From International Socialism (1st series), No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.24-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
THERE is a growing ferment in education. The great upheaval in curriculum and teaching methods, in which teachers play an active role, receives the blessing of officialdom. However, the parallel movement of teachers to play an active role in deciding not only how, and (to a limited extent) what they teach, but in how the school and the educational system shall be run, is severely clamped down upon by officialdom. At present the Local Education Authority puts complete control over all aspects of school activity in the hands of the head. An extract from the Government of County Secondary Schools issued by the Greater London Council states:
The head shall control the conduct and the curriculum, the internal organisation, the management and discipline of the school, the choice of books, the methods of teaching and the arrangement of classes; and shall exercise supervision over the teaching and non-teaching staff. He shall have the power to suspend pupils from attendance for any cause he considers adequate ...
This authoritarian power is fully backed up by inspectors and other Local Education Authority and Department of Education and Science officials, and also by a differential salary system which, ranging from £1,055 for some to £5,480 for others, gives heads, of secondary schools in particular, a very different status and standard of living to most teachers.
A growing number of teachers are beginning to rebel against this authoritarian system. The number of sackings, blacklistings and lesser acts of victimisation is increasing. The rumble in the staffrooms amongst those who are not yet ready to ‘stick their necks out’ is growing louder. A number of left-wing teachers have organised around the journal Rank and File, which is gaining recognition as the opposition in the National Union of Teachers. The NUT itself has been faced with the necessity to implement a Conference resolution demanding teacher participation in the running of schools, for which purpose it is holding a number of local conferences in the autumn to look into ways and means.
Parallel with the teachers’ movement for control is a pupils’ movement. Pupils suffer in the main from the same authoritarian head and also, being at the very bottom of the hierarchical ladder, from the pressures of teachers who are authoritarian either by virtue of their senior positions, by inclination, or by being forced to be so by the undemocratic set-up. Pupils have their own organisations, prominent among them being the Schools Action Union, which has conducted strikes (and had members suspended from school for it). Pupils have also struck in solidarity with teachers who have been sacked for a variety of reasons, such as publishing the pupils’ poetry (Chris Searle at Sir John Cass and Redcoat School in East London), being too popular with the pupils (Holland Park School, West London), teaching creative, rather than literary, drama (The Grove School, Market Prayton). The common element in these and other sackings has been ‘over’-friendly relations with pupils – being as the pupils say, ‘on their side’.
All this leads to the obvious conclusion that the natural allies in the struggle against authoritarianism and for democratic control in the school are pupils, teacher and other workers who are ready to fight for it. The movement among both teachers and pupils is not yet very big, but it shows the potential which a revolutionary situation could bring to fruition.
Every great revolutionary upheaval against the capitalist system has brought with it a thoroughgoing overhaul of the educational system. This is inevitable, as education is one of the nerve centres, shaping the future citizens of the new social system.
The first of these, the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, immediately set to work to dismantle the old order. In its 72 days of existence it instituted free, compulsory schooling for all, including free stationery; secular education freed from church and state interference; autonomy for each local commune; rational instruction, based on reason, scientific experiment, and freedom from superstition; rational ethics stressing solidarity and class struggle as opposed to the traditional type based on custom, or religious dogma; social-political education aimed at revolutionary activity versus non-political instruction and the enclosure of the child within the walls of the school; instruction in the arts; and an attempt to link education with industry – ‘industrial design’. At a school opened by the Educational Commission of the Commune, a notice stated:
’Courses designed to complete the scientific and literary education of students will be held together with practical courses’.
All these precepts were embodied by Marx in educational principles which were to prove of great importance after the Russian revolution. The linking of education with industry in particular, was fundamental.
A different aspect of control was thrown up by the Russian revolution of 1905. Here pupils took control over their situation, joining in the general strike and insurrection. Each secondary school class elected ‘elders’ from amongst their number, and these looked after the discipline and order of the pupils of their class. The pupils also elected delegates who formed a strike committee in each town. The ups and downs of the struggle did not permit of any fundamental changes in the schools, and the government prohibited this form of ‘self-government’ after about six months.
