Review of new pamphlet from the Socialist Education Association

Robin Richardson

Image© Keith Edkins

‘We hold,’ say the Tories and Lib Dems with their actions, though not with their exact words unless behind closed doors, ‘this truth to be self-evident, that human beings are born unequal.’  They continue – again with deeds rather than with explicit policy discourse – along lines such as the following: ‘It is urgent that we should return the education system to the essential role which it always played in the past, which is to prepare children and their parents for inequality, and to accept and appreciate inequality. Those who deserve to prosper will do so, for our desire is simply to set people  free from state intervention and control. Those who do not deserve to prosper, due to their lack of intelligence, energy or aspirations, will be treated with compassion, in so far as resources permit. But basically we say to them, tough, that’s life. In these various ways we are making the world safe for capitalism in its neoliberal variety. Everyone will benefit, of course, even if some do not yet realise this.’

Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, namely the Labour Party, broadly agrees with this Tory and Lib Dem worldview so far as education is concerned, or anyway has nothing useful or inspiring to say against it.

Some of the more obvious cruelties, follies and idiocies of the Tory-led coalition in the field of education since 2010 have been successfully resisted. The Tory baccalaureate has been put in cold storage, for example, and the sillier suggestions for a new national curriculum have been dropped, following widespread scorn and derision amongst practising teachers. Mr Gove is still licking the wounds inflicted by the disgrace of being judged unlawful under equalities legislation when he axed the building schools for the future (BSF) programme.

But the drive towards Oxbridge-centred elitism, and towards marketisation and privatisation, has continued unabated; potential opposition in local authorities and universities has been systematically and ruthlessly dismantled; the public sector equality duty (PSED) has been cavalierly and contemptuously disregarded. Almost daily, the conservative press applauds and cheers as Mr Gove and his henchmen Mr Laws and Mr Clegg career madly on their way. The Labour Party says next to nothing.

It is in this context that the Socialist Education Association launches its pamphlet entitled Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised, sub-titled The reality behind the rhetoric: essays on the current crisis. There are seven brief essays altogether.

First, Greta Akpenye recalls the values, principles and ideals which were embodied in the move towards comprehensive secondary education in the 1960s and 1970s, and its consolidation in the 1980s. She refers to teacher-led curriculum planning, school-based development and action research, the supportive and inspiring role of the Schools Council, the embracing of multiculturalism, the resolution at grassroots levels to deal with inequalities of gender, race and class. ‘The comprehensivation project,’ she writes, ‘was a change desired by professionals, parents and politicians’, whereas ‘academies are a construct of the political right, a method of sustaining elitism and discrimination and of privatising our schools, ultimately creating moneymaking instruments.’

There are then essays by Tim Brighouse and Geoff Whitty about Mr Gove’s disrespect for teachers’ professionalism, his indifference to teachers’ need for expert initial training and continuing professional development, his failure to plan the overall provision of teachers, and the lack of sound evidence for his new School Direct programme. ‘Teaching is a complicated business,’ observes Brighouse, ‘and you must have time to reflect on the pedagogical processes involved.’ Whitty refers to the ‘extraordinary outburst’ from Gove earlier this year when he castigated most educational theorists as, in a phrase he borrowed from Cyril Connelly, ‘enemies of promise’.

Next, Michael Bassey reviews the academies programme. He summarises the research evidence that shows that when like is compared with like the first generation of academies (‘the Blair academies’, as they are sometimes known) have done no better than those which chose to stay with their local authority.  He also points out that academies use admissions and exclusions to manage and massage their place in league tables, that academies often have very little freedom in practice to create and develop their curricula, and that the dog-eat-dog nature of Tory policy means that the most vulnerable communities and neighbourhoods are those which suffer most from the programme.

An essay by David Patchett scrutinises the use which Gove and Laws make of references to Finland, and shows with a wealth of detail that their misleading rhetoric is undermined by stark reality. We have a lot to learn from Finland, he acknowledges, but it’s absolutely not what Gove and Laws claim. ‘Making sustainable changes in education,’ he points out, ‘requires deep and long-term involvement of all interested groups, not party political diktats. In recent decades UK reforms have been based on top-down measures in a context of high social inequality.’ Finally, Richard Hatcher discusses the signs and signals that the coalition government is planning to privatise state-funded education, and shows how extremely narrow and unsatisfactory the new curricula in a privatised system are likely to be. At the same time he imagines the education system harnessing the potential of a ‘free–to use online bank of educational resources’. Such a bank would be, he says, part of ‘a non-profit curriculum commonwealth … growing and developing to meet the needs of learners, and arising organically out of and complementing, not replacing, the work of teachers in classrooms.’ He asks: ‘Is Labour up to the challenge?’

The collection as a whole is edited, introduced and concluded by Trevor Fisher. ‘There are two years to go,’ he reminds the reader, ‘to an election whose outcome is unpredictable’. He stresses that the issues discussed in the pamphlet are urgent and require focused and engaged debate. SEA offers these essays, he says, as a stimulus to active and purposive thinking. Hopefully the pamphlet will be successful in this endeavour, though no doubt in alliance with other stimuli as well, of course.

What Revolution, and Why, and Where Heading? – review of Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised, Socialist Education Association, 32 pp, £1.50, June 2013

The Gove Revolution Scrutinised can be obtained from Socialist Educational Association, Viewpoint, PO Box 3599, Stafford ST16 9RD, price £1.50 including post and packing.

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