaginary correlation is not perceived by the ruling classes of the countries in question. The education systems of the Pacific Rim, including Japan, are in turmoil, if not crisis. Although the local rulers believe that they have done quite a good job in the past in producing obedient and moderately skilled labour, they do not think the current set up is very good for the next phase of capitalist competition. They think that the schools and universities do not to produce enough of the ‘creative professionals who will lead Asia’s future economic growth’, and are seeking to move away from the kind of training that the British elite find so admirable towards one that rewards greater initiative and flexibility. [18]

Whatever the truth, however, the relative educational decline of Britain, and consequent low rates of growth are widely believed to be both true and causally related, particularly by the upper educational professionals who are paid to think on behalf of the ruling class about these questions. [19] In so far as it has an opinion on these matters, the ruling class probably agrees, at least in its majority. Certainly, the CBI initiated a programme of targets for educational attainment that are now part of government strategy.

The basic reason for all the talk about a crisis in education is thus that political parties are exploiting the real worries of working class parents to attempt to gain support for changes to the education system that will fit it much more closely to what the capitalist class and its close servants believe is necessary for economic competition. [20] Achieving these ends, however, is fraught with difficulties that arise both from the contradictory nature of education in a capitalist society and from the peculiar way that it has evolved in this particular society.

Education in capitalist society

Like every other major institution in a capitalist society, the education system is structured by the basic dynamics of that society. Very crudely, education is one of the main mechanisms, alongside the family, whereby labour power is reproduced in society. The next generation of workers need to be prepared for the labour market in order for capitalism to continue to have the most important means of production, labour, at its disposal. Without that, in sufficient numbers and in the right condition, the task of producing surplus value is quite impossible.

Preparing the next generation of workers has two aspects. On the one hand, it is necessary to try to make a fundamentally irrational and unequal system appear sane and normal. On the other hand, it is necessary to impart the skills and attitudes necessary for the kinds of labour needed by capital. There is always a balance to be struck between these two goals. [21] For capitalism, it is important that people learn at school to be able to read, write, count and so on, but it is equally important that they learn to do what they are told and to submit willingly to authority.

That is not to say that schools exist only to teach young workers how to behave and that what is taught is completely irrelevant. That position is more or less exactly identical with the right wing ‘functionalist’ sociological explanation, which argues that the main purpose of education is to socialise young people into the norms and values of society and to minimise the possible social stresses arising from the allocation of positions within the division of labour. Against both left and right versions of this theory, Marxists argue that there is no central agreed value system in a class society. On the contrary, values are hotly contested. The key site of this contest is in the workplace generally, but the struggle undoubtedly spills over into all areas of social life, including the classroom.

Neither is it true that the education system is a direct expression of the needs of the system. In fact, different sections of the capitalist class need rather different kinds of labour. The drug companies need a smallish number of very highly skilled and innovative scientists, their technical support staff, and some moderately skilled production workers. Armaments manufacturers need a good number of qualified scientific and engineering staff and very highly skilled production workers of the traditional, metal working, type. Security companies need large numbers of young, fit, and preferably honest, men prepared to work extremely long hours for low pay. All of them need office and administrative staff. Banks and finance houses, on the other hand, need a few personable and sound young men with the right class connections, a number of mathematicians to build economic models, and a very large number of careful, and certainly honest, women capable of carrying out routine tasks involving computer mediated communication. In short, the capitalist class needs a wide variety of different kinds of labour.

It is the state, in its capacity as the executive committee of the ruling class, that is usually charged with resolving these competing demands. It, too, has its needs for labour: fit and obedient young people, mostly male, to carry out repression and aggression, and a minutely differentiated range of administrators to staff its civil bureaucracies. Achieving such contradictory ends can be very difficult. The capitalists themselves and their close servants are often quite mistaken as to what their real needs and interests are in education. The education system itself is a large social institution with its own ideas and values that does not just jump to attention at the latest DFEE circular. In addition, in a bourgeois democracy at least, the state has to negotiate with political parties that reflect, however inadequately, the interests of other classes. The resulting picture is usually one of a school system that pursues at least two different, and incompatible, functions. On the one hand, it educates the ruling class and its functionaries in the necessary social and technical skills for successful class rule. [22] On the other, it teaches the children of the working class the skills necessary for employment and the social attitudes necessary for a subordinate place in capitalism.

In advanced bourgeois democracies, these different ends are usually conducted within a single, comprehensive, system of education. [23] Both the USA and Japan, to name only the largest economies on earth, have fully comprehensive state education for the overwhelming majority of children. They have very small private sectors which cater for some sections of the ruling class and for members of various religious cults. While this may create difficulties in differentiating clearly between different social classes, it at least meets the formal criterion of bourgeois democratic equality. [24] Much of the debate in Britain, as we shall see, arises from the peculiar way in which these tensions are handled here. The purely functionalist account, whether in its left or right guises, does not really capture these kinds of problems.

While it is important to stress that the form of the educational experience, rather than the concrete content of what is taught and learnt, is vital to understanding education in a capitalist society, it is wrong to imagine that the content of what is taught is unimportant. Such a position comes close to accepting that meaning is arbitrary and truth meaningless. Once again, there is nothing particularly ‘Marxist’ about this: it is shared by sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu, and is obviously much developed in postmodern accounts of knowledge. [25]

The political danger is that it leads to an ultra-left rejection of education and knowledge on the grounds that it is ‘all bourgeois ideology anyway’. The broad details of the Marxist response to this position are well known, even if the details are hotly contested. What we call ‘culture’ and ‘science’ are not arbitrary constructions. They are the historical products of human endeavour. Both are horribly distorted by the fact that they were produced in class societies, culture particularly so, but they nevertheless represent real human achievements. People in a future socialist society will still look at Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas with love and fascination, even though they will live, think and feel in ways unimaginably remote from those distortions of humanity perpetrated by the Spanish absolutism that it represents. So, too, the working class movement today seeks positively to devour the culture and the science of all past and present societies in order to learn, to understand and thus to effect change. The conditions under which working class children get the chance to do that matter to us. We would prefer education to be secular, for example, to spare young people a struggle with the guilt perpetrated by religious ideology. If there must be religious education in schools, we are for it celebrating the great festivals of many religions, rather than unthinkingly reproducing Christian myths and thus unconsciously, or worse still consciously, denigrating other cultures. Similarly, we are for sex education and against any suggestion that anything other than married heterosexual relations are perverted. Anyone who really believes that the form of the educational experience is its central feature should, logically, be quite indifferent to such considerations of differences in content.

The view that content is unimportant is also wrong because it does not recognise that capitalist society needs a wide range of different kinds of skilled labour. It is true that all need to be obedient, but it is also true that the clerk needs certain kinds of skills, and that these are different from those needed by the electrician. Education plays a part in the development of these substantive skills as well, although a great deal of the actual training in particular jobs takes place in the workplace.

The major function of education, therefore, is indeed to prepare the next generation of wage workers. Much of what is involved in that process is precisely learning obedience and deference to authority figures. But a part of education is concerned with transmission of the social and technical skills needed to administer capitalist society. Part of what is taught to working class children is, potentially at least, valuable material that can be used to change the world. Above all, what actually goes on in education is not the direct result of what the ruling class wants. They, or at least their servants and agents, try to achieve that end, but they are challenged, more or less successfully, from below, by teachers, by parents and by young people themselves.

The Tories and education in Britain

The education system in Britain has a singular peculiarity compared with other advanced bourgeois democracies: alongside state provision for compulsory education, there has always been a very large private fee paying sector. By the early 1990s around 8 percent of all children were attending such schools. These schools are almost exclusively the preserve of those with large incomes. Eton College, the most famous of them, charges £12,888 per year for each child in its care. Winchester, the most academically successful boys’ school, charges £13,290 for boarders and £9,966 for day students.

