Blair’s vision for education: business, business, business

Issue: 106
Posted: 5 April 05

Terry Wrigley

Capitalism has always had a problem with education. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ruling class’s need to increase the skills of future workers has been contradicted by its fear of them becoming articulate, knowledgeable and independent-minded. Hannah Moore, religious philanthropist and founder of the Sunday School movement at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, justified her initiative on the grounds that she would teach children how to read but would certainly not allow them to write:

They learn, on weekdays, such coarse works as may fit them for servants. I allow of no writing for the poor. My object is…to train up the lower classes in habits of industry and piety… Beautiful is the order of society when each, according to his place, pays willing honour to his superiors.

Policy documents throughout the Victorian period openly stated that working class children must not be educated beyond their station in life. In our own day, even when more forward-looking employers declare a need for creativity and communication, co-operation and thinking skills, there are unspoken limits on how many children will develop these abilities and what they are allowed to think creatively about.

New Labour’s ‘Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners’—the real manifesto for education—is another variation on this theme, in tune with our own times: it is fully in keeping with the Blairite version of neoliberalism. This government has constantly argued that driving up test scores is a key way to attract foreign investment and revitalise the economy. It has pursued this single-mindedly, though at a cost of real learning and, probably, long-term economic development. The Five Year Strategy is riddled with contradictions, but behind the rhetoric lies a manifesto for increasing control of education by the employing class. Between the opening flourish: ‘Children, and all those who learn, are our future… We need to think about that future—about the kind of world we want our children to grow up in,’ and the final fanfare: ‘We have a vision of the future,’ we find a hundred pages of phoney arguments for subjecting education to the demands of the employer class.

Even a word count is revealing. ‘Employer’ appears 146 times, plus ‘employment’ 30 and ‘business’ 36. The words ‘creative’ and ‘creativity’ appear once each. ‘Critical’ features six times, but always means ‘essential’ rather than thinking critically or challenging the status quo: ‘All young people should be equipped with the skills critical for success in employment.’ The word ‘choice’ appears 99 times, but its meaning is slippery. What choice is offered and to whom? It serves both to give a positive spin to the document and to reinforce the consumerist ideology that making educational decisions is like choosing goods from a supermarket shelf. The consumerist language provides a shell for promoting a wider concept of educational ‘market’, namely schools and colleges run as businesses for private profit. In some places, it refers to the brave new world of computerised instruction or ‘programmed learning’. Sometimes it means choosing between different schools. Sometimes it’s about children being divided up into different classes—an odd kind of choice. Most often, it’s about privatisation—a ‘choice of providers’. Slimmed-down Local Authorities will no longer run schools themselves but contract some out to private businesses: ‘Choice implies greater diversity of provision and providers.’ (ch 1, para 36).

There is scarcely a hint that schooling might serve any purpose other than employability. It is, of course, an important role of education to prepare young people to make a productive contribution to the economy— whether as wage labourers in a capitalist enterprise or as thoughtful and innovative participants in a future socialist economy. But education has many goals besides. Schools and colleges should be a space where creativity is developed, where we learn to live together, where we learn empathy and sensitivity towards one another, where young people can reflect on their relationships. Schools for the young—and also, as learning centres serving the whole community—should be places where we can become acquainted with a cultural heritage and re-shape it for our own times, where we can engage in critical thinking about our society and world. Critically, in our own time, schools and universities must create opportunities to question and challenge injustice, racism, environmental destruction, militarism, consumerism, the media, political spin… None of this forms any part of New Labour’s ‘vision’. The role of education is simply and solely to meet the immediate demands of the employing class.

Of course, New Labour’s ideologues cannot divorce themselves entirely from Old Labour history. The introduction makes concessions to the ideals of comprehensive education, in a potted history which damns it with faint praise. This government talks incessantly about ‘raising standards’, but in truth the most dramatic rise in achievement came when comprehensive schools were established. For the first time, almost all 16 year olds, not just the 20 percent who got into grammar schools, were able to gain end- of-school qualifications. This is increasingly recognised by those whose vision is not entirely obscured by New Labour’s blinkers. In fact, the latest OECD study (PISA 2003) explicitly blames Germany’s poor performance on its selective system, and ascribes the sudden improvement in Poland to its recent adoption of comprehensive schools.

