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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 September 2003

What's the socialist alternative for education?

THE START of the new academic year has coincided with the annual furore over exam results, in this case both 'A' levels and GCSEs. This has focused attention on what the purpose of education should be and what it actually is under this system.

Bob Sulatycki

State education has been an historic gain for the working class and socialists support and defend every reform won. But we also understand that education under this system is used in the interests of the capitalist system.

This explains the criticism about the number of 'A' level passes which has reached a record high this year. Many right-wing commentators have argued that this shows the exam has been devalued.

In fact what these critics are doing is trying to revise and tighten up an exam system which has always been used to ration out the university places and jobs at the top of society.

As one senior education civil servant explained in the mid 1970s: "There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which increasingly society cannot match."

Damian Green, the Tory shadow education minister, made this view explicit when he argued that the numbers achieving top grades at 'A' level made it impossible for universities to select the students in the way they would like.

At the same time, the GCSE results show an increasing number of pupils failing to achieve any grade. This reflects the growing disaffection amongst a layer of working-class students with the education system as it is currently organised.

The issue of exams raises the whole nature of the education under capitalism, through which the majority of working class students are selected out of the few places at the top of the system's ladder.

Time and again research projects have demonstrated that exam success is largely determined by social class. The education establishment argue that pupils only achieve low grades either because they haven't worked hard enough or because the teaching is poor.

In fact in-depth research carried out in London in 1995 showed the correlation between schools and education authorities with high pass rates at GCSE and low numbers of pupils taking free school meals.

Free school meals are a key indicator of poverty.

This doesn't mean that working class children are inherently stupid neither does it mean that children from wealthy backgrounds are inherently clever.

What it does mean is that the reality of being working class acts as a handicap in 101 different ways. Factors such as lack of books and equipment, lack of quiet space, diet and health factors, lack of sleep, lack of travel opportunities and more likelihood of parents working irregular hours and shifts, decreasing their interaction with their children all act to hold working class pupils back.

These are the material reasons why education in Britain today is geared against working class children even though some, through extraordinary efforts, might buck the system.

Indeed, even if all schools were equally funded comprehensives, which they are not, such factors would still assert themselves.

'Public' schools

Of course schools aren't equally funded and there isn't real comprehensive education. In Britain there is the very important factor of the independent schools, the misnamed 'public' schools which are attended by around 7% of pupils.

At these schools the pupil-teacher ratios are on average 45% better than state schools and spending per pupil on buildings and equipment is on average five times higher.

These businesses also benefit by being deemed charities, so they receive enormous direct and indirect tax subsidies.

Even within the state sector there are huge disparities between different areas and different schools within the same geographical areas.

Overall funding has not increased under New Labour. Two years into a Labour government, spending on education fell to just 4.5% of GDP, the lowest proportion for forty years.

Spending has risen slightly since then, but the extra money hasn't made a difference in most schools.

This additional funding has been used in pet projects such as the misnamed 'Excellence in Cities' scheme. Some of this spending also goes on inflated salaries for head teachers and extra money for a few specialist schools.

There is a mounting financial crisis looming in schools - partly foreshadowed by the numbers of redundancies made in the summer term. That looming financial crisis helps to explain why the government is so keen to press ahead with the so-called 'remodelling' exercise, which will enable the employment of thousands of classroom assistants who will in effect be cheap labour, replacing qualified teachers.

Socialists must also not ignore what is actually taught in the curriculum. The National Curriculum, introduced by the Tories and uncritically inherited by New Labour, rigidly controls what is taught.

So we have seen the introduction of measures like the literacy hour.

Such initiatives, which are very unpopular with teachers because of their poor educational value, have coincided with a catastrophic drop in reading amongst young people - a correlation noted by many children's authors.

Such measures are linked to the SATS testing system. In Britain children are likely to sit twice as many compulsory tests by the time they leave school compared to any other country in Europe.

Primary and secondary schools feel forced to take measures to ensure their SATS results are good in order to improve their league table position. The league table position dictates their pupil intake and also their funding.

The consequence of this has been an increasing disparity between so-called 'succeeding' schools and so-called 'failing' schools. Increasingly schools select pupils - in practice middle-class pupils - who they feel will boost the school's standing in the league tables.

