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From The Socialist newspaper, 14 December 2016

What kind of education?

Primary school teacher, photo US Department of Education (Creative Commons)

Primary school teacher, photo US Department of Education (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge)

What kind of education should we be fighting for? Teacher and Socialist Party member James Kerr asks how we might change schooling from a chore to a truly vibrant, nurturing part of life.

Teacher trade unionists have been engaged in a bitter struggle to defend education. The next few years will see further battles over school funding and teacher workload, among other things.

As socialists, though, we don't simply see our role as a defensive one, but to offer a way out of the chaos: a socialist education programme. "Education for the masses," as the popular demonstration slogan goes. This requires examining the current education system under capitalism.

"Why are we doing this?" A familiar question we hear as teachers when students embark on a task in school. Sometimes there is no easy answer, or we know that the reply is probably "because the exam board demands we do."

Teachers use every trick in their repertoire to make the subject matter engaging and meaningful, but the reality is that what is demanded of students can often be viewed as abstract and irrelevant.

Counter-reforms

This has been exacerbated by recent education counter-reforms. For example, under Michael Gove, the teaching of history in primary schools moved to a linear model.

Previously, students had started their learning of history 'closest to them', studying World War Two. This enabled some to discuss with grandparents and other adults who had lived through it, understanding their family history and placing their own lives in the context of world history.

They developed an understanding of the 'concept' of history as well as the content. It wasn't without flaws, but was more meaningful than beginning with the Neolithic period and working forward like they do now.

Is it a surprise that this is one of the characteristics of the school system under capitalism?

Karl Marx explained that workers can experience a feeling of estrangement from their own humanity, 'alienation', as a result of their mechanical role in production. This alienation is of course present within the school system too, as students complete abstract tasks, preparing them for a life in work.

The class system in capitalism is reflected in the education system. The vast majority of judges, politicians, military officers, journalists, executives and so on come from the tiny number of elite private schools and universities.

This suits capitalism well. The bosses benefit from an education system which can produce an able next generation of workers, but also avoids encouraging challenges to the inequality of class-based society.

However, this is a fine balance for them to strike. It prompted Friedrich Engels, Marx's collaborator, to state that "the capitalist class has little to hope, and much to fear, from the education of the working class."

In fighting for socialism we cannot simply see our role as tinkering with the capitalists' system. We should fight to revolutionise the education system, to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Despite many 'innovations' over the years, has the education system really been transformed? The blackboards may be gone, but is the PowerPoint projector not just a jazzed-up version? Opportunities to create more active learning opportunities have often not been developed, and will be further sidelined with the impact of school funding cuts.

We are left in many cases with what pioneering educator Paulo Freire described as 'banking education'. Knowledge from an all-knowing 'expert' is deposited into the student, rather than learning coming from dialogue, debate and criticism.

The freedom for teachers and students to explore their interests and follow tangents is restricted by a rigid curriculum. In some schools now there is an expectation that teachers should be at the same stage of the same lesson simultaneously, regardless of the class in the room or what discussion might throw up.

In 2017 we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution, where many of these same questions confronted the Bolsheviks as they fought to build a new society. The old 'book school' of the Tsar was to be replaced; innovation and experimentation was to be encouraged.

Polytechnical

One area where much attention was directed was around the introduction of 'polytechnical education', an approach long-discussed within the Marxist movement. Put simply, polytechnical education foregrounded the importance of human labour and production in the learning process.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, gives the example of the study of electricity involving regular visits and lessons within a power station. This enables students to see electricity not as an abstract concept, but an integral part of the modern society they live in.

There are numerous opportunities in society for learning to be approached in this way and not confined to a set time period within the school building. The school could become the organiser of a student's learning, rather than its only provider.

Finland plans to replace rigidly defined subjects in the next few years with more thematic learning. This will provide interesting opportunities for study and discussion. Finnish students will take courses like 'Working in an English café' in order to learn a range of skills and concepts within a 'real life' situation.

It is important here to not confuse the arguments for a rich and varied learning experience with those for a purely 'vocational education'.

There can be a tendency for often well-meaning arguments to be made for alternative provision for students who are deemed not to be 'academic'. This effectively means preparing young people for a set employment path as a specialist in a particular area.

We should argue for young people to be introduced to a variety of practical skills and to experience real work situations, but not be deprived of learning in other areas. People should have the opportunity to develop as rounded human beings and the education system should support that. This is an important facet of the fight against the Tories' proposed expansion of grammar schools, and also campaigns to defend and extend adult education.

Learning should be open to all, throughout life, and not just as a crash course prior to employment.

Play

These debates rage around the education of some of our youngest students too. Any good early-years teacher will tell you that much of students' early learning comes through play - through playing roles and experimenting with ideas as part of a social interaction with others.

Even in early years, that approach is under threat from standardised testing - a similar theme running through education - but it should form the basis of all learning. Students' creativity and curiosity should be given a forum to be explored throughout life.

Some of these ideas are present within the independent sector, like the Montessori Schools. They should be trialled and introduced within state education, under democratic working class control and management.

For these ideas to bear fruit, a fundamental change in the running of education would be required.

Schools would need greater autonomy to experiment and embed teaching methods which worked, and this would require genuine democracy. The day-to-day running of schools would need the input of elected teachers, students and representatives from the local community to ensure schools served the whole community.

A massive injection of funding would be required to train the number of teachers necessary to bring down class sizes, and allow for the teaching approaches previously discussed. With proper funding, schools could become hubs of their community; open to all, to provide wide-ranging, high-quality education, plus clubs, trips and other community functions.

While fighting to defend past gains, we will continue to look ahead to a future where no one's left counting the days until the school holidays.

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In The Socialist 14 December 2016:


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A socialist programme for education

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Education for all - not exam factories


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Comment and review

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