Identifying the attacks on state education

There isn’t a week that goes by when some Tory or their pals in the press are complaining about the state education system. Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of excuses from the Right with regards to state education but none as feeble as those dreamt up by Gove and the authors of The Plan, Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell. For them and so many other right-wingers, state education teaches children nothing and they identify the history syllabus as one of the prime suspects. Into this discourse they have smuggled in notions such as parental choice. Gove designed the free school to subvert and erode the state system. I shall return to Hannan and Carswell later.

If we go back to the beginning of the comprehensive education system we can see why the Tories are so adamant that it should be destroyed. In the years before the comprehensive system, pupils were required to take the 11 plus exam. A pass meant advancement to a local grammar school, failure meant going to the local secondary modern, secondary technical school or an art school, if you were lucky. The comprehensive system was supposed to level the playing field and perhaps this is what the Right hates about it the most. The Tories have demanded the reinstatement of grammar schools, not because they will lead to greater social mobility, as they erroneously claim, but because they (the Tories) are devoted entirely to nostalgia.

Policy Exchange’s Neil O’Brien is, as you’d expect, a champion of Pob’s harebrained education policies. Writing in the Torygraph on May 1, 2012, he says,

Lots of people have written about the blistering pace of Michael Gove’s school reforms. Half of secondary schools are now either academies, or on their way to becoming so. The programme started in 2002, but by April 2010, just before the election, there were 203 academies, as of 1 April 2012, 1,641 out of a total of 3,261 secondary schools were academies.
That’s an impressive rate of change. Lots of them are schools “converting” to academy status. Some people – particularly on the on the left – want the government to focus more on “classic” sponsored academies, where a failing school is shut and replaced with a new one. That’s an important model, and it is good that Gove has responded by announcing a shut-and-replace programme for failing primary schools.

Let’s deal first with this idea that schools that sign up for academy status will be better than those that remain in the state system. Many academies are actually Pupil Referral Units and, because of their nature, these places have a high turnover of pupils. It’s easy, therefore, to claim that you’re meeting targets when the pupil cohort changes from week-to-week. The second thing that needs to be dealt with is this focus on “classical” education. This idea has been borrowed extensively from the public schools with their focus on Latin and the Classics and it’s easy to see why: those who propose this model have either attended public schools or wished they had gone to one (Toby Young). But how well would such schools serve their pupils? Will they have the same advantages as their counterparts in the public schools? Unlikely, that’s down to such things as social and economic capital. If your family has a deficit of these kinds of capital then you can forget about social and professional advancement. If you go for a job in, say, the media, and the kid next to you has been to Marlborough College and you’ve been to a local academy or free school, guess which one out of the pair of you is going to land the job? You’ve guessed it; it isn’t going to be you.

Doc Stanley, also writing in the Telegraph, is pleased with Gove’s ‘reforms’, he gushes,

But they also promise to raise standards and, with the hint of more vocational learning, make us competitive again with our European partners. Anyone who has worked in education can confirm that all too often the learning process has been reduced to meeting targets in fields of knowledge that feel removed from students’ lives. Hopefully we can now say “goodbye” to the straightjackets of silly, wooly GCSEs that were approached with all the educational rigour of a Sudoku and “hello” to a more nuanced system better designed for the individual’s needs and aspirations. And the fact is that O-levels were tougher and, therefore, more internationally respected.

Along with free schools and academies, Gove wants to resurrect long-dead qualifications. The ‘O’ Level, as Stanley asserts, is “tougher”. Of course, all those who are in favour of a return to the ‘O’ Level have conveniently forgotten that it was their idol, Margaret Thatcher, who abolished it and replaced it with GCSEs in the 1980s.

But it is the assertion that state school pupils cannot “write their own names” or identify the capital of this country or that, which appears to be the Right’s main line of attack. While they assume that those who have been to state schools are inferior to those in the public schools, it is worth considering those public school pupils who leave with poor qualifications but still end up with a top job in the Cittie.

This files in the face of the assertion that all those pupils who go to public school will be smarter than those who did not. All they have is a level of articulacy that is greater than their counterparts elsewhere and it is this that they to use to mask their poor intellects.