Perversely, the authors damn the post-war welfare state, and subsequently the comprehensive school reform, as ‘monolithic’ and unconcerned with ‘standards’! This really is to rewrite history. It was not until Thatcher’s National Curriculum, slavishly sustained under New Labour, that schooling became monolithic; and it shows poor judgement to equate the present obsession with test scores with genuine achievement for all.

So what does New Labour have to offer in place of the ‘monolithic’ system of ‘traditional comprehensives’? ‘Choice’ and ‘personalised learning’ mean little more than privatisation and selection. These principles permeate the Five Year Strategy, from the ‘Educare’ edu-businesses for 0-5 year olds, to new degree courses ‘led by employers’. Schools will be ‘freed’ from Local Authority control, so that they can enter into long-term deals with businesses and ‘faith sponsors’. Local Authorities will be the ‘commissioner’, not the ‘direct supplier’. At the most extreme, in an act of wanton asset- stripping, hundreds of secondary schools in the poorest urban areas will be privatised, as ‘academies’ (see below).

They have clearly moved on from privatising school buildings to direct capitalist control of the curriculum. Employers will be involved in reforming the curriculum for 11-14 year olds; there will be ‘Young Apprenticeships’ for 14-16 year olds; the core curriculum in communication, mathematics and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for 14-19 year olds will be determined by employers; and the next expansion of degree-level education will be ‘led by businesses’ rather than universities. The Five Year Strategy represents a very serious threat to education as we understand it. The following sections can only summarise New Labour’s plan, in some of its major areas.

Paulo Freire referred to neo-liberalism as a fatalistic ideology—and Blair constantly spins us the story that he is driven irrevocably by global forces, though in truth he often leads the way in a global attack on public services. We need to build a mass resistance, with our own sense of vision: since another world is possible, then another school is possible—and necessary.

Nurseries and primary school

Provision has been extended for the under-fives under New Labour, but dependence on the private sector has led to a patchwork. The 12.5 hours a week at nursery for three and four year olds usually mean five mornings or afternoons, which is difficult for working parents and unsettling for the children who have to be moved around. The proposal is to make early education and care more flexible (now called ‘educare’, an ugly word!)—which would have happened in the first place if the government had used public provision with proper consultation. The women (predominantly) who work in this sector continue to suffer low pay, which is a scandal for such an important role. We are promised a slow extension of ‘Sure Start Children’s Centres’ to provide a unified service and advice centres, including early education and childcare, family support, ante- and post-natal health care in the most deprived neighbourhoods; nothing is offered for the many families in poverty elsewhere.

The section on primary schools is headed ‘Excellence and enjoyment for every primary child’, disguising the fact that government policies have made school a grind for many children. The literacy and numeracy hours have some good features, including an emphasis on collective learning, but they have also brought a high degree of regimentation and less pleasurable reading and activity. They have separated reading, writing and mathematics from real contexts and purposes, turning them into separate exercises and practice to raise test scores.

Driven by the pressure to meet targets, schools are neglecting history and geography, sport and creative arts. Some woolly proposals are made to remedy this: ‘every child should have the chance to learn a musical instrument’; ‘every child should have two hours a week of physical activity or sport’; ‘every child should have a chance to learn a foreign language’. Most of these new opportunities are to be run by poorly trained assistants and volunteers from local clubs, rather than qualified teachers. There is no proposal to ease the pressure of testing. The authors seem to be sure it will work: in Orwellian tones, they inform us that by 2008 ‘OFSTED will show that standards of teaching have risen across all subjects’. How do they know? Perhaps inspectors should simply consult the government’s spin doctors, and won’t need to visit schools at all.

What do all the tests tell us about achievement?

The answer appears to be—the whole truth, twice the truth, maybe three times the truth. The government constantly uses rising SAT scores in claims that its policies are working, but recent research raises serious questions about whether they can be trusted.