What these huge fees buy is academic success, and thus entry into elite universities. All upper sixth form students at Winchester pass at least three A-levels. Some 33 percent of Eton upper sixth formers pass four A-levels, and another 62 percent pass three. A full 98 percent of Winchester’s upper sixth formers go on to university, 40 percent to Oxford or Cambridge. Only 86 percent of Eton’s go on to university, 32 percent to Oxford or Cambridge. [26]

These are two exceptionally privileged schools, but there are hundreds of others that are in the same business in a more modest way. On average, the fees buy a better pupil/teacher ratio (10.8 : 1 in 1991) than do our taxes for state schools (18.8 : 1 in 1991). [27] These increased resources buy better examination results, both at GCSE and A-level:

Table 3:

Type of school

Mean A-level

scoring 30+




LEA Grammar



LEA Other



Grant Maintained






VI Form College



FE College



Average all schools



’A-level’ scores are computed by awarding each A-grade 10, B-grade 9, and so on, and totalling for each pupil, so a score of 30+ means three As or better. They are the basic standard measure used by university admissions officers to select students. Elite institutions demand higher scores than others. Overall just around half of the annual intake of undergraduates for Oxford and Cambridge comes from the fee-paying schools that educate less than one in ten of the age group. Since graduates of these two universities are disproportionately represented at the top of most professions and many industries, the very least that can be said about an expensive education is that it greatly improves a child’s chances of becoming one of the close servants of the ruling class.

In other words, there is a structural divide in British education. The ruling class and its close allies have one kind of education. The working class get another kind. This division is even embedded in law. Working class children attend schools that are obliged to follow the National Curriculum. Ruling class children attend schools to which that set of prescriptions does not apply. The problem of trying to do contradictory things that faces state education in other capitalist countries is thus alleviated in Britain. It is in principle possible to ensure that the ruling class learns how to rule, while at the same time ensuring that the working class learns how to obey.

Unlike the case of the US, no one can pretend for a moment that British education is organised around egalitarian principles. [29] But a capitalist society, unlike feudalism, does not have closed and hereditary classes. There is no legal barrier to moving into and out of different social classes. A bourgeois democracy, moreover, finds it difficult to justify restricting entry to elite posts. Despite some very archaic features, British capitalism opened the civil service to competitive examination back in the 19th century.

Simply to tell workers that the best they and their descendants forever could look forward to was a life of toil and subordination would be greatly to encourage membership of a revolutionary socialist party. Much better to offer the chance of some improvement through success in the education system, particularly to the petty bourgeoisie and the upper layers of the working class. In addition, an expanding capitalism, forced to innovate and compete, needs to suck in all the talent it can get. It cannot rely on the fact that the children of the rich will have the skills and imagination needed to keep the system running.

The door to entry into the elite needs to be kept open, even if only a tiny crack. No one imagines that there is a British equivalent of the American dream, but there are some ways that working class children can find their way up the social ladder. One good example was the famous socialist playwright Dennis Potter, son of a miner in the Forest of Dean, but educated at Oxford. Another was the great socialist cultural theorist Raymond Williams, son of a Welsh railway worker, but educated at Cambridge. In both of these cases, their writing bears very strong and self-conscious marks of that social journey. A character in one of Potter’s plays repeats a little rhyme: ‘I remember, I remember, the school where I was born’. [30]

In the 1944 Education Act, the need to keep this door open was enshrined in the very structure of the school system. The fee paying schools remained. In the English and Welsh public system, special schools, grammar schools, were consolidated, with the task of emulating the private sector. [31]

Entry into these schools was determined by the 11-plus examination. Those who did well went into little cesspits of provincial snobbery. All of the trappings of a private school – prefects, uniforms, cadet corps, rugby or hockey, and above all a highly academic programme including compulsory Latin – were built into the state sector and paid for out of taxes. [32] The aim was to permit the ‘bright’ boy or girl from the petty bourgeoisie or the working class to compete for a slightly higher position on the social ladder. The vast majority of the remainder of young people were judged to have ‘failed’ and sent off to secondary modern schools, where they got football and woodwork if boys, and cooking and sewing if girls, and a proper perspective on their future class position.

Not surprisingly, this setup was not popular, particularly with working class, and even petty bourgeois, parents, who resented the fact that their children were being written off at the age of 11. In the 1960s, the Labour government set about moving towards a comprehensive model of schooling, in which there would be no social sorting at the age of 11. This move was something of a shambles in practice, and resisted all along the line by some Tory ideologues, but nevertheless a clear majority of children were in comprehensive schools by the mid-1970s. Today, on one reliable measure, 79 percent of children are in such schools. [33]

The two big flies in this ointment were, first, that the reforms left the private sector untouched, and second, that there was no reform of the examination system. So long as A-level success remained the basic filter to university and thus to the higher reaches of the professions, this kind of academic success would be the common measure by which education, and thus any school, was judged. The private schools continued to do very well at getting children through such exams. A ‘good’ comprehensive was one that got the highest results in public examinations. A ‘bad’ school was one that got low results. Inside any comprehensive school, there would be a continual pressure to divert disproportionate resources to those children who showed the best chances of passing exams. Getting rid of grammar schools did very little to get rid of the social pressures that had made them what they were. Instead it reproduced the old divisions both between and within the new schools.

The same problems bedevilled two other important and related reforms. The first of these was a desire to end the internal ranking of children by academic performance through streaming them according to results. However socially desirable an end to selection inside the school might seem, and however much a logical consequence of the basic comprehensive idea, it was bound to fall foul of the drive towards competition and examination results. If such results were what mattered, then there would be a tendency to organise things so those with the best chances of success got the most energetic and able teachers, the best resources and the most school support. Such imbalances were bound to point towards streaming.

The second reform was a shift in the basic philosophy of what education was about. Many teachers came to hold the view, quite correctly, that each child had different abilities but that all were of equal worth. They also believed that education was not about filling a student full of facts and then testing them, but helping the young person to find out about, and understand, the world. This, obviously, is very close to what socialists want from education. Its implication was that what children were taught, and the way that they were taught it, had to shift.

The shift is best understood in the field of mathematics. In the old schools, whole classes of children learnt techniques (algorithms) for multiplying £17 4s. 4¾d. by 477]/16. This could be justified because the best that such children could hope for was to become clerks who needed such skills in their working lives. This changed. Children were now taught ‘new maths’, with particular emphasis on ‘set theory’. The stress was no longer on instilling a set of routines into young minds without any examination of the underlying ideas. The aim of the new maths was to help children understand what they were doing. As one writer puts it:

… during the post-war economic boom, the social relations of education at all levels were developed in line with the economy’s thirst for skilled white-collar labour to staff accelerating technological innovation. In accommodating to this process, much of the educational practice hitherto reserved for the professional and managerial elite was appropriated for these new layers who, far from being part of that elite, were actually destined to fill the increasingly large but relatively powerless middle levels of the industrial and service sectors. [34]

The dual effect of relaxed social conditions during the long post-war boom and pressure from the working class for more equal educational opportunities meant that some teachers were able to start teaching the sorts of things that were usually reserved for those picked out to help run society. [35]

Closely linked to this new content was a new idea of how children should be taught. The old philosophy was of a teacher standing at the front of a class, pumping ready made knowledge into the receptive young minds at a uniform and steady rate: ‘a monster in a lecturing castle, with Heaven knows how many heads manipulated into one, taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair’. The new model, because it thought children should find things out for themselves and discover meanings rather than learn facts, involved a new way of teaching, focused on the needs and development of the individual. [36] This is called ‘child centred learning’, and again it has strong parallels with socialist views on education. Of course, to do it properly and respond to the actual learning process of each young person, teachers would need very small classes and lots of time, books and equipment.

