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Chanie Rosenberg

Class and the classroom

(September 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 101, September 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Baker’s new Education Act has been heralded as a “historic reform”. In fact it is a retreat to the reactionary Black Paper of the 1970s. It proposes testing for pupils at 7, 11, 14 and 16; “open access” to schools by parental choice and devolution of powers from local authorities to schools themselves. Here, Chanie Rosenberg examines the ideology of education and looks at its development since the 60s culminating in Baker’s new bill.

There is no more sensitive indicator of the nature of a society than education, which in the West nurtures the entire youth to follow in the footsteps of the adult generation and to reproduce its society feature by feature. In capitalist society, whose basis is profit-making, every thing is treated as an object for the enlargement of profits. Every body suffers the same treatment.

Education is the mechanism by which capitalism shapes the required class relationship to profits; the 6 percent or so ruling class which rakes them in, the 30 percent or so middle class which oils the wheels, the 60 percent or so working class which creates them.

Thus the labour market is the greatest single influence on education. The obvious practical aim of education is to instil literacy, numeracy and other skills into nearly all children up to the level of the job expectations on the labour market. This level is determined by the requirements of modern industry, which demands certain universal skills previous societies did not. At bottom, for the workers who create the profits, this is limited to the ability to fill in forms, make simple calculations, and read the mass press and adverts. At the top, for the ruling class who deploy the profits and the people who make them, it demands a very high level of these skills as part of a well-trained and confident mental baggage.

But literacy in itself is neutral from a class point of view. So its acquisition must be accompanied by training in habits of thought that prop up the prevailing class structure; children must learn that they are born to rule, or born to be ruled.

The education system adapts itself to these requirements. In quantity working class children get about half the schooling ruling class children get; ages 5 to 16, compared with under age three to over age 23 or 24. Intermediate requirements are catered for between these limits.

It is the quality of the education, however, that sets the seal on class attitudes. Upper class children come from cultured backgrounds, are given every assistance to learning, are taught in the luxury of classes of ten, 12, 15 or so. Their curriculum is rich, gives every encouragement to making choices, pursuing interests to the limit, relaxation and contemplation of the naval – an essential for intellectual development. This continues uninterruptedly through Oxbridge.

At the same time there is pressure for prowess and command – formally in drill and sports, and informally through the terrorising and torture of younger pupils. All these qualities make the ideal member of the ruling class – born to rule, cultured, mentally flexible and able to make confident decisions, practised in handling people, and knowing when to handle with decorum, and when without.

This 6 percent from the public schools then fills virtually all the top jobs in society. Tory cabinets are public school old boys’ clubs as are High Court judges (83 out of 103 from public schools), Church of England bishops (38 out of 43), top grade civil servants (67 percent) admirals, generals, air chief marshals, deans and professors at Oxbridge, the General Medical Council (over half), and directors of many prominent firms.

For working class children, born to be ruled, the state has eleven years to indoctrinate inferiority and submission. This is done partly by a curriculum heavily biased towards cosy, sanitised middle class respectability and conformity, mainly by the method used of instilling these attitudes.

This is a system of selection and examination that drives home to children that learning is a competitive race and not a collective effort where all different contributions are equally valued. And none can escape. Teaching the rat race has to be persevered with, as it is not natural to children, especially working class children.

Workers’ environment is basically collective. It is the very opposite of the personal climb up the ladder of success on someone else’s back. When workers aim for betterment at work they act together by collective decision. Benefits gained are for all, not one. Mutual aid rather than the rat race is a powerful feature. The gang, the street collective, the football crowd, so much part of working class growing up, are the opposite of the individualistic ambitions of school.

The rat race may be muted at primary level, only to grate more harshly at secondary, as the labour market looms more closely. The eventual understanding and acceptance of it – of marking, grading, sifting, creaming – as the way of life, causes most children to devalue their own merit, to feel inadequate and inferior. And if anything is calculated to make the child fail, it is the shattering of self-respect and the hope that goes with it, which is vital for learning or indeed doing anything constructive.

This failure in the testing process and thus the denigration of the individual child is the greatest obstacle to learning and the greatest prop to the required class attitudes that exist in the education system. Upper and middle class children don’t suffer this insult and indignity as working class children do. They are weaned out of it by continued cosseting in ambitious families and “superior” schools, and by their eventual desertion of their working class brethren when they go on to higher education. They know they can climb out and they do. Working class children know they can’t climb out, so they decide they don’t want to, and (with exceptions) they don’t.

Graft this process on to the initial differences in the language used in schools (Standard English) and the local or ethnic dialect natural to working class children from their earliest years, which alone makes school studies a bigger hurdle for working class children, and the obstacles for them become insurmountable. They sink into a state of apathy as regards school and learning, non co-operation and antagonism, starting often in the primary school, increasing markedly in the secondary.

The ground is now fertile for instilling the belief that their inferiority is due to a lack in themselves which justified their subordination and future exploitation. Hence submissiveness and obedience to authority is the proper, justifiable attitude.

