As working people want the best for their children, and they are not getting it, this article will present some insights into our present ‘educational’ system. These insights should help towards an understanding of why the education of Britain’s working-class children doesn’t live up to its billing. It will be followed up by a few examples of its implementation in the sphere of state education. Knowledge is powerful, that’s why those who presently rule British society don’t want us to have it. From birth to death, working people meet subtle and not so subtle forms of coercion, many of which are intended to get them to accept the authority and discipline of the capitalist status-quo.
This article will show how society and the economic system has an influence on education. It will give a brief history of state education in Britain and how it meets the needs of the capitalist economy. The influence of US educational methods will then be examined. We then see how this translates into practice in the classroom and how this influence is intended to curtail the working-class child’s curiosity about the world around them and lead them to accept things at face value without questioning. In addition, we’ll look at other influences, such as: how the subjects are taught; class sizes; and the attitudes of teachers to working class students. Finally, an alternative approach to education is shown.
Education should not be considered in isolation from the rest of society. In the 1960’s the working class was relatively strong. There was a low level of unemployment and a fairly strong trade union movement, particularly at the shop steward level. Social protest movements were on the rise in other parts of the world and on a global level colonial people were rebelling against imperialism. The US government and its underling, the UK government, were starting to realise that military intervention in these situations was often costlier and less effective than subtler, ideological approaches. It is against this background that we see grafted onto the state ‘education’ sector in Britain a number of imports from the USA. The grafts altered the form of the state ‘education’ and made it appear more open, but because it remained under the control of a ruling class hostile to working class hopes, it remained essentially the same. It was just less obvious; it camouflaged its restrictive practices.
It is not known generally to the public at large in Britain, that it was the introduction of state education for working-class children in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century which drove the British ruling class to set up its own system of state education for working class children. One of the main reasons that the German capitalist economy grew so much in the late 19th and early twentieth century was that it had access to an educated workforce. Driven by the fear of how German capitalist expansion could threaten their dominance, the British ruling class reluctantly decided that it, too, had to introduce state sponsored education but only of the elementary type. Starting in 1880, attendance was compulsory at these elementary schools for children aged 5 to 10, and by the 1893 it included those aged 11 to 13.
Overwhelmingly the pupils at these elementary schools were children of the working class, and as such they were fed a limited diet which fitted them only for the needs of local capitalism. From their founding, until around 1960, these schools instilled into schoolchildren the acceptance of the social hierarchy by the means of the ‘stick’ and ‘carrot’ approach to discipline. This twofold approach used to physical repression for anything that infringements of school rules, this enforced by the cane and the thrown blackboard rubber. the use of the ‘stick’ and the ‘carrot’ method
On the one hand there was the ideological, this was instilling into the pupil a misplaced pride in Empire, and on the other hand
Since the end of the World War 2 (WW2) open or overt discrimination against children of the working class has been gradually replaced by a form of discrimination that is more hidden, more covert. This subtler form of discrimination was introduced because, in general, parents after WW2 were determined that their child’s education would be better than their own.
Since the end of WW2 three different methodologies have been used in state sponsored schools for children aged eleven and over. In the first period after WW2, the methodology took the form of Grammar and Secondary schools, and, in the more backward areas, 11 to 15 County Primary schools. In the mid-1960s came the Comprehensive schools, which except for a few counties which kept Grammar and Secondary schools, were amalgamations of these schools. Lastly, and this is the period this article will concentrate on, is the period beginning 1981 to the present. This period has seen the later form of ‘Comprehensive’ and now ‘Academy education’.
From the initial ‘educational’ set-up to the form of the present one, where compulsory education lasts until the pupil/student is 16 years old, working class children have continued to face different forms of a restricted ‘education’. As the British economy has changed over time, so in each stage of its development those that are paid to control the education system have attempted to produce a populace restricted to an educational level required by this economy. In other words, the form and the content of ‘education’ undergone by the employed classes has been directly related to the level required by the employers; that is, its basis has been limited to what is “needed to be known” and no more.
Early examples of this process of this would be for the schools to turn out young men and women intended for the factories, the mines and the farm. Later examples of this process would be the turning out of young men and women for warehouse distribution and fast food outlets, etc. In all periods though, a tiny fraction of students is skimmed off, given a higher, but still limited form of education, with the intention of inculcating them with petty bourgeois and bourgeois prejudices. These are the few who have somehow managed to pass through all the set hoops and over the hurdles which have managed to handicap the rest.