Just as all of these good, if sometimes woolly, ideas were being put into practice, the economic and political system intervened. It is possible to name an individual and a year in which the attempt to turn back the clock began. The individual was not Margaret Thatcher and the year not 1979. Margaret Thatcher had in fact been education secretary during the Heath government, when the rate of comprehensivisation was highest and the progressive innovations in curriculum and pedagogy were coming into more general use. True, she had cut free school milk, but she had done nothing to halt the overall processes, nor even criticised them. In fact, the year was 1976, and the individual was James Callaghan, Labour prime minister. In a notorious speech at Ruskin College, he called for a ‘Great Debate’ on education. He said:

I do not join those who paint a lurid picture of educational decline because I do not believe it is generally true, although there are examples which give cause for concern. I am raising a further question. It is this. In today’s world higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday, and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill. Therefore we demand more from our schools than did our grandparents. [37]

The Labour government was just in the process of launching a massive reduction in public spending in order to please the IMF, so Callaghan made it very clear that one solution was absolutely unthinkable: there would be no more money to solve any problems the debate revealed. What is striking about this speech – indeed 20 years later it is quite shocking – is the extent to which it presages the exact ideas and themes of current Tory demagogues. Here, unquestionably, we have a Labour government preparing the way for the Tories.

In the event, the Great Debate was derailed by the class struggle and achieved little in the way of real change. When Thatcher came to power, she too had more pressing problems like steel workers, and then miners, to attend to, and education was mostly neglected in the early years. Although the Tories did not much like what was going on in the state schools, they had not yet either the plan or the political will to carry through any major changes.

Contrary to popular rumour, the Tory governments have not slashed spending on education. It is true that expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell from 5.1 percent in 1979-80 to a low of 4.6 percent in 1989-90, although it has since risen to 5.1 percent again. [38] In international terms this is low, but not remarkably so. In 1993, when it stood at 5.3 percent of GDP, it was lower than other EU member states, but not dramatically lower than another state with an ageing population like Germany, which spent 5.4 percent. [39] In absolute terms, spending has been rising, since the relatively constant share of GDP has been a proportion of a growing total. If we look a little more closely at the figures for recent years, however, we find an interesting shift:

Table 4:











































It is obvious that, while total educational expenditure has risen in recent years, and has been above 1979 at least since 1991–92, capital spending has not yet recovered to its earlier figure, and has consistently been a smaller part of the total than previously. Given that the figure for 1979 was itself depressed by previous Labour cuts, this must be one of the main reasons for the fact that, as every parent and teacher will tell you, the buildings in British schools are in a shocking state. Although the drop is not that great, two decades of marginal underfunding have the cumulative effect of a major disaster.

There are two other very important things that need to be said about the figures for expenditure. First of all, they are for all education and training expenditure. Since both the training and the higher education sectors have expanded during the years of Tory rule, schools have not accounted for all of this rise in real spending. If one removes all of the money that has gone into various training programmes, and into the vastly expanded higher education sector, then the increase for schools is much more modest.

A second major factor has acted to distort the impact of the small real increase and to make it appear much larger than it really has been. The number of children, and the number of schools, has fallen dramatically over the last decade. Between 1979 and 1991 the number of pupils enrolled in state schools fell from 8,242,837 to 6,635,396, a fall of 19.5 percent. [41] This contraction has allowed the Tories to claim that, despite static or only slightly rising total expenditure, there has been a sharp rise in spending per child: they claim a real term rise of 55 percent per child in primary schools and 49 percent in secondary schools. [42]

Because of these falling numbers of students, although there was a fall in the number of teachers employed in the state sector from 245,981 in 1980 to 194,428 in 1993, there was no comparable rise in class sizes. [43] In fact, class size in England remained more or less constant. In primary schools it rose from an average of 26 in 1980–81 to 27 in 1992–93, and in secondary schools it fell from 22 to 21 over the same period. [44] While in primary schools the number of very small classes of less than 20 pupils with one teacher fell from 20 to 10 percent, the number of very large classes, with more than 31 pupils per teacher also fell, but only from 22 to 20 percent of the total. A similar, but less extreme, picture operated in secondary schools. The increase in resources per student did not therefore mean that classes got smaller overall. The number of very small and small classes fell, as did the number of very large classes. There was much greater uniformity of class size, with most being of the quite large 21 to 30 size. The fact that one in five classes still has more than 30 students in it is evidence that the Tories have not provided adequate educational resources. Teacher input per student is by far the most important aspect of education. Only with small classes can a teacher give real attention to the needs of each individual student. This aspect of education has barely changed during Tory rule. At the same time, as we shall see, there have been numerous changes that have increased the burden on teachers. The net effect is that teachers now have classes of roughly the same size as they had 20 years ago, but face an enormous mountain of additional duties and responsibilities. Thus, while it is true that the Tories did not worsen education resources in absolute terms, their claims to have improved them are spurious.

Tory policy on education cannot be dismissed simply as an attempt to justify cuts. If it were that simple, there would be a simple, if scarcely credible, reformist answer to all problems: pressure the next Labour government to spend a bit more on schools. Reality is much more complex and much more intractable. What Tory policy has really done is to intensify pressures on the schools that would anyway have been present because of the logic of capitalism, and which have been magnified by the instability of the economy.

What the Tories have tried to do is to bring the education system much more into line with what they perceive to be the social and political needs of society. In order to do this, they have attempted to push the system back as far as possible to the state it was in before the start of comprehensivisation. That is to say, they have attempted to separate out as clearly as possible the aspect of schooling designed to educate the ruling class and its upper servants from that aimed at preparing the future proletariat for the world of wage labour. In carrying these policies through, they have not been entirely consistent, partly because they have contradictory perceptions of what is needed by capital, partly because they are trapped in their own general ideology, and partly because of political realities.

The latter, for example, has meant that it has not been possible simply to reinstate full blown grammar schools. There are no doubt many in the rank and file of the Tory party who would like to do this, but the idea remains sufficiently unpopular even with many Tory supporters as to be impossible to implement: what happens to Darren if he fails the 11-plus? What they have tried to do is to create an intermediate zone between the private sector and the comprehensive sector that has an impact much greater than the numbers of children it affects.

The Tories, of course, had no problem with the private sector: most of them were educated in it, after all. It is completely consistent with their hostility to social provision, and their desire to roll back the state, to encourage people to pay for services like education. The 1980s and 1990s have been a golden era for private schools.

The trend of declining enrolments was reversed. Despite the occasional problem caused by recession, the number of pupils in fee paying schools rose from 512,233 in 1979 to 546,156 in 1991. At the same time as the overall school population was falling by 19.7 percent, the number of fee payers rose by 6.6 percent. [45] As a proportion of total school students, private pupils rose from just under 6 percent to around 8 percent.

The first step they took on the road to increasing differentiation in the state sector was to introduce an ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ that paid the fees of a few, academically selected, children to go to private schools. The costs of the scheme are considerable, and have risen much faster than the general education budget. In 1985–1986 this scheme cost £30 million; by 1994–1995 it cost £101 million. [46] One major effect of this scheme is thus a considerable subsidy to the running costs of private schools paid out of taxation. It was, however, presented as a method of broadening access to private education. As the 1980 Education Act claimed, it was a scheme ‘for enabling pupils who might not otherwise be able to do so to benefit from education at independent schools’. [47] The Tories, and the private school system, like to present this an opportunity for bright but poor children from inner city areas to experience the benefits of an expensive education. According to the most detailed analysis of the scheme: ‘It was justified as an extension of parental choice, a restoration of academic opportunities to any able children whose local comprehensive schools were inadequate, and as essential protection for those individuals and for the nation’s resources of talent against the levelling down effects attributed to the demise of so many maintained grammar schools.’ [48] When we look at who has made use of this scheme, however, it becomes clear that the main beneficiaries are the upper reaches of the middle class.