The most far-reaching and exciting developments in education, took place with the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The Bolsheviks had a vast arena in which to experiment with a new educational system. What emerged was intensely interesting.
The discussions and arguments that went on among Soviet educationists make fascinating reading, but I shall have to confine myself here to a sketchy outline of developments, emphasising those aspects which have relevance for us rather than those (such as the struggle for universal, compulsory education) which were also of the greatest importance for the Soviet Union.
The Soviet educationists drew upon the historical experiences of the Paris Commune and the 1905 revolution, the educational philosophy of Marxist thinkers, and the theory and experimental practice of progressive teachers throughout the world. Books on psychology, pedagogy and educational method were translated from German, French and English. Prominent American educators were as well known in the Soviet Union as in America. All contributed to extensive experimentation with subject matter, teaching methods, social organisation of pupils, organisation of educational workers, school committees and forms of higher and adult education.
The Bolsheviks had drawn up educational programmes in 1903 and May 1917 (before the Bolshevik revolution) which pointed the direction of post-revolutionary action. Its similarity to the innovations of the Paris Commune are striking. Policy statements and decrees started pouring out from days after the revolution. These were embodied in the first systematic Education Act on October 16, 1918. It was preceded by Basic Principles of the Unified Labour School, which embodied the spirit and ideals of the revolution.
The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality however can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We (i.e. the government) do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds, because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.
The socialist community was a ‘single factory’ in which the exploitation of man by man was replaced by the exploitation of our planet by the united humanity. The school therefore had the aim of educating this future ‘master of nature’. ‘The aim of the Labour School is not a drill for some or other craft, but to impart a “polytechnic” education, giving to children the knowledge of the methods of work’. A Conference of revolutionary teachers (a small minority of Russian teachers) held in June 1918, amplified the important aspect of the polytechnic education, and reiterated the development of the personality.
The main aim of the new school should be the bringing up of a creative personality developed on many sides. The conference considers it necessary to give to education a polytechnic direction and transform the school into a working commune, based on self-activity, on productive labour for common use and adapted to local conditions. The school should not be opposed to life, but coinciding with it, should endeavour to create a harmoniously developed human being.
The other point of interest in the Act of 1918, particularly to us in a more advanced country, where there is not the economic and cultural poverty that dogged the heels of the Bolsheviks, is the completely democratic control by a policy-making mass
meeting of all members of the school community (irrespective of age) which elected a ‘head’ (who was subject to recall), and executive committees to administer the policy broadly laid down. Article 29 of the Act established that schools were to be fully autonomous, under the direction of a ‘school collective’ comprising all teachers, pupils and other school workers (caretakers, clerical workers and other helpers). It was to elect a praesidium and executive committees. Curriculum and teaching methods were entrusted to a ‘school council’ of ‘teaching staff and representatives of pupils, of local workers and of the local Department of Education.’ This set-up, it is important to note, fitted in exactly with the revolutionary ideals and early practice of workers’ control of production.
[The curriculum and teaching methods, it is interesting to note, involved not only teachers and pupils, but also the wider community of workers and the local Department of Education. This set-up fitted in exactly with the revolutionary ideals and early practice of workers’ control of production.]
The educational principles behind student self-government, which encompassed pupils of all ages, were stated in the early ‘twenties by the Scientific Pedagogical Section of the Russian Republic State Council of Education:
In our schools, self-government is not a means of governing the students more readily, neither is it a practical method for studying the workings of the constitution. It is a means by which the pupils may learn to live and to work intelligently.
The richer the content of student life, the more thorough will be the student autonomy. Collective work is, par excellence, the great organising force. Self-government cannot develop well, and take on the most rational and most helpful forms except in a school where collective work represents the vital nerve of the whole student life.
... The students must in all cases be represented on school committees. The whole work of self-government must be handled by the pupils in co-operation with the teachers. The duty of the teacher consists in actively contributing to student autonomy. However, he will leave the scholars completely independent and will try not to let his authority weigh upon them.