Although, it occurred earlier on a smaller scale, from the beginning of the 1980s to the present day, there has been continual flow of educational ‘academics’ travelling between Britain and the USA, but only a one-way flow of ideas and ‘initiatives’, that from the USA. The outcome of this one-way traffic has been that the schools in the secondary/comprehensive sector and now the ‘academies’ financed by the state have been copying an American system of ‘education.’ See Appendix – ‘Education via the USA and the National Curriculum’.
Education that leads to knowledge outside the boundaries set by British capitalism is regarded as dangerous by those that oversee the education of the mass of the population. So, in order for those who are subject to this system of ‘education’ not to feel resentful about the lack of access to a more fully rounded and accessible education, those that oversee this limited form of ‘education’ have turned the whole matter on its head. Turning the matter on its head means making the pupil/student feel it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, for the grades they get from an ‘educational’ programme which is actually designed for most to fail. As far as those that oversee ‘education’ here are concerned, we live in a hierarchical society, and so it must remain.
The key period in which the pupils/students search for knowledge is sabotaged by the ‘educational’ system is in the age group 11 to 16. In this age group, the pupil/student and their parents are made to feel that the school system provides many choices, but what choices are taken, and what levels they achieve are down to the abilities of the pupil/student themselves, i.e. ‘they decide on their way forward’. However, as will be explained later in the article, concealed within the way the curriculum is taught are the means by which the desire to gain a wider knowledge of the world ceases to be the goal of the pupil/student. It is the application of the curriculum which renders learning useless and boring to them. The irony is, that this method of thwarting the early curiosity of the school age child is the so-called programme of “Child-Centred-Education” imported from the USA. Details of this methodology will be given later in the article.
Even though class sizes are much too large, during the years at Primary school, the children, on the whole, are allowed to be inquisitive, as educational research has shown that hardly anything can stop a child’s inquisitiveness during this period. Secondary school education on the other hand, is a different matter altogether. This is available to pupils/students up to the age of eighteen in Britain. The ‘education’ provided during the age of 11 to 16 is narrow in content, and the ‘knowledge’ given is expected to be taken at face value. For although questioning within set bounds is permissible, going beyond them and having the initiative to look beyond these limits is not.
Education appears to open up a little more from 17 to 18, but these students, in fact, face another variation of an ‘education’ which points them to a vision of the world suitable for the needs of capitalism.
Subjects such as history and geography are taught in such a way as to make pupils/students accept a one-sided view of events. History, in particular, is taught as though there is no debate about the past. In this subject, as in others, to pass exams the pupils must conform to the prescribed wisdom without question, otherwise they simply don’t pass. This approach is intended to give pupils/students a mindset which they take with them into later life. Psychology is being used here to habituate the pupil/student to accept without question not only the received ‘wisdom’ given out at school but what they see on TV or read in the newspaper. Force of habit is being used here to block out a questioning attitude. In fact, most of the views given by the media hide the class-based reality behind events. If, as parents, we understand the psychological trick being played on our children, then we are halfway there to combatting it.
The following 5 points show just some of the ways students are turned off education:
- Young people are subjected to a range of approved educational text-books that are problematic to say the least. This authorised educational material is supplied by the state and has a built-in methodology that inhibits the learning process of these young people. They contain too many and too large knowledge gaps (disjoints) in the progression through a particular topic of a subject. Instead what is needed is small but perceptible jumps in the knowledge level, which are just enough to progress through the topic level and understand it.
- A requirement to memorise lists of apparently discontinuous or vaguely related data.
- A requirement to recall from memory lists of apparently discontinuous or vaguely related data and to apply them contextually.
- Lack of corroborating evidence as to whether the student has progressed or not.
- Not enough examples and problems on a topic for each concept to sink in through practice.
(1) Chaotic switching from one topic of a subject to another over a very short time, which means the student is not able to understand and assimilate the topic. (2) Moving to higher levels of a subject without having achieved a reasonable grounding at the previous lower level. (3) Reliance on textbooks that provide few or no answers. This means that students (especially the younger ones) are not able to check whether the work they have done has been successful or not.