The scheme bases its assessment on income, not wealth, and so blatantly have the realities been disguised by some parents that, in interviews with researchers, many headmasters of private schools admitted they were very suspicious of some of the claims made by parents. Even accepting the limits of the selection procedure, however, it is clear that the scheme is not benefitting the children of the working class: ‘Less than 10 percent of these pupils had fathers who were manual workers, compared with 50 percent with fathers in service-class [relatively privileged middle class – CS] occupations, while almost all the employed mothers were in white-collar employment’. [49]

One striking feature of beneficiaries is the number that come from single parent families. Forty percent of assisted place families were headed by a single parent, while the national figure was 4 percent of all families. Almost all of these families were headed by a woman. [50] This startling generosity on the part of a government that is more commonly associated with vicious attacks on single mothers is put in perspective when we understand the class of mother in question here: ‘… evidence indicates that 68 percent of mothers of assisted place pupils, and 51 percent of fathers, had received an education that was either private or selective.’ [51]

Not to put too fine a point on it, the main function of the Assisted Places Scheme has been to make sure that young Philippa and Rory can still get a good education, even though Daddy has run off with his secretary, or been downsized rather brutally, or both together.

The second major element in Tory policy was the introduction of the possibility of schools ‘opting out’ of local authority control into grant maintained status. The aim was to create a state financed sector of education which, unlike the comprehensives, would ape the private sector:

The government envisages that the policy of ‘freeing’ schools from the constraints of LEA control will help them to become better managed and more responsive to the needs of parents who ‘will enjoy enhanced influence over their conduct’ (Tory minister Angela Rumbold in 1989). In addition, it is argued that opting out will foster healthy competition between all schools, including those in the private sector. It is claimed that such competition will lead to a general improvement in educational ‘standards’ and break down the barrier between public and private provision. GM schools, in other words, will become a ‘half way house’ between state and independent schools, ending the existing unfairness of a system in which ‘only the wealthy have choice’ (Norman Tebbit in 1987). [52]

In practice, persuading schools, and the parents who must vote for this measure, actually to opt out has proved rather difficult, and the government has made every effort to push up the numbers. As one measure, the government has offered explicit bribes. [53] By 1995 GM schools accounted for 5.6 percent of the total but got 14.1 percent of the capital spending, 2.7 times as much on average as an LEA school. [54] Despite these bribes, by January 1993 only 337 schools had opted out, 255 of them secondary schools. The government have displayed great determination to raise this number, and the policy has gone through a range of versions in an attempt to make it more attractive. [55]

One particular angle they have worked ceaselessly is the claim that opting out is a response to parental desires to escape from the incompetent and levelling policies of Labour led local authorities, who have been pursuing an ideologically driven agenda at the expense of parents and children. The evidence does not bear this out. In 1993 only 13 percent of opted out schools were in Labour areas and around two thirds were in Conservative led authorities. London and the south east, together with the east Midlands, both key places where the Tories won the votes of aspirant workers, were heavy areas of transfer. [56] In fact, what GM status has done is to provide a way in which that minority of parents who want their children to have an expensive education, but who don’t have the money to pay for one, have been able to obtain a (very) cheap imitation.

The third area of policy arises directly from the above. The introduction of a National Curriculum, applied to all state schools, and the development of testing for all children (SATs) were designed to pit school against school. This introduction of competition into an area previously considered a public service fitted Tory ideology very well, of course, since they think that this is the way to make British capitalism more efficient and internationally competitive. It has an additional benefit that it allows much greater control over what is taught and how teachers work in the classroom.

If a good school is one that does well at examinations, then the publication of regular league tables of examination results would permit everyone to see which were the best, and which the worst schools in an area. The basic comprehensive idea, that all schools should aim to provide an education for a whole range of students, the academically able and those whose abilities lie in other directions, was thus undermined. Certain kinds of academic achievement were now defined as the central measure of a school’s success. The distorting effect of an elite public examination, that had always been present as a result of A-levels, was now to be extended down to children aged seven, and soon, perhaps, even five.

The logical corollary of this policy was that schools would select pupils. Although the rhetoric is one of parental choice, in reality ‘good’ schools are invariably oversubscribed and therefore have to exercise some form of discrimination between potential pupils. Both sides of this choice equation are deeply marked by class. One study of the ways in which parents made decisions demonstrated that the ability to make use of the published material required the parents themselves to have certain quite developed intellectual skills:

Although school examination results were felt to be useful by about half of the parents, many felt that they were difficult to understand. A written description might be a useful addition for those parents who have difficulty understanding statistical information. [57]

From the schools’ point of view, an NUT study of the effect of testing six and seven year olds showed that younger children, those from poor backgrounds and those from ethnic minorities were likely to score less well. The temptation for schools to select out such pupils would be strong. [58]

It is not hard to see the further consequences either. In the pursuit of examination results, there must be a pressure to stream children by their perceived abilities. Back in 1990, when the tests were still fairly new, two commentators wrote:

Given that so much depends on them, the proposals to publish school average scores or grades will encourage schools to use whatever devices they can to raise those averages. Already there is some evidence that schools might well perceive that the best way to maximise their overall test scores is to stream by achievement level. Such an approach has attractions for those who take seriously the notion of hierarchies of attainment. Indeed, if one is prepared to accept that there is an invariant sequence of learning attached to a particular topic, it does seem somewhat unlikely that pupils will progress at exactly the same rate and in exactly the same way. Within such a philosophy, streaming does work: it produces hierarchies which reproduce themselves. Children in top streams do fare better than those in bottom streams – so streaming provides its own self-justification. [59]

Success, esteem and resources will flow to those children who can drag up the school score. Persecution is likely to be the lot of those seen to be disrupting progress.

It is this factor that has led to the sharp rise in exclusions. In a strikingly revealing phrase, Ofsted commented that permanent exclusion ‘was seen less as a sanction than as an act of self defence by the school’. [60] Defence against what? It might be that a very small number of young people are a physical threat to teachers and fellow students, but they are best handled by therapies designed to reintegrate them with normal social life. These, of course, are expensive and time consuming. The real worry, surely, is that the effect of diverting resources to such efforts, and the disruptions that might ensue, would lead to worse test scores. It is much easier, and certainly very much cheaper, for the school to refuse to teach children with these difficulties. The children are victims of an attempt by the schools to defend themselves against failing in the tests.

All of these measures, taken together, amount to a massive attempt to ensure that testing and selection, and thus the grooming of an elite, become one of the organising principles of the school system. They have the added advantage, from the Tories’ point of view, of taking the understandable worries of working class parents, and their hopes for the future of their children, and trying to channel them in a reactionary direction. What is more, unlike the old grammar school setup, there is no huge visible barrier that acts to screen out most working class children, and which it is almost impossible to cross at a later date. [61] The process of selection works under the cover of alleged market competition.

There is, however, another side to the Tory plan. We saw that educating an elite is only one part of the role of education in a capitalist society. The other side of the coin is to prepare the future proletariat. The Tories have pursued this aim with some vigour too. One of the goals of the introduction of competition into the school system was to try to do this more effectively without increasing the resources. The Tories have altered the content of education too. Not only is ‘enterprise’ now an official part of education, but there is a new emphasis to vocational training, and those parts of academic education like the sciences, that can be claimed to be directly related to ‘wealth creation’. Between 1985–1986 and 1991–1992, the number of pupils in vocational education in the UK rose by 31 percent. In the EU this figure was only exceeded by Greece (36 percent) and Spain (37 percent), while in Germany, which is so often taken as the model for vocational education, it actually fell by 22 percent. [62] While the Tories have maintained the A-level as the ‘gold standard’ determining university entrance, they have also created a battery of new qualifications, NVQs and GNVQs. The ‘Vs’ stand for vocational, and it is unconvincingly claimed that these are to have equal status with academic qualifications.

The third function of education that the Tories are trying to enhance is the disciplinary aspect. Teaching people to know their place, to behave properly, not to question the existing order, and so on, is the meaning that lies behind the talk of a need for more moral education in schools. This has nothing to do with developing children’s talents and abilities, or their capacity for relating to their fellow human beings. It is entirely about imposing upon them a set of beliefs that lead them to obey. It is here that the analysis of capitalist education as a purely formal means of disciplining the future labour force is at its strongest.