On the same subject Prof. Pinkevich , Director of the Research Institute of Scientific Pedagogy, said in the mid-’twenties:
Difficulties will no doubt attend the inauguration of suck an order of things as we propose. Children will make mistakes ... But let the children arrive at this conclusion as a result of their own experiment; they will then be convinced themselves and will not be simply carrying out the prescriptions of somebody else. In time they will realise their error, and in this process of discovering the truth they will learn much.
The role of the teacher was that of ‘an organiser, assistant, instructor, and older comrade, but not the role of superior officer ...’ The teacher was to maintain simple, comradely relations with the children, and it was customary to call him by his first name.
Education, like all the other goals of the revolution suffered from the harsh realities of civil war in the years immediately after the revolution. Before the revolution Russia had been weighed down by poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition. There was over 60 per cent illiteracy (90 per cent in some rural areas). The Civil War aggravated these problems enormously. Famine raged in 1921-2, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Industry had been reduced by 1919 to a mere 13 per cent of its 1913 level.
Amidst the poverty, famine and chaos, the educational system was completely disorganised, with 27,000 schools being closed down. The Soviet Pedagogical Encyclopedia records:
’There was no labour in the school, no text-books, no curriculum; the teachers led a beggarly life, the schools were falling to pieces.’
As late as 1925 the conditions were described as follows by a friendly observer:
’It would hard to find poorer equipment than that in many of the Soviet institutions. Buildings are old. Benches are worn out. Blackboards and books are lacking. Teachers and other educational workers are badly paid – sometimes, for months, unpaid. Only about half of the children of school age in the Soviet Union can be accommodated in the schools. Lunacharsky, Peoples’ Commissar for Education, estimates that the Union is now short of 250,000 teachers. Even if they had these teachers, they would have no class rooms in which to put them. Probably there is no large country in Europe where educational conditions are physically worse than they are in the Soviet Union’. 
The number of destitute children – orphans of the civil war, discarded waifs of destitute parents – who survived as camp-followers of the opposing armies or roamed the streets begging, plundering, murdering, rose at its height to seven million and was never less than half a million in those years. Teachers in the main opposed the new methods, and as no inspection could yet be instituted, ignored government decrees and taught the old subjects by the old methods.
In these circumstances, it was impossible to implement the wishes of the government. The ideal of polytechnical education – all-round theoretical and practical instruction in all branches of labour – usually meant in such conditions sweeping and washing the floor of the school, cutting wood for the fires and similar domestic work.
Compulsory education was impossible, and while heroic efforts were made to build new schools, and repair old ones, it was not until 1932 that there was universal education for 8-11 year olds, while all children in the seven-year schools at that date made up still only 67.3 per cent of children of the corresponding ages. The other 32.7 per cent could not be accommodated.
Against such a background the Bolsheviks were forced to make a retreat from the revolutionary ideals of 1917 – parallel to the general retreat that accompanied the introduction of the New Economic Policy of 1921. Moreover, the increasing bureaucratisation of the state and party apparatus also began to influence the educational sphere. These tendencies found expression in the Educational Act of 1923.
The principle of the labour school was upheld. But the practice of polytechnical education underwent many vicissitudes, varying from an emphasis on mere trade training, to complete academic training in the usual school subjects. In the early days, the intention was for all children to go through the unified labour school, having a general education based on labour, to the age of 17 (later dropped to 15). Specialisation was to take place after that. As this did not produce skilled workers or specialists quickly enough, vocational schools were set up side by side with general schools, and early specialisation became an important part of the school system.
A big increase in the quantity of education is needed and has been achieved in all technically developed countries. It is being aimed at in underdeveloped countries. Polytechnical education is the form best suited to a society which aims to eliminate the division between mental and manual labour, and where the dignity of labour is upheld, and the precept ‘He who does not work shall not eat’ adhered to. It is therefore the form of education suited to a workers’ state, and to socialism. It is recognised by progressive educationists in capitalist countries, who aim towards a rounded, integrated personality, and there are a number of islands of experiment along these lines. The Dalton Plan and Dewey’s ‘project’ method, are two well-known American experiments now some decades old. There are elements of the system in Britain’s education.