The National Numeracy Strategy has enforced a particular way of teaching maths, with a big emphasis on whole-class practice of mental arithmetic. It cost £400 million but according to well-respected researchers it has brought about only two months progress—and may have led to a deterioration on mathematical skills other than calculation. Professor Margaret Brown and her colleagues at King’s College, London (British Educational Research Journal, October 2003) point out that two thirds of schools showed progress, but in a third results went down. Results got worse for low-attaining pupils, probably because of insufficient individual attention during whole-class teaching. The gap got bigger between the lowest-attaining pupils and the rest. There was also very little improvement for the most advanced pupils in the class, who became frustrated. Government press releases claim a 14 percentage point improvement; the researchers question why 1998 was used as a baseline, rather than 1999, just before the strategy was introduced. This would have shown only a 4 point improvement. The researchers also argue that this might be due to careful coaching for the test.

Professor Peter Tymms (CEM, Durham—one of the most expert research units on assessment) casts similar doubt on literacy scores (British Educational Research Journal, August 2004). He compares SATs data with 11 other sources of evidence (other tests, etc). He concludes that the statistics are rising because the tests are easier, and because of intensive coaching by teachers. Official claims show a rise from 48 percent (1995) to 75 percent (2000). Tymms’ estimate for real improvement is from 48 percent to 58 percent (little change happened after that). When the SATs were tried out on pupils in Northern Ireland, who have a different system of education and had not been coached for the SATs, the pupils also said they were getting much easier.

There was a switch from more subtle questions involving inference or deduction to simple questions of fact. The most dramatic year-on-year ‘improvement’ happened because of a shift from a novelist’s thoughtful personal account of her childhood to a much simpler text about spiders (Mary Hilton, Cambridge, in Reading 2001, no 1).

All this trickery makes the government look good, but narrows down children’s learning. They become less able to read critically. Inspectors have pointed to an increase in basic exercises where children just practise, rather than reading that has some meaning. They called these ‘holding activities’ which ‘occupied pupils but did not develop or consolidate their literacy skills’ and reduce interest and motivation (HMI 2001 ‘National Literacy Strategy: The Third Year’, www.ofsted.gov.uk). Some schools had abandoned independent reading, which didn’t fit into the prescribed Literacy Hour. Boys were responding badly to one lesson in eight (even when the inspectors were watching!) and the gap between boys and girls was not closing. Worry about the test scores was leading teachers to neglect other subjects. ‘The development of enquiry skills in history and geography, and the refining of technical skills in practical subjects, is being neglected.’ The inspectors suggested that teachers connect reading with real knowledge, in history and science for example—which is just what many primary teachers used to do before the government stopped it!

Secondary schools

New Labour’s proposals for secondary education are perhaps the most dangerous. They have in mind a major shift towards a business agenda, starting at age 11, where employers will determine the English, maths and computing which will be taught. Many 14-16 year olds will be encouraged into ‘Young Apprenticeships’, spending two days a week in a factory or office and studying qualifications related to that job. The number of young people studying after age 16 will increase, but (in the words of the document) only into ‘some sort of’ education or training.

The National Curriculum introduced by Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s was technologically advanced but socially reactionary. Half was devoted to maths, science, design and technology, and information technology. In the other half, great care was taken to prevent young people gaining a political understanding of the world (eg sociology and media studies didn’t figure, and it was a very conservative view of history). There was at least a broad spread of subjects for all—English, history, geography, art, music, languages, PE. New Labour has eroded this breadth, making many subjects optional, especially for students from poorer families. Increasingly, it seems, secondary school will be about training for work.

The authors of the document are forced to admit that many young people are ‘bored and frustrated’. There are many reasons for this: the high levels of poverty; the disciplinarian regime; too few opportunities to show initiative and independence in learning, or work co-operatively in groups; a standardised curriculum which doesn’t allow teachers to take account of young people’s interests. None of these is recognised by New Labour, whose only answer is—preparation for work.