It is not only in the direct subject matter of the “National Curriculum” that we find the means to curtail the child’s enthusiasm, but also in what is known as the “hidden curriculum”, i.e. the means by which the subject is delivered. Teachers do not usually realise that the officially approved textbooks have to be structured to take cognisance of the disruptive “hidden curriculum” otherwise these books would not be purchased. Through this delivery method, the teacher becomes oblivious to the fact it does not provide a steady build-up of knowledge in an area or topic of a subject, a build-up which would enable the pupil/student to have the confidence to take on another area of the subject or at a higher level. Instead, chaotic shifting of topics or boring repetition are followed by abrupt change. Through these means of delivery, the assimilation of knowledge is curtailed. Here are a few examples that every student will recognise, all of which produce feelings of inadequacy which lead to frustration
From the 1960s until very recently, grammar was removed from the study of the English Language. This and the subsequent removal of grammar from foreign languages, made it much harder to learn them, as the key to their structure was lost. Parroting phrases and repeating a particular subject area of the foreign language over and over again made them agonizingly boring. As is typical of this ‘education’ system, there has been a 180 degrees turnabout regarding grammar. Now it’s begun to play an important role in the national curriculum. Great demands are now made on teachers in primary and secondary schools to teach complex linguistic and grammatical concepts when most of them have received little linguistic training at teacher training college. This, and the unrealistic examples set, often leads to the pupils at secondary school having difficulty learning these complex grammatical concepts. What is needed is the gradual introduction of grammar, in a way which helps students to construct their own sentences, not the introduction of complex grammatical concepts in isolation from practical tasks.
Also typical of this apparently chaotic ‘educational’ system is that, due to the failings of the teacher training system, which means many teachers have limited knowledge of their subject, it has to resort to educational ‘platforms’. These are presentations for profit by private companies, which can be shown, for example, via the internet. This is where both teacher and pupils may learn the subject at the same time. The students, much more often than not, do not realise what they are up against in this system; for example, it puts the emphasis on student memory, that is, the storing of quite often disparate information, its retrieval and application in the correct context – computers are much better at this.
Group work is encouraged, it being argued that this is a ‘democratic’ method of learning. However, democracy spoken of here, is an abstract idea, it takes no account of the fact that we live in a class-based society. The reality of our system it means that the most articulate are those who get heard. Working-class children with less language skills will be overlooked by the rest of the group. But this achieves the goal of the system, the idea that, above all, pupils must learn to conform. No matter if the group reaches a wrong conclusion, real truth does not count. To convince teachers not to give explanations of how something works, teacher training colleges tell them that pupils have to discover it for themselves. Even though the teacher may know that the children have reached the wrong conclusion, they are not supposed to contradict them, as it is a majority decision. They are not supposed to explain to them where they have gone wrong, as it could be another way of approaching the problem or topic. This approach to problem solving is ‘sold’ to the teacher as, ‘this is what happens in the real world’, in a ‘democracy’ – we must conform to the majority. In effect, this is a brainwashing exercise.
A way of saving money which has gone on in recent years and which helps to ensure that students are not engaging with learning is the amalgamation of secondary schools. When one school is sold off, usually for private housing, this achieves both objectives. Fewer schools means bigger class sizes, especially with a growing population, and this has an impact on both the pupils and the teachers. The increase in class and school size reaches a point at which teachers can be overwhelmed. They cannot hope to know pupils as individuals and often give up trying. If children are remembered, it’s usually those children who cause headaches, but the average student tends to be lost in the crowd. Thus, a quantitative change, an increase in teacher to pupil ratio becomes a qualitative one, when ‘lively’ students don’t get the attention they deserve through overcrowding, they tend to misbehave, cause chaos and then all cease to learn.
The Parental Role.
For children from a middle-class background, their parents have the means to provide support at home to help them to cope with the failings of the education system. If they cannot afford private education, they tend to employ private tutors to keep their children in the upper streams. These upper streams are also where the more experienced teachers like to be. Middle class parents mostly have a reasonable knowledge of Maths, Science, English, etc., and a familiarity with the ins-and-outs of the education system. Teachers identify with the middle class parents, at the same time being wary of them. They know that these parents know how to manipulate the system and don’t accept poor standards the way working class parents, due to their ignorance of the system, do. Put this together with parents who have a cut-throat arrogance masked by refined civility, and the expectations of teachers towards middle-class students are raised.
Though a few do fall for the idea, in general, working class people have no desire to ‘aspire’ to a middle-class lifestyle as they find mixing with them alien due to the class nature of British capitalist society. Added to this, working class parents wanting the best for children educationally can have mixed feelings about the ‘opportunities’ it may offer. They are wary of the fact that, unless they are very careful, when their children get into the higher streams they will be guided towards a middle-class outlook on life, and they may lose contact with them. However, most working-class children fail to reach the point where they can go to a decent university, especially some distance from home, their disadvantaged position at school sees to that. Although working-class parents may want to help their children with the work set by the school, they can’t because of their own inadequate education. In many families both parents have to work and they are worn out by the time they get home and don’t have the energy to help their children, even if they could.
The Teacher’s Role.