Are these educational aims achieved? By and large yes. Literacy of a sort is instilled into nearly all children – bar something between 10–15 percent – and the different classes are successfully taught to know their rightful place – bar that number of working class children who come through the obstacle race and ensure a degree of renewal in the ruling class.

Listen to some of the products of 11 years of “education”. An East End school leaver; “I ain’t no good, they told me at school I ain’t no good.” A young building worker: “You are taught at school not to want to learn – not much point in it, is there?”

The ideological submission of the working class is the most powerful shackle preventing it from taking power, and our education system a powerful factor in achieving this.

Capitalism is cyclical, it goes through booms and slumps. Education, its mirror, does the same. The social and political ripples of the long 30-year period of boom after the war spread out, and education bobbed up and down buoyantly.

Ideas of equality of opportunity became fashionable. Comprehensive schools started creeping in, testing at 11 plus began to disappear, and Mixed Ability Teaching began to nibble away at the edges of streaming by “ability”, at least in primary schools. A little space was opening up in which progressive educationists could manoeuvre to give working class children a better deal.

With the white heat of the technological revolution catching up with Britain at the end of the 1950s and 1960s, high flying technologists were at a premium, and the education system had to produce them. As Harold Wilson put it at the 1963 Labour Party conference:

“To train the scientists we are going to need will mean a revolution in our attitude to education, not only in higher education but at every level ... as a nation we cannot afford to force segregation on our children at the 11 plus stage ... we cannot afford to cut off three-quarters of our children from virtually any chance of higher education.”

To distil the 3 or 4 percent top-grade technicians in an automating world, the whole education system had to be heated up and expanded. So the school leaving age, which had already recently risen to 15, rose to 16. Classes very slowly got a little smaller as many more teachers were taken on. “Progressive” education, which widens children’s intellectual and emotional horizons, was the vogue, and extra resources were put in to encourage it.

Most importantly, comprehensive schools between 1966 and 1975 spread to cover almost the whole country. So that while the great class divide still existed between private and state schools, at least, as one observer wrote:

“Never again can part of the population be hidden away in the back-street sink schools ... Everyman’s child now sits in the same classroom as the vicar’s daughter and the doctor’s son. We are now moving into an era when high standards are expected of – and by – everyone.”

An idealised picture but the hope of the time.

A secondary, but important push for comprehensivisation came from the egalitarian ideals of a fair section of the labour movement, among whom were teachers. It was this strand which put the flesh on the comprehensives. Keen teachers took on a huge load of extra work filling up the curriculum to fit the expanded horizons of working-class children and expanding them further.

For the first time age-old taboos were broken down. Under a variety of headings – social studies, humanities, integrated studies – working class children were introduced to problems of race and ethnic roots, sexism, class and many others. Also modern languages, music, drama, all sons of modern sports, and a host of other one-time prerogatives of upper-class pupils came within their reach.

With liberal content came liberalisation of method, starting at the level furthest from the world of work – the infant school – and working up through the junior (getting rid of the 11-plus in the process), into the lower forms of secondary schools, and even occasionally creeping into the higher. While 94 percent of primary schools were streamed in the late 1950s, the figures were now turned on their heads. Mixed ability teaching, even if not fully attained, became an ideal, as did discovery methods, and other attempts to liberate the mind and spirit of the children. Corporal punishment was reduced.

This expansion caused a quite considerable rise in standards of reading and maths, despite the moans of reactionaries. Illiteracy and semi-literacy went down from over 3 million before the war (who read worse than 8-year-olds) to 2 million in the mid-seventies (who read worse than 9-year-olds). Whereas in 1932 90 percent of pupils left school with no qualifications at all, in 1975 only 20 percent did.

In Hertfordshire, between 1968 when it started going comprehensive, and 1975, the number of pupils voluntarily staying on to take GCE and CSE exams increased by 24 percent, and the number of GCE O-level or CSE Grade 1 passes by 95 percent. The figures for A-level were: pupil increase 36 percent, passes increase 63 percent. Throughout England and Wales, between 1966 and 1974, the percentage of school leavers from comprehensive schools with at least one O-level pass (or CSE Grade 1) rose from 31.6 to 56.2; those with 5 or more passes in CSE at Grade 4 or better from 5.0 to 23.8.

But much more important than the rise in standards of work was the rise in expectations of those kids for whom a window had been opened a little. A strong taste for the good things of life, and greatly increased confidence, grew. This tied in with the increased confidence of the whole working class as it fought in a rapidly escalating strike wave for a better deal.

Some pointers were the refusal of school leavers to take “shit” jobs despite lengthening dole queues, the increasing questioning of authority which made classes so much harder to teach than in the earlier post-war period, the constant demands and questionings as to why things needed to be done. The frequent intimations that the pupil’s ideas, and the pupil her/himself, was just as good as your ideas and you. This was very different from the total, if unwilling, acceptance of inferior status of secondary modern pupils before comprehensives came in.