When they talk about education being more ‘personalised’, they seem to mean teachers matching tasks more closely to the learner’s National Curriculum level. This still assumes a standardised content, as determined by national government. Completely missing is any notion that teachers might listen to the learners’ suggestions and negotiate specific topics in some subjects, as in Scandinavia.

Teaching and learning in secondary schools is in need of reform, because teachers have been encouraged to lecture at classes, drill them with facts for the test, rush to cover the syllabus. In-depth understanding has not been a priority, though many good teachers persist in this. Learning needs to be more engaged and more active. Learners should spend more of their time outside of the classroom, on community-based investigations, visiting interesting places, and so on. Schools could be much more engaged with their communities. In the Five Year Strategy, active and community-based learning only occurs in terms of preparation for work. It’s not surprising that work skills and vocational courses are very attractive to students growing up in poverty, and at risk of unemployment and low wages, but it is not enough; a good education should also help young people to understand the causes of poverty and how to challenge the conditions they live in. All young people are entitled to understand science and history and the environment and to learn to paint and dance—though the content and styles of learning will need to be changed. There’s a scatter of feel-good promises: more clubs, more visits, less disruption, better attendance. The approach to poor attendance appears to be ‘get them in then kick them out’! Special patrols will bring disaffected youngsters in from the streets, but groups of schools will set up Pupil Referral Units into which the same youngsters can be decanted.

The strategy says nothing about why so many teachers are quitting. It’s better than three years ago, when half of those in their final year of training had left teaching within two years of qualifying, but even now half quit in the first four or five years. There is a serious problem of disaffection among teachers as well as learners. Tying pay more and more closely to performance (ie to test results) can only make things worse, especially for schools in deprived areas: few teachers will want to work in schools where it is harder to get high results and claim performance pay. No wonder the strategy tries to pull rabbits out of the hat—unqualified adults who will ‘bring new skills’, sending youngsters out to learn in offices and factories, finding ‘undergraduate volunteers’.

Schools with high exam results are encouraged to become independent organisations, to own their own land and buildings, expand, run their own admissions policies, and so on. Although, for the present, the Local Authority will still hold the reins, there is plenty of evidence of schools manipulating admissions procedures, such as holding interviews to select ‘suitable’ pupils—and ‘suitable’ parents! And how can schools ‘own’ their own land and buildings when they belong to a bank or construction company under PFI/PPP?

Back to the future

GCSE results have been used for many years to make judgements about schools, and in many towns and cities have led to local pecking orders of popularity. To some, it appeared that the government was becoming more flexible, by giving increased status to practical studies, chiefly in the form of vocational certificates such as GNVQs. This requires closer examination.

Firstly, there are many other ways of giving the secondary curriculum greater relevance in addition to training for work. These should include gaining a better understanding of our society and wider world, including the gross inequalities. One German example is ‘real problem-solving’, whereby a town council or hospital or voluntary group approaches the school with a genuine problem, and invites pupils to research and present alternative solutions. A major reform in Queensland, Australia, culminates not in a written examination but in ‘rich tasks’. For example, a group of students might investigate the health needs of their neighbourhood and present proposals. Such projects draw on skills and knowledge from different subjects—science, sociology, literacy, statistics, computing. There is no reason why a design and technology course could not involve redesigning and rebuilding a local playground.

New Labour sees practical learning entirely in terms of training for employment. It has gone overboard to give the appearance of equal status to GNVQ certificates, but is this a real equivalence or simply a statistical trick? Officially now, a GNVQ (Intermediate) in computing, for example, counts as the equivalent of four GCSEs at A*-C grades. This has enabled some schools to claim a massive ‘improvement’ (one school jumped from 25 percent to 75 percent of pupils hitting the five-subject target within a single year). The government can also appeal to disillusioned heartland voters, by claiming to be improving inner-city schools.