This particularly applies to church schools where head teachers have been found to use interviews with the prospective parents and pupils to ensure they are bright enough to fit in with the school's aspirations, rather than to discuss the pupil or the family's religious conviction.

Invariably such schools receive good reports from Ofsted, the government's school inspection service. Research has shown that it's seven times more likely for a school in an inner city area to fail their Ofsted than in a leafy suburb or in a rural area.

In fact Ofsted is part of the problem. Since its introduction over ten years ago it has played a pernicious role as an ideological tool against comprehensive education.

Recent research conducted by the University of Newcastle, which examined GCSE results between 1992 and 1997 found that: "Ofsted has no positive effect on examination achievement.

"If anything it made it worse." They found: "Inspection had a consistent negative effect on achievement, depressing it by about half of a percentage point.

"This effect persisted during the period studied."

Ofsted costs the public purse £197 million a year, a lot of money being spent on an institution that lowers standards.

A recent trend has been the increasing lack of democracy in schools. Schools are more and more frequently run by unaccountable headteachers who pay lip service to the opinions of parents, teaching and non-teaching staff and school students.

One of the underlying features of current education policy, which is as true under New Labour as it was under the Tories, is the disaffection of teachers.

Ofsted themselves have noted that 40% of teachers leave the profession within three years of qualification.

On the Ranting Teacher website there is a cynical but accurate view of the state of the profession: "Talking of lying...

"it's almost compulsory at job interviews, especially to the question 'why do you enjoy teaching?'"

Only through policies that can unite staff, parents and school students in a struggle for better-resourced non-selective comprehensive schools can we begin to claw back what has been lost over the last 20 years of ill-thought out and reactionary Tory policies in education.

For more on a socialist programme for education see the Socialist Party teachers' website:

What's the socialist alternative for education?

SOCIALISTS STAND for free, high quality education for all, from nursery to university. We call for a massive increase in public spending to provide the increased staffing, smaller class sizes, good quality resources needed to ensure the best education and individual support for every child.

To recruit and retain teachers, there should be an immediate end to performance pay, a minimum 20% non-contact time for teachers and significant pay rises for all school staff.

There should be a campaign to recruit greater numbers of Black and Asian teachers and to expand mother tongue provision.

Private-sector involvement in running schools and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) should be ended. Teachers should be employed through fully democratic LEAs run by elected representatives, subject to recall, including school teachers and non-teaching staff, parents, local trade unionists, community organisations and secondary school students.

Schools should also be run by similar democratic governing committees. Headteachers should be elected.

To allow more working-class parents to become involved, governors should receive paid time-off to attend governors meetings during the day. Adequate time must be allowed for trade union organisation and for school students to develop their own unions.

Selection on any grounds, be it by ability, aptitude or religion, should be abolished. All schools, including church and fee-paying public schools, should be brought under local democratic control.

We stand for a democratically planned equitable admissions policy based on genuinely comprehensive, co-educational, neighbourhood schools.

The present national curriculum must be abolished together with Ofsted inspections and compulsory religious education. Pupils of all backgrounds and abilities should experience a lively, relevant, broad and balanced, polytechnical education.

It should be based on a class analysis of society, emphasising anti-racist education and working-class struggle.

We must abolish SATs and school league tables. There will be a role for diagnostic testing and moderated teacher assessment but a socialist education system will be based on learning and attainment rather than exams.

Abridged from Education in Class Society, by Martin Powell-Davies in Socialism Today, Issue 62.


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In The Socialist 20 September 2003:

Iraq: How Many More Lies?

Defend Anti-War Protesters

NHS -Yet more lies

Action Against Killing for Profit

Postal Workers' Ballot Narrowly Lost

Interview with CWU leader Dave Ward: Challenging Royal Mail's Accounts

Press Release: Joe Higgins TD (MP) and Councillor Clare Daly Jailed

WTO Wounded But Capitalist Exploitation Still Rules

What's the socialist alternative for education?

Liverpool: The City That Fought Back

Sweden: Historic Vote Routs The Political Establishment

Israeli/Palestinian conflict

TUC Congress 2003


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