This particular form of schooling can thus survive, with major or minor alterations, through many regimes.
What differentiates the nature of one or another regime is the control aspect. Here was the real casualty of the growing bureaucracy in Russian society.
As pupils are on the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, their position in relation to the power of control in the school is the most accurate barometer of the political climate. I shall therefore deal with this most important aspect first.
The 1923 Act represented an important retreat in this area. Although the term ‘pupil self-government’ continued to be used, there was an effective removal of much power from the hands of the joint pupil-teacher committees. The headmaster was now to be appointed by the local education department, which was also to appoint and sack teachers. And the headmaster was given greatly enlarged powers:
The responsible direction of the educational, financial and administrative activity of each school is entrusted to the headmaster, who presides at the school council.
If he disapproved of decisions of the school council the head now had the power to stop their implementation in practice. In exceptional cases he had the further right to undertake measures without preliminary discussion with the council at all. powers to effectively ignore decisions of the school council.
However, such committees continued to play an important role, bringing together teachers (who tended to have a majority in them) with students and representatives of various local bodies (parents, CP and YCL branches, unions, etc). Scott Nearing described the situation in 1925:
The principle of representation and administration was preserved throughout the Soviet Union. In all the schools I visited there was a general and rather numerous school committee meeting occasionally and a small executive meeting frequently. The school teaching staff always predominated in the latter organisation. 
There was much discussion and experiment about discipline, as about all other aspects of education. Some favoured allocation of separate areas of control for teachers and pupils. Some favoured complete pupil control, and this sometimes led to the setting up of pupils’ courts. Others (including Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife and a prominent educator) argued against pupil courts, as they induced the self-deception that the feeling of revenge was justifiable as long as it was called punishment, caused children to look for crimes and specialise in trials and habituated children to make decisions from the point of view of formal, conventional to make decisions from the point of view of formal, conventional, external justice. The general view in case of the commission of an offence was that an informal approach should be adopted, the
teacher explaining and discussing the offence with the offender, and the class or school. This procedure, carried out in an atmosphere of few rules and comradely relations between teachers and pupils, seems to have been successful.
As far as curriculum was concerned, Scott Nearing in 1925-6 observed the great variety in educational practice, and the friendly relationships in schools:
Practice differs widely in schools that are located close together, in the same republic or even in the same city. Certain theories are commonly accepted, but there is a great variety in the interpretation that is put upon them. ...
The Soviet Union is today an educational laboratory. Experiments are under way with subject-matter, with methods of instruction, with social organisation among the pupils, with the organisation of educational workers, with the organisation of school directing committees and with the problem of opening the higher schools to the workers and peasants.
In each laboratory there were several tables around which the students were gathered – four, five or six at a table. They were all working in groups. On entering the room you looked in vain for the teacher in a commanding position, sitting behind a desk at the top of the room. Instead you found her at one of the tables, working with that group. The students at the other tables were going on, meanwhile, with their activities. The laboratories gave the impression of reading or reference rooms in some large city library. There was no sense of school ‘discipline’.
Pinkevich expressed the general view that
... the traditional examination ... is so artificial and so foreign to the child’s nature that it acts as an enervating and disintegrating influence in his life. Obviously it cannot be preserved in our school. Regardless of the guise in which it may appear or the name under which it may go, we must declare war against it.
Instead, stress was placed on the project method (favoured by progressive teachers in the West) which intends to give point and interest to learning through combining different educational disciplines around a project, and combining academic and manual instruction.
There is no doubt that of all the contemporary attempts to reform the school ... the project system with appropriate changes is best adapted to the nature and purposes of the soviet school. It affords the children greater freedom of activity, encourages them to engage in practical work, demands of them independent planning, and trains them in the methods of investigation.