In sum, then, one could say that the Tories have attempted to do three distinct things with British schools, which all correspond to different needs experienced by British capitalism. They have attempted to maintain the private school system, and strengthened it by means of state subsidy. This is designed to provide an education for the ruling class and its future upper servants. They have created a new layer of schools, the grant maintained sector, that is better funded than other state institutions, that is highly oriented towards examination success defined in nearly the same terms as the private sector. This sector is designed to provide a few entrants to the upper reaches of the class system, and to train the large number of technical specialists needed a little lower down. To support this, they have introduced the regular publication of test results for all publicly funded schools, so that the ranking of different schools according to their academic success is apparent to everyone. Finally, they have tried to tighten up on the disciplinary aspects of all public education, and in particular that in the local authority run part, by introducing a national curriculum instructing teachers what to teach and increasingly attempting to change the content of education and the manner of its delivery to reinforce this. The aim of this policy is to produce docile proletarians ready for exploitation.

Why it hasn’t worked

Of course, in practice things have not turned out this neatly. If the Tories’ plans had all gone through smoothly, if they had correctly identified the needs of capitalism and devised policies to meet them, and if they had not met resistance from other classes, then there would be no crisis in education. Everybody, or at least the vast majority, who were on track to become members of the ruling class and its servants would be delighted. Everybody or nearly everybody who was destined to become a middle ranking expert would be contented. Everybody, or at least many, who had been brainwashed into thinking that all they were fitted for was to follow orders would be resigned to their fate. There might be occasional mutterings, but not this deep sense of crisis, and no reason for the continuing political agitation.

There are at least three reasons for the failure. The first is to do with the difficulty of planning in a capitalist economy. Because capitalism is a constantly changing system, and because the balance between different branches of economic activity, and indeed the geographical location of whole industries, is determined by competition rather than reason, it is very difficult for any government to have a clear and consistent idea of what is needed. The needs of capital today are not necessarily the needs it will have tomorrow, and the production of new labour power necessarily has a long lead time. There is nothing, as yet at least, that is available in the way of technology to speed up the rate of human maturation.

In the case of Britain in the 1980s, this general problem was exacerbated by the fact that the pattern of employment was changing very rapidly, both between industries and in terms of the gender balance:

Table 5:






















Energy & Water













































Finance etc.









Other service









These changes should not be interpreted simply as a shift from ‘manual’ to ‘white collar’ occupations, since many of the jobs in distribution and other services are themselves manual working class jobs. However, inside manufacturing itself there was indeed such a shift. In 1985, 26.3 percent of manufacturing workers were classified as ‘administrative, technical and clerical’, but by 1992 the figure was 34.2 percent. [64] Overall what these figures do show is that there were big changes in the kinds of jobs workers were doing during this period, and therefore in the kinds of skills that were needed.

Planning an education system that fitted at all precisely to these kinds of changes, and at the same time satisfying the quite contradictory demands for labour of different parts of the capitalist class proved quite impossible. The Thatcher governments were, notoriously, indifferent to manufacturing and saw the future in finance capital and services. Since then, there has been something of a new sensitivity to the needs of industrial capital, and this explains some of the recent stress on the need to produce labour that fits the needs of an internationally competitive manufacturing industry. The shifts and lurches, however, only serve to emphasise how impossible it is to plan labour in a capitalist economy.

This difficulty is exacerbated in a bourgeois democracy by the fact that it is very difficult to direct young people into certain kinds of employment. Even quite young children are very far from being the passive recipients of an educational experience determined by others. As they get older, children exercise choice within an education system, and a competitive society has an ideological investment in allowing them to do so, at least up to a point. In British society, one of the consequences of this choice has been that children who do well at school have tended to prioritise the academic over the vocational, and the humanistic over the technical. It is notorious that university departments offering ‘flakey’ and ‘non-serious’ subjects like media studies are much harder to get into than those offering solid, production oriented things like engineering.

The other side of this coin is that children who are not academically able make such decisions as well. In the 1970s a classic study by Paul Willis showed how young working class male children made a definite choice to put their energies into acquiring the cultural habits of manual workers, rather than the much more middle class ones that the schools offered them. [65] What is often vulgarised as the influence of role models on young people is much more a question of them making assessments of the kinds of futures open to them, and the kinds of rewards and indignities each will involve. One of the consequences of the new stress upon examination success is that more and more children have their noses rubbed into the fact that the system regards them as second rate and fit only for ruthless exploitation. Not surprisingly then, the choice of a non-academic future becomes increasingly attractive, and with it an increasing disaffection with school. One study found that 10 percent of children aged 14 to 16 were regularly illicitly absent from school, 50 percent claimed not to like school, and 20 percent described themselves as actively unhappy there. [66] It is this perfectly understandable adaptation to official rejection that leads to the long tale of educational ‘failure’, the lack of qualifications and, in a minority of cases, to the kinds of behaviour that result in actual exclusion.

The third reason for the problems faced by the Tory policies is that they contradict each other. It is all very well to analyse the competing needs of different sections of capital and to try to translate those into a need for different kinds of education, it is quite another to find a way of implementing them in practice. The kinds of things that are learnt, and the ways that they are taught, are quite different in an education aimed at producing the rulers of a society and that aimed at producing its subordinates. Keeping the two distinct in any school system is almost impossible, although the existence of private schools makes it easier in Britain than in some other countries.

One clear example comes from mathematics. The National Curriculum reduced the range of mathematics taught in schools, and shifted the emphasis within it. Systematic testing ensured that teachers would follow the syllabus rigidly in order to have well prepared candidates. But the nature of the curriculum is not necessarily directly suited to all of the expectations placed upon it. Multiplication and long division were once a central part of the mathematics curriculum. There were, arguably, good economic reasons why these were needed in production – although in practice most people would use ready reckoners for financial calculations and log tables and slide rules if they were scientists or engineers. They then more or less disappeared, as part of the move towards new maths teaching, and their place in doing those sort of sums was increasingly taken by the calculator. The time and energy released were devoted to aspects of mathematics that were seen as much more intellectual and that might lead to a better understanding of the nature of mathematical thinking. The kinds of mathematical education appropriate to the higher servants of the ruling class seeped down into other classes with different destinies. The introduction of the National Curriculum reversed this trend:

The recent battles with various UK government agencies which resulted in the downplaying of ‘using and applying’ mathematics and the introduction of long division algorithms illustrates nicely that those in power do not believe that mathematical knowledge is politically neutral. At the rhetorical level, the debate was about downplaying an area of mathematics seen (by both sides) as potentially enlivening mathematical creativity. On the other hand, the introduction of long division represented an attempt to impose on the curriculum a piece of mathematical knowledge which is both anachronistic and useless. At precisely that point in the evolution of human knowledge when knowledge of how to divide a three digit number by a two digit number becomes redundant, the government of the UK passes a legal requirement to teach it to all pupils (other than the privately educated). [67]

The only value to learning such skills is that, in experiencing the routinised and mind numbing discipline involved, young people will learn that they have to follow orders, no matter how pointless they may seem. While this might seem to be an important part of the education of the future proletariat, it is certainly not something that the ruling class needs, and it is not really the optimal education for their higher specialists. In the existing system, however, it is what everybody subjected to the National Curriculum will get, no matter what their future class position. [68]

A similar set of contradictions marks the problem of how children are to be taught in schools. Probably no teacher anywhere, except possibly the most doctrinaire, uses entirely one method or another, but it is obvious that child centred techniques go together with a concern to develop the individual’s knowledge and understanding. This fits well with the educational goals of the ruling class, or at least of its upper servants, who need to understand at least some things about capitalist society. But in state schools producing future workers, it would be likely to encourage working class children to get ideas above their station, particularly if the school had the resources in terms of teachers and facilities to do it properly. As a consequence, this method of education is under attack, in favour of ‘whole class’ methods. These have the advantage of being cheaper and more conducive to a passive learning experience based on the unquestioning acquisition of received knowledge.