The working-class pupil is also at a distinct disadvantage because of the perceived class difference between the teacher and pupil. A good many school teachers either do not, or do not want to, comprehend how this discrimination works. This is because this type of school teacher has been inculcated with a petty-bourgeois mentality (have small proprietor mentality which regards itself as being of the middle class). Such attitudes have to be overcome by patient persuasion, as it’s not where their real interests lie, even though now many think it is. If a strengthened working-class knows itself, and the real relationships between it and the selfish wants of other classes, no amount of waffle can cover up the motivation of others.
It is problematic for working-class pupils/students, when teachers have such an attitude, it means they look upon working-class children not as they would look upon their own class. It must be said though, hardly any of the teachers, when they teach the ‘educational’ syllabus, believe that they are teaching children to conform to ideas which will limit their knowledge of the world to that which is required by the capitalist class. However, educational theories such as that of the pragmatists are there to conceal the practical reality from both parents and teachers. Other teachers who do realise that the present ‘educational’ methodology damages the hopes and aspirations of the pupils/ students also know that if they openly question it, they will get into trouble with higher authorities.
The state sector in schools also has to suffer from the approved educationalists who oversee the National Curriculum. These educationalists continually rock from one extreme to the other. At one extreme is the so-called anti-authoritarian “student-centred” learning, this is biased towards practice and dismisses theory. At the other extreme, is “teacher led” learning, this is biased towards theory and the authority of the teacher. Their role is to ‘police’ the system, ensuring teachers stick to approved books and teaching methods, even when these result in chaos in the classroom and de-motivated pupils.
The latest method being used to match the workforce to the demands of the market takes the form of academy schools has been copied from the US education System. Introduced by the Blair government, these schools were supposed to be a response to the concerns of parents about the low level of education their children were being subjected to. However, what they really were, was a response to the frustrations of businesses and with the low educational level and the indiscipline of pupils coming out of schools that were controlled by liberal left bureaucrats in the local ‘education’ authorities. These schools had met the needs of the 1980s when industry was being relocated in the Far East and there was no longer the demand for a skilled workforce. Lower educational levels were acceptable to a system in which young people often faced long term unemployment or unskilled work. If these young people had been well educated they may have rebelled against a system which offered them no future. However, with the further rise of finance capital, information technology and the service and retail sectors the needs of the market have changed. What schools are now required to do is to produce managers who are prepared to unquestioningly implement the values of the free market, as well as workers who are prepared to work longer hours, for less money and with no job security. Managers have to be ‘tough’, in other words they have to get the workforce to accept these conditions.
The academy schools are run as not-for-profit businesses, and they promote the ethos of the business world. Pupils are expected to dress like businessmen and women, in suits and ties. Discipline is strict. Dr Christy Kulz, a Levehulme Research Fellow at Cambridge University conducted field work in an academy school and this was reported in the article ‘“Little Robots”: behind the scenes at an academy school’:
‘Enforcement comes through what Kulz calls the “verbal cane”. Tongue-lashings administered by teachers regularly echoed around the corridors, and were encouraged by senior staff. One teacher told Kulz that seeing tall male members of staff screaming in the faces of 11-year-olds was “very hard to digest”.
This verbal aggression is heightened by the panoptic surveillance built into the very architecture of the school (panoptic – Victorian prison buildings had incorporated into them a design which physically facilitated mass surveillance – it was designed by the Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham -DT). All activity is conducted within the bounds of a U-shaped building with a complete glass frontage. Everyone is on show at all times, including staff, who felt constantly monitored and pressured into visibly exerting the discipline favoured by management.’
Kulz also discovered that academies also aimed at producing students with a middle class-based attitude to life, which she called ‘cultural cloning’:
‘Black children with fringes, or children who congregated outside takeaways, were reprimanded immediately. White middle-class children with long floppy hair, or gathering en masse by Tesco, were ignored. Teachers troubled by this would hint at it in hushed tones.
“The approach of many academy schools is one of cultural cloning,” says Kulz. “The Dreamfields creed is that ‘urban children’, a phrase used by staff to mean working-class and ethnic minority kids assumed to have unhappy backgrounds, need salvaging – with middle-class students positioned as the unnamed, normative and universal ideal.”’
Teachers in the academies are also put under great pressure to meet targets:
‘Staff at Dreamfields (Kulz’s invented name for the school she studied) are subject to ‘teacher tracking’, a rolling system in which student grades are converted into scores, allowing management to rank the teachers – an approach staff compared with salesmen being judged on their weekly turnover.
This pressurised auditing resulted in rote learning to avoid a red flag in the system. “You put a grade in that satisfies the system instead of it satisfying the student’s knowledge and needs,” one teacher confessed to Kulz, explaining his ‘real job’ was not to teach understanding of his subject, but to get students to produce a set product quickly and accurately. One student described himself to Kulz as a “little robot”.’