Education shared the experience of other aspects of Russian life during the 1920s. The increasing bureaucratisation more and more stifled the freedom and initiative that October had brought into being. But it was not until the final success of Stalin in 1929 and the inauguration of the first five-year plan that the gains of 1917 were finally eliminated. In the educational sphere this entailed the removal of Lunarcharsky, Commissar of Education since the revolution and promoter of democracy, progress and experiment. A change of policy in all areas followed.
Authority within the schools was concentrated in the hands of the school manager (head). Although Pinkevitch, for instance, could still talk (in 1935) of ‘pupil self-management’ he made it clear that
... none of the organisations of the school (either teachers’ or pupils) may rescind the managers’ decisions ... They have no administrative functions whatever.
The heads themselves were now appointed, not elected at all, and also became subject to strong external constraints, until
With few exceptions children in, say, the fifth form in an eight-year school in places as far apart as Moscow and Magnitogorsk, Tashkent and Tallinn, wear the same uniforms, observe the same rules of behaviour, and study the same subjects from the same textbooks at the same pace ...
Within the schools an elaborate system of pay differentials helped cement the position of the head (as in the west). The basic wage for teachers is low – 60 to 90 roubles (about £25 to £35) a month for primary school teachers, and 85 to 150 roubles (about £30 to £60) a month for secondary teachers in the early 1960s, as compared with wages for skilled workers of 100-250 roubles. But a minority of teachers receive supplements for higher qualifications, teaching top class, length of service and suchlike. The head receives much more.
The centralisation of authority after 1929 was accompanied by a widening of the division between mental and manual labour. The curriculum and teaching methods turned somersault. Polytechnical education (in all but name) was thrown overboard. Pinkevich noted that:
The chief method of instruction in the school is the lesson. In the decision passed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party on August 25, 1932, it was strongly emphasised that the lesson should be carried out with a definite group of pupils according to a definite timetable ... Until quite recently, the American “Project” method was extensively applied in Soviet schools, their entire work being based on the principles of “socially useful work”. Many Soviet educationalists thought at the time that education should consist of the fulfilment of a certain number of “socially useful projects”, and that only in the course of fulfilling these projects should the children obtain knowledge about other subjects. In 1931 this method of work was sharply condemned by the Communist Party and the Government. The Project method is no longer adopted in the Soviet schools.
A decree of March 4, 1937, excluded ‘labour’ from the syllabus, liquidated all school workshops and craft rooms, took measures to ‘requalify’ graduate teachers of labour into teachers of mathematics and physics, and discharged the rest. The time freed was to be used for instruction in the Russian language and literature, mathematics, and the Constitution of the USSR. The entire syllabus returned to the pre-revolutionary subject-based method. Simultaneously, the old system of examinations was reintroduced. Pinkevich, who had once castigated that system completely, noted, without comment, that ‘at the end of the year examinations are held’.
Overall, all the main features of an authoritarian educational system now prevail inside the Soviet Union. The removal of any power from the pupils and the teachers organisations permitted bureaucratic centralisation to prevail. The teachers act as the lowest cogs in a system of enforcing social conformity. As such, like teachers in other countries, they tend to identify with the powers-that-be. Twenty per cent of them belong to the Party, as opposed to only 4½ per cent of the population as a whole. But their wages and conditions are usually quite miserable.
In education, as elsewhere, the gains of October have been destroyed. But for those at the bottom of the structure the only solution to their vexations, in Russia as in Britain, is an alliance and upsurge of the powerless – pupils, teachers and other workers – as in the revolutions of the past.
1. In 1927 Prof Pinkevich wrote a book called The New Education in the Soviet Republic, for use in the training of teachers in the USSR. In 1935 he wrote another for The New Soviet Library (Victor Gollancz) called Education in the USSR, which we quote later. Nothing shows more clearly the somersault in the orientation of education before and after the introduction of the Five-Year Plan. One can only feel sorry for Prof Pinkevich!
2. Scott Nearing, Education in the Soviet Union, 1925.
Last updated: 3 May 2014