Martin Stephen the former “High Master” of the prestigious St. Paul’s School in Barnes airs his prejudices,

I thought it was immoral that so many parents were denied their first choice of school. I thought it was immoral that one of the richest countries in the world, and one which spends billions on its schools, cannot even get its pupils in the Top 10 of the international league tables. I thought it was immoral that unions’ knee-jerk reaction to any criticism is to defend the status quo, and that so rarely, if ever, have they themselves led the drive to raise standards. I thought it was immoral that the unions have never accepted that it is in their and their members’ interests to drive bad teachers out of the profession, instead of just complaining when their inaction leaves the Secretary of State for Education no option other than to do it. I thought moral professional associations such as the British Medical Association and the Law Society recognised that they had a duty the patient and the client that they received good service, so did not have to leave it to Government to strike out of the profession members who failed to meet high standards in their treatment of the patient, the client – or the parent and child. I thought it was immoral that the unions seemed always to listen to their members, and not to the parent or the child. I thought it was immoral to think that schools existed for teachers, when the truth (and sometimes a very painful truth) was that teachers and schools exist for the child.

This whole idea of “choice” is misleading: if a school is full, then there are, by definition, no more places on offer. In other words, if you wanted to get your kid into that school, then you should have pulled your finger out long ago and put in the necessary effort. Here, Stephen, like the rest of the Right, blames the unions for the alleged failures of the state system. He also suggests that the state sector is full of “bad teachers”. What Stephen doesn’t dare mention is the fact that teachers in the state system are paid less than their counterparts in public school, have to work with larger classes and are over-burdened with paperwork. Now who is to blame for that? I think it’s only fair to point out that Stephen, as well as being High Master of St Paul’s, was educated at Uppingham, a public school in Rutland. He is also the chairman of Clarendon Academies Group and is the Director of Education at GEMS Education.

Those who constantly attack the state school system do so, almost always, from a position of privilege. Hannan and Carswell spend a great deal of time lambasting the state system but both of them went to public school: Hannan went to Marlborough and Carswell went to Charterhouse. Their understanding of the state education system is entirely based upon a cultural relativism, which is informed by their social class. Therefore their attacks on the state school system are little more than a poorly-disguised form of class disgust. I would further argue that neither author has had any direct experience of the system that they criticize. Yet they feel that they are in a position to pass judgement on a system that they know nothing about. Hannan and Carswell’s book has formed the template for a variety of insane government policies and you can bet that if this government remains in power after 2015, then education vouchers will be introduced.

Applied to the field of education, the traditional voucher scheme may be likened to the mass privatisations of the Thatcher years. The equivalent of the sale of council homes would be to give every parent with school-age children the right to demand, from his local authority, the sum that it would spent on his child, and to take that sum where he pleases.

Great in theory but in practice, it’s unworkable and will only lead to a two tier system where those parents who cannot afford ‘choice’ will have no option but to accept a lower standard of education for their children. This is known as social Darwinism where I come from. Hannan and Carswell aren’t interested in such things and tell us.

Opponents of parental choice might argue that parents are not always best qualified to exercise choice. While we do not accept this argument, it is certainly the case that if responsibility is taken away from people, they behave less responsibly. Parents have, by and large, been denied responsibility for their child’s education, with too many decisions made for them in our ‘like-it-or-lump-it’ education system.

Hyperbole and guff. This is not a “like-it-or-lump-it” educational system; it is a geographical arrangement that is designed to produce some notion of fairness. While it is not ideal, it is not necessarily an entirely flawed system either. It is assumed that, like other services provided by public institutions, education is a marketable commodity and that the entire educational system should be subjected to this process of reification in order to magically transform it into a ‘product’.

We also need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of school. The current educational system, as it is arranged, perpetuates class divisions. Gramsci (2001) would argue that the current system and the one proposed, reinforces and reproduces the hegemony of the dominant culture. The public schools of Britain existed to reproduce the ruling class and its values. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, education was outside the means of the peasantry and the urban proletariat and they were thus excluded from the political structures of the country. The aim should not be to create a system of reinforced inequalities but to create a decent state educational system for everyone regardless of class. Free schools and academies are nothing less than cash cows for friends of the government.

Carswell, D. and Hannan, D. (2008), The Plan – Twelve Months to Renew Britain. London: Self-published

Gramsci, Antonio (2001), Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.


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