Many of the academies call themselves ‘business’ academies and openly foster the culture of the business world:
‘At the Corby Business academy in Northamptonshire, discipline is not so much imposed as assumed, according to its principal, John Henrys. The school simply expects its pupils to behave as they would in a business environment’ The Guardian 19/11/13.
A Much Better Way of Educating the Young.
As a first step towards a society, in which the working class are the ruling class, we would need to take from the present system the best it can offer, throwing away its dross and bringing about an education system for the young which brings together practice and theory. It is not possible, in one bound, to leap to a fully developed socialist education system. The best which the current system has to offer is free education for children from 3 to 18, although the content of that education is not designed to realise children’s potential.
There is an alternative method of education which can help children to reach their full potential. To counter these barriers the dialectical method should be used. One aspect of this method entails a gradual stepping-up in the level of knowledge and not allowing any discernible breaks in that particular area of a subject. After a period of time there is suddenly a point reached when the person doing the studying, realises that they have grasped a deeper understanding of that area of the subject.
Secondly, education needs to help people to realise the connections between subjects such as history and economics. At the moment there are very defined boundaries between subjects which prevent children making connections. There is also a boundary between academic and work-based learning, whereas these should be intimately linked in a way that means theoretical and practical knowledge feed into each other.
The courses that were once free of charge, that is, in the specialised vocational and scientific training from 18 onwards, and which can last for 3, 4 or 6 years, would be without charge once again. As for the dross to be discarded, one example would be, that there would be no school, private or public, specifically designed for the middle-class, the wealthy capitalists or the aristocracy. All age groups, from infancy to the higher education of young men and women, no matter what their parent’s income and occupation, would study at the same schools and colleges. However, in the initial stages of a changing educational system, residential areas and home environments are still bound to play a part educationally, therefore, desegregating the education system is only the start. Ending the bias in the educational institutions which favour those better off financially and intellectually has to be for some time an ongoing process.
In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels first put forward the proposal that the educational process should consist of a “combination of education with industrial production” as well as the “combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; the gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equitable distribution of the population”. These ideas were refined in later writings of Marx and Engels. This is seen particularly at the Geneva Congress of the First International where the concept of the “polytechnikisation” of education was proposed, that is, poly-technical schooling.
Poly-technical schooling does not mean a school which is used to provide the grounding for students to fill a particular role or a specialism required by the economy; that is, it is not there to turn out students whose roles are to be a skilled men and women or even accountants. “Polytechnikisation”/ polytechnicisation refers to the close linkage of theory and practise, to learning by doing. Whenever the teacher teaches something new, the students perform it. But it moves further – the school becomes a centre not just for learning to read, write, understanding both processes and patterns of mathematics and to speak foreign languages, but also learning the principles of all the sciences, taught as the basis of various modes of production. Science lessons would therefore include descriptions of products and processes and the scientific principles involved in their manufacture. Time would not only be spent in the school laboratory or workshop but students would be taken around factories or farms, being shown how real processes illustrate scientific principles. The aim is not to push children into a specific vocational path but to ensure they become scientifically minded. A culture would be created in which the intellect is closely connected with labour and action.
Education is used by the capitalist state to meet the needs of the system. However, it faces a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, people need to be educated to function as part of the production process. But at the same time, it is against the interests of the system for working people to be widely educated because they may then start to challenge the system. The state is used under capitalism to reconcile this contradiction. Its role is to ensure people are educated only on a ‘need to know’ basis. The level of education changes over time, depending on the needs of the economy. In the 1960s in Britain there was still a manufacturing base and the need for a skilled workforce. Polytechnic education was provided to meet these vocational needs. In today’s society many of these skilled craftsmen jobs, especially in engineering, have disappeared. The growth of the retail, distribution and service sectors means the education system has changed, along with the lower levels of skill required.
The 1960s also saw the expansion of working-class higher education with free grants to university. The danger of this for the system was that working-class students were at risk of being radicalised. Many were channelled into polytechnics and science or engineering-based subjects. Those who took up subjects such as politics and sociology, especially, found a spider’s web awaiting them to divert them away from challenging the capitalist system. In the neo-liberal system of today working-class students are priced out of higher education and their horizons are strictly limited.
We have seen how the education system under capitalism is geared to suit the needs of the economy and the state. Working-class pupils have their natural curiosity limited and are disengaged from a system which is set up to make them fail. However, as our education system is based within a capitalist system, it serves the needs of that system. Working-class rule, integral to the Marxist form of socialism, would change the way children were taught, enabling all children to reach their full potential.