There was uproar in January when it emerged that a distinction in cake decorating now counts for more than an A grade in physics. A government minister called critics of the new regulation old-fashioned elitists. There is value in work-related courses, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum for all young people, but not when a vocational course simply replaces other important learning. We also have to ask about the ‘exchange rate’ of this new currency in the real world. How will employers and colleges judge them? When Jane, with her computing certificate, is in competition with Marie, who has five good GCSEs and computer skills as well? When Karen, with her new found self-esteem, concentration and delicacy of hand, and her certificates in cake decorating and computing, develops an ambition to become a brain surgeon, which university will take her on? In reality, this is another piece of New Labour spin—a phoney egalitarianism at the expense of the most disadvantaged young people.

The government’s real intentions are far from egalitarian. Indeed, their response to the Tomlinson Report (October 2004) was an outright rejection of a proposal to give equal status to different types of study within a balanced curriculum. The report won widespread praise when it came out, and there has been outrage from many quarters at its rejection by the education secretary Ruth Kelly (February 2005). It wasn’t without faults, but it was a genuine attempt to end snobbery over qualifications by setting up a unified diploma system for 16 to 18 year olds. The new diploma would include and give equal weight to academic and vocational studies.

It would reduce exams for 16 year olds, replacing GCSEs with courses which would largely be assessed by teachers (with suitable external checks). The proposal to encourage deeper student-centred learning instead of exam cramming won support from universities, including Cambridge (in Tomlinson’s words, A-levels are ‘strangling scholarship’). It would encourage more young people to stay on beyond 16. At present, a quarter of 17 year olds receive no full- or part-time education or training (according to the OECD, this makes Britain 25th out of 29 industrialised countries).

Kelly has scuppered the Tomlinson reforms. Instead of a unified system, she is keeping GCSE and A-levels as they are, and setting up vocational diplomas alongside them. As Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the NUT, said, ‘The White Paper uses the language of Tomlinson but has a fundamentally different meaning. The academic/vocational divide has been widened rather than narrowed.’

He points out that many universities will refuse to recognise the separate vocational diplomas, and that the government is creating two separate routes from age 14. This is at the heart of Blair’s policies for education. The government originally claimed that specialist schools would enhance provision for particular subjects while maintaining a full curriculum. Now they are setting up separate ‘vocationally led’ schools and ‘skills academies’ from age 11, as well as separate vocational skills centres from age 14 upwards. In the poorest neighbourhoods, many 11 year olds will go to a specialist school for construction work or caring. The lucky few will attend a ‘city academy’ run by private business, which will provide higher-level vocational skills for business or engineering.

We are fast going down the road of lowering the school-leaving age to 14 for many young people. In Knowsley, 300 14-16 year olds are on a ‘work-based programme’ with up to five days a week in the workplace. At one of its schools, 21 pupils have full-time placements at garages, hairdressers and painting and decorating firms.

This is supposed to be the answer to disaffection, but there are many different ways to engaging young people, with fewer tests, less sense of failure, and active learning such as problem-solving projects across a broad curriculum. All young people need to learn about science and history as well as acquiring useful skills for work. We need to educate for democracy, including learning about the environment and the mass media and the causes of poverty. Now the very principle of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum has gone out the window.

Abandoning the Tomlinson report has created widespread anger— universities, the Chief Inspector, all the teacher unions. But it is just the tip of the iceberg of a wider project of dismantling comprehensive education. As in the system before comprehensive schools were introduced, there will be three kinds of people, following three different routes:

  1. Higher-grade GCSEs and A-levels;
  2. Vocational diploma plus functional literacy and numeracy;
  3. ‘Young apprenticeships’.

Young apprenticeships are to be expanded to include a third of 14 year olds, who will spend large parts of their week out at work. This figure will be much higher in the poorest areas—maybe 60 to 80 percent. Blair is returning us to the Victorian principle of educating people ‘to fit their station in life.’

The vocational diplomas are also likely to involve about a third of 1418 year olds. They will be ‘employer-designed’, so altogether the education of two-thirds of young people will be determined by employers.

Under this reform, nobody is safe. Everything is geared towards employers’ short-term demands. English will be focused on ‘functional literacy’— no time for reading for pleasure or critical studies of the mass media. The Tomlinson report meant broadening education for pre-university students, by giving credit for ‘wider activities’ including voluntary work, outdoor pursuits and creative interests. Now, there will just be more exam pressure, with some extra ‘stretch’ questions for entry to elite universities.