Once again we can see this process at its clearest in the teaching of mathematics. Studies of methods of teaching in countries with higher maths scores, notably those of the Pacific Rim and Switzerland, stress that in these countries there is much greater emphasis on ‘whole class’ teaching. However, the same observers also note that the use of ‘child centred’ teaching in Britain leads to ‘a substantially greater cumulative increase in variability as children pass through the school than in mainland Europe’. [69] In other words, what the existing methods do is to help the mathematically able child do well in exams. What is more, it is claimed that the condition for the success of the Pacific Rim countries is partly to do with the absence of competition within at least the primary classroom. The results are based on ‘the use of mixed ability classes in the early years of school, with all children receiving basic skills in an egalitarian setting, and learning to value the importance of the group and of co-operation.’ [70]

Within capitalist relations, at least, there seems to be a choice. An educational system built around whole class teaching of mixed ability groups of children who learn to work with, rather than against, each other produces a fairly homogenous level of mathematical achievement. This is not only ideologically unpalatable but difficult to achieve in a system that is in every other respect finely calibrated to produce a range of differentiated achievement from the very highest through to the functionally innumerate.

What Tory policies have ultimately foundered upon is the contradictory demands placed upon them by the capitalist economy. Funding decisions have played a part: whatever the Tories say about the increases they have made, they have not been enough to meet the needs of teachers and students. Ideology has played a part: some aspects of what they want are frankly not in the interests of any class at all. The attempt to win political support from sections of ambitious workers has played a part: some children have been given the chance to do well at the expense of others. The underlying problem, however, is that, in an unstable but viciously hierarchical system like capitalism, it is just not possible to produce an education system that both satisfies all the economic needs of the system and does not provoke massive social discontent.


These problems have been present in the system for at least 20 years, as the similarity of rhetoric between James Callaghan and his Tory successors demonstrates. What has exacerbated them in the 1990s is the effect of the economic crisis. Although the Tories can publish statistical papers until they are blue in the face showing beyond question how much more is now spent on education than in the past, the common perception is quite the reverse: teachers and parents firmly believe that the system is starved of resources and struggling to survive. The reason for this is that the strains and pressures on everyone in the system have been increased enormously.

The business of systematic testing is massively time consuming in itself. The social crisis outside the schools has a direct effect in the classroom. Not only does it mean that teenagers are difficult to persuade of the value of education but it also means that more and more children are coming into the schools with difficult social circumstances. [71]

This leads to huge increases in pressure on the time and energy of teachers and others. The institution of the National Curriculum, not to mention the incessant attacks on teachers in the Tory press, leads to demoralisation. The replacement of properly qualified inspectors by the kangaroo court of Ofsted, with its slapdash inquisitions, ten minute assessments of classes, and brief to find the worst it can, has immeasurably increased the stress on teachers. One index of the fact that teachers are tired, overworked and fed up is their desire to get out of the job. The recent decision to stop teachers taking early retirement was the government’s response to this. In 1979–1980, 7 percent of male teachers between 50 and 59 took early retirement and 9.5 percent of female teachers took the same decision. By 1992–1993, the figures were 23.8 percent and 22.3 percent respectively. [72]

The Labour Party propose to do almost nothing about this. Needless to say, they have no intention of getting rid of the private school system. It is true that they have said they will abolish the Assisted Places Scheme, once the current beneficiaries have enjoyed their subsidy. That is to be welcomed. They do not, however, propose to wind up grant maintained schools: indeed, they send their children to them. In fact, what they propose to do is to rename them foundation schools and put them under some local authority control, but they will still ‘have an opportunity to develop ... the ethos which many GM schools feel they have developed’. [73] The have no plans to abolish, or even reform, the National Curriculum. They have no plans to abolish the SATs. They have said that they will introduce compulsory homework – even for primary school children. [74] They even intend to keep the appalling Chris Woodhead on as head of Ofsted. Frankly, they are not going to solve any of the problems and have no intention even of trying.

In fact, any serious reformist government could do quite a lot to improve education, even without having to spend any additional money, and certainly without threatening capitalism as a system. Abolishing private education and grant maintained schools would simply bring Britain into line with such hotbeds of radicalism as the US – even former Tory minister George Waldon is in favour of that move. The National Curriculum, with its restrictions over teachers’ freedom to respond to the particular needs of different groups of children, could be dropped without a lapse into savagery. Above all, getting rid of SATs and transforming Ofsted into a supportive body would take a lot of the pressure off schools. [75] With some more money, even a little, much could be done by way of trying to provide the resources that would enable class sizes to be reduced and child centred learning to be developed.

A socialist education policy, of course, would be something else entirely. We can’t explore it in any detail here, partly for reasons of space but mostly because it is ludicrous for the products of a semi-barbarous society to try to guess how the free human beings of a future civilised society will order their affairs. We can, however, try to guess its outlines. We can predict that it is likely to be comprehensive, humanistic, and based on educational discovery by the pupil. In this, it will be the exact opposite of any existing system.

A socialist system will be comprehensive because it will value the full range of human activities as being of equal worth. It will not privilege one particular kind of ability, that of passing theoretical examinations, and claim that this is the highest end of education. It most certainly will not use that sort of criterion as a passport to a better rewarded, easier and longer life.

It will be humanistic because it will seek to develop the unique combinations of talents and abilities that are to be found in any human being. Its aim will not be to fit people into a niche in the class structure, or to equip them for profitable exploitation in their working lives. On the contrary, it will be an end in itself, part of the very business of living in the world.

Finally, it will seek to explain the world. Its aim will not be to fill children full of facts and ready made interpretations. It will be organised to help people find things out, to understand their world, to discover new things, and to modify what is already known in the light of their interests and experience.

Some of these aims are to be found, in whole or in part, in the best elements of education in a bourgeois society. We are unequivocally for the defence of such advances, and of the people who try to implement them under impossible conditions. But in the end we seek their universalisation – and that is possible only in a different sort of society.


1. I should make clear what the scope of this article is. Scotland and Northern Ireland have different educational systems to England. Wales has one that is much more similar but still significantly different. Most of the arguments and facts in this article apply to the English system. I have noted when that is not the case. These other systems have some of the same problems and some of their own, but I don’t have the space to look at them here.

There is another problem that is specific to readers outside of Britain. There is a whole special language of hypocrisy about education in Britain. We do not mean the same thing as Americans when we say ‘a public school’. We actually mean a private school. An ‘independent school’ is another euphemism for one run on the basis of fees. I have tried to use terms that will not confuse people. When I talk about public education, I mean education provided by the state, either national or local, and funded out of taxes. I have called other schools either private or fee paying.

2. Government Statistical Service, Statistics of Education: Public Examinations GCSE and GCE in England, 1995 (HMSO 1996), p. 9.

3. Department for Education and Employment, Statistical Bulletin: GCSE and GCE A/AS Examination Results, 1994/95, No. 6/96 (HMSO May 1996), p. 31.

4. In order to make any serious claim, it would be necessary to administer the same test to two groups of students and compare the results. History being what it is, this means that it would be necessary to give a test from the 1960s to contemporary students and to have them marked by the same markers, then compare the results in detail. This is impossible for three reasons. Firstly, the content of the syllabus has changed over time, so the current students would be disadvantaged compared to the historical group. Secondly, even if the same examiners are still alive and available, they would now be much different people, and we would have no guarantee they were making the same judgements. Thirdly, for quite understandable reasons, nobody bothered to keep the examination scripts of my 30 year old A-level in Pure Mathematics, and I am absolutely certain that I could not repeat the performance now. The historical evidence necessary to such a comparison simply does not exist.

5. M. Barber, The Learning Game (Gollancz 1996), p. 27.

6. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Exclusions from Secondary Schools 1995/6 (HMSO 1996), p. 29.

7. D. Gilborn and C. Gipps, Recent Research on the Achievements of Ethnic Minority Pupils (Ofsted 1996), p. 52.

8. The evidence is patchy and contradictory, but it seems that there is something much more complex than ‘crude’ racism based on skin colour at work. It is well known that African-Caribbean girls do much better than African-Caribbean boys, and in fact do better than white boys. It also seems to be the case that African boys do better than white boys and much better than African-Caribbean boys, while African girls do slightly less well than the other two groups of young women. One study in Lambeth in 1994 found the following average exam scores by ethnic origin and gender:















[Source: ibid., p. 28]

These results should be treated with some caution. The sample was small, and geographically limited in scope. There appears to have been no control for social class or any other demographic variables.