Thus, while it was true that people were not achieving anything near what they were capable of and standards were really far too low, the fact was that they did rise. Comprehensive schooling and the modicum of self-respect its innovations gave pupils shut blatant authority up and made it speak in more egalitarian tones on social issues, no matter what it thought.

With industry booming, expanded education for working class children posed no threat to those in power. If they were beginning to get an education which, in some respects, was similar to that usually reserved for “grammar school pupils” then it didn’t matter too much. If some of the things they learnt at school made them less malleable at work, then a pay rise was preferable to an extended strike.

And then the boom went bust. The state decided it was unable to preserve education in the manner to which it had become accustomed. The technological revolution had sought to distil the tiny handful of elite technologists out of an expanded education system.

It meanwhile did something else which rebounded in contradictory fashion. By getting rid of the jobs of thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers and reducing the skills needed for the jobs which served the new technology to tasks a child of 12 could do, it lowered the qualifications working class School leavers needed. Nor, for hundreds of thousands of school leavers, were there any jobs at all. So the slump brought an overproduction of education, and costs had to be cut. With the excess products being human beings, not goods, they could not be dumped, burnt or sunk – though some might have welcomed the possibility. Instead wings had to be clipped, and the space opened up, slammed shut.

Baker’s comment on his Act was “an historic reform representing the culmination often years of debate.” He is almost accurate. In 1976 James Callaghan, Labour’s new Prime Minister, started the Great Education Debate with a speech whose main themes were to make education more amenable to business interests and to cut costs.

It was this speech, not the baying of the Black Paper supporters, which started to make the attack on progressive education respectable. Business interests with falling profits were different to earlier booming business interests. What’s more, the kids had become far too cocky – they even went on strike in London in 1974! Shirley Williams, education minister at the time, started the education debates going in different parts of the country, a major section of those invited being businessmen.

It was not easy going. Gains made die hard, and there are still many schools which cling to egalitarian ideas and methods. That Baker intends by his Act to smash once and for all. His testing programme will make children fail from the age of seven. Which children will they be? Already the chances of a manual worker’s child being a poor reader at age seven are six times greater than those of a professional’s child, and of being a non-reader 15 times greater.

So there is no doubt which children will be branded from the tender age of seven. The core curriculum will hem in the aspirations of the rest. With the new reactionary government so strong and ideology so rightward moving, he may succeed. Unless the working class fights to stop him.

Backward with Baker

Curriculum testing

THE NATIONAL foundation curriculum will account for up to 90 percent of teaching time. Included will be English, maths and science, also technology, history/geography, a modern foreign language, art/music/drama/design and physical education. It is intended, as a Department of Education and Science spokesman said, to exclude “clutter such as peace studies” (!) simply by not allowing time. At grave risk are multi-racial education, health studies including sex education and social studies, subjects which schools have developed over many years. Also at risk are cultural subjects which are given hardly more than a couple of hours in the week.

All children are to be put through nationally prescribed tests, probably on the same day, at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16, the scores achieved to be published by school, Local Education Authority, and for the country as a whole.

This buries completely the vast body of literature and government reports written throughout the 60s. Crowther, Robbins, Plowden, Newsome and others showed how “equality of opportunity” was totally denied by just one test, the 11-plus. Its concomitant of segregated schools and streaming resulted in a massive waste of human resources and in particular working class resources.

Open access

“OPEN ACCESS” brings market forces into play in education by allowing parents to choose any school they wish. This sounds democratic but its main purpose is a huge cost-cutting exercise.

Parents will be influenced by the league table of schools built out of the published results of the annual tests, which will have top schools in middle class areas and bottom schools in working class areas. The middle class children will flock to these, the schools being obliged to enrol on demand up to their full capacity. Travel and other difficulties will make it much harder for working class children to move.’

The unpopular schools, i.e. working class schools, will decline further in quality and enrolment figures. Those which enrol more than 20 percent below their 1979 intake or fail in any other way, will be subject to closure.

Without extra funding of this chaotic shake-up, material and human resources will have to be taken from the unpopular to the popular schools, hastening the decline of the former. “Open access” can thus lead to a very doubtful extension of choice to middle class children, but a severe limitation to working class children.

Opting out and devolution of powers

THIS ALLOWS schools to opt out of LEA control for direct government grant-maintained status on the vote of a majority of parents who actually vote (the voting parents being inevitably a minority).

The opting out of schools, together with the intended devolution of powers and funding from LEAs to individual schools means that if a school needed more money and was refused by the government, the head’s alternative would be to say to parents: “Now you will pay fees”, and he would be free to do so.

There are already wholesale moves for parents to pay for ‘extras’ like swimming, music, etc. The talk is of payment for travel to sports and other school events. The privatisation mania will extend to school services

The devolution of powers is very much intended to reinforce capitalist hierarchical values. The head’s boss’s powers are much enhanced, and his new control of the funds gives him open, effective power to control the school. Without any training for management, and very busy, he is bound to find contracting out of services easier, certainly cheaper, than negotiating wages and conditions with cleaners, porters etc. His hiring and firing duties will play havoc with long fought for procedures built up over many years.

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Last updated: 12.8.2013