This is far worse than anything the Tories did to education. Thatcher’s government failed to break up the comprehensive system. Sir Keith Joseph introduced GCSEs, providing a school-leaving qualification for all 16 year olds. The National Curriculum, despite its conservative versions of English and history and its stranglehold on innovation, at least upheld the principle of a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils.

Blair and his crowd always hated the idea of their own children going to comprehensive schools. Their project now is to end comprehensive schooling altogether.

The academies

The most daring plan is to establish 200 city academies, ie 50 percent of secondary schools serving the poorest urban communities. This is an escalation of Blair’s privatisation agenda. We knew it wouldn’t stop with privately owned buildings (PFI). This is asset-stripping on a massive scale.

But it is asset-stripping in another sense too—a bid to control minds. Nobody can be sure where it might lead. In the US, hundreds of thousands of teenagers are forced to watch a commercial TV channel for 20 minutes a day—not an educational programme but adverts and its version of the news—just because it provided the school with some equipment. Most of the academies here specialise in business and enterprise. Pupils at Bexley Business Academy spend their Fridays doing business and stock-exchange role plays and other training; a mini stock exchange dominates the foyer.

How would you like your local school to be run by a second hand car dealer? New Labour’s latest plan is precisely that. Of course, it’s not restricted to second hand car dealers. Any company executive with £2 million to spare can become the proud owner of your school.

And it’s a bargain. We pay most of the cash for a new building—£20 to £30 million—from our taxes, and all the running costs, but, in this unique business arrangement, we don’t have a single share in the ‘business’. The business ‘sponsors’ appoint the head. They choose the teachers. They decide what your children will learn. They doubtless claim tax rebates on their £2 million, they can recoup money by selling off land, and one academy has already handed £300,000 to the sponsor and his relatives for ‘services rendered’—over £100,000 for ‘advertising and recruitment advice’ (File on 4, 23 November 2004, transcript from BBC website).

As well as businesses, Christian fundamentalists have already shown massive interest. In some schools, children are taught creationist rather than evolutionary accounts of how the world began in their science lessons, and there will soon be many more. Five of the 17 academies already open are religious schools, four of them associated with right-wing Christian groups.

But do they work?

(1) The government claim it’s a way of getting money to rebuild rundown inner city schools. That is a strange claim, since most of the money comes from our taxes. Couldn’t the government spend that anyway on a new building? And even if it cost a bit more, it wouldn’t be squandered on a ‘mini Stock Exchange’, as at Bexley.

(2) They claim the running costs are no higher—yet they are managing to pay teachers £1,000 more a year. Perhaps it’s because they don’t need to spend on computers or repairs while the school is quite new.

(3) They claim the results are better. In fact, of the first three academies (opened September 2002), comparing the 2004 GCSE results with those of the predecessor school in 2001, two schools’ results went down, not up. One of the academies established a year later has the second worst GCSE results in the country.

(4) The academies are supposed to be about social inclusion, but some are expelling less successful pupils. The two Middlesbrough academies expelled 61 pupils in two years; the other seven Middlesbrough schools only expelled 15 pupils between them all.

Headteacher: One of the things that our foundation believes very strongly in is that in running a school you should think like a parent. What do parents want?

Interviewer: Well they don’t throw their children out. They keep them in the family. (File on 4, 23 November 2004)

The academies are also, potentially, another attempt to reintroduce selection at 11. There’s no way the surrounding schools can compete with the sparkling new academy and its high-tech facade. The academies are bound to attract parents, but at other schools’ expense, leading to a two-tier system like the old grammar schools and secondary moderns. The government should be improving all schools, not using this as a lever for privatisation and selection.

Obviously these schools are not all bad. Some of them are showing creativity in rethinking the curriculum, and some heads are determined to be inclusive. It’s not the individual cases that are the problem—it’s the insanity of a government policy which invit