9. One study, now slightly dated, found that in London, once the analysis was extended to a more complex range of demographic factors than simply ethnicity, social class emerged as a major determinant of success: ‘This research is consistent with previous work finding that, in 1987, the examination results of fifth year students of Bangledeshi, Caribbean and Turkish origin were significantly below those of other groups. After taking into account the students’ sex in each of the 14 ethnic groups studied, and their VR band on entry to secondary school, together with the characteristics of the schools attended, it was found that students of Caribbean, and of English, Scottish and Welsh origin were performing least well. This suggests that these findings have as much to do with social class and expectations … as they do with ethnicity.’ Foreword by the educational officer in ILEA Research and Statistics Branch, Differences in Examination Performance, RS 1277/90 (ILEA 1990).

10. H. Steedman and A. Green, Widening Participation in Further Education and Training: A Survey of the Issues (Further Education Funding Council 1996), p. 4.

11. N. Tate, Opening Remarks in Conference Proceedings. SCAA invitations Conference: Mathematics for 16–19 Year Olds (London, 11 December 1995), p. 5.

12. This, incidentally, is an extremely clear example of what Marx called the ‘fetishism of commodities’, whereby real human relations appear only in so far as they exist to produce commodities for the market: ‘The two-fold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in everyday practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour, have one common quality, namely, that of having value.’ K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (Progress 1965), pp. 73–74.

13. D. Reynolds and S. Farrell, Worlds Apart? A Review of International Surveys of Educational Achievements Involving England (Ofsted 1996).

14. Ibid., p. 9.

15. These are called intervening variables, in the jargon.

16. They have failed to identify the independent variable, in the jargon.

17. The logical error is vividly illustrated by another possible conclusion that the authors don’t, of course, draw. The political systems in these countries range from the recently imperfectly democratised (Korea and Taiwan) to the brutally repressive (China). On their logic, one would be inclined to conclude (1) that mathematical achievement leads to political repression and (2) that the greater the mathematical achievement the higher the level of repression.

18. Asian Education: Devalued Diplomas in Far Eastern Economic Review, 14 November 1996, p. 24.

19. What is more, they think that these good exam results contribute to the social peace that they believe prevails in these countries. They really should read newspaper reports about South Korea a little more carefully.

20. To call this a ‘utilitarian’ approach to education would be to insult the memories of Bentham and the Mills. They, after all, believed that the proper aim of social organisation was to maximise human happiness. The vulgar views peddled today seek only to maximise profitability.

21. The most influential statement of the basic Marxist case was by two US writers, Bowles and Gintis. They argued that, while it is one function of the educational system to legitimise economic inequality, it is much more centrally concerned with producing the right kind of workers: ‘Reference to the educational system’s legitimation function does not take us far toward enlightenment. For the formal, objective and cognitively oriented aspects of schooling capture only a fragment of the day-to-day social relationship of the educational encounter. To approach an answer, we must consider schools in the light of the social relationships of economic life … we suggest that major aspects of educational organisation replicate the relationships of dominance and subordination in the economic sphere. The correspondence between the social relation of schooling and work accounts for the ability of the educational system to produce an amenable and fragmented workforce. The experience of schooling, and not merely the content of formal learning, is central to this process.’ S. Bowles and H. Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America (Routledge 1976), p. 125. Because they were writing about the US, where the education system is predominantly public and comprehensive, they were forced to argue that the legitimation function of education was the result of its apparently meritocratic character: ‘The educational system legitimises economic inequality by providing an open, objective, and ostensibly meritocratic mechanism for assigning individuals to unequal economic positions. The educational system fosters and reinforces the belief that economic success depends essentially on the possession of technical and cognitive skills – skills which it is organised to provide in an efficient, equitable and unbiased manner on the basis of meritocratic principle’ (ibid., p. 103). For obvious reasons, discussed below, no one would ever imagine that British system had a similar meritocratic structure. There are some overall problems with this position, as reformist critics have been quick to point out. For example S. Aronowitz and H. Giroux, Education Still Under Siege (Bergin and Carvey 1993). Rather more sympathetic, but still very critical, is R. Brosio, A Radical Democratic Critique of Capitalist Education (Peter Lang 1994). In later works Bowles and Gintis modified their position to take account of some of the contradictory aspects of capitalist education.

22. Strictly speaking, members of the capitalist class do not need to be educated: their social position derives entirely from their ownership of property, not their personal accomplishments. They can always hire someone with an education to run the business. As was remarked long ago, ‘The capitalist mode of production has brought matters to a point where the work of supervision, entirely divorced from the ownership of capital, is always readily obtainable. It has, therefore, come to be useless for the capitalist to perform it himself. An orchestra conductor need not own the instruments of his orchestra, nor is it within the scope of his duties as conductor to have anything to do with the “wages” of the other musicians ... Inasmuch as the capitalists’ work does not originate in the purely capitalistic process of production, and hence does not cease on its own when capital ceases; inasmuch as it does not confine itself solely to the function of exploiting the labour of others; inasmuch as it therefore originates from the social form of the labour process, from combination and co-operation of many in pursuance of a common result, it is just as independent of capital as that form itself as soon as it has burst its capitalistic shell.’ K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 3 (Moscow 1971), pp. 386–387.

23. For a good survey of just how widespread the comprehensive system of education is internationally, and a clear picture of just how odd British concerns are in this context, see C. Benn and C. Chitty, Thirty Years On: Is Comprehensive Education Alive and Well or Struggling to Survive? (London 1996), pp. 15–22.

24. In fact, although both systems are very different, they tend to make their primary social selection at the same time: the point of university entrance. Both the US and Japan have very clearly graded university systems, success in the competitive entry to which goes a long way towards determining a young person’s future. Kimiko and Tatsuro both go to the same school and learn the same things, but their parents pay for them to attend private cramming night schools to get them through exams. Then Tatsuro goes off to Tokyo (or Keio, or Waseda) while Kimiko goes to the local two year Woman’s College. So too with Harvard (or Stanford, or Columbia) and the Middle Tennessee State University.

25. See, for example, P. Bourdieu and J.C. Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (London 1977). For Bourdieu, the dominant culture of any society is essentially an arbitrary construction whose value lies only in its differentiation from the culture of subordinate classes. Schools attempt to impose this dominant culture as the norm through the exercise of symbolic violence.

26. All these figures, and a host of others about even the most obscure fee paying school, can be found on The Times worldwide web site ( [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

27. Department of Education and Science, Statistics for Schools in England, 1991 (HMSO 1992), p. 133.

28. Department for Education and Employment, op. cit., p. 21.

29. In fairness, it should be said that some other advanced capitalist countries, including the US, do have a tiny private sector primarily for parts of the ruling class itself and partly for various religious groups.

30. Although I have quoted two people who came out of it all as socialists, the vast majority of the people who followed this road adapted to the ideas of their new social position and became apologists for capitalism.

31. The Scottish system was, and is, rather different. Space forbids a full discussion here, but it has tended to produce the same general outcomes as its southern cousin.

32. About the only good thing that can be said for the grammar schools is that they taught a minority of their working class pupils undying class hatred.

33. C. Benn and C. Chitty, op. cit., p. 88.

34. R. Noss, Sets, Lies and Stereotypes, in S. Lerman (ed.) Cultural Perspectives on the Mathematics Classroom (Dordrecht 1994) p. 41.

35. Noss goes on to say: ‘The rhetoric of modern mathematics was – in the UK at least – rather straightforward. At root, it hinged on the idea that the display of mathematics as a formal system, unified by the ideas of sets, would allow pupils to see mathematics as a coherent whole, offer a greater degree of involvement and understanding, and result in a more substantial fraction of pupils studying mathematics at post-school levels.’ Ibid.

36. The official recognition of this new approach was the Plowden Report, set up by a Tory government but reporting in 1967. Plowden argued that a child brought up in a school which ‘lays special stress on individual discovery, on first hand experience and on opportunities for creative work … has some hope of becoming a balanced and mature adult and of being able to live in, to contribute to, and to look critically at the society of which he forms a part.’ Cited in R. Noss, Structure and Ideology in the Mathematics Curriculum in For the Learning of Mathematics, 14(1), February 1994, p. 8.

37. Quoted in Barber, op. cit., pp. 33–34.

38. DFEE, Statistical Bulletin: Education and Training Expenditure since 1979/80, Issue No. 5/96, May 1996 (DFEE), p. 13.

39. European Commission, Key Data on Education in the European Union (Office of Official Publications of the EU 1995), p. 56.

40. DFEE, Statistical Bulletin: Education and Training Expenditure since 1979/80, No. 5/96, May 1996 (DFEE), p. 12.

41. DES, Statistics of Education 1991 (HMSO 1992), pp. 200–201.

42. DFEE, op. cit., p. 16.

43. DFEE, Statistics of Education: Teachers, England and Wales, 1993 (HMSO 1996), p. 14.

44. Central Statistical Office, Social Trends, 1995 Edition (HMSO 1995), p. 49.

45. DES (1991), op. cit., pp. 200–201.

46. DFEE (1996), op. cit., p. 6.

47. Cited in T. Edwards, T. Fitz and G. Whittey, The State and Private Education: An Evaluation of the Assisted Places Scheme (The Falmer Press 1989), p. 1.

48. Ibid., p. 1.

49. Ibid., p. 161.

50. Ibid., p. 165.

51. Ibid., p. 169.

52. T. Fitz, D. Halpin and S. Power, Grant Maintained Schools: Education in the Market Place (Kogan Page 1993), pp. 75–76.

53. John Major put it very frankly in a letter to the NUT in August 1991: ‘We have made no secret of the fact that grant maintained schools get preferential treatment in allocating grants to capital expenditure. We look favourably at GM schools to encourage the growth of that sector and I am delighted to see that numbers are growing rapidly.’ Cited in T. Fitz, D. Halpin and S. Power, op. cit., p. 30.

54. Labour Party, Diversity and Excellence: A New Partnership for Schools (Labour Party 1995), p. 10.

55. T. Fitz, D. Halpin and S. Power, op. cit., p. 30 argue that: ‘The government’s resolve to drive opting out forward, despite the manifest difficulties associated with its implementation, is explained in large measure by the compatibility between the policy’s central features and the ideological and political commitments of successive Conservative administrations. In particular, opting out simultaneously offers the prospect of increasing choice in education and satisfying groups within society whose support the Conservatives wish to attract and retain. For these reasons, education ministers have been prepared to adjust and amend the details of opting out and, ultimately, to promote it as the flagship of educational reform.’

56. Ibid., p. 40.

57. A. West et al., Choosing a Secondary School: The Parents’ and Pupils’ Stories, Clare Market Papers No. 7 (LSE 1993), p. 57.

58. ‘In one sense, this differentiated performance by various groups of children should not be so significant in a criterion referenced assessment system. Children are not being judged against each other, they are being assessed against certain statements of attainment in a more absolute way. In an ideal world, all will be given the opportunity to attain more with time. However, in a situation where schools appear to be in the position of being judged by the outcomes of the assessment, such ideals may have little relevance. Under these circumstances, younger children in a year group, children from poorer social backgrounds, children for whom English is a second language and children with special educational needs seem to be a distinct liability on a school roll. There is likely to be a tendency for some schools to regard such children as less welcome if “raw” assessment outcomes remain the basis for comparison. At the same time girls, children who have had nursery experience and the opportunity to teach children in smaller classes are each likely to be regarded as an asset.’ NUT, Testing and Assessing 6 and 7 Year Olds: Final Report (with the University of Leeds School of Education) (NUT 1993), pp. 56–57.

59. H. Goldstein and R. Noss, Against the Stream in Forum for the Discussion of New Trends in Education, Vol. 33(1) (NUT 1990), p. 5.

60. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, op. cit. (1996), p. 29.

61. Actually, the 11-plus still exists untroubled in Northern Ireland.

62. Eurostat, Education Across the European Union, Statistics and Indicators (Office of Official Publications of the EU 1995), pp. 296–297.

63. Central Statistical Office, Social Trends, 1995 Edition (HMSO 1995), p. 68.

64. Central Statistical Office, Annual Abstract of Statistics, 1995 Edition (HMSO 1995), p. 108.

65. P. Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Gower 1997). Willis’s research problem was ...: ‘The difficult thing to explain about how middle class kids get middle class jobs is why others let them. The difficult thing to explain about working class kids is why they let themselves’ (p. 1). He answered it by showing that: ‘We can say that for a good proportion, the disaffected – in relation to whom the conformist case can be better understood – this is in the form of a partial cultural penetration of their own real conditions and a mystified celebration of manual work which nevertheless preserves something of a collective, rational, though incomplete, logic’ (p. 185). It is striking how 20 years ago this book was written against the background of the fact that: ‘there is currently a “crisis” in education’ (p. 189).

66. M. Barber, op. cit., p. 84. Barber is big moral discipline man.

67. R. Noss, op. cit., p. 45.

68. Of course, things are a little more complex and a little more contradictory than I have made them appear here. The drive to insist on the possession of these redundant skills, as useful to the modern economy as the ability to translate Latin, is part of a more generalised ideological offensive which includes even the education of the ruling class and their close servants. There is currently a bitter row, involving threats of writs, between the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its expert mathematical advisers. The SCAA consulted mathematical opinion about whether to insist on part of the examination for AS and A-level being undertaken without calculators, but: ‘The SCAA’s report admits that only a “minority were in favour of the proposal to require AS and A-level candidates to take at least one paper without the support of a calculator” and that “only a quarter of consultees considered that the proposed 25 percent of marks for non-calculator papers were appropriate”. Despite this, SCAA reaffirmed that “an element of assessment worth at least 25 percent of the marks and in which no calculator may be used has been retained”.’ P. Baty, Legal Threat Hots up Maths Syllabus Row in The Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 January 1997, p. 2. While ideologies in general correspond to the aims of particular classes, ideologists systematise them even at the expense of what might be functional (this is another reason why functionalist explanations won’t do). In this case, mad ideologists are insisting that even those people who are most likely to become mathematicians and scientists learn these obsolete skills. The time to learn these will have to be found in a curriculum that already drives some mathematicians to despair because it contains no consideration of the concept of mathematical proof.

69. S. Prais, Improving School Mathematics in Practice, in Proceedings of a Seminar on Mathematics Education, London 27 February 1995 (Gatsby Educational Foundation 1996), p. 7.

70. D. Reynolds and S. Farrell, op. cit., p. 55.

71. For example, the number of pupils in public sector schools with statements of special educational needs rose from 38,200 in 1985–1986 to 86,900 in 1991–1992. Department for Education and Employment, Education Statistics for the UK, 1993 Edition (HMSO 1994), p. 47.

72. Department for Education and Employment, Statistics of Education: Teachers in England and Wales, 1993 (HMSO 1996), pp. 20–21.

73. Labour Party, op. cit., p. 15.

74. And they have made some threatening noises which suggest that they quite like the idea of changing higher education so that an elite get three years at University and the rest get only two, for which they will have to pay, of course.

75. There might be an educational rationale for an agreement between a pupil, the parents and a teacher that that individual’s educational development would be well served by testing how much they had absorbed by a certain point in time. But this is completely different from a compulsory standard national test of all students whose results are then aggregated by school and published. As a matter of fact, even the government’s own committee that set the SATs in motion did not push for the raw results to be published. It wrote that, even in those countries that had national tests, ‘publication of test results of use outside the school is virtually non-existent, except in some states of the US. There results have been published with adjustments for socio-economic background’. Task Group, National Curriculum Task Group on Assessment and Teaching: A Report (DFEE 1988), p. 12. British results, of course, are unadjusted.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 9.4.2012